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

Monday 18 May 2020

Hertingfordbury church, Herts

Hertingfordbury church is essentially a late Victorian building - nothing wrong with that, of course - with its roots in a medieval building, but what makes it particularly worth a visit is that it's a repository of English funerary sculpture from 1622 to 1957.

The oldest part is the east window, a 13th century Early English stepped triplet of lancets, complete with nook-shafts and hoodmoulds - a very pretty ensemble. The piscina is in the same style, and is said to preserve some medieval features. The tower probably retains some 15th century work. The church was first restored in 1845 by Daniel Hollingsworth.

The nearby Panshanger estate had been the home of the Cowper family since the 18th century; they worshipped in Hertingfordbury. In the late 19th century Francis Cowper, 7th Earl Cowper, decided to completely rebuild the church and to create a family chapel. This was accomplished in 1888-91 by the estate workmen under the supervision of the clerk of works, Charles Godfrey. (It was probably among the last family chapels to be built.)

The Cowper chapel has a rather good quadripartite vault, (can it have been designed and built without the assistance of a professional architect?), enlivened by bands of darker-coloured stone. The elaborate wrought-iron gates, displaying the Cowper arms, are very enjoyable too; they certainly can't be accused of underselling the family's status.

At the same time the church's fittings were renewed. The benches were carved by Joseph Mayr, who acted the part of Christ in the Oberammergau Passion Play. They're all more or less identical with scrolls and so on and to my eye weren't worth going all the way to Bavaria for. The lectern and canopied sedilia (unusually positioned on the north of the chancel) are made of alabaster so soapy that it looks if you rubbed them with wet hands they'd froth up a thick lather in no time.

When writing about a number of related objects in a church it's sometimes hard to know in which order to deal with them. Topographically or chronologically are the two most obvious choices; thematically would be another one; I've sometimes written in an aesthetic crescendo, that is, from the least good to the best. I think in writing about Hertingfordbury's monuments I shall use reverse chronology (which will have the result of concluding with the best). 

The most recent notable monument dates from 1957 (and commemorates the death in 1952 of Ethel, Lady Desborough). It was designed by Laurence Whistler, who is best known for his engraved glass windows. It's a nicely decorative piece. I like the way Whistler has almost completely avoided using any straight horizontal lines - I especially like the two double-ogee wavy lines framing the heraldry at the top - and completely avoided straight vertical lines, not an easy feat in what's essentially a rectangle.

The centrepiece of the Cowper chapel is a monument to the 7th and last earl himself who died in 1905.  His head lolls to one side, and he wears his minutely-detailed chain of office. I can't help feeling that the whole thing is pompous, and full of ersatz piety. But if it were three hundred years older I'd probably admire it. 

It's by Henry Poole (1873-1928); and dates from 1909. Poole was one of the go-to architectural sculptors working in Imperial Edwardian style, but his masterpiece must be his work in the Black Friar pub in London (at the northern end of Blackfriars Bridge), where he  lets his hair down and indulges very happily in Art Nouveau. (See here, for example).

This dignified portrait tondo of Henry Frederick Cowper (d. 1887) is rather good.

Whatever reservations I might have about the seventh earl's tomb, at least it's better than that of his father, George, 6th Earl Cowper (d. 1856).

This one, to Henrietta Cowper who died aged 15 in 1853, is genuinely touching, far more so than any number of distraught cherubs.

Apart from the monument to the seventh earl, the chapel's most prominent feature is that to George, 6th Earl Cowper (d. 1764). It was made in 1770 and is attributed to Francis Harwood (who mostly worked in Florence copying or imitating Greek and Roman busts). It tries very hard to impress, but can't be said to succeed. James Bettley (in his revision of Pevsner) says that the 'standing life-size winged figure of Virtue, dull in her face and classical in her draperies, points with one hand to a Gloria and with the other to the earl's portrait on an oval medallion supported by a weeping cherub.' It's memorial-by-numbers, a mere concoction of conventions. Nothing convinces (except perhaps the portrait itself), especially the sternly school-mistressy Virtue and the deeply unappealing putti at the top who seem to be swimming in a sea of cream squirted from an aerosol.

