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

Saturday 13 March 2021

Church Visitors' Books


Barkway church visitors' book

There's one feature to be found in churches that I don't think I've ever read any commentary on: the visitors' book. I feel that any look around a church is somehow incomplete without writing my name in one. I suppose this is an expression of our atavistic desire to leave our mark, an attempt to be remembered and recognised, to escape in however small a way the iniquity of oblivion. Earlier generations may have commissioned a stained glass window, or carved their name on a pillar. Well, most of us can't afford the former and none of us (I trust) would consider the latter, so what's left is signing the visitors' book.

However, signing the book does fulfil several practical functions. Firstly, doing so presumably gives harmless pleasure to the custodians of the church. It must be gratifying to know that the church you oversee and cherish is also visited and appreciated by others. I always think that a pleasure shared is a pleasure more than doubled (because two people rather than one now enjoy something, and the first person gets a glow from introducing the second to it, plus they can both get extra pleasure from talking about it with each other). A church visitors' book is documentary evidence of shared pleasures.

My most immediate, and rather selfish, motive for signing the book is that doing so will encourage the custodians to keep the church accessible. If they can see that visitors do indeed turn up and look around, it seems likely that they'll make more of an effort to do so. If they thought that no one was interested, why would they bother (and I appreciate that it is a bother) to make their church available to visitors? When signing the book, I generally add a little note saying 'Thank you for being open'. 

Another motive I have is that it's strangely comforting to revisit a church, especially many years later, and to be able to find your name on an earlier page. It's pleasant to be reminded of our younger, perhaps more innocent lives.

The most tangible reason for signing the book is that doing so may help the church to apply for grants. Charitable bodies considering making donations are naturally going to want to know that their money is going to be well-spent; if a church can prove, by means of a bulging visitors' book, that it attracts a healthy stream of feet on tiles and bums on pews, probably it will have an advantage over one with no such proof. 

The visitors' books are often interesting documents in themselves, worth having a flick through. All human life is there: childish scribbles, recollections of baptisms, marriages and funerals, names from (often) all around the world. Sometimes famous names can be found; I once came across John Betjeman's signature in a visitors' book (though sadly I forget where). People leave comments ranging from the banal to the erudite to the humanly touching; altogether they are an essential and valuable part of the building's history.

So when you've finished your indagation around the church, donate some money (not forgetting to fill in a gift-aid form) and be sure to sign the visitors' book.

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Albury church, Herts: unusual late Decorated window tracery

Albury, near Bishop's Stortford (not to be confused with Aldbury, near Tring on the other side of the county), stretches itself along a ridge above the River Ash; there's a beautiful view to the east across the valley from the churchyard. 

The 13th century origins of the church are seen in the chancel's lancet windows; notably, alongside the three full-size ones is a 'low side window'. The purpose of such windows is disputed, but in all likelihood they were simply intended to provide ventilation in the incense-choked chancel, being originally provided with an openable grille.*

The nave and aisles date from the mid 14th century, while the tower and south porch were built about a century later. There's a holy water stoup by the south door.

The three south aisle windows have what Bettley/Pevsner calls 'very unusual, rather ugly, heavily flowing tracery'. (The westernmost two have been entirely renewed, but the easternmost one is largely original.) It's true that this is not the graceful design that is so typical of the Decorated style, but I'd be very reluctant to call it 'ugly'. The top and bottom have mirror-image triangular quatrefoils, while left and right are mouchettes; in the middle there's a concave rectangle. All this is contained within a segmental two-centred arch with a radius so big that the sides are virtually straight. Bettley/Pevsner is right to call it 'unusual', but I think it's at least a partial success. It reminds me of a soaring bird, with swept-back wings. (The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments suggests c.1360 as a date.)

The east and west windows of the north aisle have clearly been renewed, but they too have somewhat unusual tracery. That they are faithful reproductions of the original 14th century design is confirmed by the existence of another identical, unrestored window preserved inside the church. (The four-centred north windows look early 16th century.)

The quatrefoil piers, typical of their date, have (not very characterful) label stops on the north, but on the south they're just little cubes of stone. For some unknown reason the masons never got around to carving them; maybe the money ran out.

At the east end of the south aisle there's a window that once communicated with the outside but is now enclosed by the vestry and organ chamber. We've already seen thoroughly restored versions of this design outside, in the north aisle, but this appears to be entirely original. Atop the three main lights sit two trefoiled inverted teardrops, with two daggers above and outside them. The shape at the apex is hard to classify. Essentially it's a sexafoil; the lobes at the bottom, top left and top right are standard, while the other three are elaborated by being subdivided into three smaller parts. The central parts at the bottom left and bottom right are sharply pointed rather than curved. As in the south windows, it's fascinating to see the masons experimenting.

