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

Sunday 12 June 2022

Wigginton church, Herts: a window by Tom Denny


Wigginton, near Tring, is just south of the frantic dual carriageway of the A41, but you'd be hard pushed to know that from the leafy surroundings of this Chiltern village. There's been a church here since at least the 13th century, which is when the nave and chancel date from; a chantry chapel (for the Weedon family) was added as an extra room, most unusually at the west end, in the 15th. (It's now a baptistery.) However, the church was thoroughly restored in the 19th century and probably not many original features survive (the piscina is one exception). 

The first major restoration was by William White in 1865-71 (twenty years later he would work on Sandridge). White's main contributions were the south porch, bellcote and north aisle. The bellcote is very attractive, and the narrow lean-to aisle, with its three little gables, is pleasantly domestic in feel. Further work was carried out by R J Withers in 1881, who enlarged the chancel arch and re-ordered the seating. The western church rooms were added in 1973. The overall result is a mostly Victorian church with a dark but friendly interior.

Mosaic and opus sectile reredos by Ada Currey (1852-1913), 1898, made by J Powell & Sons

The most noticeable features of the interior are the later Victorian and 20th century stained glass windows, all but one of them pretty run-of-the-mill. A selection follows.

John the Baptist and St Paul by James Powell and Sons, from as late as 1952.

Mary, Christ as the Good Shepherd, and St John, also by Powells, 1948.

St Joseph and Mary, Powells, 1952.

Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, anonymous, 1871, a striking design.

Christ and St Nathaniel, made by Powells, 1889, designed by the great Henry Holiday (one of his less characteristic works).

Jesus cleans the leper, undated and anonymous.

However, while the church is certainly worth looking in on if you're passing to see the features listed above, there's one outstanding object that would reward a journey from a distance. 

This is a small window tucked away behind the pulpit, not visible from most of the nave or many other areas of the church, so it would be possible to overlook it. It commemorates Private James Osborne (1857-1928) of Wigginton and the Northamptonshire Regiment, who was awarded the Victoria Cross (Britain's highest award for bravery) in the First Boer War in 1881. He rode out towards a large party of Boers, who were directing heavy fire at him, to rescue a fellow private lying wounded, put him on the back of his horse and rode back to safety. 

The window is by Thomas Denny, one of the finest stained glass artists currently working, and was dedicated in 2019. It depicts the rescue, in the top right, but only as a relatively minor feature. Most prominent is a figure, stripped to the waist, who watches intently as it takes place. The riders aren't heading towards him, so we can't assume that he represents the British soldiers. Is he a Boer, moved by this selfless act of gallantry? Or is he Osborne himself, visualising the act before it happens?

The mostly red landscape is bleak, hostile and alien, suitably so for a battlefield. The ground is littered with what could be stones or perhaps bones; underneath the standing figure's arm is a faint suggestion of a skull. There are blasted tree stumps. This is all horrifying and very depressing, but of course redeemed by Osborne's heroism, and by a shaft of what might be deemed to be holy light from the sky above the standing figure, as if inspiring and strengthening him, and an aura around the figures on the horse. 

A roll of barbed wire lies in the right foreground. Barbed wire was invented in the 1860s and seems to have originally been used mostly in the US. According to Professor Wikipedia it was not used for warfare until 1895, when Portuguese troops used it in Africa, long after 1881. So it seems that its appearance in the window is anachronistic, perhaps deliberately so to universalise the scene and bring images of the more famous Second Boer War (1899-1902) and First World War to the viewer's mind. It seems to me that Denny is alluding to other war art, in particular Paul Nash's 'The Menin Road' (1919). What begins as a commemoration of a single act becomes a meditation on all the individual acts of humanity that occur amid and despite the monstrous inhumanity of war.

This isn't quite stained glass as in the Middle Ages, as revived by the Victorians. There the leading at least partly follows the design, whereas here the leading is independent of the image (it forms a rough cross, suitable for a church). In traditional stained glass there isn't much painted detail, whereas here there is a great deal. Painted, and etched, because that's another technique Denny uses - using acid to eat away at the glass to form shapes and textures. One technique that Denny shares with ancient practitioners is the use of flashed glass, that is, a sheet of plain white glass that has been given a coating of coloured glass. By abrading the coloured surface to expose the plain glass beneath it is possible to have two colours on the same glass segment. I suspect that Denny uses this technique to make, for example, the stones and bones in the foreground. 

It's a cliche when praising stained glass to mention that it is 'glowing' and 'gem-like'; well, cliche or not Denny's window is glowing and gem-like. It is a marvellous and moving tribute to an act of courage and selflessness, and shines out like a good deed in a bad world.

Wigginton church was open when I visited. I also recommend the nearby community cafe/shop.

This film (11 minutes) from Denny's website is very informative.

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