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

Tuesday 28 June 2022

Throcking church, Herts: a restoration to celebrate the Restoration


Throcking church (which sounds like the beginning of an exceptionally bad dad joke: 'Do you like Throcking church?' 'I don't know, I've never throcked one') stands in a tiny village, an oasis of pasture and gardens in a prairie of arable fields, a couple of miles west of Buntingford. There's been a settlement here since at least the Domesday Book, but it's hard to believe that it's ever been more than a few scattered farmsteads and that anyone ever thought that building a church there was a reasonable thing to do. Nevertheless, that's exactly what happened in the 13th century, which is when the lower stages of the tower date from (the lancet window on its south is the evidence for this). And let's give thanks that centuries ago some people were determined against all the odds to build, maintain and improve their local church.

The rest of the church is 15th century; there's no structural division between nave and chancel (apparently there was originally a separate chancel, of unknown date, since demolished at another unknown date). The porch was a slightly later addition, while the vestry and organ chamber were added by Gordon M Hills in his 1880 restoration.*

Much the most striking feature of the exterior, however, is the upper stage of the tower. In 1660 it wasn't only the English monarchy that made a comeback; Throcking church tower must have been in a very bad way if the whole top half of it needed to be swept away and rebuilt as new. And it wasn't rebuilt in flint to echo the rest of the church, but in rich red Restoration brick, proudly displaying the date in an ornate panel; look at those cute little comma-like volutes on each side. 

The stair turret on the south west corner and the prominent elaborate moulded string courses have the effect of making the whole thing seem quirkily top-heavy, as if the builders couldn't quite contain their exuberance. (There were pinnacles originally too.) Most showy of all is the ogee moulded corbel supporting the polygonal turret. The work on the tower was paid for by Sir Thomas Soame (1584-1671)**, whose memorial is within the church. He was a Royalist politician and an MP 1640-48; he was once briefly imprisoned for refusing to divulge the names of some of his fellow aldermen of London who had financially backed the king. He lived in Throcking, probably quietly during the Commonwealth so as not to draw attention to himself, and financed the rebuilding of the tower presumably as a means of celebrating the return of the monarchy.

The single-celled interior is small, tall and light-filled (there's clear glass in the nave). 

My favourite object in the church is the 15th century font. This has Perpendicular tracery, with a transom, on each face of the stem, while the bowl has eight different designs, either of tracery or stylised flowers within quatrefoils. One flower has a face with a gaping mouth and, apparently, a protruding tongue, like a somewhat louche version of Little Weed from The Flowerpot Men

This monument is by John Michael Rysbrack (1694-1770), one of the most important sculptors working in England during the 18th century. It is classically restrained except for the rococo cartouche at the bottom, which either clashes with the sobriety of the rest or provides an acerbic and refreshing contrast, according to taste. It commemorates Robert Elwes, who died in 1752; he'd made his fortune silversmithing.

I admit that I prefer Elwes's ledger stone, in a lovely mottled marble and with a splendid coat of arms, and which pompously announces that he and his wife are 'deposited in the Vault by Law appropriated for their Interment, exclusive of all others.' So there.

Across the nave is a monument to his daughter-in-law, Hester Elwes (d.1770). It's by Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823), who like Rysbrack was of Flemish ancestry, and who took over the role of arguably the best English sculptor after the latter's death. It is Neo-Grecian, almost a decade before Ayot St Lawrence church brought the style to the country. A woman in classical dress sits by a funeral urn, reading a book. Presumably it's intended to be an improving work of theology, but I like to think that in fact she's smuggled in and is gripped by the latest blockbuster novel.

The 1880 east window is by the firm Clayton and Bell; it doesn't show them at their best, I'm afraid. It depicts Christ as the Good Shepherd, taking the metaphor very literally, and is sententious and sentimental. In one scene Christ defends his flock from a ravening wolf, and in another rescues a sheep from a thorny bush. I've always thought that the Good Shepherd doesn't stand up as a metaphor anyway; do shepherds tend to their flocks altruistically? No. They do so because they (or someone else) wants to eat, milk or fleece them. Clayton and Bell's stylised foliage and flowers are very attractive, though, if that's any comfort.

