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

Friday 20 March 2020

Preston church, Herts - outstanding modern stained glass

I'm writing this as the coronavirus crisis sweeps across the world. Most of us are going to have more time for reading (and writing); I'm just starting fourteen days of self-isolation (though I have no symptoms myself), and, as well as catching up with books, CDs and Netflix, I'm hoping to post a few mini-essays here. Perhaps, wherever you may be, reading about some English churches will help you to find a little peaceful oasis amidst the chaos. 

Be kind, everyone, and stay safe.

The attractive Chiltern village of Preston had no church of its own until the end of the 19th century as it was part of the parish of Hitchin. Congregants had to trudge the three or four miles to the market town (or, perhaps more likely, walk to either St Ippolyts or St Paul's Walden, both of which are closer). It wasn't until 1899 that work started on a church for the village; the architect was the obscure T(homas) B Carter,* and it cost £1200 (the equivalent of about £149,000 in 2020), plus furnishings etc.

The church, dedicated to St Martin, is initially unprepossessing as you approach it through the guard of honour provided by the yews. Pebbledash and slate aren't particularly sympathetic materials; the small windows under segmental arches at first remind me of a light industrial workshop, though we might nod approvingly at Carter's breaking away from the Gothic norm in favour of something more in tune with the forthcoming 20th century.

The east end, with stone dressings, being the 'holiest' part of the building, apparently has to have Gothic details, however. 

Much the most individual and successful aspect of the exterior is the west front, a clipped equilateral triangle or an Avro Vulcan in a vertical climb, the projecting entrance and bands of stone relieving the monotony of the roughcast, the tapering bellcote giving the composition an upward momentum.

The door unexpectedly leads into a pleasingly domestic octagonal room. 

The interior, with its low walls and high roof, makes more of an impression than might be expected from outside; however, with apologies to Mr Carter, it's not really the architecture we've come to see. It's the stained glass.

The east window, which was installed in time for the opening of the church in 1900, is by the important Arts and Crafts stained glass designer Christopher Whall (1849-1924).** It's a very fine Tree of Jesse, showing the ancestry of Christ. (As far as I know, there are two other Hertfordshire Jesse windows, in Widford and Barkway.) 

At the bottom of the central light sits Jesse himself ('radix' means 'root'), depicted as an old,  bare-headed, weary white-bearded man. Springing from his seat are the branches of his family tree, shooting up and to left and right.

Above him is his son, King David. He is young, long-haired, splendidly gowned, plays on his harp and is seated on a throne made of something like Gothic window tracery.

To the left of Jesse is David's son, King Solomon. He too is young, has rather feminine features, and studies the plans of the Temple, a pair of compasses in his hand. An older, bearded man dressed in green leans over him, presumably the architect.

To the right of Jesse is Rehoboam (spelt here Roboam), the son of Solomon. He looks much more like a handsome late Victorian gentleman than his ancestors, though his right arm and hand are curiously twisted. Two young people are peering through a window and seem to be saying something to him; one points to something out of the picture frame, and Rehoboam looks in that direction. Perhaps this is a reference to the civil wars and Egyptian invasion that took place during his reign.

I can't identify the figures on either side of David (I'd be grateful for any help). On the left are two bearded men, and at the bottom one name, which seems to be Chias; this doesn't resemble any of the names in the genealogies provided by Matthew or Luke. The man on the left is a king seated on a throne; he seems to be gesturing towards something, and the man behind him is perhaps looking in that direction. This man is dressed in black and white stripes and has a distinctive hat. 

The figure to David's right is I think my favourite. It appears to be, rather than an ancestor of Christ, an illustration of Psalm 137, which begins 'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.' Letters (perhaps 'Se-gias') appear, but I can't make any sense of them. A forlorn (female?) figure weeps into her arms; we can glimpse a river, and behind her hanging in the trees are three harps. 

In the top right Zerubbabel (spelt here Zerobabel) is shown. He, according to St Matthew, was fourteen generations after Rehoboam, and lead the Jews out of the Babylonian captivity (depicted beneath him), and he is examining the plans for the Second Temple, which he built.

Top left we find Joseph, the father of Jesus.*** He looks careworn, and appears to have two golf clubs. They're probably meant to be carpentry tools, as he has a plane at his feet and wears a leather apron. An angel is whispering to him, perhaps to tell him about his upcoming parenthood.

