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

Wednesday 29 April 2020

Therfield church, Herts


There's been a church in Therfield since at least the 14th century. The watercolour above, from 1822, gives us some idea what it looked like (despite the artist's rather elementary grasp of perspective). 

In 1676 what looks like a wonderful Carolean plaster ceiling, which wouldn't have been out of place in a grand house's dining room, was installed in the chancel. According to notes displayed in the church when I last visited in 2015 it was commissioned by the Rev. Francis Turner (who was later the Bishop of Ely). They also state that it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Anyone who reads church guidebooks, older local histories, etc, will know that virtually everything built or made in the later 17th century will sooner or later be attributed by someone to Wren, usually with no evidence except pious hope.* So I am sceptical about this claim. However, it is true that the rector of Therfield from 1687-97, Dr William Holder (1616-98) (who was also a composer), had married Wren's sister Susanna in 1643. So there is a link between Therfield and Wren, and possibly the ceiling was acquired by him from his brother-in-law. Allegedly it was designed for somewhere else, from where it was presumably rejected for some unknown reason, and had to be cut down to fit the church. It's nice to think of Holder saying to Wren, 'Tell you what, I'll do you a favour and take it off your hands.' 

Sadly the plaster ceiling is no more. It seems that the church was neglected in the 18th and earlier 19th centuries, and that by 1874 it was 'ruinous'. The drawing above, from Cussan's 1873 History of Hertfordshire, shows that substantial crude buttresses (mini versions of those holding up the tower at nearby Sandon) had been erected in an attempt to stop the walls of the south aisle keeling over. The photograph above, showing the plaster ceiling, also shows that the ceiling was being propped up, and that there were piles of rubble in the church.

The two photos above, taken just before the demolition began, also show the parlous state the church found itself in. The first one shows the nave, looking west, and reveals what look like two large cracks above the tower arch. The second looks from the north aisle into the chancel and south aisle.

In 1874 the Rector, J G Hale, commissioned a report on the condition of the church. Eventually the decision was taken to demolish it and rebuild anew. The architect chosen (I don't know if he wrote the report too) was G E Pritchett, who'd made a fine job of High Wych church in the previous decade. The photograph above shows the demolition team as they shaped up for the job ahead; one of the windows has been removed, but all the rest remains to be painstakingly knocked down. 

What a marvellously, tragically evocative photograph this is. I've enlarged the portions which show the demolition team, full of life 146 years ago, dressed rather formally by 21st century standards, all of them wearing hats, many of them bearded and/or wearing jackets and waistcoats,** all looking at the camera with neutral yet somehow steely expressions. Some of them seem to display the tools of their trade, especially on the front left, where two wield saws and one a mallet. 

This character here particularly appeals to me. Unlike nearly all the others he's wearing a flat cap rather than a hat with a distinct crown. Was this a mark of social status, or simply a fashion choice? It's very hard to tell how old he (and the others) are; twenties, perhaps? Neither can I make out the small object he holds in his hand. A mug? He has long sideburns, which possibly continue under his chin. His mouth is down-turned, his eyes could be closed. He looks weary, but he was someone's son, someone's friend, maybe a husband and father too. Today the details of his life, even his name, are quite lost to us. There truly is nothing sadder than an old photograph.

Second from the left in a frockcoat and wideawake hat, holding a pair of binoculars, is the Rev Godwin Hale. Third from the right stands a man in a top hat, which would surely be even more impractical than the other headgear in evidence. He's holding what looks like a ruler (though you wouldn't think that would be of much help in the job in hand); could this be Pritchett? This photo brings home the hard reality of demolishing a large building without modern machinery - only a few hand tools and explosives.

The new church cost £4600 (the equivalent of £524,000 today), which didn't include the chancel (which the Rev Hale paid for out of his own pocket) and the top two-thirds of the tower (which wasn't finished until 1911). The main rebuilding took from 1875-8.

Until the tower was finished, a bell was hung in a nearby tree. The bell-ringer seems to have had his own little shed in which to shelter when the weather was unfriendly.

Pritchett reused materials where he could, including the chancel windows (except the big east window), the piscina, sedilia, tomb recess and font, and some of the carved figures and bosses in the roof. 

The north arcade looks very similar to the old photographs, and there surely can't have been much wrong with the old arcade, so it wouldn't surprise me if Pritchett had recycled much of the old stonework. 

Therfield is not nearly as idiosyncratic as High Wych, in fact it's a pretty convincing reproduction of a 14th century parish church, but there is at least one little Pritchettesque design peculiarity. There are corbels at the level of the stringcourse at the base of the clerestory, which support stone shafts. These shafts in turn support timber uprights, adorned with shield-bearing angels from the old roof,  on which sit the wall plates and alternate principal rafters. This arrangement might be more decorative than practical. Pritchett also exercises his powers of invention in the varied Decorated-style window tracery found throughout the church.

