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

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Bishop's Stortford church, Herts: marvellous misericords, cracking corbels


On the not particularly common occasions that I go to Bishop's Stortford I'm irrationally surprised to find it a pleasant market town. My prejudice against it - quickly dispelled but also quick to reassert itself once I've left - is I think a consequence of the implacable Jackson Square Shopping Centre and its associated multi-storey car parks, which is the most prominent building seen in the town centre when approaching from the north or west. Its being more or less opposite the motte of Waytemore Castle somehow rubs salt in the wound. This was built by the Normans to impose their authority on the area, and no doubt was deeply resented by the locals at the time; now it's picturesque and treasured (though its gate has always been locked when I've wanted to climb it). The shopping centre was (I imagine) built with the tacit consent of many of the citizens, and dominates its part of the town as grimly as the castle once did; it serves a different though perhaps equally demanding master. It's hard to believe that anyone will ever think it picturesque, however.

Towns are often named after the rivers that run through them - after all, the river was there first. However, although the river that runs through Stortford is indeed the Stort, here it's the other way round - the river was named after the town.* The river was originally called the Stour (there are half a dozen other English watercourses with this name), but in Elizabethan times mapmakers assumed that Stortford must mean 'the place where the Stort is forded', and renamed the river; it seems that everyone has since followed suit. (In fact, 'stort' comes from the Old English 'steort', meaning a narrow strip of land jutting into water.) The 'Bishop's' prefix derives from the town being the property of the Bishop of London in the Middle Ages.**



Fortunately, Jackson Square does have some competition in its attempt to dominate the townscape in the form of the church steeple, visible from many points as it's built on an eminence. Unfortunately, the steeple is a bit feeble. The lower stages are 15th century (like most of the rest of the church), while the upper date from 1812-19. Normally I enjoy Gothick***; it's often charming, and sometimes exhilarating. But the bands of decoration look fussy, the recessed spire is too small, and the brick (which was originally cement-rendered) is unattractive. 




Most of the church was built in the early 15th century.**** The Statutory Listing refers to the 'rich perpendicular tracery' of the windows. I have to say that I'm downright incredulous about this.
How can anyone call the tracery 'rich'? Most of it is dull panel tracery comprising mullions and supermullions (short sections of vertical stonework at the top of the window) and almost nothing else. If it's 'rich', I'm a billionaire.





Viewed from a distance the church is imposing enough, though the details fail to impress. Fortunately, things look up when we enter the north porch. The spandrels of the doorway have fascinating low-relief carvings: on the right, an angel holding a trumpet, presumably with which to blow the Last Trump, and a censer, and, on the left, a woman being glared at by an eye cushioned in billowing clouds and emitting rays of light, presumably the eye of God. The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments is probably correct in saying that together the spandrels depict a Doom (the Last Judgement). It's notable that the person being judged seems to be a woman, while most of the carvings in the church are of men, perhaps implying that women should be even more wary of the Judgement than men.


The 12th century font is the only visible remnant of the presumed earlier church. 




Perpendicular masons may have been pretty useless when it came to window tracery, but they could certainly do a nice arcade. There are six high, handsome bays in the nave. The interior is large, airy, and predominantly white and brown. There are three more bays in the chancel; the eastern one dates from c.1660, but was remodelled in 1884-5 by Arthur (Sir Arthur from 1889) Blomfield. He was also responsible for the clerestory and the vaulted canopy to the chancel screen.









Apart from the canopy the screen is, like most of the church, 15th century; its Perpendicular panel tracery could at a stretch be described as 'rich'. Rather unusually, the decoration on the east-facing side is elaborate, with rosettes at the top and foliage in the spandrels. Perhaps this was originally west-facing (that is, visible to the congregation in the nave) but Blomfield turned it around and added his canopy to the relatively plain side. 

Perhaps the highlight of the church is its set of eighteen 15th century misericords in the chancel stalls. There are a few other misericords in Hertfordshire (in Anstey and Stevenage), but this is the closest the county gets to a major collection. Misericords were originally made to enable the clergy at greater churches (such as cathedrals and abbeys) to take some of the weight off their legs as they stood through hours of daily services (medieval priests and monks rarely knelt to pray). Bishop's Stortford was only ever a parish church, and therefore there was no need for misericords; no one knows why the church has a set. It's said that they came from Old St Paul's Cathedral in London at the Reformation, which is plausible enough but is really no more than a rumour.

Misericords are difficult to photograph adequately; they're generally badly lit and awkward to see, requiring much crouching and twisting, and even more awkward to find room to train a camera on. This is my way of saying that my photos are mostly dreadful. As you'll notice, some of my pictures haven't succeeded in including the supporters (the smaller carvings flanking the misericord itself), but that doesn't matter too much in Bishop's Stortford as they're nearly all relatively uninteresting foliage. I shall go back sometime to try again. (There's another set of photos here, from the excellent (but apparently anonymous) website www.misericords.co.uk.)