Unusually, the top of the central light features a figure more reminiscent of God the Father than a relatively youthful Jesus, who is more normally seen in Jesse windows. See for example Christ in the famous Tree of Jesse Window (c.1140-50) from Chartres cathedral:

Photo by Vassil, from Wikimedia Commons
In Chartres he is bare-headed, grips the branches of the tree and looks like a man in his 20s or 30s. In Preston, however, he is crowned and displays the stigmata. But Whall follows Chartres by surrounding him with no fewer than seven haloed doves symbolising the Holy Spirit. 

The south chancel window is by Vivien Gribble (1888-1932). It commemorates her brother, who died as a result of the First World War (see below); in the left light is depicted St Martin of Tours (to whom the church is dedicated), and in the right a river scene.

The right light is very much the more successful of the two. In the foreground we see reeds, a grassy bank and the river reflecting the clouds, over which a bridge leaps. In the background there's a single-masted sailing boat, while the river winds towards the distant mountains. It's all beautifully schematic, the scene reduced to colourful abstract shapes.

St Martin in the left light isn't as loveable. Gribble was best known as a wood engraver, and I'm afraid that it's inevitable that I'm going to describe her depiction of the saint as wooden. He is dressed as a soldier (the historical Martin was a 4th century Roman cavalryman before becoming the Bishop of Tours), and holds the sword with which he committed his most famous deed, that of cutting his cloak in half to give to a beggar.

Gribble was taught wood engraving, at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, by Noel Rooke, who made a major contribution to the 20th century revival of the art (he also taught, for example, Robert Gibbings and Clare Leighton). She wasn't prolific, but her masterpiece is an edition of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1926). As far as I've been able to discover this window is her only stained glass; it's remarkable in the circumstances that it's as good as it is. The best bits - the boat and the mountains, for example - could easily have come from a scaled up wood engraving.

Her brother, Julian Royds Gribble, was a soldier (rising to the rank of temporary Captain), and won the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for bravery, on March 23rd 1918. He defended his position in the face of a fierce attack by the Germans, continuing to fight even when he and his surviving men were surrounded. He was taken prisoner, and survived in captivity until the end of the war, only to die of pneumonia in a hospital in Mainz thirteen days after the Armistice, aged just 21.

A church with a window by Christopher Whall is unlikely to contain any better stained glass. However, against all the odds, that's exactly what Preston pulls off. On the south of the nave is a window by Peter Caller (based on a sketch by Ruby Masters), both local artists. It's entirely wonderful. It dates from 2000 and depicts St Martin, but I can't give you much more background information. Caller and Masters have virtually no interweb presence; Caller is credited with just one other window in a church in south-east England, in addition to Preston's two (in Wendens Ambo, Essex). There is an information board about the St Martin window in the church anteroom, but I just glanced at it and took a photograph, assuming that I'd be able to gather any relevant information from my snap. Alas, I was, as so often, overestimating my competence levels and find now that my photo is inadequate. I shall have to wait until I make a return trip, presumably not until the current crisis is over. I'll add more in due course.

The window shows Martin clothing the beggar with the half-cloak he's just cut, watched by three men, a woman, a child, and several animals.

The left light features two men, two dogs (perhaps greyhounds) and a horse, all of whom are looking at Martin in the central light. The man on the left holds the collar of one of the dogs, while his other arm is raised rather awkwardly. The man on the right seems to me to have a slightly quizzical expression, as if he's doubting the wisdom of Martin's action, and rests his hands on an axe. At the top the horse is sympathetically observed, and there's part of a roof or arch which appears to spread across all three lights.

The bottom of each light repays close study. In this one vortices of water in which eels and fish swim swirl around the dogs' legs, but clearly we're not supposed to think that the dogs are actually standing in water - it's as if the water is in a different dimension to the figures. There are bands of different colours, and the leading is used to break up the picture into irregular pieces, some quite large, others tiny. It's simultaneously representational and abstract.

In the extreme bottom left there's also a smoking pipe, perhaps Caller's logo.

In the central light Martin pulls his cloak onto the beggar, in the act of doing so embracing him. Martin, who has a kind of cloud halo and holds his gladius, looks the beggar very intently, perhaps tenderly, in the face. The beggar is emaciated; we can see his shoulder blade and spine unnaturally prominently.

