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

Friday 29 October 2021

Willian church, Herts - a matter of Life and Death

Willian, more so than the two other villages among which Letchworth Garden City has been built (Norton and Letchworth), retains its own individual identity; this, I think, is partly because of its relatively prominent church. Norton's church is down a cul de sac, while Letchworth's is small and hidden away, but Willian's, despite being behind a pub, has a proud, unmistakeable Perpendicular tower, easily visible to anyone passing.* 

The flint church as it stands now looks entirely Perpendicular, say c. 1430, but a round-headed doorway in the south wall of the chancel reveals its Norman origins (like that of Norton and Letchworth); most of the external details were throughly restored in 1870.

The west doorway seems to be largely original; the shield on the left has the Instruments of the Passion, while that on the right is heraldic.

The east window dates from when the chancel was reordered, 1823, that is, before the fully-fledged Gothic Revival had got under way. (Both the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments and the Victoria County History state that the window is genuine 15th century work; I prefer to rely on James Bettley's judgement in his revision of Pevsner's Buildings of England volume, and the evidence of my eyes.)


Looking west from chancel

Looking east from south door

The interior of the nave is cavernous - the high, dark roof dates from the 1870 restoration - and plain. Most of the interest is found in the chancel.

In the chancel there's blank arcading on the lower walls, from 1823. It's made of Roman cement, not carved from stone as it would very probably have been had it been medieval, but it is pretty, and surprisingly accurate for its date,  a good imitation of work of the earlier 14th century.

There are some appealing monuments. My favourite is this one, to Thomas (d.1656) and Lucy Wilson, presumably made during the Protectorate. The two busts are almost hyper-realist, so life-like is the painting (how closely the painting matches the original I don't know). She is dressed in mourning (presumably the monument was made in her lifetime), and seems to have an enormous star on her chest, like some kind of extravagant medal. 

Edward (d.1625) and Joan (d.1624) Lacon, who both lived to a good age (80 and 79 respectively). Only three children are depicted; the younger daughter is tucked away like an afterthought behind her big sister.

John (d.1624) and Anne Chapman. He was the vicar of Willian. Nearby, on the southern fringe of Letchworth Garden City, there's a road called Chaomans. I've heard it claimed that this was originally intended to be Chapmans, perhaps after this vicar (or maybe after George Chapman, the 16th/17th playwright, poet and translator who was born in nearby Hitchin), but a misspelling crept in and has stuck. (On the other hand, Chaomans is a 'real' name, so possibly it wasn't a  mistake at all.)

Matthew Thorley (d.1634), also the vicar.

The church's most charming artefact by far is this 15th century carving of an elephant and castle, from St Andrew's in Biggleswade, Beds. It first came to Willian in the 1820s and was incorporated into a chair in 1974. I'm trying to think of other Hertfordshire churches with representations of elephants; maybe there are others, but all I have so far are the corbels at Watton-at-Stone.

To see the church's most striking objects, however, it's necessary to step back outside and look up to the top of the tower. There are four large grotesques** and four smaller carvings. They are all closely modelled on the 15th century originals, but these were found to be so decayed as to be unsafe and were replaced with copies in 1996. (The originals are in the care of the Letchworth Heritage Foundation, though as far as I know they're not on public view.) 

The copies were made by masons from the Cambridge firm Rattee & Kent, founded in 1848 and well-known for its conservation work on historic buildings. Just before the masons moved to work on Willian's figures they'd been carving saints to go on the facade of Westminster Abbey. 

This bearded figure represents a Saint; the book he holds is presumably a Bible.

This is Life; his expression is said by the church history (by Peter Harkness) to be 'cheerful', but to me it looks more like a fixed grimace. Perhaps I'm looking at him from an unfortunate angle. He has a bag slung over his shoulder.

Neither of the first two figures are truly grotesque, but the last two more than make up for this. This is the Devil (the antithesis to the Saint on whom he turns his back), with scaly skin, long claw-like fingernails, pointed ears and staring eyes. He seems to be clinging creepily on to the tower top, as if he's poised to leap or slink down at any moment.

Lastly, this splendid skeleton represents, of course, Death, the antithesis to Life, peering, hollow-eyed, inexorably down at us, a reminder that our lives can have only one end.

Which seems a suitable, if grim, way to end this. Willian, like Letchworth and Norton, is usually locked and hard to get into. 

* Willian and Letchworth churches are only half a mile apart. Except for Great and Little Hormead (c. 0.3 miles apart) these seem to be the two churches of medieval foundation closest to each other in the county. Caldecote and Newnham are fractionally further apart (c. 0.6 miles). 

** They're sometimes called gargoyles, which strictly speaking is incorrect as gargoyles are grotesquely carved waterspouts - indeed, the word 'gargoyle' derives from words meaning 'throat' and 'gargle'. However, language is democratic and words come to mean what the majority of people who use them mean by them, and maybe 'gargoyle' now means any grotesque carving whether or not it spits water.

