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

Wednesday 15 September 2021

Buntingford church, Herts: Gothic Survival and an important brass


The village of Layston declined for centuries during the later Middle Ages and was probably practically deserted by the 16th century, though the church remained in use; the population had shifted to nearby Buntingford, on Ermine Street. In 1604 the Rev Alexander Strange (1570-1650) was appointed as vicar of Layston but naturally he, along with most of his congregation, lived in Buntingford. There was probably a chapel there in the Middle Ages, but nevertheless the principal services would have been held in Layston.* 

After a decade of fording the River Rib to reach the church, which can't have been fun, especially in winter, in 1614 Strange decided to build a new church in Buntingford itself. It's likely that his other motivation was that the fashion of the day was for services focused on the sermon, and the old church in Layston was deemed to be unsuitable for this purpose. (The old chapel in Buntingford was probably both unsuitable and decrepit.)

The inscription on the outside wall of the (ritual) north transept (actually east - I'll explain in a moment) reads 'DOMUS ORATIONIS', 'house of prayer',** together with the date 1615, by which time building work would have been reasonably far advanced. It was licensed for public worship in 1620, when it was simply a brick square, very suitable for preaching as all the congregation could be near the minister. The two shallow transepts were added in the following decade, and the semicircular apse later still. The chapel of ease (as it was until it finally became the official parish church as late as 1952) cost £418 13s 8d, (about £123,000*** today, which doesn't sound much). 

Churches (and chapels) are traditionally oriented with the 'altar end' at the east (indeed, this is the derivation of 'orientate' and its cognates). It seems that initially Buntingford chapel was arranged so that worshippers faced (roughly) east. However, at some point, probably quite early on, this was changed to the south, the arrangement that still exists today. Why this happened is not altogether clear; it may have been some sort of statement by Strange, breaking away from what was seen as an objectionable Papist tradition. Or it may have been a purely practical matter; for example, since entry was from the market place to the north it was thought better to have the altar opposite the entrance rather than off to one side. (I'm going to use the ritual orientation, assuming that the entrance is at the west and the altar at the east, rather than the real compass points.)

I'm less interested in the history of the religious background to the chapel than I am in what it tells us about the history of taste and style. In particular, what makes Buntingford church stand out for me is that it is a Gothic Survival building. I've written about this before (see here), so I won't labour the point, but briefly: Gothic is the name we give to the dominant style of European medieval architecture. In England, from the 16th century on classical styles of architecture became dominant until a Gothic Revival started in the mid 18th century. However, Gothic persisted throughout the period when it was 'supposed' to have died out. I find these architectural living fossils fascinating. Nearly every county has a few examples; Herts has two, Buntingford and Oxhey chapel (as well as several additions to pre-existing medieval buildings, such as the Halsey chapel at Great Gaddesden).

The external details of the building, and in particular the windows, are in a simplified form of Gothic, in that they have pointed arches under pointed hoodmoulds, albeit flattened points in the style of c.1500. (Some of the windows are from the restoration of 1899-1900.) Whoever designed the chapel (maybe they were following Strange's brief) thought it natural to adopt Gothic rather than classical styles, which isn't surprising as the first classical church in England, Inigo Jones' St Paul's in Covent Garden, London, wasn't built until 1631-3. Gothic remained the default style for church building until at least the mid 17th century. Buntingford church is said to be the earliest one to be built entirely of brick in the country.

We can get a good idea of what the chapel looked like before restoration from this naive watercolour of c.1790. Gothic is seen not only in the pointed windows (and door) but in the pinnacles (though these ones look as if they are classically-influenced, an interesting mixture of styles).

Most interesting is the five-light window on the north wall of the north transept, which rather than having all the lights the same height steps them, with the central one the tallest and the outer ones diminishing in size, an arrangement that hadn't been seen in England since the 13th century when stepped lancets were used, especially over the altar at the east end of chancels. (Is it just a coincidence that Buntingford's original altar was originally set against this window? Probably.)

13th cen stepped lancets at the east end of Stanton Harcourt, Oxon

The Victorian restoration was responsible for the porch on the west and the vestry (now a kitchen) on the south. The apse was also heightened at this time.