In the north aisle there's a much damaged tomb-chest, probably commemorating Sir Walter Lee (d.1395) and his wife Margaret. He was a soldier and an MP for Hertfordshire for most of the period 1377-90, and again for Essex in the earlier 1390s. In 1375 he had been arrested, but released on bail, on a charge of disturbing the peace, but this doesn't seem to have affected his career. In 1377 he was leading an inquiry into the over-fishing of Essex rivers (a humble enough appointment, but it's interesting that environmental concerns exercised our predecessors more than seven hundred years ago). In 1381 he was a knight of the body to Richard II, and as such closely involved in attempts to suppress, or at least control, the Great Revolt (the 'Peasants' Revolt') of 1381. In fact it seems that he succeeded only in inflaming the situation.**

The restored 15th century screen has many circular holes cut into it. These are usually explained as being elevation squints, intended to allow the faithful kneeling at the screen to witness the Elevation of the Host during mass. (There's a photo of someone doing just that here.) I'm not absolutely convinced: the holes are very small and you really would have to squint to see much, plus why arrange them in groups of three or four - they're so close together that only one hole in one group could possibly be used at a time.

The not very exciting glass in the east window is by Gerald Moira (1867-1959), from 1909. It's his only window in the county. The west window is by Christopher Webb, but it's in his blandly pious style and of little interest.

What a magnificent iron-bound chest this is, with four clasps for padlocks plus a keyhole. Date unknown, but presumably medieval. No one was going to get into that in a hurry.

Fortunately, the same is not true of the church, which in my experience is generally open.

* If you look up 'low side window' in Stephen Friar's A Companion to the English Parish Church you will find that the entry says simply 'See chancel ventilator'. Some sources claim that they also functioned as a means of allowing those working outside the church to hear a sacring bell rung at key moments in the service. The idea that they were 'leper windows', intended to allow those suffering from leprosy to see into the chancel, was popular in the 19th century but has been widely debunked (which doesn't mean that you won't find it in some church guide books). This theory assumes that there were enough lepers around for it to be necessary for special arrangements needed to be made for them in parish churches, and that they preferred to look through windows at about waist- or even knee-height, rather than eye-height.


Friday 5 March 2021

Little Gaddesden church, Herts: Bridgewater monuments


Little Gaddesden church stands by itself some way from the exceptionally pretty village, down a dead end road, past the school, playing fields, bungalows and agricultural estates with bored-looking horses. 

Little Gaddesden before Wyatville's additions

At first sight it seems to be a typical 15th century Perpendicular building (given a touch of grandeur by being embattled), but this is only true up to a point. The oldest parts of the church, including the tower, are indeed 15th century, but most of what we see as we approach is early Gothic Revival, the handsomely vaulted south chancel chapel dating from 1819, the south aisle and porch from 1830. Somewhat surprisingly, they turn out to be the most interesting parts. (The most interesting part of all, the south chancel chapel, is currently locked.)

They're by Sir Jeffry Wyatville (1766-1840), the nephew of James Wyatt (1746-1813), whose first building was Gaddesden Place in Great Gaddesden (1768-74). (James began the nearby vast Ashridge House in 1808, and after his death the project was completed by his son Benjamin Wyatt (1775-1855) and Sir Jeffrey. The project was commissioned by John Egerton, 7th Earl of Bridgewater, who will make another appearance later on.)

The north arcade is, like the other 'original' elements, 15th century, while that on the south is a late 19th century copy (it replaced a single timber arch by Wyatville: I'd like to have seen that). On the whole, however, the architecture is overshadowed by the contents. The nave contains an embarrassment of monuments; below is a selection.

Elizabeth Dutton (d.1611); a standard Jacobean design; the kneeling woman is rather inelegant, but the figure of Father Time is, apart from the hipster beard and bald (except for a little kiss curl) head, unusually youthfully vigorous.

Dr Henry Stanley (d.1671); a large urn on a pedestal; it's been attributed to John Bushnell (d.1701), who was apprenticed to Thomas Burman (1618-74). The married Burman got their servant-maid pregnant and blamed it on Bushnell. When Burman sent his apprentice down to the country to supervise the erection of a monument, Bushnell fled overseas, taking £15 (worth something close to £3000 today) of his master's money with him. He spent twenty-two years in Italy, France and Flanders, but was finally persuaded to return, where he was treated kindly by Charles II but not by Burman, who sued him for breaking his apprenticeship and stealing the £15 (I don't know the result of this case). 