Very much better is the monument to Spencer Cowper, who died in 1727 (though it wasn't made until about 25 years later when his widow died). It's by Louis-Francois Roubiliac (1702-62), the French rococo sculptor who spent most of his working life in England. Cowper is shown leaning forward in profound thought, his right hand supporting his chin, his long hair (presumably a wig) falling luxuriantly, while the figures of Prudence and Justice back him up. The blindfolded latter is especially finely realised, her clinging draperies beautifully carved, her pose dance-like.

This Cowper, despite later becoming a judge, was accused of murder in 1699, when he was 29 years old and merely a lawyer, in a sensational case that still arouses gossip and concern today (see here and here, for example). He, along with three accomplices, was said to have murdered a woman named Sarah Stout; they were eventually acquitted after arguing that she had become infatuated with the married Cowper and drowned herself. However, it was far from being an open-and-shut case, and from my admittedly superficial reading it seems that the judgement could easily have gone the other way. As well as sex, money and politics were allegedly involved. The case is also notable as one of the first in English law to hinge on forensic evidence. Just the sort of thing a period drama could relishably anatomise.

Under the tower are two good early 17th century monuments. (They were originally in the chancel, but presumably the Cowpers, suspecting that their own monuments would be outclassed, didn't want the competition and ejected them.) 

This one commemorates Sir William Harington (d. 1627) and his wife Anne. It's essentially conventional but done with such conviction that it works. (I know, I know. A moment ago I was implying that conventions are bad, and now here I am saying that they can also be good. So sue me.) The twin recumbent effigies are in their shrouds and so are certainly dead (unlike the recumbent effigy of the 7th Earl Cowper, who might simply be asleep); at their feet kneels their only daughter. The high relief carvings above them, around the inscription, are delicate.

Harington stood in the general election of 1626, having previously tried and failed to get elected several times before. Cunningly, this time he hedged his bets and stood in two constituencies (see here), Portsmouth and Hertford. This time he succeeded, winning both seats, but had to chose one or the other. He opted for the latter, but fell ill and died. He was only in his late 30s.

The statutory listing and Pevsner attribute the monument to Epiphanius Evesham (1570-after 1633), who was, according to Margaret Whinney, 'the first English-born sculptor of any personality.'* James Bettley, on the other hand, with the aid of modern scholarship attributes it to Maximilian Colt (d. after 1641), who was appointed Master Sculptor to the Crown in 1608, but in fact did little work for the royal family after that date. His masterpiece is the Salisbury monument of 1612 in Hatfield, Herts.

The final monument commemorates Anne, Lady Calvert (d.1622). She was the wife of George Calvert, who was the Secretary to Robert Cecil of Hatfield House, the Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer (in effect the closest thing there was to Prime Minister) under both Elizabeth and James I. It's by Nicholas Stone, 'certainly the leading mason-sculptor in the first half of the seventeenth century.'** Her effigy lies beneath something like a mantelpiece on which sit luscious garlands of flowers and fruit.

To finish, here is a fascinating detour into social and legal history. The first Burying in Woollen Act was passed in 1666, decreeing that all corpses, except those of plague victims and the destitute, had to be buried in a woollen shroud. This was to protect the English wool trade from cheaper foreign imports. The church displays two certificates proving that the Act had been obeyed in Hertingfordbury, both dating from 1770; according to Professor Wikipedia, although the law wasn't repealed until 1814 it was widely ignored after this date. It's good to know that the citizens of Hertfordshire continued to be law-abiding until almost the last moment.

Hertingfordbury church has been open when I've visited. Also worth seeing are some monuments in the churchyard that I've not yet photographed.

* Sculpture in Britain, 1530-1830, Penguin, 2nd edition 1988, p.56. 
** Whinney again, p.80.


  1. The monument you can't read is for Henrietta Emily Mary Cowper.

  2. Thanks very much! I didn't take a note at the time, and my photo wasn't quite clear enough to read the first name. I shall amend my text.