The bricks are laid in English bond, ie layers of headers alternating with layers of stretchers

As is usual in Gothic Survival buildings, while the builders and clients were happy to use traditional styles on the outside, they wanted the latest design features inside. (Oxhey chapel is a good example of this.) Apart from the windows, which are obviously visible from inside, the only internal features that could really be called stylistic are the wooden columns supporting the beam across the south transept (which now supports the organ pipes). These have Ionic capitals; however, clearly whoever positioned them was not familiar with them as the volutes are oriented at right angles to the beam, rather than in line with it as is the almost universal practice. This evidence of the workmen's incomprehension of the new-fangled style is charming. 

It has to be said that the interior of the church, though a valuable and cherished facility for the community, is a disappointment to the visitor more interested in the history and aesthetics of the building. Apart from the misaligned volutes there are only a few things worth going to see.

The west window has some handsome heraldic stained glass donated in 1622 by William and Mary Reynolds, the children of Lewes Reynolds, the vicar of Layston 1572-88. There was more armorial glass in the chapel but for reasons that escape me it was removed in the Victorian restoration.

But the one overwhelming reason for gaining access to the interior is the brass now displayed on the south wall of the chancel. It's very difficult to photograph (but I'm quite pleased with how mine have come out).

It dates from 1620 (when the chapel was licensed) and shows Strange preaching. The architectural setting is classical; even the three-light window which somewhat resembles some of the chapel's actual windows are round-headed instead of pointed. The large opening through which the scene is revealed looks rather like a Roman triumphal arch. This adds another layer to the palimpsest of taste: the chapel is what we might call minimally Gothic on the outside, but inside has some minimally classical features, while it is depicted on the brass as if it's a grand classical building.

Strange stands in his pulpit and gestures passionately, what might be an hour glass to time the sermon behind him. One congregant kneels before him, hands clasped in prayer; two or three stand, leaning against the box pews and there are perhaps many more standing behind them (it's hard to be sure); a dozen or so, presumably the wealthier and higher status worshippers, sit in the box pews near the pulpit where they have ringside seats and are most visible to the bulk of the congregation who sit in banked seating (rather like that in Sandwick in Orkney that I wrote about recently). Notice also that Strange is at least twice as big as any other figure (another throwback to medieval art when the size of people in pictures was often determined by their importance rather than their distance from the picture plane).

This is, surely, an idealised portrayal (it's most unlikely that there was ever banked seating in the chapel, for example). I hesitate to say that this brass is unique; there may be another one of similar date showing the interior of a church with a service in progress, but I can't find any reference to it. The closest thing I'm aware of is one in Wells Cathedral to Humphrey Willis, d.1618, showing him kneeling in a landscape with angels in the clouds above; but it's not really like Buntingford's brass at all. The brass showing Strange preaching is an important piece of social history, and deserves to be a lot better known.

Buntingford church is usually locked, but I've been inside several times over the years because it's happened to be open for some purpose as I've been passing, and I've always been very warmly welcomed. 

* Layston church fell into disuse in the 20th century and became derelict, except for the chancel which was used a cemetery chapel. However, it (except the chancel) has recently been made into a family home.

** The booklet St Peter's Church: 400 years by the Rev Ian Hill (2015) translates it as 'house of preaching' or 'lectures', but this seems dubious.

East end and apse

South transept

Western anteroom

Mechanism of the original early 17th cen clock 
North transept

West window

Seth Ward's Hospital (ie almshouse) next to the church, probably by the important scientist Robert Hooke, 1684

Sunday 12 September 2021

Great Gaddesden church, Herts: Halsey monuments and puddingstone

Great Gaddesden, a few miles north of Hemel Hempstead, is a village in the beechy Chiltern Hills and the valley of the languorous, watercressy River Gade. 

The church is approached from the east, so your first view is likely to be of, from left to right, the 15th century south porch, the south aisle of c.1230 (but the east window of c.1500), the early 12th century chancel (but the east window is 19th century in the style of the early 14th), and, most intriguingly of all, the Halsey chapel on the north. This is of brick, with blue glazed headers making a pleasing chequerwork pattern. It's usually dated 1730, but Bettley/Pevsner suggests 1715-19. Whatever the exact date, it's notable that the east window (which seems to be original, rather than a Victorian replacement) is in the style of c.1300, and thus an example of what's usually called the Gothic Survival (but is probably more accurately called early Gothic Revival).

On entering* the first things that strikes you are the lively (but recut) 13th century stiffleaf capitals of the south arcade, and perhaps the large shield-bearing angel corbels, handsome if twee, dating from 1912 and supporting the 15th century roof.

The stained glass also draws attention.

