Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path
Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path
Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Wednesday, 12 December 2018
Arson at Royston church, Herts
|View from the north. The tower, now mostly Victorian, was originally the central tower of the church of the monastery of Augustinian canons. The original nave was to the west, ie the right of the picture.|
The church of St John the Baptist, Royston, Herts, was badly damaged by fire in the early hours of Sunday 9 December (local news report here). Apparently it was an arson attack, an act of ignorance and barbarity. It is currently unclear exactly how bad the damage is; it is said that the roof has partly collapsed, and the tower is smoke-blackened, but the walls are standing to their full height and the glass in the north windows seems to be intact. Nevertheless, judging from the flames in the news photographs, we should be prepared to learn that the interior is almost entirely lost.
|North aisle exterior; on the right an 18th cen memorial; the two windows in the centre with elaborate ogee canopies are c.1830|
|Two views of the remains of three 13th century Early English lancet windows, with dogtooth decoration, from the original monastic chancel, now on the south of the nave.|
|A complete lancet, very chic with its clustered shafts, from the original chancel, now on the north of the nave.|
|Three charming angels in the tracery lights of a 1890 window by German firm Mayer and Co, the only bearable part of an otherwise heavy and lurid window in the south chapel.|
|Two 14th century angels with an embarrassment of wings in the north aisle.|
|An ostentatiously fierce heraldic leopard.|
|Pulpit, now presumably ashes, made up from fragments of a late medieval screen.|
|Damaged 15th century alabaster figure of Mary and child, now perhaps dust.|
|Alabaster effigy of a knight, c.1415. According to Pevsner it's the only late medieval alabaster effigy in the county, so if it's been damaged or destroyed it's doubly tragic.|
|Handsome 13th century nave arcade.|
|Arch at the west of the nave. The details are consistent with a 13th century date, like some of the rest of the nave, but the arch is round, not pointed. Presumably this indicates a late 12th (or early 13th) century date.|
|South aisle roof, with probably 15th century angels, their details very fetchingly picked out in gold. It remains to be seen if they've survived the fire.|
Tuesday, 13 November 2018
Spot the difference. Why I don't like King's College chapel, Cambridge
The chapel's pinnacles and turrets are a grand sight. From this perspective the chapel is stately with more than a touch of confident swagger.
So what's my cavil with King's? Why do I chastise the chapel? (And why do I belabour the alliteration?) Let's begin with the exterior.
As I say, a view from the ordinal compass points is very fine. However, I'm not so sure that the chapel is particularly satisfying when seen from the cardinal directions.
|Bath Abbey, from Wikipedia, photo by Luxborealis (Terry A. McDonald)|
The other major problem with the west front (shared with that of Bath) is that the main feature, the large window, is standard Perpendicular and thus very dull. Perpendicular tracery provides an excellent framework for stained glass, but has few other merits. Endlessly repeated grid patterns are more anaesthetic than aesthetic. This problem is even more acute when the chapel is seen from the south (or north).
Tell you what, let's play a game of Spot the Difference with the windows; let's start with the one at the west and see how it differs from the one next to it. Take your time. What's that you say? You can't see any difference? Okay, move on to the next one. There's bound to be a difference there. No? Still no difference? How about the next? Or the next? Oh . . .
Twelve large identical (and nine identical small) windows, all equally regimented and uninteresting, do not constitute a satisfying facade. Apart from a door near the west end, too small to have much visual impact, there’s nothing on which to focus attention, no central feature to relieve the monotony. The scale is formidable, but this has been achieved by simply restating the same ideas (and they’re notably uninteresting ideas) over and over again. Repetition certainly has a role in architecture, but there comes a point when the eye cries out for variety. King’s Chapel goes well beyond this point, and the result is tedium. (King's is far from being the only building to suffer this defect, of course. It was endemic to the Perpendicular style - and by no means unknown in other styles of architecture, though at least other styles sometimes repeat beautiful motifs.)
Here's the second bay from the west on the north side. And hurrah! there are some differences to be spotted, most obviously that this bay contains a door. The lower tier of blank tracery is different; in particular the cusping is more elaborate. The poses of the dragon and greyhound are slightly different, and on the left there's a fleur de lys instead of a portcullis.