Jane, Countess of Bridgewater (wife of the 3rd Earl) d.1716; attributed to William Woodman Senior (c.1564-1731(?)). It's a bit top-heavy, with all the statuary confined to the top; the inscriptions, on a fictive curtain and tablets, take up most of the space. (Note also the stylish hanging wrought iron which presumably once housed an oil lamp.)

Frances, Countess of Bridgewater (d.1635), John, 1st Earl of Bridgewater (d.1649), and Elizabeth, wife of the 2nd Earl (d.1663); a ponderous monument; the layer of black marble near the top which completely separates the cornice from everything below seems to me particularly ill-judged, and the two pudgy putti clutching their hankies are astonishingly badly carved. It's been attributed to none other than Thomas Burman, the same Thomas Burman who stitched up John Bushnell. So it's a real pleasure, three and a half centuries later, to put the boot in and even up the scores.

Martha Eddowes (d.1678); typical of its date but accomplished; it's been attributed to William Stanton (to whom the remarkable Saunders monument in Flamstead is also attributed).

The best monuments are in Wyatville's south chancel (Bridgewater) chapel. I was sad to discover on my most recent visit that this has been turned into a vestry or office; the arch between the aisle and chapel, once open space, has been boarded up without even an attempt to make it look like anything other than the back of an Ikea wardrobe. The best vista in the church (see the photos above) has been blocked, and access to the monuments denied. A glimpse can be had through a window from the chancel, but this is very small recompense. There are large new parish rooms on the north side of the church, which presumably could have housed a vestry.

The photos below are from an earlier visit.

Thomas Stanley (d.1658); attributed to Thomas Cartwright 1 (c.1617-1702). Note that the Latin poem rhymes (classical Roman poetry doesn't), and the naive perspective of the funeral urn.

John, 3rd Earl of Bridgewater (d.1700); attributed to William Woodman Senior (c.1654-?1731). There are two putti drying their eyes at the top; the one on the left has lost his left leg, but nevertheless is pointing at something and from the angle my photo was taken it looks as if he's drawing attention to something he finds hilarious and is crying with laughter.

Elizabeth, Viscountess Brackley (d.1669); attributed to Jasper Latham (d.1693). The chief attraction of this is the deliciously curly 'handwriting' on marble fictive drapery. Note for example the multiple swirls at the top of the capital E in 'Earle' in the second line, and that several of the capital O's are so elaborate that you virtually get two letters for the price of one. The putto head at the bottom looks even more gormless than they often do.

Henry Stanley (d.1670, aged 14); also attributed to John Bushnell; his rather cheerful-looking putti are much better than those of his rival Burman.

Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (d.1803). (Bettley/Pevsner omits this monument, presumably because it's quite plain.) His chief importance in the wider world is that he constructed the Bridgewater Canal in Lancashire (opened 1761), the first major engineering project of the Canal Age, a vital element of the Industrial Revolution. This enabled coal to be transported more cheaply and efficiently; he used some of the vast profits to build a house at Ashridge, but later decided to build a brand new one, the preparations for which were temporarily halted by his death.

Francis Henry Egerton, 8th (and last) Earl of Bridgewater (d.1829); by Sir Richard Westmacott (1775-1856). It depicts a pensive seated woman in generic classical dress, leaning on the head of an elephant (it's either unusually small or she's unusually big). Behind her are a stork-like bird and a tree bearing fruit; at her feet swims a fish or dolphin that owes more to Renaissance depictions of dolphins than anything actually found in water. Thus plant life and animals of the the earth, air and seas are included. She holds a book entitled 'WORKS OF THE CREATION'. The 8th Earl was an ordained priest (though he employed curates to do his parochial work for him) and a theologian who argued that the natural world was proof of God's existence. 

He was also a noted eccentric (see here, for example). He spent the last decades of his life living in Paris rather than Ashridge, the Egerton family home, where he kept a number of dogs who were treated as nearly as possible as if they were people. When they went for walks the first part of the journey was by luxurious carriages, with the dogs sitting on cushions, and, when they reached the park and allowed out, if it was raining servants would follow them around with umbrellas. They were fed while dressed in leather boots, and with linen napkins around their necks, seated at a table. He also, less eccentrically, left a highly important collection of historical manuscripts to the British Museum.

