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

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.