In the chancel are two benches, each with two poppyheads, each of which is (as usual) carved on both sides, making of course eight separate carvings. Seven of these are the usual stylised foliage, but easy to miss is one (on the north, facing east) depicting three acrobats and a bird (a ?goose). At the top is an inverted pot-bellied figure with longish straight hair who is balancing on the head of another figure. This central figure has equally longish curly hair and raises his left arm in a triumphant gesture, and in his right holds the left leg of another figure, on the left, who is balancing by steadying his right leg on the right thigh of the kingpin. This last figure has lost his face (or never had one). Mysteriously, on the right a large bird turns its head round to watch the acrobats' antics. All is vigorously and spiritedly carved.

The Statutory Listing dates it to the 17th century (the benches themselves are clearly Victorian). It seems to me that it could just as well be late medieval. (The other authorities don't mention it.) Is all this just a whim of the carver, or does it mean something? In the Middle Ages acrobats were sometimes used as symbols of unnatural behaviour and therefore sin. And what on earth has the goose got to do with anything? Geese are sometimes associated with the Holy Spirit (a sort of tougher version of the more usual dove), so maybe the message is "God is watching when you sin." But probably more likely it's just a charming jeu d'esprit.

The chancel is a good example of that of a simple rural church of the 1880s. The choir stalls reveal that even a place as sparsely populated as this expected (or hoped) to have a dozen singers. Sadly, I expect that the total congregation at the monthly services nowadays rarely exceeds that figure. Perhaps it doesn't get many visitors either, being off the main roads and without any major 'attractions', but it will reward anyone with any sensibility.

Throcking church is locked, but the names and phone numbers of two keyholders and the address of one are listed on the south door. The person I approached was very helpful.

* Hills was appointed the Diocesan Surveyor for London and Rochester in 1871, and was also responsible for restoring another Herts church in a tiny settlement, Buckland. Apparently he had an ambition to write a paper on acoustic vases, like the ones once discovered in Barley church.

** His ledger stone says that he died on January 1st 1670; however, England was still using the Julian calendar at the time and the New Year was deemed to start on March 25th, so he died in what we (who use the Gregorian calendar) would call 1671. See here, and for an apparent 
chronological paradox here.


View west

Monday 27 June 2022

Watton-at-Stone church, Herts: an embarrassment of battlements

Icknield Indagations: 150,000 page views as of June 2022. 173 posts in a little less than seven years.

The name Watton-at-Stone probably means 'place by the stone where woad is grown', (the 'stone' possibly referring to Stone Street, a Roman road). The church, which isn't predominantly made of stone (it's mostly flint, like the majority of churches in the county), is perhaps the closest thing Hertfordshire has to a grand Perpendicular structure in the manner of Suffolk or Norfolk. It is embattled almost throughout, and has no fewer than three stair turrets poking up above the parapets (one providing access to the roof of the tower, the others to the now vanished rood loft and/or the other roofs), creating exciting vistas of converging and diverging angles. In the later Middle Ages it was fashionable for churches to display their grandeur by having crenellations silhouetted against the sky (this is probably partly why so many nave and chancel roofs were lowered in pitch at this period), and any visitor will certainly get their fill of battlements here.

It's highly likely that there was a church here before the 15th century, when the present one was built, but there isn't a single identifiable feature from that earlier church extant. This is unusual, as it's generally possible to find remnants and fossils of previous buildings embedded in medieval churches, and identifying them to trace the building's history is one of the things that makes their study so absorbing. 

The north chapel dates from the mid 16th century.* Joseph Clarke (1819/20-81)** subjected the whole church to a thorough restoration in 1851; he was responsible for the design of the enjoyably showy ogee-headed door on the south of the chancel and many other features.

Inside, the arcades are tall and stately with elaborate mouldings. 