Which brings us to his cousin John Egerton, 7th Earl of Bridgewater (1753-1823), who took over where the 3rd Duke left off and built Ashridge House, and was a soldier and politician, but otherwise was perhaps less notable than some of his relations. He outdid them, however, in the beauty of his memorial. I think it's one of the best pieces of sculpture in the county.

Like that to his successor the 8th Earl, it's by Westmacott. But whereas the later monument is clumsy to the point of being somewhat comical, this one is graceful and deeply affecting. It's an altarpiece in the form of a Michelangelesque tondo. It focuses on a couple and their child, and was originally exhibited under the title 'Afflicted Peasants', but there are obvious parallels with the Holy Family. The mother tenderly snuggles her sleeping child while his hand grasps her nipple. Her bare right foot, its sole exposed, appears very touchingly vulnerable. Her husband, who wears a working-man's smock, regards his son earnestly, his handsome Grecian profile shown to best advantage. Behind them is an older man, maybe the father of one of the couple, holding a staff or perhaps a tool such as a hoe. 

The younger man rests his hand upon the tools of his trade, a spade and a scythe, together with harvested ears of corn. They almost 'break the frame' by spilling out of the sculpture towards the viewer, inviting us to imaginatively step into the scene. At the bottom right is a dog, I think the only weak point in the composition.

The mood is serious and intense, but not noticeably sombre. Despite the original title, the peasants don't look particularly afflicted: they don't seem deprived, and the wheat even gives an impression of abundance. (Perhaps the detail of the child tugging at his mother's breast is intended to imply that he is hungry but unable to suckle as she is malnourished.) Nevertheless, the hardships experienced by the rural poor at the time was a serious problem, and the 3rd Duke, according to the inscription, had been very concerned with the welfare of his tenants and had done much to try to improve their lot. I don't know how successful he was, however. In September 1829 (six years after the Duke's death) William Cobbett was touring the Tring area (about seven miles away) and wrote in his Rural Rides that 'the farmers feel all the pinchings of distress, and the still harsher pinchings of anxiety for the future; and the labouring people are suffering in a degree not to be described.'*

There are two windows in Renaissance style, both by Burlison and Grylls. The east window from 1879 depicts the Risen Christ.

In the south aisle there's another, from 1873, with Christ the Consoler at the top and a mourning scene below. 

There are two windows by Kempe from 1895, which aren't as bad as his often are. Some interesting details are to be found, including David with the head of Goliath and the martyrdom by stoning of St Stephen.

One of my favourite objects in the church is the pulpit. It's unclear who designed or made the wooden structure (with the symbols of the four Evangelists at the bottom), but what makes it stand out are the coloured angels, three per side, which are actually ceramic, not wood. They're by Mary Watts (1849-1938), the wife of the painter G F Watts and a significant craftswoman in her own right. (She was the designer of the extraordinary Watts Memorial Chapel in Compton, Surrey.) The Art Nouveau-ish angels are just on the right side of twee.

The chancel is sumptuously decorated; the outstanding features are the two hanging light-fittings (presumably originally for gas or oil lamps). They must be, like the pulpit, late 19th century. The little gilded wings are a delight, like much of the rest of the church; it's just a shame that the Bridgewater chapel has been closed off.

The chapel's closure notwithstanding, Little Gaddesden church has always been open whenever I've visited and has felt very welcoming (on two occasions I've been there midweek and found the heating on full blast even though it wasn't all that cold). The view to the north west across the Gade valley is worth seeking out too.

* The paragraph  is worth quoting in full: 'As far as I had an opportunity of ascertaining the facts, the farmers feel all the pinchings of distress, and the still harsher pinchings of anxiety for the future; and the labouring people are suffering in a degree not to be described. The shutting of the male paupers up in pounds is common through Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Left at large during the day, they roam about and maraud. What are the farmers to do with them? God knows how long the peace is to be kept, if this state of things be not put a stop to. The natural course of things is, that an attempt to impound the paupers in cold weather will produce resistance in some place; that those of one parish will be joined by those of another; that a formidable band will soon be assembled; then will ensue the rummaging of pantries and cellars; that this will spread from parish to parish; and that, finally, mobs of immense magnitude will set the law at open defiance. Jails are next to useless in such a case: their want of room must leave the greater part of the offenders at large; the agonizing distress of the farmers will make them comparatively indifferent with regard to these violences; and, at last, general confusion will come. This is by no means an unlikely progress, or an unlikely result. It therefore becomes those who have much at stake, to join heartily in their applications to Government, for a timely remedy for these astounding evils.'

I assume the garden shed outside the chancel is temporary