Nave roof

17th century heraldic glass, east window

Chancel roof

War memorial

Sunday 24 October 2021

Pampisford church, Cambs: a narrative Norman tympanum


Returning to Cambridge from a crowded Saffron Walden yesterday (most places we tried for lunch we couldn't even get through the door, and the two places we did manage to enter were so busy that after some minutes of waiting we realised that there was little chance of being served, gave up and left), we stopped at two randomly chosen churches. Firstly Hadstock, Essex, (which was open) with substantial remains of a Saxon nave and transepts, and then Pampisford, Cambs, (which was locked, as I understand it generally is). 

The main external attraction of the latter is the south door, and in particular its tympanum. This is round-headed, and contains ten smaller round-headed arches, so it's obviously Norman, and, like many Norman tympana, it's mysterious as its subject matter isn't entirely easy to ascertain. In 1888 G F Browne contributed an article to the Cambridge Antiquarian Society (from which the above diagram is taken) in which he attempted to identify the scenes, and, as the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland puts it, 'In the absence of anything better, or indeed anything else at all, Browne's interpretation must be accepted.' 

Browne suggests that the the scenes have to be read from right to left, not left to right as might be expected; why this should be I can't explain. The story that emerges is that of John the Baptist (to whom the church is dedicated). 

The first scene, on the far right, shows an upright cylindrical object, tapering in the middle like a talking drum, which is interpreted as being an altar on which Zechariah, John's father, burnt incense in the temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah's wife Elizabeth was beyond childbearing age so John's birth was deemed miraculous. 

The second shows Zechariah gracefully bowing before the angel Gabriel, who appears in the third scene, arms raised in blessing.

Scene four depicts the daughter of Herodias, the wife of the Tetrarch Herod Antipas (extra-Biblical sources name the daughter as Salome) dancing to entertain her stepfather and his guests. She certainly seems to be giving it her best shot, her long hair apparently swinging free and with abandon.

The fifth panel shows Herod and his guests watching the dance. The guests are very hard to make out. Browne's drawing makes it look as if Herod is looking out of the picture at us, the viewers, but to me it seems as if he's staring to our right, straight at Salome. He is certainly stretching his arm out in her direction, though whether he's pointing at her or showing his attraction to her by wanting to touch her is unclear. 

Herod wants to reward her, and says she can have anything she wants. She consults her mother, who tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist, who is shown in the central, sixth scene. The next depicts the executioner's block.

Scene eight shows John's severed head (completely out of scale with the other pictures). The penultimate scene is a servant with arms extended as if carrying something, but we don't see what; presumably it is the platter with the head. Why the sculptor omitted this crucial detail I don't know. 

The last panel shows the head once more, smaller than in scene eight but a little bigger than the heads in the other scenes. Curiously, it is now no longer vertical but tipped almost over onto its side and is floating like a helium-filled party balloon near the top of the arch. Presumably this is intended to represent Resurrection.

All the carving is very crude; it looks as if it was made by someone with only the most basic artistic skills. Even the two depictions of the head, where you might think the sculptor would have had a bit of room to add some detail, make do with two more or less round holes for the eyes and a simple slit for the mouth, with just a faint suggestion of a nose. Of course it's possible that some detail has been lost in the centuries since it was carved.

How old is it? The CRSBI makes no attempt at all to date it. Pevsner merely notes that it's 'like the decoration on some 12th century fonts.' The Statutory Listing concurs. The Victoria County History refines this to mid 12th century. Browne tries to make a case for its being soon after 1204, when the alleged head of the Baptist was brought from Constantinople to Amiens, on the grounds that at the time the manor of Pampisford was held by Peter of Dreux, which isn't far from Amiens. This is ingenious and almost plausible, but given the primitive nature of the carving hard to accept. I'd be happier with an early 12th century date (which Browne himself admits is a possibility).

Another puzzle is why only the top outside edge of the tympanum is carved; why is the bulk of it left blank? Surely artistically it needs big central feature; John baptising Jesus, for example. Maybe this would have been too expensive, or beyond the mason's expertise.

The capitals on either side of the door are equally primitive, and presumably of the same date. The one on the left is very like those at Reed, Herts, a very simple volute scroll, while that on the right has a stylised plant.

Altogether the carving is in a reasonable state of preservation, surprisingly so as it seems to have been exposed to the elements until 1855 when P C Hardwick restored the nave and built a porch, which shelters the tympanum. This is a delight, confident with much Gothic wooden tracery and an assertive steeply-pitched roof. 

Opposite the porch is another curiosity: a memorial comprising a flat stone square, now agreeably mossy, on an openwork iron plinth, like an Art Nouveau bird table. There may be an inscription, but it's hard to read under the vegetation.

Pampisford is worth a visit, locked or not.