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

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Flowing tracery and corbels in Dunton church, Bedfordshire

I've lived less than twenty miles from Dunton for over thirty years, and much of my free time during those years has been spent exploring the local churches. However, until a few days ago I'd never been there; I'd driven past quite a few times, but its most prominent feature, the tower, is bog standard Victorian, and the short entry in Pevsner isn't particularly enticing. It's not even one of the 57 in Bedfordshire singled out by Betjeman's guide to English parish churches.(1) So I've always hurried past on my way to somewhere more interesting.

This was a mistake. While I wouldn't claim that Dunton is worth travelling miles out of your way to visit, it does demonstrate that the great majority of churches have something interesting to see if you're willing to go looking.

One aspect of the building that few others seem to have noticed is the corbels in the south aisle. I've consulted six authorities while writing this post, and only one (the statutory listing) even mentions them.(2) They're not masterpieces, but they do give a touch of individuality to the church.

The statutory listing implies, without quite committing itself, that they all date from the building of the south aisle, that is, the first half of the 14th century. I'd say that this is certainly true of the fifth, sixth and probably seventh of those pictured above. The others look too freshly carved in comparison, and probably date from the 1861 restoration by Edward Browning of Stamford (1816-82). The second, fourth and last corbels, which depict a lion-like creature, are obviously based on the fifth, which is genuinely medieval. I'm especially fond of the seventh; he seems to be peering out from behind the arch moulding and calling out in alarm. The Victorian carvings are enjoyable too, despite their lack of antiquity. The third one pictured above, looking distressed, is particularly striking.

There is one more corbel, but it's hidden away in the vestry; this is the best view available, through grubby glass or perspex, while the room is locked. I'd guess that it's another 14th century original.

It seems to have been the intention to have carved corbels in the nave too. The north arcade was presumably also intended to have carved label stops. We can tell this because they notionally exist in cubes of uncarved stone, waiting for their masons to release them from their lithic prisons. Probably the money ran out, and the masons left, and they've lingered expectantly in their unfinished state for seven hundred years. The cubes are now inelegant distractions, especially the nave corbels, which have incongruous black lights fixed to their undersides.

The south aisle, built let's say c.1330-40, was lavishly beautified. In addition to the corbels there's a cinquefoiled piscina, an exceptionally elaborate east window (see below), and, on either side of the window, carved image brackets. The one on the south has much moulding and many rosettes (plus, left and right at the top, tiny grotesque heads). (Pevsner calls this Perpendicular, that is from some time between c.1350 and c.1530. The Victoria County History says it's 14th century.) The other has a large head, now very abraded.

Apart from the corbels, the other major thing that makes Dunton worth a visit is the window tracery in the east windows of the chancel and south aisle. They date from the first half of the 14th century and are in the Decorated style (familiarly known as Dec), and they both deserve a detailed inspection. My first draft of this post began with my attempted explication of the complex geometry of these windows, which I found fascinating and enlightening to write; I'm now better able to understand and appreciate their intricacies. However, I realise that such a thing is very much a niche interest, so I've relegated it to an appendix to this post. So feel free to just look at the pictures above, or keep reading all the way to the end, whichever you prefer.

It's interesting to compare the two nave arcades, as they date from different periods. The  earlier 14th century Dec south aisle came first; its piers are essentially quatrefoil in plan, with thin shafts where the lobes meet. This is all pretty typical of the style.

The Perpendicular north arcade on the other hand dates from about a century later. The basic concept is similar - there are still thin shafts in the diagonals, for example - but the curves of the Dec style have mostly given way to straight lines. A plan view of the piers would show four demi-octagons, designed and drawn mostly with a ruler, whereas during the earlier period a compass was the most important tool.

The chancel is Dec too, most obviously in the stepped cinquefoiled sedilia (priests' seats) and piscina (for washing the communion vessels). 

The chancel also has a spectacular (for a small parish church) hammerbeam roof with musician angels; this dates from the 1861 restoration. Evidently no expense was spared. According to the church guidebook it was financed by John Egerton, 2nd Earl Brownlow (1842-67), who would have been in his teens at the time. He'd inherited his title in 1853 (aged 11), and died aged only 24. (The Wikipedia entry about the Baron Brownlows has an intriguing comment that he managed to inherit the substantial Bridgewater estates after a remarkable lawsuit, but I can't find any other details at present.)

From the Victoria County History
One thought-provoking feature of the chancel is that it's not correctly aligned with the nave, but deviates markedly to the south, as is evident in the above plan. Misaligned chancels aren't particularly uncommon; Victorian ecclesiologists sometimes called them 'weeping chancels'. The church guidebook comments: 'one thought is that [the misalignment] is to represent the angle of Christ's head on the cross', which is a widely propagated explanation for the phenomenon.

