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

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Beastly Cambridge

An animal anthology of carvings in Cambridge.

Crocodile on the wall of the Mond Laboratory on the old Cavendish site. It was commissioned by the Russian scientist Peter Kapitza as a humorous reference to Ernest Rutherford, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory. 'The Crocodile' was apparently Kapitza's nickname for Rutherford; the University's website claims that this was either because Kapitza was afraid of getting his head bitten off by his boss, or because Rutherford's loud voice could always be heard long before he arrived, like the ticking of the alarm clock in the stomach of the crocodile in 'Peter Pan'.

Since the Physics Department's move to the West Cambridge site, the building has been occupied by the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit.

The crocodile was carved into the brick by Eric Gill in 1933. He signed it with his monogram wittily replacing the tongue. We can assume that crocodiles were one species that he didn't try to have sex with. 

Iguanodon and very cuddly-looking ground sloth (which seems to be clutching the palm tree for support, as if under the weather after a night out) on the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences in Downing Street. They were carved c.1904 by the firm Farmer and Brindley, who also made the numerous animal sculptures that populate the Natural History Museum. In the Earth Sciences Museum is a real iguanodon skeleton (or, more accurately, a cast of a real skeleton).

A mammoth from the Earth Science Museum.

Bears and bison from the Earth Sciences Museum.

Sculpture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, outside the Earth Sciences Museum. It was made of welded sheet metal by Ian Curran, a blacksmith from Doncaster, and was originally commissioned by Clare College as the centrepiece for a May Ball. It was moved to its present position in 2015.

More Cambridge beasts to come . . .

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.
UPDATE: The fire is not now considered to be an arson attack, but was due to an electrical fault. Which doesn't lessen the damage caused, but does make me less despairing of humanity.

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.

The church has, or had, much to interest aficionados of architecture. It preserves the remains of a monastic church and dates mostly from the 13th century, though much altered in later eras. I haven't time to write a complete article about it now, but here are some not very adequate photos taken on my most recent visit, in 2015, with brief captions.

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

Let me admit from the start that the statement in the title of this post is most shamelessly designed as clickbait. 'Why I have some reservations about King's College chapel' would be more accurate, but the standard journalistic practice is to polarise views, to push everything to extremes in order to make them more dramatic and saleable. Emotions have to be turned all the way up to eleven in an effort to get heard. No one's going to read an article headlined 'I'm on the fence about Brexit' or 'I'm still in two minds about Trump'. Perhaps I should go the whole hog and give this post a no holds barred screaming heading:


or even:


If I thought that doing so would gain thousands of pageviews and 'go viral' then maybe I would indulge myself, but as whatever I write won't be read by more than a few hundred people I'll stick with the mild exaggeration of 'Why I don't like King's chapel.'

I'm very happy to agree that the view from the Backs* is justly one of the world's most famous; if anything deserves to have that much overused word 'iconic' applied to it, this view does. The chapel (built 1448-1515, though furnishing and glazing took a few more decades) is greatly enhanced by, on the right, the classical elegance of the Gibbs' Building (1723-9), and, on the left, the south range of Clare College's Old Court (1638-42). 

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.

I also admit that the fan vaulted ceiling, poised effortlessly above walls that seem to be made of almost nothing but glass, is mightily impressive, the screen is terrific and the windows, though very busy and not as beautiful as they would have been had they been made two or three centuries earlier, are endlessly fascinating and historically of great importance.

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. 

The west front is seriously disappointing. It looks squashed, much too narrow for its height. Compare it with the contemporaneous Bath Abbey, for example:

Bath Abbey, from Wikipedia, photo by Luxborealis (Terry A. McDonald)
The aisles create a far more balanced and satisfying composition. Some readers will balk at this; is it fair to compare an abbey church (and one time cathedral) with a mere college chapel? They served different functions, so of course they'll look different. However, King's Chapel is so extravagantly ambitious that it must be judged by the standards to which it aspires. It's a large Gothic building, and it makes sense to compare it to other large Gothic buildings. (It's significantly longer than Bath Abbey - 289' as opposed to Bath's 225' - and only a little shorter than Rochester Cathedral (306').) 

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, theres 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 theyre 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. Kings 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.)

The first time you enter the chapel you are likely to be awed. The fan vaulting, the stained glass and the sense of space are undeniably magnificent. Pevsner** uses the word superb twice, once to describe the overall effect of the interior, once in relation to the stone carving. Who am I to disagree? And yet . . .

The essential thrill of large Gothic buildings is that vistas change as you walk around them. This is partly accidental, as most of them were built piecemeal over several centuries and comprise different sections that perhaps should clash but in practice nearly always complement each other. But mostly the varying views are a quite deliberate design feature. Stand at the west end and you're given hints of what you'll see later, but only hints. Walk down an aisle, and you snatch glimpses through the arcade. Arrive at the crossing, and a whole new aspect is revealed. Looking up and around, every step uncovers something fresh and surprising.