The third bay is the first to have a side chapel, so the blank tracery is now open. The dragon is slightly different. And that's just about it. Not very pointworthy at all. Never mind, better luck with the next bay.
Once again a fleur de lys has replaced a portcullis and the rampant animals are in slightly different poses. The tracery is glazed. Apart from that, identical to the others. What's that? No, I won't give you a point for noticing that there's a woman painting in this one.
Ooh! Ooh! I've got one! The plinth rises on the right. Otherwise, just the same as before. The repetition is relentless. Yes, we get the idea - the Tudors were the best thing since sliced heads.
Monday, 1 October 2018
Welwyn church, Herts
The result of all this is that the church, externally, is almost entirely Victorian and Edwardian, which of course doesn't necessarily mean that it's uninteresting. It's reasonably imposing, and the two south-facing gables at the east end are an unusual touch. Only a 13th century lancet window in the chancel hints at an earlier history.
Internally, there's a little more evidence of the church's medieval origins. The chancel arch is 13th century, and the south arcade 15th. (The north arcade is a 1910 copy of the south.)
In the chancel is a restored but essentially original 14th century Decorated double piscina, partly obscured by banners on the day I visited to take photos. The sedilia on the right is Victorian, in the 13th century Early English style.
Overall, the atmosphere of the church is light, friendly and welcoming, if a bit bland.
|The chancel ceiling, presumably 1950s.|
There's a good but probably much restored 15th century screen between the chancel and north chapel. The armorial shields date from 1911 (I'm not sure if this means that existing but blank shields were painted then, or that shields were imposed on the existing vine leaves).
There are a number of moderately interesting monuments, including one to Dr Edward Young (1683-1765), who was the rector of Welwyn 1730-65. He was a poet and playwright, immensely famous in his day and for a century or so after, but now virtually unread. His best known work was The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality, written 1742-45. Generally known (insofar as it's known at all) simply as Night-Thoughts, this is a long blank verse meditation inspired by the death of his wife and others close to him. I've read only a few brief passages, but their ponderous sententiousness doesn't encourage me to read more. It would be almost completely forgotten today had not William Blake been commissioned to illustrate it in 1795; he produced over 500 astonishing images, though only 43 were engraved and used. (The best online selection I can find is here.) It wasn't a commercial success. I expect Dr Young would have enjoyed moralising on this irony: his poem was a bestseller in its day, but is now read only by a handful of students of the 18th century Sublime, while the version famous today bombed in its time.
Recently I wrote about Ayot St Lawrence church, where I came across an early 20th century imitation baroque monument. Polish my putti and varnish my volutes, here's another one. A casual glance suggests that it dates from the later 17th century, but a closer look at the inscription reveals that it was erected after 1911 by Rosa Georgina Neall to commemorate five of her ancestors, and in particular her father, George Edward Dering (1831-1911). He has a Wikipedia entry which reveals him to have been a notable Victorian inventor and wealthy eccentric. He lived in the fine 1717 house of Lockleys in Welwyn, where I lived from 1982-85 (well, okay, I had a flat in one of the outbuildings of the school it had by then become). He bought so many books that when he died there were still unopened crates of them scattered around the building. I'm proud to have shared a home, albeit a century apart, with a fellow bibliomaniac; my ambition from henceforth is to buy even more books than I buy now so as to follow his enviable example.
His inventions were many and varied, including telegraphic and electrical devices. He was a keen tightrope walker, as the photo above shows (he's possibly crossing the River Mimram in Lockleys' grounds). Soon after inheriting the Lockleys estate in 1859 he dismissed most of the many servants and left, leaving only a skeleton staff to keep the place ticking over, giving no indication of where he was going or what he was doing. He returned for a few days just before each Christmas to pay the staff and deal with outstanding matters, then disappeared again. In fact he'd been living in Brighton under the name George Dale, and had married a woman named Martha who had no idea of her husband's real identity, wealth or status. She died in 1894, and George moved back to Lockleys but became a recluse. Their daughter, Rosa, was allegedly unaware of her father's story until after his death. She inherited his fortune and estate, which must have come as quite a surprise. (You can read an article about George by his grandson here, and there are more details here.)
Associations with Young and Dering apart, the main interest of the church lies in the stained glass. There are 13 in all; here are six of them, in chronological order.