This makes a pretty story, but doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Medieval and Renaissance representations of Christ on the cross almost always depict him with his head on his right shoulder, in other words the viewer's left; if the chancel symbolises Christ's head, the deviation should always be to the left, in other words the north. But Dunton's chancel, and many others, deviate to the south. If symbolism was intended, surely they'd all deviate to the north. Some churches have other parts misaligned (for example, the tower of Redbourn, Herts, deviates to the south). It's much more likely that the builders didn't worry too much about getting alignments exactly correct (or made mistakes), or that local building conditions (whether the ground was boggy or rocky, for example) forced them to make slight alterations. The whole idea of 'weeping chancels' is simply a Victorian concoction, similar to the idea of 'Devil's doors' (the supposition that north doors in naves are often blocked in order to keep the Devil out), a picturesque but fanciful explanation for something that has an entirely practical origin.

The church is unusual in having virtually no stained glass, the only exception being these tiny fragments (presumably 14th century) reset in the east window of the south aisle. The church guidebook says the queen depicted twice at the bottom is reputed to be Etheldreda of the East Anglians, who died in 679, but what connection she had with the parish I don't know.

The west tower is an addition due to Browning's 1861 restoration; its proportions look wrong to me - too slim for its height. However, the four excellent gargoyles below the crenellation, probably carved by the same mason who made the corbels in the south aisle, are compensation for this. The one illustrated above is rather feline, and visually competes very successfully with the modern devices above (I assume mobile phone transmitters). 

On my most recent visit I was welcomed to the church by a very friendly cat, and now the cat-like gargoyle bids us farewell. 


The south window in the south aisle, illustrated above, which exhibits the pattern generally known as reticulated, because of the tracery's similarity to a net, is typical of the first half of the 14th century; there are thousands very similar to this across the country. This particular one is notable as the stonework appears to be completely unrestored. The mason who made it constructed the tracery by drawing a series of adjacent, stacked circles (the best online illustration of this that I can find is here, courtesy of St Wulfram's, Grantham), and then extending each circle up and down into the empty spaces. By doing so he created three shapes known as ogee vesicas. (St Wulfram's comes to the rescue again: see here.)  I'm going to be using the terms 'ogee' and 'vesica' quite often: the former simply means an S-shaped curve, in other words, one combining both convex and concave shapes, and the latter an almond shape, that is, an oval with pointed ends.

There are also four smaller lights on the edges, created from partial ogee vesicas; this seems to me to be a weakness in the design - the small lights look unintentional, as if they're merely awkward side products, rather than an essential part of the mason's conception. If we compare this window to another Dec reticulated widow in Eyeworth church, just a mile away, we can see another approach to the problem of how to treat the top edges:

This window is essentially very similar to the one in Dunton, but the top vesica is ogee only at the bottom, not the top (where it's semi-circular), so it fits more snugly into the arch of the window. This arch is also noticeably less acutely pointed than Dunton's. The two outer main lights are topped by supermullions (the short vertical stonework shafts which spring from the apexes of the arches of the outer main lights). The same is true of the two lower ogee vesicas. This means that the window's arch is abutted by four supermullions, which looks clumsy to me; it spoils the sweep of the arch. Supermullions like these were used in abundance in the next phase of English Gothic, Perpendicular, which is one of the reasons why I find windows of that period often unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, the design choices made by the Eyeworth mason mean that the four tiny tracery lights are smaller and more graceful than those at Dunton.

All the ogee vesicas in the two windows I've illustrated are filled with quatrefoils, consisting of four roughly semi-circular lobes, separated by four cusps, creating something like a flower's petals.

I've laboured this at no doubt tedious length (well done if you've read this far) as I think it helps to enjoy the flowing tracery of my favourite Dunton window, that at the east end of the south aisle:

This has four main lights rather than three, but again there are three vesicas at the top. The outer two are ogee vesicas, set within their own subsidiary arches; furthermore, while the bottom ogees have the same proportions as the ones found in a reticulated window, the top ones have been 'stretched' to be about 25% taller than the bottom ones. Hence although they are still symmetrical along a vertical axis, they're no longer horizontally symmetrical. 

The central vesica has an ogee only at the bottom, the top being conventionally pointed, creating a dagger-like shape.(3) The window is an original and vigorous design, building geometrical complexity in a small space from essentially simple elements. 


The design is further enriched by the foliation within each vesica. The two ogee vesicas contain what are basically standard quatrefoils,(4) but with much elaboration. Each lobe has two sub-cusps, turning them into trefoils, and, more importantly, each of the four main cusps has three points (most of them rather blunted by centuries of wear and tear). This is a variation of what's known as Kentish tracery (after the county where it originated), which is usually double- rather than treble-cusped.(5)

The central vesica hasn't got any triple cusps, but there are an awful lot of single cusps all crammed in at the top. The lobe at the apex is cinquefoiled, while the other three are simply trefoiled. 