At the bottom are two geese (who aren't looking at the saint) and more fish, plus Caller's signature  (including a pair of spectacles) and the date of the window.

In the right light a man, holding a pointed stick, and a woman, holding a toddler, observe the scene. The child holds what I think is a goldfinch, which identifies them as Joseph, Mary and Jesus. (In medieval and Renaissance art the infant Jesus is often depicted holding a goldfinch, which, because of its fondness for thistle seeds, is associated with the crown of thorns Christ wore on the cross. The presence of the bird in pictures of the Holy Family prefigures the Crucifixion. There's a beautiful 14th century example in Hertfordshire in St Paul's Walden.)

At the bottom a hare looks up at Martin, and there's some allium - a plant I'm particularly fond of - and more fish. In the bottom right corner we can glimpse what seems to be a larger predatory fish with dangerous-looking teeth - a pike perhaps. The cute little fish are likely to be in imminent danger; the window celebrates selflessness, but there's not a lot of that to be found in red in tooth and claw Nature.

Given that Caller has made so few stained glass windows it's remarkable that this one is so intricate and accomplished, both technically and artistically. Blue is used in all three panels to provide unity, while yellow and gold are mostly confined to the left and green to the right. There are also monochrome passages across the design. Attention is drawn to the key element of the story, the cloak, by putting it right in the middle of the composition and making it bright red.

We, the viewers, join the two men, the Holy Family and the various animals in watching an act of kindness and self-sacrifice. As well as being a beautiful window, it's a moving one.

There's another excellent window by Peter Caller, made in 2001, in the church anteroom, not as ambitious as that in the nave but a fine sight nevertheless. It's another memorial to a soldier, William Palmer, about whom I know nothing except what can be deduced from the window. He was in the Suffolk Regiment and was a Prisoner of War in the Far East, presumably during the Second World War. His mess tin is seen bottom right. The window takes the form of a wreath of flowers and foliage; on the right there's a nest with four blue eggs. The colours are mostly sober (though there's plenty of red in the poppies). In its own quiet way it's as moving as the St Martin window.

In the churchyard is found the Barrington-White mausoleum, built in 1906. It's a striking sight with its stone, steeply-pitched roof. There's something rather alien, almost barbaric about the door and its jagged surround. Mayan architecture sometimes uses openings with a truncated triangular apex. Like the mausoleum in South Mymms, it gives me the shivers.

Most fortunately, there are plenty of shivers of another kind - shivers of delight - in the church. I can't think of many other Herts churches where the stained glass hit rate of stunners reaches 75% (and the other 25% is pretty good too). (Waterford, with its collection of Pre-Raphaelite and later glass, is the only one that comes to mind.) So don't be put off by the pebbledash - step inside.

The church, which is obviously much-loved by its parishioners, is usually locked, but there's a friendly keyholder nearby.

* He was based in London, was a pupil of G F Bodley and did some work at Eton College, but that's just about all I can find out about him.

** There are four other Hertfordshire churches with windows by Whall: Hatfield, Knebworth, Sarratt and Ware.

*** Only of course he wasn't the biological father of Jesus. It's always struck me as odd that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke go to such lengths to establish Jesus's ancestry via Joseph, while it's a central tenet of Christian doctrine that Joseph and Jesus aren't related, and therefore Jesus has no biological kinship with anyone who features in Trees of Jesse.

Further reading: 
The Statutory Listing. These listings vary in the amount of detail they include. I've previously pointed out that that of Baldock - a major medieval church - consists of only nine lines. Preston's, however, despite it being a not especially notable, small building just over a century old, comprises no fewer than 69 lines.
In formation about the church from the village's website.
contemporary newspaper report on the consecration of the church.
The Mausolea and Monuments Trust page on the Barrington-White mausoleum.

13th century coffin lid, with a floriated cross, found during building work at Temple Dinsley, a nearby house (now a school) on the site of a preceptory of the Knights Templar.

The ogee Gothic niches, with statues of St George and St Alban, by the east window, seem anachronistic in an otherwise modern church.

Carter provided a built-in piscina and credence shelf. Note again the ogee Gothic hood.

The light fittings, often so intrusive in churches, are elegant and practical. Possibly designed by Carter, or were they bought off-the-shelf?

The village pump

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