The east window of the south chapel is by William Wailes (1808-81), dating from 1863. His work, and particularly his colours, is often sneeringly dismissed as looking like boiled sweets, but, as I've said before (and will no doubt say again) what's supposed to be so bad about looking like boiled sweets? I like his unashamedly bright colours (especially the reds and blues) and his stately, rather stereotyped figures. This particular window depicts Faith, Hope and Charity. Rejoice in those gorgeous floral extravaganzas at the top of each light.

The easternmost north window of the north aisle, from 1870, is by the relatively obscure firm Holland of Warwick. It shows three scenes from the life of Dorcas (from Acts chapter 9), and unwisely adopts the painterly style of c.1530. But again the canopies at the top, and panels at the bottom, are lovely to behold.

The east window, by the firm Burlison and Grylls from 1869, shows scenes from the life of John the Baptist.

Another window in the north aisle is this one depicting St Francis. It's by Louis Davis (1860-1941), his only window in the county. (Most of his best work is to be found in Scotland, although he lived most of his adult life in Pinner, Middlesex.) Davis was an Arts and Crafts artist who had earlier in his career worked closely with Christopher Whall (the Whalls had named their eldest child after him). This window commemorates a death in 1917 and so was presumably made a year or so later; in the same year he and his wife Edith had been nearly asphyxiated by a faulty anthracite heating stove in their home; Edith made a full recovery (and lived until the 1970s), but Louis suffered stroke-like symptoms, and his mobility, speech and creative powers were seriously affected. 

I'm afraid I don't know how this window fits into the story; maybe it was a design he had already made before the accident, or maybe he relied on assistants. The central figure of Francis is presumably meant to look holy but in fact he just seems glum and gormless, and his tonsure has left him with a ridiculous little Tintin tuft of hair above his forehead. But there's plenty to enjoy in the surrounding details. There are mountains in the background but otherwise the setting could almost be the Chilterns. A church (perhaps intended to represent the one in Assisi) is under construction, and there are numerous gathered birds (of several different species, probably identifiable) and other animals. They are hard to resist (or at least I find them hard to resist, but maybe my taste is irredeemably naff). I particularly like the stylised clouds and hayricks.

There are also some fragments of (probably late medieval) glass in the lights of another window, including this heraldry, crossed keys surmounted by a crown, within a wreath.

But it's the sculpture in the church that most sticks in the mind. 

In the chancel is this monument to Sir John Halsey, who died in 1670. It's attributed to John Bushnell (c.1630-1701), part of whose story I related when writing about the monuments in Little Gaddesden. It's an unusual design, highly baroque; essentially it's a mantlepiece-like shelf supporting a seemingly precariously balanced bust of Sir John (who twists his head to one side). There are flanking urns. The shelf is supported by two putti heads and a large cartouche (which is in turn supported by a smaller cartouche), full of strange, swirling almost hallucinogenic shapes that always seem to be on the verge of morphing grotesquely into something else. At the top there's a more or less recognisably human head, but the heraldic shield below is grasped by two maggoty monsters and, at the very bottom a moustachioed face has, where you'd expect to find eyes, another, bigger nose. It's almost tempting to see in this Bushnell's personal eccentricity, which sadly ended in insanity.**

In the Shell Guide: Hertfordshire R M Healey, who can usually be relied upon to have catholic tastes and find value in work of all periods, describes the monument as 'Probably the ugliest in Herts, a waste of marble.' On the other hand Pevsner calls it an 'exceptionally good Italian-looking monument with finely designed cartouche and, on top, a Berniniesque bust'. 

On the other side of the chancel, facing this baroque extravagance, is a Gothic memorial from 1854, commemorating the tragic story of Thomas Plumer Halsey, his wife Frederica and their second son Ethelbert, who were drowned when the steamship Ercolano sank in the Mediterranean. Apparently their first son, Frederick, had been due to go with them but had been made to stay at home as a punishment for being caught smoking at school.

On the chancel floor are well-preserved brasses to William (d.1506) and Alice Croke, both expensively dressed in fur-trimmed clothes. She has a girdle with a prominent buckle, and a some sort of ball or pommel that hangs down almost to her feet, which must have made walking a dangerous enterprise.

At last it's time to approach the north chapel, which we earlier noted as being potentially interesting. Originally it was a separate room entered through a door, but now there is an arcade of 1876-9 between it and the chancel, which creates exciting vistas. 