King's Chapel is a large rectangle, so very little of this applies to it. You walk in; you're awed. And - well, that's it, really. You're not going to be freshly awed by the architecture as you move around. You're unlikely to turn around and suddenly witness an unexpected visual effect. It's true that the nave has small side chapels, which give some sense of lateral space, and it is possible to go into them and see the main chapel from a different perspective, but they are very small and feel insignificant. It's also true that the large rectangle of the chapel is divided in two by the screen, which does break up the space to some extent (though the fan vaulting is one uninterrupted expanse from wherever it's viewed), but it remains essentially a single-celled building. Some exciting views can be had by standing near the screen and looking up. But nothing can disguise the fact that King's Chapel is basically a big box. It would make a fine airship hangar.

One of the most prominent features of the interior of the nave is the stone carving in each bay. Pevsner calls it 'altogether superb', and draws attention to the fact that each crown (top centre in the photo) is almost completely detached from the wall, which is indeed astonishingly skilful. (They now contain lights.) The photo above shows the westernmost bay on the north. The Perpendicular blank tracery is stately, and the crowns, portcullises (Tudor symbols),  Tudor roses, shield, greyhound (of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII) and dragon (of the Tudor dynasty) constitute a lavish display. I'm trying hard, but I can't find anything to grumble about here.

It's time to play Spot the Difference again! 

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. 

I'm not playing this game any more. I'm losing the will to live. You will too when I tell you that the bays on the south side exactly mirror those on the north, and that the sumptuous stalls beyond the screen to the east are heavily repetitious too. 

King's College Chapel is in some ways magnificent, but also reveals the dead end that English ecclesiastical architecture had reached by the 16th century. Perpendicular had been the dominant (more or less the only) style for almost two centuries by the time the chapel was completed, and, rarely attractive at the best of times, it had thoroughly exhausted itself. Cue the Renaissance, and a flowering of church buildings in a new style . . . only that didn't really work out in England. It turned out that there wasn't all that much call for new church buildings, except in London, and that was only because most of the old ones burnt down. Oh well. At least we can console ourselves with the existence of earlier masterpieces such as Ely, Wells and York. 

* So called because the backs of six of the colleges run along the River Cam.

** As usual, I’m using ‘Pevsner’ as a generic term to mean the authors of the Buildings of England series. Nikolaus Pevsner wrote most of the first editions, but the second and third editions have been revised, or, in the case of the more recent volumes, completely rewritten by a variety of authors. Simon Bradley is the main author of the third edition of Cambridgeshire; my apologies to him for attributing his words to someone else.

Monday 1 October 2018

Welwyn church, Herts

I've written previously about 22 Herts churches (plus a few in other counties, and on other subjects). Not a particularly inspiring record given that this blog is now three years old; what's more, retirement has slowed down rather than speeded up my progress. All the churches I've tackled so far are ones that I like very much, so it wasn't difficult to find things to say about them. Not every church is as inspiring, however, and unless I intend to stick simply to 'greatest hits', which I don't, sooner or later I'm going to have to write about the mediocre ones, the ugly ones, the dull ones. (Not to mention the ones that are impenetrably locked and seemingly impossible to get into.)

Fortunately, it's a very rare church that has absolutely nothing of interest to show. Samuel Johnson made the distinction between sights worth seeing, and those worth going to see. (His example of a place worth seeing but not going to see was the Giant's Causeway, which lowers him in my estimation by several degrees.) I'd say that nearly all the churches in Herts (virtually all the Anglican churches built before 1900, in fact) are worth seeing, while admitting that they're not all worth going to see. Welwyn, I'm afraid, falls into this second category.

This is a shame. The busy and cheerful town deserves a fine church. St Mary's sits prominently in the middle of it, and is evidently cherished by its congregation; it had a once famous vicar in the 18th century; 'church open' signs on the pavement welcome visitors. If only it lived up to its position and history. Passers by who respond to the placards will find that the architecture is disappointing, though this is leavened by a number of rewarding features. This is down to three hundred years of bad luck. In 1663 the tower, weakened by storms, collapsed. In 1746, money for repairs was in such short supply that the fallen bells had to be sold off to raise funds. In the 19th century a series of restorations began, continuing until 1910, which eliminated most of the historical character of the church. To cap it all, (assuming that such a deliberate action can be assigned to 'bad luck') in 1952 it was attacked by arsonists and badly damaged.

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

This is a fine window, especially the small hunting scene at the bottom of the left light. The highly stylised tree behind St Giles makes it look like a stick of broccoli, just as early medieval windows do.

My final choice is by the Northern Irish stained glass artist David Esler. It's from 2012, and celebrates the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. The hand of God and the dove of the Holy Spirit appear at the top, implying that He is presiding over these events, but otherwise this is a secular window (Westminster Abbey makes an appearance, but as the venue of a state occasion rather than for religious reasons). Like the Heaton, Butler and Bayne window that I started with, this window makes good use of the shape (in this case rather truncated) of the lights. Perhaps there's too much busy detail, but I like the prominence given to the eight celebratory handbell ringers, filling the window with a merry clangour. 

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.