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

Thursday 24 January 2019

Norman ironwork and High Victorian mosaic in Buckland church, Berks/Oxfordshire

Two of my recent posts have brought a lot of new readers to Icknield Indagations. Welcome; I'm glad you're here (if indeed you are). Previously this blog was getting a few dozen page views each day, now it's well over a hundred. (These numbers will seem risible to proper bloggers, but aren't bad for a blog mostly about church architecture.) This increase is gratifying but also a bit stressful. I feel that new readers will be expecting more of the rough and tumble that was Spot the difference. Why I don't like King's College Chapel, Cambridge or the storytelling of The Rev. John Alington, a Victorian eccentric in Letchworth, Herts. On the contrary, I'm afraid: for now at least it's back to the nerdfest of ecclesiastical art (albeit with pretty, if often wonky, pictures). Sorry.

For the best part of three decades (ever since I learnt to drive, in fact) I've been travelling between north Herts and east Berks on more or less the same route: south on the A1(M) or M1, around London on the M25, then west on the M4. It's the only viable way of doing the journey by car. In that time I've become heartily sick of seeing the same sights, most of which aren't particularly attractive in the first place, and of having to endure the traffic on the M25. (Yes, I know I'm part of the problem, but that knowledge is of little help at the time.)

Recently I've moved a bit further north, and my aged and increasingly infirm parents, who I've been visiting, have moved a bit further west, into Wiltshire. This of course means that my journey takes longer, but it also means that, while the south/round a bit/west route is still the most obvious one to take, another is now feasible. It's possible to take a diagonal cross country route without adding hours to my day. The trip is long enough to require a short break, so I've taken to stopping at one place or another in that part of north-west Berks that was subsumed by Oxfordshire for administrative purposes in 1974. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of these stops have involved a church.

Several times I've found myself drawn to Buckland (not to be confused with the Buckland in Herts, about which I shall write one day, nor with several other English Bucklands - the 'buck' element of the name essentially means 'book', which in turn means that the land on which the settlement stands was once the subject of a charter). The village itself is the first attraction, standing on the evocatively-named Golden Ridge above the Thames, and mostly built of the local set-honey-coloured Corallian limestone (also known as Coral rag, as it is full of fossilised coral). There are several major buildings, notably Buckland House (1757), by John Wood, the Younger (architect of the Royal Crescent in Bath), though none are open to the public (a distant glimpse is about the best you'll get). The church, on the other hand, is accessible at all reasonable times; it has much to charm and fascinate, from the 12th to the 20th centuries. Think of me what you like, but my favourite parts are the High Victorian and post-First World War contributions.

The nave is Norman, and although the south doorway is fairly plain - the absence of a carved tympanum is a disappointment - the door retains its 12th century ironwork, a simple but powerful design combining tips like those of arrows with scrolly tendrils. I like the fact that the lower hinge isn't quite the same as the upper one - its top near-semi-circle doesn't match the bottom one, making it clear that the smith who forged it was relying more on feel than compasses.

The north doorway must be of the same date as the south, though its door was replaced by a characterless modern one.

Moving west, the central tower and transepts are 13th century, although the crossing piers and arches date from only 1868-70 (so the tower would have had to have been supported while they were constructed). The capitals are a rather clumsy stiffleaf.

The details of the chancel, especially the ogee-headed recess decorated with ballflowers on the north side, show that it was built in the 14th century.

The tomb recess on the south side must be of about the same date, yet its arch is virtually semi-circular rather than pointed.

A curious feature of the chancel is this triangular niche, which, it is said, contains an urn within which is the heart of William Holcott, (c.1514-75). He was imprisoned by Queen Mary for his adherence to Protestantism, but recanted to escape execution. After the Queen's death he became a (Protestant) lay-preacher.

One puzzle is why the chancel and transept windows (and the west window) have no tracery, just mullions which run straight up to the arch, and from when they date. The date 1787 is prominent on the south transept, so it's tempting to assume that that's when the windows were reconfigured, but by the later 18th century the early Gothic Revival was well underway. (For example, only about 40 miles away Tetbury church had recently been rebuilt in, for its period, a very convincing Gothic style.) I find it hard to believe that such a crudely unGothic alteration would have been thought appropriate then. Much more likely, the mullions are 17th century; there are some similar ones in nearby Uffington, probably dating from c.1678, and more in Ruscombe, near Twyford, Berks, definitely dating from 1638. 

What's more, immediately north of the church is the former Manor House, which was (prettily but not very historically accurately) Gothicised in the 18th century; (Pevsner* tentatively dates the conversion to 1750, and suggests the architect might have been Sanderson Miller). Would whoever was responsible for the church's mullions have built them as they did with the example of the Manor House just yards away?

