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

Sunday 20 March 2022

Chipperfield church, Herts: raising the roof


Chipperfield church stands next to the common in this large, attractive village. It was built right at the start of Victoria's reign by Thomas Talbot Bury (1809-77) in 1837-8. Externally it is unprepossessing, with very little to make it stand out. You could say that architecturally it is outshone by the sympathetic adjacent church rooms of 2000. Bury had trained with Pugin, but you could hardly guess that from the evidence on display here.

It's worth going inside, though, for two reasons: for the roof, and for a mini-history of the fall and rise of 20th century English stained glass.

The former is a riot of rafters and scissor braces that seems to transfigure as you walk around beneath it and which reaches its climax at the crossing, a geometrical gyration. 

There are eleven stained glass windows, two of which are blocked by the organ (which must be one of the largest in a parish church in the county). The nine visible ones range in date from 1872 to 1999. Here they are, presented chronologically rather than topographically. (The points of the compass used here assume for simplicity's sake that the altar is at the east, whereas in fact it's south west.)

The west window of the north transept depicts St John the Evangelist; its maker and designer are not recorded, and it's a good example of a standard mid-Victorian small window, competent but not particularly remarkable.

This one, on the north side of the nave, dates from 1919 and is based on Holman Hunt's ubiquitous 1853 painting The Light of the World. Its maker is listed as Binder, presumably one of several firms that churned out uninspired stained glass in the first half of the century. It's not absolutely terrible, but it is entirely conventional with the heavy canopies and even heavier sentimentality.

The east window is a Noli Me Tangere scene (ie Mary Magdalene recognising Jesus after the Resurrection), by the firm James Powell and Sons. Powell's were certainly capable of making good windows; for example, there's one in Abbots Langley from 1911, and another in Weston from 1902, but by 1930, when this one was made, all the life seems to have gone out of them. The only bit I really like is the four angels in the small lights at the top, which remind me a little of Mary Watts' ceramic angels on the pulpit of Little Gaddesden. If only, say, Christopher Whall, who made several windows for nearby Sarratt, had been employed here.

Thomas Henry Grylls (1873-1953), the son of Thomas John Grylls, the co-founder of the firm Burlison and Grylls and who had trained in the studios of the often excellent firm Clayton and Bell, was the guilty man responsible for this window on the north side of the chancel in 1946. I include it merely to illustrate the parlous state of English stained glass in mid-century. 

This 1948 window on the south side of the chancel is at least a step in the right direction. The use of colour is more adventurous, the pomposity has mostly gone, the pose of the figure on the right, David, is more animated (but terribly fey), though I'm in two minds about the use of clear glass to form the background (which I think must have been done partly as a cost-cutting exercise). Some of the incidental details - the flowers on the tussocks on which the figures stand, the falcon grasping the sun in the heraldry - are very enjoyable. I'm not sure what's going on with the two busts of bewigged Augustans at the bottom. Isn't that the butchest eagle you've ever seen accompanying St John? At the top are two musician angels; one plays the organ while kneeing, which can't be very comfortable, and the other strikes his favourite Pete Townsend poses with his lute.

The window is by Francis Skeat (1909-2000), who was born in St Albans and made a great contribution to stained glass in Hertfordshire and elsewhere. 

Back to the north side of the chancel where we find another Skeat window, from 1957, depicting St Paul. (I'm relying, as usual, on Robert Eberhard's Church Stained Glass Records; I notice that this window commemorates a 1946 death, so possibly it dates from 1948 rather than 57, and the John and David window above is from 57.)

The 1966 west window is by John Hayward (1929-2007), a distinguished and prolific artist whose work is easily recognisable. It shows the Risen Christ within a mandorla; unlike in many earlier windows there's nothing sentimental about the depiction of Jesus. His eyes are downcast yet he looks full of quiet determination and confidence. He strides towards us and raises his right arm in blessing and triumph (and reminds me of a bowler celebrating with faux modesty having taken a wicket). The leading is vigorous, and the numerous small panels have texture as well as colour. At the bottom plants spring into life as if vivified by the beams of light and power that shoot from him.

On the south side of the nave is this lancet window designed by John Lawson and made by Goddard and Gibbs Studios (of which he was chief artist) in 1995. It depicts a dove, symbolising the Holy Spirit; Lawson has made a potentially static subject into something dynamic and exhilarating. On the left the principal colour is green, while on the right there's much plain white glass, though reds and blues are dotted around; the restraint of the colour makes it all the more colourful.

Next to the Holy Spirit window is another by Lawson, from 1999, a Madonna and Child. Here the colours are even more sharply divided between left and right; when I first saw it I thought a shadow from a transept or similar was falling across it. Greeny-yellows predominates on one side and dark blues on the other, possibly suggesting day and night. Mary is statuesque yet touchingly human, like a statue on the west front of Chartres Cathedral. At the top trumpets blaze a noisy fanfare (and there's a hint of organ pipes), while at the bottom a harp strums gentle (and perhaps nocturnal) music. It's glorious. 

Chipperfield church was open when I visited.

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