Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Thursday 4 May 2017

Datchworth church, Herts

The chief raison d'etre of this blog is supposed to be Hertfordshire churches, yet I notice that I haven't written anything on this subject since the beginning of November, six months ago. No doubt anxious words have been exchanged on this paucity of posts from Tring to Bishops Stortford and from Royston to Watford, and soon apprehensive editorials will be published in the more upmarket local papers. The collective sigh of relief when this post pops up in countywide in-boxes will be audible in neighbouring Essex and Bedfordshire. And if you believe all that, you probably also think that man hasn't walked on the moon, that the attack on the Twin Towers was an inside job, and (now I'm on the subject of US-based crackpot ideas) that Budweiser is actually remotely drinkable.

In a county not known for its spires,* Datchworth church is distinguished by an imposing splayed-foot example. The two lower stages of the tower date from the late 14th century, but the top stage and shingled spire were added by Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Blomfield (1829-99) in 1869-70 as part of his restoration programme. And it's good that his spire makes the church stand out, because otherwise the exterior is unassuming. The walls are mostly cement-rendered, and the details such as window tracery mostly blandly renewed. 

It's a different story internally, thank goodness. The nave probably has 12th century origins, (though little or nothing visibly survives of this period), and in the late 13th century a north aisle was added. 

The four-bay north arcade of this date has what look like Purbeck marble shafts (too spindly to be convincing) at each end, and crude fleur-de-lys capitals (almost the only stone carving in the church). 

The most striking interior architectural feature is the 15th century nave roof with its two tiers of wind braces. The black wood makes an excitingly rhythmic pattern on the white ceiling. 

The north aisle had to be propped up in 1886; this involved the insertion of a large lateral timber brace, and, although the objective was purely utilitarian, the result is almost graceful. I especially like the two ogee-curved diagonal struts at the top. At the east end of the aisle, above the window, are the remains of three little niches where presumably once images were placed.

The church isn't notable for its monuments; the only medieval one is in a niche in the south wall of the nave, a stone coffin lid with a floriated cross, from the early 14th century. Next to it is an inscription carved with dignified lettering recording the death in 1941 of a pilot aged 20 on operations.

Returning to the north aisle, a della Robbia-style plaque commemorating a death in 1922 provides a smack of colour.

In front of the altar is this brass to William Paine, who died in about 1622; it shows the Holy Spirit as a dove, surrounded by radiance, surmounting a snake wrapped around a tree, which is probably a symbol of healing and/or wisdom, and thus probably of Christ. Or alternatively, the snake in a tree could be a reference to Satan, who appeared thus to Adam and Eve, in which case the brass represents God triumphing over evil.

The chancel screen, which doubles as a memorial, is winningly carved and has a winning story behind it. In 1901 William, Jack and Fred Lawrance decided to commemorate their late parents, William and Martha. William Jr was a timber merchant, and he provided the wood for the screen, which was carved by Jack and finally erected by Fred, the builder. Jack did a good Arts-and-Crafty job, with sinuous wheat and grapes at the top. I'm not sure what he'd make of the current method of tidying the bell-ropes under the tower; they're stored in a vertical plastic pipe, which is affixed to a chunk of chipboard by the sort of brackets you'd expect to find in a shed. A practical and cheap solution, but not elegant.

The 15th century font, with numerous trefoiled blind panels, is almost too busily decorated for its size.

I've saved my favourite features till last, which any regular readers this blog might have won't be surprised to learn are stained glass windows. 

The east window is the church's prize possession. It's by Charles Clutterbuck (1806-61), and probably dates from c.1849 (though Pevsner calls it early 19th century). Clutterbuck began his artistic career painting miniatures; his earliest dated window is from 1844. The Ecclesiologist, the magazine of the Ecclesiological Society, a medievalising High Church campaign group, thundered against Clutterbuck's use of Renaissance art as a model for his windows: 'he must devote himself to the study of earlier and purer models'. He did in fact produce some windows in medieval style, but they're not as good as those like Datchworth's example. Nevertheless, Datchworth's window has been ejected from one church, Watton-at-Stone, Herts, because it offended the aesthetic sensibilities of someone who was deemed to be sufficiently important to have such whims acted on. And so, Watton-at-Stone lost a dazzling display of luminous colours, and it's bejeweled Datchworth since 1861. 

The window shows Moses with his brazen serpent, the Passover and Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac.