As I've already implied, the medieval parts of the church are worth seeing, but the High Victorian parts are worth going to see.** The south transept was decorated in 1890-2 by James Powell and Sons, to designs by Henry Holiday (1839-1927). The walls are covered in radiant mosaics and opus sectile. (Opus sectile is a technique similar to mosaic, but the materials are cut into bigger pieces and are often shaped, unlike the small tesserae of mosaics, which are generally roughly square. In the transept the figures are mostly opus sectile and the backgrounds mosaic.) The theme of the decorative scheme is the Benedicite, a canticle exhorting the whole of creation to praise God, and the similar Te Deum. The overall effect is almost overwhelming; some of the human figures (especially the two cutesy little girls - or are they a boy and a girl?) are twee, but the saints and large angels are opulent and imposing, their towering canopies almost more so. The colours, especially the gold, shimmer as they catch the light. Together with the south window (I'll come to that in a moment) it's like being inside a kaleidoscope. 

The floor has its own mosaic, and the roof has stars on a blue background. 

There are also four oil lamps affixed to the stalls, (as far as I can see they've not been converted to take electric bulbs). Their luxuriant Art Nouveau scrolls link them to the Norman door. I assume that they're part of the original fittings of the transept chapel, but can they be by Holiday, or Powell's? Perhaps not.

This gorgeous, lusciously coloured south window in the transept, however, presumably is by Holiday.*** It is integral to the transept chapel's decorative and memorial scheme, commemorating the wife, Clara Jane (d.1888), of the donor, William West, who was a millionaire director of the Great Western Railway. Its theme is the Ascension.

The top section, full of drama and movement, is the best.

The middle, with rather melodramatic gestures, is not as successful.

The bottom, "Suffer the little children to come unto me', avoids the sentimentality that most Victorian artists brought to this subject. The second from left female saint, and the one on the far right, seem to me especially fine.

The east window certainly is by Holiday, in 1919, the best part of three decades later, and when he was 80. Unsurprisingly, the style is different from that of the earlier transept window. Holiday has expertly organised the multitude of figures into a coherent whole.

At the top we see Christ with the Archangel Gabriel on the left and Michael on the right, with a mostly heavenly blue background.

The second tier represents the earth, with much green foliage in the background. I'm not sure exactly who or what the frieze of handsome, dignified figures represent, but the long scroll they carry links them all together beautifully.

The lower tier represents the Liberal Arts and Sciences. The first light has Philosophy (a bearded man, probably Greek, with a scroll) and Poetry (a woman with a lyre). The second Agriculture (a man and a woman with a scythe and a rake) and Science (a seated man with instruments, possibly a microscope and telescope).

The third light has Temporal Power (a seated king and queen with a bishop standing behind them, suggesting that their power comes ultimately from God).

The fourth has Labour (a standing woman with a spindle and a standing man with a hammer) and Art (a seated woman with a sculpture), and the last Music (a standing woman playing the violin) and Mathematics and Astronomy (a seated bearded man with a scroll and a sphere). 

Last in our chronological survey of some of the church's highlights comes the west window, from 1926. It's the only window that Pevsner praises (or comments on at all): he calls it 'excellent'. I wouldn't disagree with that, but I think the two Holiday windows are even better. It's by the firm Burlison and Grylls (though both Burlison (1843-91) and Grylls (1845-1913) were long dead when it was made). 

It shows the Crucifixion in a pastoral setting at the top, with a distant town, stormy clouds and restrained figures.

At the bottom is a Nativity, with a Renaissance architectural setting. 

So there we are - from sometime in the 12th century to 1926, nerdy pleasures galore.

* As usual I'm using "Pevsner" as a generic term for the authors of the various volumes of the Buildings of England series. The 2010 2nd edition of the Berkshire volume, to which I refer, was written by Geoffrey Tyack, Simon Bradley and Nikolaus Pevsner. 

** This distinction was first made by Dr Johnson. I mentioned it previously when writing about Welwyn church.

*** Pevsner implicitly ascribes it to Burlison & Grylls. John Betjeman and John Piper (in Murray's Berkshire Architectural Guide (1949)) ascribe it to Clayton and Bell, but this is clearly a mistake. They also criticise the glass in the east and west windows as 'heavy'. The church's guidebook, although it devotes a paragraph to the window, makes no attempt to name the artist. This, I'm sorry to say, is all too often the case with such booklets.


  1. Spent a very interesting and awesome time in the church. One of my group expressed an interest in the 'tridents' in some of the windows. Are you able to elaborate on these??

  2. Thanks for your comment. Assuming that by 'trident' we mean a three-pronged spear, I can't see any in the windows I've illustrated here. Are they in one of the other windows? I shall stop and have a look next time I'm passing (probably next week).

  3. I was passing yesterday and braved the rain to look in the church. The 'tridents' (actually they're two-pronged, so more like hay forks) are in some of the windows without stained glass. They're little decorative flourishes at the top of some of the vertical supporting iron framework struts, very likely made by the ironworker simply to make the tops of the struts look less bare. Almost certainly they have no symbolic significance or structural purpose. Hope this helps.