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

Sunday 10 September 2023

Watford, St Mary, church, Herts

Watford seems to me (a very occasional visitor) to be largely unlovely. Bettley/Pevsner (in The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire) reveal that in 1950 there were 121 buildings of historic interest 
in the town centre, a number that had shrunk by two thirds by 1975, leaving only 40. That's bad enough, but in the last near half-century another thirteen have been demolished. Naturally, we shouldn't assume that old automatically equals 'good' or new 'bad' (of course there are plenty of excellent modern buildings), but, let's face it, in practice we won't often be wrong if we do.

Externally St Mary is virtually all new, or anyway newish compared to its 13th century origins. The knapped flint and Bath stone facing, tower battlements, stair turret and most windows are all the work of John T Christopher (about whom I can find no information) in 1870-1. 

Our first impression on stepping through the west door is that the decorations and fittings are even newer. The entrance is through a glass screen, the walls are uniformly white, the floors level and of white stone or fashionably pale wood, on which stand chairs of wood and metal. This all dates from 2017-19; in order to achieve the new arrangement pews from 1848 by the great George Gilbert Scott were ejected (some of the bench ends were preserved). The changes were objected to by Historic England, the Victorian Society, Watford Borough Council, other heritage organisations (most of which I'm a member of) and individuals. Many people want all (or nearly all) pews preserved.

In the light of my first paragraph I should be objecting too. But I'm in two minds. If Victorian pews were rare I'd disagree with their removal; I'd be against Georgian or earlier pews being ejected for the same reason. However, Victorian pews, unlike their Georgian counterparts, aren't at all rare; in fact they're everybloodywhere. They're dark, bulky, uncomfortable, very hard to move, often ungainly, and less than a couple of centuries old. Chairs are very easy to rearrange so that the spaces they fill can be used for many different purposes and don't dominate visually as much as pews. (Most cathedrals have chairs rather than pews.) I assume that everyone reading this blog agrees that churches should be protected and preserved whenever possible despite all the difficulties currently facing them (rapidly declining congregations being high on the list). The best way of preserving them is to keep them in use for their original purpose, and in order to make them usable for modern congregations we have to accept some compromises. After all, earlier generations had few if any qualms about adapting older churches to suit their needs. On the whole, I'm willing to sacrifice some pews if it means that the churches they're from are more likely to be living buildings, loved and looked after. 

And at least the chairs aren't blue, and the piers don't have screens suspended from them, and the floors are plain and unobtrusive. (Compare Stevenage.)

Having started with the new, let's move on, somewhat illogically, to the old.

The chancel is the oldest part of the church, dating from the early 13th century, as does the south nave arcade. At first glance the latter is the same as the north arcade, but a closer look reveals some differences; the north arcade, tall clerestory, nave roof and tower are all 15th century Perpendicular. 

Much the most interesting part of the church is the north (Essex, formerly Morrison) chapel, built 1595-6. Like many buildings of its date it has a stylistic foot in two camps. There's a window with mullions and a transom (though the arches are round, not pointed), harking back to the medieval Gothic period, but there's also a classical Tuscan column.

The chapel contains several monuments. (Until 1907 there were two more; in that year they were moved to the family mausoleum, the Bedford Chapel in Chenies, Bucks.) The first is that of Lady Dorothy Morrison (d.1618), wife of Sir Charles, routine for its date but highly accomplished.

The next in date is that of her husband, Sir Charles, who died in 1599 but whose monument wasn't made until 1619, that is, after the death of his wife (presumably she left a legacy). It's by Nicholas Stone (1586/7-1647), one of the most prominent sculptors (and architects) of the time, and is, quite simply, superb. Sir Charles, dressed in armour (he he was never a soldier - he was a politician), reclines on one elbow, looking very dashing with his pointed beard and curly moustache. Two figures - their son (who has a Tintin quiff) and daughter - kneel on pedestals flanking the monument proper, beneath baldacchinos of fictive draperies, a contrast with the architecture of the rest.

Opposite them is the monument to the son (also Sir Charles) (d.1628) and his wife Mary, also by Stone. He adopts a pose similar to that of his father, while she is fully recumbent; at least she gets two comfy-looking cushions. At their head is a daughter and their feet two sons, presumably free-standing figures; can these dumpy-looking characters be by Stone, or did he farm out the ancillary portions to his workshop? Like Charles the Elder's monument there are two segmental pediments, but while the father's have a corbel in the middle to make it look supported, the son's looks unsatisfying, as if there should be a central column.