Also preserved from the old church is the one great rarity that Therfield has to offer, the object that makes an antiquarian go weak at the knees. This is a 1677 monument 
to Ann Turner, the wife of the rector who is said to have commissioned the chancel's old plaster ceiling. It's on the wall of the north aisle, in style very much like that of a hundred others of its date across the country, but unlike them made of wood - cedar, to be exact - not stone.

There are a few medieval wooden effigies, for example in Much Marcle, Herefordshire (c.1360). There is a very small handful of 16th and early 17th century wooden monuments - in Worsborough, Yorkshire (1534), Burford, Shropshire (1588), and Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire (1615), but the latter two are painted more than they're carved. Perhaps there are others, but I don't know of any post-Reformation monuments where designs normally associated with stone carving are executed in wood, except Therfield. 

The carving looks competent, and I'm surprised that (as the old chancel ceiling gets attributed to Wren) it's not been spuriously said to be by Grinling Gibbons. The figure of Time, on the left, is noticeably weaker than the skeleton on the right (and what on earth is the skeleton doing with its arms? It looks as if it's about to perform some kung fu moves). The small female figures on the top lean on skulls while waving jauntily.

This window of St Francis of Assisi is by Brian Thomas (1912-89), who received many high-profile commissions for murals and stained glass during his long career, for example from St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. This one commemorates a death in 1968. I like the textures and colours in the glass; Francis appears to be strutting his stuff on the floor of a disco. The little birds at the bottom are very endearing.

The other notable stained glass is in the east window (with fine tracery by Pritchett, very much in the Decorated tradition but with a sprinkling of originality). It dates from 1961 and is by John Lawson (1932-2009). Like Thomas he was a prolific and successful designer; he also received a commission from Westminster Abbey, for example. He was born in St Albans and lived in Leverstock Green, Herts, so he might be considered the county's very own stained glass artist.***

The window depicts the Resurrection. Lawson heightens the drama by making it seem that power and light are exploding from Christ, while behind him a long banner of St George unfurls. At the bottom are three enchanting little scenes; I'm sure that children and others have, over the last six decades, been cooing over the birds, swaddled infant and lamb. It's a shame though that Lawson has used so much plain white glass (as many 20th century windows do; is this partly a cost-cutting measure?). It drains the colours from the rest of the window; compare the small lights at the top where no plain glass is used, and which are consequently much more intense. Nevertheless this and the Turner monument make a trip to Therfield a rewarding experience.

Both times I've been to Therfield it's been open, and not only open but exceptionally welcoming, with armchairs and magazines ready to welcome visitors.

* Even the early volumes of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments sometimes fall for this. See the entry on St Paul's Walden, for example, which says that the chancel screen is 'said to have been designed by Wren'. It wasn't designed by Wren. It wasn't even designed or made in his lifetime.

** I always take delight in using the old pronunciation of this word, 'wesskuht'.

*** So it's a pity there's only one other example of his work in the county, in Holy Trinity, Leverstock Green (his local church). He did much work in the Middle East, including for mosques. He is credited with creating the world's largest stained glass structure, at the Ramada hotel in Dubai (which is 41 metres high and nine wide).

Sunday 26 April 2020

High Wych church, Herts - 'perversely ugly'?

High Wych church, built 1860-61, is undoubtedly one of the most individual in the county. The nave and south aisle, under one big, broad, steep roof (with a kink in the slope on the south), are conventional enough, with Early English-style lancet windows mostly in pairs. The dark knapped flint walls contrast nicely with the pale stone dressings and the neat bands of red brick. The east end, however, is a different matter, with not one apse but two, one nestling into the other like a child being cuddled by their mother. The larger one is of course the chancel; the smaller one, on the south, you'd expect to be a chapel, but is actually the vestry - a surprise, as vestries are usually tucked away relatively out of sight on the  sunless north. The view from the south-east is very pleasing. (In addition to the two eastern apses the south porch has a strange low demi-apse on its west side.)

But the most arresting external feature is the unusually slender round steeple, which protrudes from the west wall of the nave. It starts as circular (or semi-circular, as its other half is notionally embedded in the nave); when it nears the height of the nave roof it becomes a truncated cone, on which sits the octagonal belfry. The whole composition is topped by a shingled spire. It's hard not to compare it to a two-stage rocket on its launch pad. It's almost elegant, but on its south is a clock under a large gable, which strikes me as gawky and an unfortunate visual distraction.

In 1953, in the Hertfordshire volume of the Buildings of England series, Pevsner called the church 'perversely ugly'.* A peculiar judgement, I think; there are surely quite a few churches of its period that are arguably more deserving of that label which escape without a Pevsnerian admonition. I'm not sure I'd have the courage to go so far as to say that the exterior of the church is actually beautiful - that clock is far too intrusive - but 'perversely ugly'? Got to disagree with you there, Sir Nik.

