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

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.

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