The church has been open when I've visited.

Screen by Scott, 1848

Doors made from 1848 bench ends.

Disused Norman font

Reredos, 1871

West window, The Marriage at Cana, by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1863

Pulpit, 1714

King David, by Lavers and Barraud, 1863

Sunday 30 July 2023

Holwell church, Herts

I see that it's almost eight months since I last wrote here. My excuse is that I've been using that time to write a book about Hertfordshire churches, due to be published by Amberley in Spring 2024, but it's only a short book so that excuse is only partially true. In fact, life got in the way, as it often does. 

I notice that in my absence this blog has passed the 200,000 - a fifth of a million - page views. 

Holwell lies a few hundred yards/metres from the Bedfordshire border; in fact it was in that county until 1897. The church was rebuilt in 1878-9, but so thoroughly that it's in effect a Victorian building with a small number of reused medieval features. Unusually, although the latter are worth seeing, they're outshone by those of the nineteenth century.

The architect was Ewan Christian, who restored Brent PelhamHemel HempsteadSandon and Westmill (and built Hertford Heath). He incorporated into the new church a 15th century north door (now blocked) and piscina (now in the north wall), and, according to the Statutory Listing, 'a 14th century string course across the east wall with a hollow chamfer and a north end terminating in a longsnouted beast with closed wings and issuing from its mouth a wavy stem ornamented with ball flowers, human heads and leaves'. I'd very much like to see that, but I'm sorry to say that I completely missed it on my visit. (Bettley/Pevsner don't mention it either, so perhaps they overlooked it too.)

However I didn't miss the brass commemorating Robert Wodehouse, the rector, who died in 1515. This is particularly interesting as it doesn't contain his image (unlike, say, that of the Rev John Wryght, d.1519, in Clothall), but instead features an inscription, a chalice and wafer, and two wild men, usually known as woodwoses. (There's a very relaxed woodwose lolling at the foot of a tomb in Aldbury.) 

They feature on the Wodehouse coat of arms; they're both hairy and naked (as you'd expect wild men of the woods to be) except for a vine wound around their waists, and have long tangled hair. They carry simple clubs, branches torn from trees. They're crudely etched, but I like them. As far as I know, they're the only woodwoses on brasses in an English church (if you know otherwise, please let me know).*

In the door between the south aisle and the vestry (so there's little light behind it, which it difficult to see and photograph) is a 16th century Flemish roundel of the Nativity, which all the authorities overlook.

The Statutory Listing does notice this piece of glass, just above the roundel, of a bishop, of indeterminate date. It looks like painted, enamelled glass; possibly 18th or early 19th century.

The church itself is routine but not unpleasing. The long sweep of the roof on the south of the nave and the south of the chancel is eye-catching. The south-west tower (with a pyramidal roof) doubles as the porch, like Clothall's (but, unlike Clothall, doesn't treble as the ringing chamber). The style is loosely the Victorians' and my favourite, Decorated, though there's a Perpendicular window on the north.

The mosaic reredos, installed in 1880, provides a glowing focal point for the church, embellished with spheres of coloured glass. The golds and deep blues are especially effective, and altogether it must be one of the best pieces of work of its kind in the county. Could it be by Powell and Sons, who were responsible for the outstanding mosaics in Waterford?

There are other, less spectacular, mosaics on the floor around the altar and font.

Also in the chancel is a coloured marble aumbry (the Statutory Listing calls it a ciborium), presumably from a similar date to the mosaics; coloured glass spheres feature here too. It's unclear if the columns are meant to be classical (Corinthian, perhaps?) or Gothic (stiff-leaf, perhaps?). I've not seen anything like it elsewhere.

The pulpit also seems to be a part of the same scheme as the mosaics.

The excellent Te Deum window in the north wall is by Hardman, 1879.

The equally good east window is by the same maker and of the same date; it shows the Nativity, Crucifixion and Noli Me Tangere.

Most of the other windows are by A L Moore, and aren't very good. But one of St Alban (1907) incorporates a near-photographic representation of the cathedral, when Grimthorpe's west front was only a quarter of a century old.

Holwell church was open when I visited, and gave the impression of being generally accessible. the church proves the adage that even not especially exciting-looking churches can have plenty of interest if you're willing to look for it.

* Googling comes up with two examples, both in Germany. See and