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

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

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