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

Wednesday 30 January 2019

Shellingford: another church in the part of Berks that was annexed by Oxon in the 1974 coup

On my recent journeys through north-west Berks (now part of Oxfordshire) I've relied entirely on serendipity when deciding which churches to visit. I've consulted no guidebooks, just taken potluck. My success rate so far has been very high: they've all proved to be well worth well worth the detour, and only one (Farringdon) has been locked. Yesterday took me to Shellingford. Two Norman doorways and a Norman chancel arch, some medieval stained glass, several high-quality 18th century monuments and an Arts and Crafts window - just the perfect thing for a beautiful sunshiney January day.

The tower and spire are the first things you notice as you approach. The tower is clearly Norman - see the narrow round-headed windows. The spire (and perhaps the parapet and attendant gargoyles too) was added as late as 1625; it's not as uncommon as you might think to find 17th century additions to medieval churches. The spire was rebuilt in 1852, and the top was replaced in fibreglass in 1982, which explains the stringcourse two-thirds of the way up, but otherwise the modern material is undetectable from the ground.

The Norman south doorway to the chancel has zigzag; the capitals are much weathered.

The main south doorway is much better preserved, having been sheltered by a porch. There's double zigzag in the arch - you know those Normans, they really, really, really wanna zigazag (eh?) - and on the left the label (the outer 'lip' of the arch) terminates in a human-animal hybrid head, and on the right a not very distinct serpent.

There is a third Norman doorway, but it's hidden away in the vestry. However, there are pictures of it on the website of the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland.

The font cover is a very nice Jacobean piece, from about the same date as the spire. The statutory listing says that the font is 15th century, but it wouldn't altogether surprise me if it was coeval with the cover.

The chancel arch is imposing in its simplicity and dignity.

The capitals have intertwined stems with foliate ends, perhaps exhibiting just the faintest of memories of Anglo-Saxon interlaced decoration. Unlike the almost pathological precision of the earlier style, however, the meandering lines of the Norman version look as if they've been drawn freehand by a mason who's downed several lunchtime pints.

This fine monument is to Sir Edward Hannes (d.1710). He was Queen Anne's physician, which must have been a melancholy job given her history of stillbirths and miscarriages. His mother-in-law and his only child were both called Temperance, so we can suspect that he wouldn't have approved of the drinking habits of the Norman masons.

This monument is to Mary Packer (d.1719), the wife of Robert Packer, whose grandfather John Packer had paid for the remodelling of the church in the 1620s. I think the four-tier composition is somewhat awkward, especially as the lowest one is much the shortest. The whole thing looks unstable and top-heavy. What's more, all four tiers have pilasters (the supporting piers) in different styles, and the result is an aesthetic mess. Good bust, though.

This monument commemorates the 2nd Viscount Ashbrook (d.1780). The putti decorating the large urn look almost cheerful as they go about their task, especially in comparison to the woebegone weeping figures on the two previous memorials.

The last major monument is to the 3rd Viscount Ashbrook (d.1802); it's by John Flaxman (1755-1826). (Also featured in the photo is a glimpse of the Jacobean pulpit.) It's instructive to observe the evolution of English sculpture during the 18th century, as evidenced in these four monuments. The first, that of Hannes, is distinctly Baroque, with the curtains pulled back to reveal the bewigged bust. The second, Mrs Packer's, still has Baroque undertones, the rippling clothing of the bust, for example. The third, to the 2nd Viscount, is much more restrained, with no bust or other depiction of the deceased, and no lachrymose figures to tell us that we should be mourning, while the last (from the opening years of the 19th century) is coolly Neoclassical.

The east window has some 15th century stained glass consisting of reassembled fragments. The figures seem to be a female saint, a bishop and a queen.

The soffit of the arch of the north chancel window is decorated with quatrefoils, because it originally framed the entrance to the tomb or chantry chapel of the priest John of Bledbury (d. 1372). 

The window contains Art and Crafts stained glass, commemorating the death of a ten year old boy in 1930. Charming, even moving details abound, yet the name of the artist seems not to have been recorded. Surely it must be buried in an archive somewhere? Let's hope so.

ADDENDUM: David Robarts kindly writes (see below) to point out that the authorship of the window is far from buried, but freely available in the obvious place on the internet. And I missed it. The window is by Douglas Strachan (pronounced something like 'Strawn') (1875-1950), arguably the most prominent Arts and Crafts stained glass artist. My only excuse is that Pevsner (and his revisers) missed it too.

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