The ribbed tunnel vault of the north chapel dates either from the early 17th century (the Statutory Listing), or Clarke's 1851 restoration (Bettley/Pevsner). Its white ribs against the light blue plaster are a pretty sight. The corbels (which must be decorative rather than functional, and thus not really corbels at all) depict, of all things, and most delightfully, elephants' heads (with rather human ears), the crest of the Smith family who bought the manor and house of Woodhall (in Watton) in 1801. (The only other church I know with similar corbels is Wickham, Berks, where they depict the entire front half of elephants, not just the heads, and are made of papier mache.)

In the south aisle is this monument to Philip Boteler (d.1712) and his wife Elizabeth (d.1740). They both lean on a pedestal which looks too tall and top-heavy to remain upright if one of them removes their elbow. He is dressed in contemporary costume while she wears that of a Roman and looks a bit glum or perhaps just bored. Maybe the monument was made after her husband's death, and before hers. They're both seen frontally and kneeling (though nothing else about their demeanour suggests they're praying), but as their legs are notionally subsumed by the wall behind them it looks as if their legs have been amputated below the knee. 

There are plenty of other monuments, most of them in the north chapel, which was locked on the day of my visit (it doubles as the vestry); fortunately a reasonably good view can be had through the screen. The best is perhaps the one illustrated immediately above, to Sir Thomas Rumbold (d.1791), by John Bacon Senior (1740-99). 

On the south side of the chancel are two colourful windows dating from the time of the church's restoration in 1851; unfortunately their maker is unknown. Each has four tiers of roundels, three of which are geometrical-floral, and one pictorial. The latter show: the Prodigal Son leaving his father; the Prodigal Son as a swineherd (it's not often that you see pigs in stained glass); the Prodigal Son is welcomed home; the Adoration of the Magi; the Flight into Egypt; Jesus disputing with the Doctors. Each little scene is compactly composed.

For me the most striking object in the church is the east window, which also dates from 1851. It depicts three New Testament scenes: the Nativity, the Deposition from the Cross, and Noli Me Tangere. Originally it had a companion piece depicting three Old Testament scenes: Moses and the Brazen Serpent, Passover and Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac. However, for somewhat obscure reasons this was ejected from Watton in 1861 and found a home in Datchworth.

In Martin Harrison's Victorian Stained Glass (1980) he confidently attributes the Watton window to Charles Clutterbuck. (The Datchworth window is clearly by the same hand.) However, in the decades since then he has changed his mind and now assigns it to the English artist William Jay Bolton (1816-81), who made what was probably the first figural stained glass produced in the United States, completed in 1843 when he was living there from 1836 to about 1845. In the latter year he returned to England and set up a stained glass workshop in Cambridge, which is where the Watton and Datchworth windows were presumably made. In 1848 he began to study for the priesthood at Gonville and Caius College in that city (an older than usual undergraduate at 32); he married in 1849, but tragically his wife died only a month after the birth of their daughter the next year. He seems to have given up stained glass round about this time (how this chronology fits with the production of the Watton window in 1851 is unclear; perhaps it was made before the restoration of the church). He was ordained a deacon in 1853 and as a priest in 1854. He remarried in 1855 and he and his wife went on to have five children. Bolton spent the rest of his life as a curate and then a vicar; he wrote books of Christian apologetics but as far as is known never returned to visual art. His entire career in stained glass lasted less than a decade; it's remarkable that he produced work of such quality in such a short time.

Bolton's very painterly style is quite unlike most Victorian glass (as well as that of most medieval glass). This window is like an oil on canvas painting transferred to glass, which is usually something to be avoided, yet it works beautifully here. 

Watton-at-Stone church was locked for many years, but thankfully recently the policy has changed and now it is generally open. Entrance is via the north porch.

* According to Bettley/Pevsner. Other sources, including the Statutory Listing, assign it to the later 15th century, while some (surely erroneously) date it to 1851. I'm inclined to agree with Bettley/Pevsner that it post-dates the Reformation and is thus an example of the Gothic style's continued use. 

** He also designed Apsley church, and restored that of Bishop's Stortford.

George III coat of arms

Piscina and sedilia

15th/16th cen parish chest

Arcade between chancel and chapel by Clarke, 1851. The screen, like all the dark, heavy, shiny woodwork  in the chancel must be from the same or a similar date

Victorian pelican in its piety

From the north west

South porch