The Book of Numbers (the fourth book of the Bible) tells the story that when the Israelites, after the Exodus, were on their way through the wilderness to the Red Sea, the journey took so long that they started to complain against not only their leader, Moses, but also God. In typically grumpy and vindictive fashion, God responded by inflicting what the Bible calls 'fiery serpents' on them as punishment, which proceeded to bite and kill them. After an unspecified number of them had died, God began to have second thoughts and instructed Moses to make a serpent of bronze and mount it on a pole, which repentant Israelites could look at and be healed. (As the window is not in its original place it can only be a coincidence that the brass nearby also shows a snake wrapped around a vertical feature, and anyway the brass clearly shows a tree, not a pole, so it's unlikely be a reference to the same story.)

The brazen serpent itself dominates the top of the light; Clutterbuck, in common with many artists working in the Christian tradition, has transformed the pole into something more like a cross in order to emphasise the parallels between Moses and Jesus. In a suitably mountainous and barren landscape two men react with wonder and prayer at the sight of the serpent. The most affecting detail is that of the old man at the bottom who's propping up a dead or dying young woman, perhaps his daughter, and who's presumably desperately hoping that the serpent will revive her. Her right arm is twisted most unnaturally, palm facing out, to emphasise her plight and agony.

The central light depicts Passover, the Jewish feast celebrating their liberation, under Moses, from captivity, and their nationhood. 

Three figures (the central one possibly Moses) stand over the Paschal lamb, the central dish of the Passover meal; two of them hold staffs, as the book of Exodus prescribes. The most notable feature of this light is the architectural backdrop, a rundown or even semi-derelict and apparently roofless building; Christian art often depicts non-Christian structures like this to indicate their incompleteness without Jesus. This building however is made to look very attractive as it's composed of brightly (and unnaturally) coloured elements. Note the Agnus Dei, the lamb of God, hiding in the rafters, another parallel, this time between the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb and Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

The right light shows the moment when Abraham, on the verge of sacrificing his son Isaac at God's command, is told by an angel to stop.

The enamel paint on the wings and face of the angel has worn off, but Abraham remains an imposing figure. Isaac looks resigned to his miserable fate; he is about to be stabbed to death and then burnt: the fire hisses just below the wooden altar his father has built to aid the flames. The ram that is to be sacrificed in his place is seen on the left, under Abraham's threateningly poised knife.

Although this window was given its marching orders by Watton-at-Stone church, another Clutterbuck window remains there. I've not seen it for years as it's currently difficult to get in, but there are details from it on Stiffleaf's excellent Hertfordshire churches website, and a more complete image on the highly useful site Hertfordshire churches in photographs. The window depicts three New Testament scenes in contrast to Datchworth's Old Testament, the Adoration of the Magi, the Deposition from the Cross, and Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene. The relationship between the two windows is broadly typological, which is to say that the Old Testament 'types', prefigurings of later events, are matched with the New Testament 'antitypes', events from the life of Jesus; the essential theme of the two windows is sacrifice.

At the west end of the north aisle is a window by Shrigley and Hunt, a Lancaster, Lancs based firm that lasted from the 18th century until 1982. It dates from 1879 and depicts a sower and a reaper, and is an utterly beguiling Arts and Crafts rural idyll (though the female sower doesn't seem very happy with her lot). (Pevsner compares it to the work of Walter Crane.) 

In the south wall of the chancel there are two windows by the firm Clayton and Bell, one of the very best Victorian designers and manufacturers of stained glass; their windows are usually one of the highlights of any church they feature in. However, here their work is rather below par and is overshadowed by that of Clutterbuck and Shrigley and Hunt. The easternmost one (1863) shows the Deposition from the Cross and the Resurrection, and the westernmost (1875) Christ passing the key of the Kingdom of Heaven to St Peter, and the Ascension.

In the nave there's a window depicting the Noli Me Tangere (when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection and told her "Do not touch me"), by Burlisson and Grylls from 1877. It too is tame, though the backgrounds are worth a look.

There are also two recent windows. In the north aisle there's one commissioned from Maria Glenn to celebrate the millennium.

It's an abstract representation of the Light of the World, suggestive of a flaming sun. The colours, especially the blue, are quite attractive. 

The other one, at the east of the north aisle, was commissioned from Glenn in 2005 to celebrate the foundation of the Welwyn team ministry, which involved the bringing together of five local parishes, the churches of which are shown in the window.

Some of the details, for example the fish swimming in the river, are cute. It's good that churches are still commissioning stained glass.

Datchworth church is open every day; you'll find it a welcoming place.

* There are no medieval stone spires in Herts, and only a handful of Victorian ones. There are a few medieval timber and lead spires, notably Hemel Hempstead. I've previously written about two attractive small Victorian timber spires, Meesden and Radwell. The county of course has its own almost unique variant on the spire, the spirelet, known as Hertfordshire spikes, about which I shall one day write something. Datchworth originally had a spike, as the J. C. Buckler watercolour (c.1830) in the church shows.

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