Whoever designed this window obviously wasn't content with spinning out the usual reticulations, and used just about every trick he knew. The result is arguably too busy; the centre is a Clapham Junction of converging tracery, surely enough to give a signalman a migraine, but is nevertheless remarkably inventive and exciting. How such a window came to be made in a relatively obscure and unimportant church we shall never know. It's unrestored state is another reason to cherish it.

The five-light chancel east window can probably be dated to a little later than that in the aisle, to perhaps the mid 14th century, as it shows a prefiguring, or perhaps an awareness, of the Perpendicular style, which was to dominate English church architecture for almost the next two centuries. (Churches were usually built from east to west, so perhaps there was an earlier chancel window which was for some reason thought to be inadequate, and which was replaced by the current one.)

The tracery, reading from the bottom up, consists of a tier of four ogee vesicas, flanked by two more partial ones. Above these are three more, flanked by two daggers. And above these are a further two vesicas with conventional pointed ends rather than ogees. So far this is standard Dec, and very similar to the first window we looked at though on a larger scale. However, there are five supermullions, three of which spring from the apexes of ogee vesicas (like those in the Eyeworth window) and continue up to the main arch. Two emerge, much more unusually, from the point at which two vesicas meet; these, however, merge into ogee tracery as they continue upwards. An abundance of supermullions, and especially ones that abut the main arch, is very characteristic of the Perpendicular style. 

These supermullions create more shapes in the tracery: two mouchettes at the top and beneath them two smaller daggers (or perhaps they're also mouchettes), and four small triangles. Everything is foliated except the triangles and the partial vesicas. 

This window is historically interesting, showing as it does the transition between styles, but seems to me to much less aesthetically pleasing than that in the east window of the aisle. The two were very probably made within a few years of each other, possibly on either side of the Black Death (1348). Assuming they have different designers it's interesting to speculate what they might have thought of each other's work. Would the designer of the earlier aisle window have regarded the chancel window as a stylistic step backwards, a rejection of his innovations? Would the designer of the later chancel window have regarded the aisle window as frivolous or perverse?

(1) The 57 are: Ampthill, Barton-le-Clay, Bedford (St Mary), Bedford (St Paul)*, Biggleswade, Blunham, Bromham, Carlton, Chalgrave*, Clapham, Cockayne Hatley, Colmfirth, Cople, Dean*, Dunstable Priory*, Eaton Bray*, Eaton Socon*, Elstow*, Eversholt, Eyeworth, Farndish, Felmersham*, Flitton, Harlington, Henlow, Houghton Conquest, Kempston, Keysoe, Langford, Leighton Buzzard, Lower Gravenhurst, Luton (St Mary)*, Marston Moretaine*, Milton Ernest, Northill, Odell*, Old Warden, Pavenham*, Pertenhall, Podington, Riseley, Sharnbrook, Shelton, Shillington*, Stevington, Streatley, Thurleigh, Tingrith, Toddington, Totternhoe*, Turvey, Willington, Woburn*, Wymington*, Yelden. The asterisks denote especially interesting churches. I don't know them all, but I'd certainly award stars to Flitton (for the de Grey mausoleum), and Cockayne Hatley (one of my favourite churches anywhere).

(2) The others are The Buildings of England: Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough by Charles O'Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner, the church guidebook, the website Bedfordshire Parish Churches, the entry on the church in the Beds. volume of the Victoria County History, and C.P.Canfield's admirable and austere website English Church Architecture. The statutory listing mentions the corbels only in passing, and calls them 'stops'. They're not stops; they're corbels. (The former are simply decorative, and are more fully called label stops or headstops, the latter structural.) Things have come to a pretty pass when I'm lecturing the statutory listing about the correct usage of terminology.

(3) I call them dagger-like rather than daggers because some definitions of 'daggers' require them to be bifoils, whereas these are quatrefoils. A mouchette is similarly defined as a curved dagger, that is, a bifoil. (These are the definitions endorsed by Stephen Hart's Medieval Church Window Tracery in England (2010), for example.) However, shapes in tracery are often in practice called daggers and mouchettes regardless of whether they have two or four lobes, and for convenience I shall henceforth do the same. 

Here's a close-up of a two-lobed bifoil dagger from the east window:

And here's a four-lobed quatrefoil dagger:

Just to add to the confusion, it occurs to me that both these shapes are very slightly curved, and thus are arguably mouchettes rather than daggers. 

(4) An ogee vesica containing a quatrefoil is known as a soufflet.

(5) The 1908 Victoria County History on Bedfordshire, volume 2, uses the term 'feathered' to describe this tracery. The only other usages of this term that I can find date from 19th century; I assume that it's fallen out of use. I can't find a definition of it, but I assume it refers to the triple points of the cusps, which look a little like the tails of some birds.

View from south-east
Over a century's worth of vicars

14th century font

Late medieval bench end.

Tiles in the chancel.

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