My first choice depicts the Ascension. It dates from 1865, and is attributed to Heaton, Butler and Bayne, a firm which worked from 1862 to 1953, so this is an early example from their workshop. The dramatic design, which makes excellent use of the narrow lancet, and bold colours make this a highly successful window; only the slightly sentimental faces let it down. I particularly like the stylised foliage at top and bottom. Even Pevsner, who can be very dismissive of Victorian stained glass, grudgingly admits that it's 'good'. In my previous post (see here) I was even ruder than Pevsner can sometimes be about another Heaton, Butler and Bayne window, of 1922. It's depressing to see how far the firm could fall.
One thing I've come to realise in the last few years is that I very much like Arts and Crafts windows, and here's one from 1911, by Mary Lowndes (1857-1929). It depicts Abel, Abraham and Melchizedek, three biblical figures linked by sacrifice who often appear together in Christian iconography. This is a sumptuous and imposing window; its effect is unfortunately partly neutralised by having two internal spotlights playing on it, which drains the colour. The church is evidently much-loved and well cared for, but someone's made a serious error here, fortunately one that could be very easily corrected. I was tempted to find a ladder, climb up and take out the bulbs. (As 1918 is the centenary of women getting the vote in Britain, I'll mention that Lowndes was a prominent suffragette.)
Hugh Easton (1906-65) is an artist I often find it hard to appreciate. This window depicting St Francis of Assisi from 1945 doesn't give me much pleasure, though I quite like the details of the birds and flowers.
The east window is from 1954, by Christopher Webb. I've written about him before (Cheesy or charming? A window by Christopher Webb, Finchampstead church, Berks), so I won't repeat myself in any detail. It shows Christ in Majesty, surrounded by modern versions of the labours of the months. There's too much clear glass, which dampens the overall effect, and the angels are too twee, like simpering blonde models from a 50s mail order clothing catalogue (with admittedly rather gorgeous wings). Nevertheless, the more I look the more I like it, and I wish I'd taken better close up photos.
In the left light we see, from top to bottom, scenes associated with spring: a bird's nest with eggs; a young shepherdess tending lambs; sowing, (I'd associate this more with autumn, though the trees in the background are in leaf and green); horses grazing with a hint of fruit hanging in the trees, (also suggesting autumn); running deer, perhaps fallow fawns. In the second light summer scenes: butterflies on flowers; grazing cattle; an angel holding a basket of spring or summer flowers; a man sheltering from a rainstorm, but dressed for warm weather; children bathing in a stream or lake.
The third light consists of Christ and angels. The fourth shows scenes associated with autumn: a squirrel eating; a young woman picking fruit; an angel bearing a cornucopia; a man struggling to walk through a windy forest; a forest in a flood. The right light shows winter scenes: a starry winter night, with Orion and a comet; a warmly dressed man stoking a bonfire; a fox stalking through a snowy forest; a Christmas tree; children skating on a frozen pond; a whale with an iceberg.
As I said when writing about the Finchampstead window, you've got to be a pretty dedicated grumpy old man or woman not to take at least a little bit of pleasure in these delightfully observed vignettes. I don't know what's come over me. Next thing you know I'll be admitting that actually I like Christopher Webb. On the other hand, there is a second Webb window in the church that held so little appeal for me that I didn't bother photographing it.
This window also dates from 1954 (after the arson attack). It depicts Sts Giles and Luke, and is by Edward Payne (1906-91). He was the son of Henry Payne (1868-1940), an important figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, and Edward continued to work within the Arts and Crafts tradition. There's an excellent website about him here.
Welwyn church might not be worth going to see, but it's certainly worth seeing it after a trip to the Welwyn Roman Baths, in a specially constructed vault beneath the A1(M) just north of junction 6. My old English teacher, Ray Winch, who introduced me to the idea that churches are things worth taking an interest in, once said to me that if a Roman villa was discovered on the other side of Europe he'd struggle across the continent and endure many hardships to see it, but if one was dug up in his own back garden he probably wouldn't bother. This came almost literally true for me when I moved to Welwyn in 1982. The baths had been discovered a couple of decades previously when the road was built, but while I lived there, a few hundred yards from them, I never went to see them. It wasn't until I moved away that I did (and I've been back several times since). Distance gives a (sometimes unwarranted) glamour; often we don't appreciate what's right under our nose.