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

Sunday 1 November 2020

Kimpton church, Herts

From the outside Kimpton seems to be a typical Herts Perp'n'flint job. It's nicely positioned on a hillside leading down to a dry valley*; its castellated two-storeyed porch and tower give an air of grandeur-on-a-budget (though there's something comical about the fact that the flagpole on the tower is about the same height as the spike (spirelet)). 

Externally the only hint that it's not all 15th century (though restored) is the chancel east window (the right one of the two large windows in the photo above). Even though the stonework has been renewed, and so might not reflect the original design, the tracery looks as if it dates from the transition between the uncusped lancets of the 13th century Early English style and the complexities of the Decorated (say c.1300). 

Push open the door and walk into the light and welcoming interior, however, and you realise that the church is in fact another kettle of fish altogether. The nave comprises six bays - one of the longest in the county by this measure - and, like the chancel window, was built when one style was merging into another, resulting in a third style, sharing some characteristics of both, called (with a certain lack of imagination) Transitional. In ecclesiology the capitalised term 'Transitional' is reserved for the late 12th/early 13th century when the Norman style was changing and becoming the first native form of Gothic, now known as Early English. 

Scalloped capital, Hemel Hempstead, Herts, last quarter 12th cen

Here is a late Norman capital, from the fine nave of Hemel Hempstead. The main motif is the scallop, 'dangling' semicircles, a common feature found in churches built at this time. 

Scalloped capital, Kimpton, Herts, early 13th century

Eight of the twelve capitals in Kimpton also feature scallops. However, they all have little variations on the theme. The one above has Y-shaped grooves running down from the scallops. Here are the other seven:

This one also has Y-shaped grooves.

The grooves here are V-shaped.

No carved grooves here, but the cones are more distinct than on the other capitals.

More Y-shaped grooves, though they terminate in half-moon shapes, a bit like a wine glass.

Similar to the previous one, but less deeply etched and there's no 'stem'.

More V-shaped grooves, but some of them have slightly different terminations.

V-shaped grooves again. All but one of these capitals take the Norman model and elaborate on it slightly. The other six capitals are much more interesting, because although they must have been carved at the same time as the others (the early 13th century) they're very different.

These six have stiff-leaf carvings, the style that was to dominate right through the 13th century. Stiff-leaf can vary from very stylised (as in the last photo above) to fairly naturalistic (as in most of the others). Some of them are in low relief while others are more deeply carved; some are very vertical in their design, others use diagonals and overhanging curves. It's fascinating to see an early appearance of this motif in the county, and what's more I think that it is very appealing: I like art that walks the tightrope between formalism and realism. The trefoiled foliage looks almost, but not quite, like a real plant, semi-abstract while also being reminiscent of things growing in our gardens and hedgerows. As the century progressed stiff-leaf carvings tended to become more and more naturalistic, developing into 'windblown' stiff-leaf, which in turn in the following century became the Decorated style in which real species of flowers can be identified.

The internal east wall of the chancel (on the left in the photo above) reveals that there were once, in the 13th century, Early English lancet windows, the remains of which are visible. They must have been replaced by the present east window c.1300 (though the stonework has been replaced since). In the 15th century (probably towards the end) the south chapel was constructed, with a proud three bay arcade. The piers are very different from the Transitional ones in the nave: much slimmer and with a more complex profile (though the capitals are simpler).

There are two screens dating from the major rebuild in the 15th century, though neither of them are likely to be in their original position, and both were repaired in 1860-1, when most of the church was restored. The screen now between the south aisle and chapel retains its highly attractive canopy.

The 20th and 21st centuries have been kind to the church (except for the ceilings in nave and chancel, which I assume are recent; they have the atmosphere of an office building).

This window, by A K Nicholson, from 1931, depicting St Peter, Christ as the Good Shepherd and St Paul isn't particularly remarkable, but I like the quatrefoil with Paul's shipwreck on Malta.

In the porch is this charming window designed by Petri Anderson. (It's typical, I'm afraid, that the otherwise informative sign by the window makes no mention of the artist.)

I don't know exactly when the glass screens were installed at the west end of the (mostly Victorian) north aisle, but it must have been quite recently. There's always going to have to be some compromises made when adapting churches for 21st century use, and partitioning part of the church is never ideal; however, I think the screen with its stylised fishes - reflecting the stylised foliage of the adjacent piers - works well.

By Dorothee Fichtmuller, 1993

Kimpton church has always been open when I've visited.

* Though in 2001, and occasionally in previous years, the River Kym (or Kyme) has reappeared in the valley after heavy rainfall, causing half a million pounds worth of damage. See here.

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