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

Tuesday 31 December 2019

Baldock church, Herts: screens galore

Baldock, founded by the Knights Templar in the 12th century, owed its wealth to the road that eventually evolved to become the Great North Road and A1 (England's spine, running south-north from London to Edinburgh). The town is about forty miles from central London, and thus was a convenient staging post on the first (or penultimate) day's journey. Perhaps coincidentally, Baldock is also where the Icknield Way, an ancient trackway (or, perhaps more likely, a rough assemblage of trackways of varying dates) running SW-NE crossed the road.

Unaccountably, the Templars forgot to bury the Holy Grail, or even leave any clues as to its whereabouts, in the town. Nevertheless there are some hidden treasures in the church, as well as plenty in plain sight, (and some disappointments).

The Templars must have built a church when they founded the town, but no trace of that original church is to be seen now. There are some vestiges of a 13th century building in the present fabric (in the chancel), which would have been built under their jurisdiction, but the bulk of it dates from soon after they were suppressed in 1312. Externally the church appears to be a typical Herts Perp'n'flint structure, heavily restored by the Victorians, but internally it's a fine example of a Decorated building of about 1330. 


J.C.Buckler's 1831 watercolour drawing of Baldock church, from the Hertfordshire Record Office's collection

The tower is suitably imposing for the prosperous, important town that Baldock must have been in the later Middle Ages. The upper stage was restored in 2011-12; the crisply carved corbel table is a fine thing to see (though it's high up, so to see it properly you need a telephoto lens or binoculars; it's good to know that it's still thought worthwhile to decorate part of the building that's hardly noticed). 

On top of the tower is a variation on the usual Herts spike (that is, a spirelet or mini-spire). It's placed atop a tall, rather stark, octagonal drum. The only other one like this in Herts - and the only other one anywhere, so far as I know - is a few miles away in Ashwell, which is a little more elaborate. I've often wondered which came first. Was it Baldock's plain version, which someone from Ashwell saw and said to themselves "That's a great idea, but I think I can make it even better", or was Ashwell's the original, which Baldock tried to copy but lacked the funds or the expertise to do properly?*

J.C.Buckler, 1831
The east window is a very attractive design with its soufflets and mouchettes, but is a wholly Victorian insertion (in other words, it's not a replacement in new stone of what was previously there in crumbling stone). Buckler's drawing above shows what this window replaced, and it's curious. There was a five light window with a prominent transom at the top, and above that, but - and this is the odd thing - narrower, a pointed arch. The result is a Gothic Venetian window. This is very unlikely to have been medieval; my guess is that it was 18th century Gothick.

When we step inside we're firmly in the 14th century, however. We find eight bays of stately Decorated arcading on both north and south, a really impressive sight. The piers are quatrefoil in plan, with thin shafts in the angles (like those at Benington and Ashwell in Herts, and Dunton in Beds). 

Six of the bays are in the nave, the other two, separated from the others only by wooden screens, in the chancel. There are three screens, extending over the whole width of the church, and for my money they're the highlight of the church.

The chancel screen is from the late 14th century, fifty or so years after the construction of the main parts of the church. 


The north chapel screen is of similar date, or perhaps slightly later; it's rectilinear design, with many straight horizontal and vertical lines, announces that the Perpendicular style had really taken hold by the time it was made. Some curious figures prowl in the spandrels of the dado; in one a moon-faced individual hides himself among foliage. Weirdly, a large fish is about to swallow, or bite the head off, a mermaid. In medieval Christianity mermaids were generally used as symbols of vanity (the semi-circular object she's holding is probably a mirror, the other half being suggested rather than depicted) and seen as temptresses who lured men away from righteous living. A common symbol of Christ was a fish, so a rather glib explanation of this carving would be that it shows Christ defeating evil. However, as the fish is so monstrous-looking I find it hard to accept this theory. I can't offer a better one, though.



The soffit of the canopy on the eastern (less visible) side is much less elaborate

The third and last screen, between the south aisle and chapel, is a bit later in date, from sometime in the 15th century**. It has a glorious elaborate canopy (no doubt much restored); I especially like the vine snaking along the cornice at the top. Other unusual and notable features (visible in the last of the photos above) are that in the arch of each of the eight lights there is extra cusping, independent of the tracery, and that the arch of the doorway is topped by a twisted stem moulding, from which crockets spring. The whole thing is marvellous.

Buckler obviously thought so too, as he chose it as the main feature of the only interior view he drew (on a later visit, in 1840, not 1831). Oddly, he depicts the screen from the east and thus the less richly carved side. The box pews shown here would have been thrown out in one of the Victorian restorations or reorderings. The boards between the top of the screen and the roof beam must also have been ejected then; they probably had a painting on them (though it could well have been whitewashed over, so the vandals didn't realise they were throwing away something of importance). Notice too, on the far left, the stairs leading up to the late 18th century west gallery (since removed).

Apart from the screens, the other thing that makes the church stand out for me is that in the nave and north aisle there's a whole congregation of label stops carved as busts (alternatively known as headstops). I wouldn't say that the standard of carving is especially high - some of them are more sophisticated than others, and they were presumably carved by several masons - but they're so individual and personal that it seems that they must depict the residents of Baldock in c.1330. (Well, I say 'must', but of course we can't possibly know if this is true, and it remains nothing more than a pious hope.) Here's a randomly chosen selection:

I think the first and last ones shown above are especially sensitive. (It's possible they've been recarved.) 