It's by G[eorge] E[dward] Pritchett (1824-1912); he had an architectural practice in Bishops Stortford from 1849, and also in London from 1856. He became a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British architects in 1861, and was fairly prolific (yet, unlike most Victorian architects, he has no Wikipedia entry). He did quite a bit of restoration work in Hertfordshire and also built some churches to his own designs; Therfield is the most notable example, apart from High Wych. His buildings tend to be idiosyncratic and unstereotypical; perhaps not always entirely successful but certainly never run of the mill. Pevsner's comment quoted in the previous paragraph was followed by a proviso: 'but as original in its handling of Gothic forms as anything in the Art Nouveau of forty years later.' I'm with him on this point.

The church was estimated to cost £2000 (which is equivalent to about £245,000 today, which doesn't sound much). The picture above seems to reveal that that frightful clock wasn't part of Pritchett's original plan; maybe it was imposed on him and the steeple. He also built the complementary school next door (estimated to cost £1500), which I failed to photograph (yet another task for when the lockdown is sent packing). (I don't think the projected fleche was ever built.)


The interior is impressive, particularly the roof with its numerous trusses, but rather dim (the windows are quite small and full of stained glass). The south arcade has big square capitals carved with not very attractive leaf forms, atop alarmingly spindly columns. There's some dogtooth ornamentation. The walls are all of white brick** with a band of red (corresponding to that visible outside) and alternating voussoirs of red and white in all the arches, creating many very attractive patterns.

The main attraction is without doubt the chancel, retaining all its original decoration in an unrestored state and mostly well-preserved.*** It's even dimmer than the nave and however bright it is outside you need the lights on to see the detail, so it's worth fumbling around to find the switches (it took me ages; they're behind a curtain on the south (right) side). The polychromatic brickwork (some of the bricks are shaped)  is more extensive than in the nave, and every foot of the walls and vaulted roof is covered in painted and/or stencilled decoration, abstract patterns mixing harmoniously with symbolism and texts. It's an exhilarating, almost overwhelming, sight. Was Pritchett responsible for it? I like R M Healey's comment in the Shell Guide to Hertfordshire: 'an apse aflame with the ox-blood scribblings of some manic proto Art Nouveauish decorator working c. 1861', (though 'scribblings' shows prejudice of almost Pevsnerian proportions).

As well as the decorations the chancel seems to have retained its original fixtures and fittings, presumably a delight for historians of the liturgy.

What's more, the church has a set of contemporary windows by the firm Ward and Hughes, all dating from the period 1860-71. Two of them are signed by Henry Hughes (1822-83) himself. Ward and Hughes must have been much in demand at the time; in 1855 they'd made the glass for the great east window in Lincoln cathedral, which had been widely acclaimed. The High Wych windows are colourful - the reds and blues are particularly strong - and impress en masse, but aren't really worth examining individually. The best ones are probably those in the apse (the last two of the photos above). 

Despite the slightly disappointing glass High Wych is one of the most rewarding Victorian churches in the county. Perversely ugly? Revolting and hideous (see the notes below)? Full of scribblings? Go and see for yourself.

High Wych (incidentally, the vowel is pronounced the same in both words, that is, the 'y' in 'Wych' is pronounced as in 'byte') is open 9-4 Tuesday-Friday during term time. 

* Pevsner's distaste for the church is even more evident in the introduction, where he goes out of his way to damn it: 'Pritchett's High Wych of 1861 deserves to be specially mentioned as an eminently typical example of High Victorian design at its most revolting.' Pevsner certainly didn't have a blanket dislike of all Victorian architecture; he was among those few in the mid-20th century who could appreciate its merits, and was a founding member of the Victorian society, dedicated to celebrating and conserving the buildings of that era, in 1958. It's hard now to see quite why he had such a bee in his bonnet about this particular church. I suspect that most people today would be able to see it without experiencing his visceral reaction, and even appreciate its merits. (Though the anonymous website Hertfordshire Churches - posted by 'churchaholic' - in 2011 called it 'peculiar' and 'hideous' and comments 'I had a look inside and ran away without bothering to record it'.) 

The 2019 updated edition of Pevsner, rewritten by James Bettley, correctly excises Pevsner's disparagement from the main text, but equally correctly preserves it in a footnote. 

** White bricks, like white pepper, aren't really white at all. But they're always pale, often, as here, pale yellowish.

*** Victorian painted decorations are very vulnerable to changing fashion; see Hemel Hempstead, for example, where Bodley's 1880 painted decorative scheme in the chancel was obliterated by whitewash in 1979.