Lion's head

?Woman's head and shoulders, with a strange hat like an upturned pie dish


Two views of a webfooted wyvern (not strictly a dragon as it has two rather than four legs)


Two views of the head of a woman wearing a headdress or veil


Two views of a splendidly bearded man, wearing a hat or hood


Two views of another man with a fine beard; this one wears a turban and is seen in three-quarter profile

Head and shoulders of a clean-shaven man with a hat with a rolled brim; the hat itself droops to his left

?Woman's head, possibly wearing a wimple. Peculiarly, unlike any of the other carvings diminutive arms appear either side from the top of the head, which are perhaps holding a strange U-shaped cylinder around the neck. Several of the other carvings have shapes a bit like this obviously intended to represent shoulders, but here it doesn't look at all like shoulders

Demi-figure of an angel holding a shield

Demi-figure of an angel holding a  scroll. The supporters are angel heads (the only one to have non-foliage supporters). The carving around the bottom of the three figures is probably meant to indicate clouds


Two views of a bird with a scroll, possibly the eagle of St John



Three views of another mythical beast, most closely resembling a serra. Based on the sailfish or sawfish, a serra was a gigantic fish with huge fins which it used as sails in (usually abandoned) attempts to catch ships. (In Christian iconography the ship represented the Righteous Christians, and the serra lazy folk who fail to live up to their faith. See here.) Bishop Stortford's example has a sawtooth fin running along its back which looks nasty enough but wouldn't be of much use in catching the wind. The lines beneath presumably indicate water. (In English Misericords Marshall Laird suggests the possibility that the leaf supporters have been deliberately carved to look like skates to contribute to the nautical theme, but they're so similar to other supporters that I don't think this theory has any merit.)


Two views of a bird, probably a swan, sitting on water and with semi-unfurled wings


Two views of the head and shoulders of a man with a partial beard but no moustache, and wearing a turban


Two views of the head and shoulders of a man with flowing locks and an enviable moustache


Two views of the head and shoulders of a man with a curly beard and moustache, and a cylindrical hat which gets wider towards the top. It resembles a kamilavka hat won by Orthodox Christian monks, and other styles of Eastern European and Middle Eastern hat


Two views of head and shoulders of a clean-shaven man with abundant hair and the suspicion of an enigmatic smile


Two views of an owl with outstretched wings and an apparently lopsided beak. Without doubt the cutest of the carvings







As well as the misericords the stalls have several other little carvings




The eat window dates from 1885 and depicts scenes from the life of Christ. It's by W G Taylor (1822-97) of London, who took over Michael O'Connor's firm in about 1880. As in many windows of this period the fussy details don't repay much study, but the overall effect, with its carefully rationed use of brighter colours, is effective.








The east window of the north aisle is by Christopher Webb (1886-1966), and dates from 1929; it shows scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. I've said some disparaging things about Webb's work in the past, though I've also praised him (see here and here, for example). I quite like this window. One of the failings of Webb's windows is that he often uses backgrounds of clear glass, which seriously reduce the intensity of the colours, but here he uses much bright blue, which combines beautifully with the yellows and reds, plus the exuberant scrolls and vines, to create a celebratory atmosphere. 

One easily overlooked detail is at the bottom right, the kneeling figure of Percy Johnson, who died in 1925 and to whom the window is dedicated. (In a medieval or Renaissance window, a figure like this would be that of the donor, that is, the person who'd paid for it, advertising their piety and public-spiritedness.) His face is presented with photographic realism, and indeed was probably applied to the glass using a photographic technique; there was quite a fashion for this method at the time. Johnson is a walrus moustached, very dapper gentleman of the period. I like his shoes.

The church has an unusually elaborate set of corbels and label stops. (A corbel supports something structural, such as a roof beam; a label stop is the decorative termination of a moulding over an arch.) The nave corbels are the most standard and therefore the least interesting; they show the twelve Apostles and two angels. The other corbels, and all the label stops, are much more interesting. Many of them aren't just heads but half-length genre figures, brandishing various tools and objects (some of them easy to identify, some more puzzling). Together they comprise a wonderful gallery of 15th century life. Among them are also some grotesques and monsters. Most of them are carved with more attention to detail than was often allotted to such out of the way statuary; we can only guess why the masons lavished so much attention on them, but are glad that they did so. Their work would make a visit to the church worth while even if there was nothing else worth seeing.


























The church has been open whenever I've visited.



* This seems to be a Hertfordshire speciality. The River Gade is named after Great and Little Gaddesden, and arguably the River Hiz is named after Hitchin.

** One oddity concerning the town's name is its apostrophe. This isn't odd in itself - it's of course correct according to the currently accepted conventions - but what is odd is that it's an exception. According to Professor Wikipedia there are only three other settlements in Hertfordshire luxuriating in the possession of an apostrophe - King's Walden, St Paul's Walden, and Warner's End. (I bet they think they're so special, don't they?) Kings Langley, St Ippolyts and Piccotts End languish apostropheless. There's no good reason for this, simply common usage. But it goes to demonstrate that possessive apostrophes are a waste of time and ink.

*** 'Gothick' (with a 'k') is a style of architecture that began in the mid 18th century (Strawberry Hill, a house of 1749-76 in Twickenham, London, is often thought of as beginning the trend, though many earlier examples exist) and was gradually supplanted by the Gothic Revival in the first half of the 19th century. Gothick buildings typically feature genuine Gothic motifs but get them subtly (or not so subtly) 'wrong', by using them in ways medieval masons wouldn't have done. For example, they're used in inauthentic proportions or scale or places, or are combined with features from other styles that weren't used in the Middle Ages. 

**** Bishop's Stortford's aisle windows have segmental depressed arches (that is, instead of the vertical sides of the window smoothly curving and merging into the arch at the top, there being a sharp break between the vertical and the arch, which is 'depressed' or almost horizontal).  I associate segmental arches with the late 15th and into the 16th centuries. Bettley and Pevsner  (in The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire) draw attention to some known building dates in this later period. Are Bishop Stortford's really early 15th century, rather than late? And as an aside, what are the earliest securely dated segmental depressed arches?


















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