There are also carved corbels in the nave, which must be a century or so later than the label stops; they're not as idiosyncratic as them, though:

The east window is by William Wailes, 1847. The main lights show Christ with the four Evangelists and, in the tracery, the Crucifixion and, I think, other Passion scenes. It's an outstanding early Victorian work; the hieratic main figures with their towering intricate canopies contrast with the movement of the small scenes, all bound together by the liberal use of colour (especially, to my eye, the brilliant blues and ravishing reds).

The church originally had a west window also by Wailes, but it's been removed and replaced by plain glass. A pity. I'd probably have liked it.

All the other stained glass is later, and most of it is by the firm Clayton and Bell, whose work I often admire, but they weren't at their best when they came to Baldock, I'm afraid. 

I'll point out just one, in the south aisle. It dates from 1880, and shows the Last Judgement. The previous year Clayton and Bell had completed one of their masterworks, a Last Judgement in the west window of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, so it's surprising that this one is such a tame, rather drab affair. I like the dramatically twisting pose of the female figure at the bottom right, but otherwise they look as if they're returning from a slightly disappointing trip to the seaside (maybe the sun went in for a few minutes and the ice cream shop had only five varieties on sale instead of the ten they were expecting) and they're mildly glad to be home, rather than rising from the dead.

It's worth comparing this window to another Last Judgement, from just four years earlier, in Easthampstead, Berks, by Edward Burne-Jones, which is a masterpiece, and to Clayton and Bell's own, superior, earlier version of this subject (1872) in the south transept of Berkhamstead church, Herts.

I suggested at the beginning that Baldock church is in some ways unsatisfactory. This is not only because most of the stained glass is routine stuff, but because it lacks a feature that a large church in a town that was wealthy from at least the late middle ages right into the 19th century could be confidently expected to possess. Where are the monuments? When the rich Baldockians died over the centuries did none of them fancy being ostentatiously commemorated in the church? Evidently not. There are modest wall-plaques aplenty (some of them nicely lettered), but not a single big show-offy piece. This is the closest thing the church has to one:

Come on, citizens of Baldock! Surely you can do better than this. Where are the medieval recumbent effigies? The stately Jacobean tombs? The outlandish baroque poses that I love so much? The coolly neo-classical gestures? What we have is from a period, the Victorian, when English funerary sculpture was in serious decline, and it's not even a good example.

It's by Edward Hodges Baily (1788-1867), who had a long and distinguished career but was often impoverished. It dates from 1846 (and its classical style contrasts with the Gothicism of the nearby east window, made at more or less the same time). It is in memory of Georgiana Caldecott who died giving birth to her daughter, who survived only long enough to be baptised. I feel a bit of a rat for criticising it as the story behind it is so affecting. But however real the pain that motivated its commissioning, it is too genteel, too sentimental, neither raw enough nor sufficiently restrained.***

I also suggested at the beginning that the church has hidden treasures. Naturally this depends on what we mean by 'hidden' and 'treasure', but if you enter the church by the south porch (and you probably do) you're likely to be hardly aware of the north porch, so it's sort of hidden. (The church guidebook goes into some detail about the south porch but doesn't mention the north, and neither does Pevsner.)

It dates from 1836, a time when not very much church building was taking place, but ecclesiastical architecture was moving away from the Gothick style, which used exaggerated versions of some medieval features, towards the Gothic Revival, which tried to be more faithful to the original models. The porch is an interesting transitional piece. Externally it's convincingly based on late medieval structures, while inside it has a charmingly artificial plaster vault, typical of the 18th century Gothick. The carvings adorning it are treasures in my book (and on my blog).

The corbels of the vault have heads over which mini-monsters crawl, and in two cases viciously attack them, creating really quite disturbing scenes. What on earth is this supposed to be all about? We're used to bafflingly unreligious corbels etc in medieval churches, but in the reign of William IV?

The bosses have, in contrast, friendly-looking dragons. One of them hisses at the viewer, but we're not convinced he's a threat. I'm sure that a nice tickle behind the ears would have him purring (or whatever noise a contented dragon makes) in no time.

The shield over the door into the church is perhaps that of the parishioner who paid for the porch. On its dexter side (that is, the right as seen from the point of view of the person holding it) has three heads of reptiles or monsters, but I don't know whose shield it is. (I'd be fascinated if anyone could enlighten me.)

There's a humorous touch to the outside door's label stops. The one on the left depicts a man, looking a bit gormless, and on the right a woman casts her eyes askance across the doorway at him, as if to say 'Have I really got to endure the centuries in the company of this idiot?'

And, dear reader, you no longer have to endure the company of this particular idiot who's now run out of things to say about Baldock church, except to add that it's generally open, and, as I hope I've made clear, is worth a visit.

* The timber of the top stage of Ashwell's tower has been tree-ring-dated to 1365-76, so the drum and spike must date after that; I'd guess very soon after. Baldock's tower seems to date from c.1330, but the drum and spike could have been added at any time after that. The statutory listing says that the 'spire' (as it calls it) is 19th century; the church guidebook says the tower 'originally had a wooden balustrade and ornate lead spike. Both of these were probably removed in 1816.'  If this is correct, the spike must have been replaced soon after, as the Buckler drawing makes it clear that a drum and spike existed by 1831. Perhaps the current arrangement is a copy of the medieval original. (Incidentally, whoever compiled the statutory listing was obviously having an off day when he or she went to Baldock; usually churches are thoroughly described, but Baldock's is dismissed in a mere nine lines.)

** According to Pevsner, though the Victoria County History and the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments say all three are of the same date.

*** Go to Ardeley to see a really moving monument to a dead mother and child.

Chequerwork at the east end of the north aisle


14th century tomb recess on the exterior of the north wall

Label stops from the exterior of the the north porch

View from the east. Note artfully positioned wheely bins

Buckler, 1831

Buckler, 1831

Buckler, 1831

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