The Halseys have been Patrons of the Living (and effectively Lords of the Manor, though that may not be their official title) since 1544. The early 18th century brick Gothic building is their mortuary chapel. It is chockfull of their monuments, nearly all of which are worth a look. The photographs below go clockwise from the south west corner.

There are four very similar monuments to members of the family erected as a set in c.1740 (only 70 years after the Bushnell monument in the chancel, yet what a difference) to a commission by Henshaw Halsey. They all comprise a bust within tied back curtains within Corinthian pilasters supporting a broken pediment. This one is to Ann, his mother, d.1719. The busts have been attributed to Michael Rysbrack (1694-1770), who Margaret Whinney calls 'beyond question the leading sculptor between 1720 and 1740', who '[set] a standard which his rivals failed to reach during these years.'*** However, the architectural settings are not by him; presumably they were entrusted to less accomplished (and cheaper) journeymen.

Agatha Halsey, d.1782, by John Flaxman (1755-1826).

Henshaw Halsey himself, d.1738.  I think he looks dashing with his wigless, closely-cropped hair and casually undone undershirt and tunic.

Frederick Halsey, d.1762, attributed to William Tyler (worked from c.1760-d.1801).

Thomas Halsey and his infant son, also Thomas, both d.1788, by John Francis Moore, who arrived in England from Hanover in about 1760 and died in 1809. Unlike many sculptors of the day, he often used coloured marbles, as can be seen here. In the oval relief an angel holds the child and comforts the 'difconfolate Widow' (as the inscription says). 

Thomas Halsey, d.1715, Henshaw's father.

William Halsey, d.1637, and his wife Leticea, d.1649, attributed to Thomas Burman (1618-74), who, as I related in my post on Little Gaddesden, treated his apprentice John Bushnell (who made the baroque monument in the chancel) scandalously badly. Like his work in Little Gaddesden, this monument seems awkward and graceless.

Jane Halsey, d.1725, Henshaw's first wife.  She was evidently a match for her dashing husband, with her hair louchely draped over one shoulder, and her clothing giving a teasing semi-glimpse of one of her breasts.

Charles Halsey, d.1748, attributed to William Tyler. The bust is notably characterless, with its empty expression, compared to those of Rysbrack.

The newest Halsey monument is a funerary hatchment under the tower, from as recently as 1990, reviving a custom that virtually fell into disuse in the early 20th century. 

Great Gaddesden is a good place for spotting spotted Hertfordshire puddingstone, a 'silica-cemented conglomerate composed of flint pebbles and cobbles with [a] matrix of fine sand and silica cement' (Wikipedia). Alec Clifton-Taylor (in the chapter on geology in Bettley/Pevsner) calls it 'a kind of natural concrete' and remarks that 'although [it is] much tougher than the ginger-coloured puddingstone of Essex, it is a material which nobody would think of using for building unless there was nothing better; but in Hertfordshire this was sometimes the case.' As indeed it was in Great Gaddesden; lumps of it can be seen at the base of several buttresses, for example, and the ungainly chunk pictured above is lying around in the churchyard.

I often find it hard to think of how to end these little essays, but what better way to finish than with pudding?

Great Gaddesden church has always been open whenever I've visited. 

* The church website states 'As you enter from the porch you step down into the church; this is often a feature of churches dedicated to St John the Baptist, as Jesus Christ stepped down into the River Jordan to be baptised.' I regard this statement with some scepticism. The same highly dubious claim is made on behalf of Widford church.


* The otherwise quite useful church website states that "As you enter from the porch you step down into the church; this is often a feature of churches dedicated to St John the Baptist, as Jesus stepped down into the River Jordan to be baptised." This is another romantic story, along with weeping chancels, Devil's doors and cross-legged Crusaders, for which there is absolutely no contemporary evidence and that has been thoroughly debunked and yet lingers in the popular imagination. It's true that some, probably many, churches dedicated to John the Baptist have steps leading down into them. But it's also true that many churches with other dedications have the same feature, because the ground tends to rise over the centuries. To imagine there's any symbolic meaning behind this is mere wishful thinking. Widford is another Herts church making this claim. Hinxworth church has no fewer than five steps down into the nave. It's dedicated to St Nicholas.

** There's another somewhat similar grotesque head of about the same date in the county in the 1687 Goulston monument in Wyddial.

*** Margaret Whinney, Sculpture in Britain 1530-1830, Harmondsworth, 1988.