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Repton, Derbs

March 19, 2010 Leave a comment

One wonders about the wider landscape: about the way the overwintering Danes used the building, and how to trace their enclosure; about why the close wall of the priory apparently claims the chancel as part of its own (and left a church whose chancel was apparently almost a separate room intact for many centuries, apart from some simple windows of the C13). The guidebook, which both benefits and suffers from being written by the Expert, tells us nothing of this; indeed the overwintering itself, which places Repton in a dramatic historical story, is left unexplained.

The main church is instructive mainly for its plainness: this is not so much Boring Dec as Underfunded Dec: an architecture without capitals or mouldings, knowing only Y tracery; yet the S chancel chapel has a window full of ‘X’-shaped tracery patterns, Deccish in their angularity, Perpish in their interest in straightlines; one comes across this in the C14 in the E midlands (Youlgreave, Kettering) and one would love to get dates for it.

Perp clerestory and good roof. Important fragments in the porch: a big boss – was the priory vaulted? which part? Could be just a gatehouse or undercroft, I suppose. A goodish early stiff leaf cap, also surely from the priory. It had a relic of Guthlac, and so a memory of the A-S; and the parish church crypt had a new access route direct from the outside – within the close I think – created  in the medieval period and has an inserted pointed-arched opening so it could be glimpsed looking E from the nave. So the priory is an important consideration in the question of the crypt’s medieval afterlife.  

And so to the A-S/pre-Conquest – in the porch, loose, a simple window-head (two more apparently by a grave in the churchyard), a couple of enormous Romanitas columns, some very, very fine carving: a cross base with an elegant, noduled figure very like those at Breedon; a first-rate hogsback tomb affixed to the nave wall. And – no pre-reading had prepared me for this – the A-S extends around the E end of the nave, suggestive of portici, the columns are from an A-S arcade that survived into the early modern era (a true arcade, not rows of arches punched through walls: architecturally ambitious/suggestive of lateish date insitelf) and includes pilaster strips up the chancel walls with curious splayed tops to them high up. The altar surely raised almost to the sill of the current E window: see the scars of the A-S crypt windows, which reach up almost this far. The square windows there today are C17? Who put them in then, and why?

The crypt. It’s not large – nor would one expect it to be – but no description prepares one for the complexity of this, and what that says about the spatial/formal scope of A-S architecture. These are people who can not only carve spiral columns, but bead that spiral with a cable moulding, and arrange the four columns  so the spiral of each curves inwards to the central space. Who can devise (why are these not better known? They’re not in the guide, nor in Pevsner) unique pilaster-like columns on the walls with fillet-like mouldings and their corners standing out. Who can disburse abaci logically, and arrange subsidiary spaces so the curve of their vaults gives a relative hierarchy without detracting from the unity of the building as a whole. None of this is done to the highest standard: carving is blocky, the vaults roughly done with large pieces of stone, somehow more-than-tunnel but less-than-groin. But done it is, and that is enough. And nothing about it suggests that this is a one-off, though it is surely top-end. The kind of subtleties described above can only be part of a tradition; the very blockiness might argue that this might have been done better elsewhere (though it’s normal for A-S architecture: they seem to have reserved a higher register and by implication different craftsmen for ‘pure’ stone carving as seen on tombs, crosses, the occasional fragment of shrine or narrative sculpture). At Wing, too, the far more primitive crypt is divided into spaces with a central space, again suggesting that both are part of a (mausoleum?) tradition.

Yet this survives. Is it the most impressive architectural remnant of the Anglo-Saxon era? Everything we have tells us something we otherwise wouldn’t know. St Martin-by-Canterbury tells us that the Gregorian mission built churches equivalent to their greater contemporaries in the Roman sphere. Ripon and Hexham that ambitious churches with (underground) tunnel vaults could be built in the C7, and that the much vaunted wealth and Roman connections of Wilfrid are a historical fact. Jarrow that monastic complexes could be planned. Escomb that smaller churches, too could be carefully made, if extremely simple (and building something out of recycled Roman stone is an art in itself); Brixworth that real basilican buildings, with arcades (albeit as plain as a pikestaff in form, and interrupted by stretches of walling) went up in the C8; Deerhurst of the kind of quality possible on such grand buildings perhaps a century later; Bradford, perhaps most uniquely of all, gives us a real architectural experience of such quality. Wing I’ve mentioned. And archaeological discoveries at Winchester, Canterbury, Lichfield reveal stone carving of the highest order; even more complex buildings; and (at Canterbury) a church that by the C10 could look in the eye anything north of the Alps. Earls Barton supports the emerging picture that the C10 rebirth of architecture is considerable, capable of creating lesser churches of a scale and ambition (if not refinement of execution) that would look their post-Conquest partners in the eye. Hundreds of smaller fragments elsewhere – doorways, windows, arches – support this. But nowhere else can one walk into, inhabit, a space of anything like this sophistication. The implications are enormous: it’s as eloquent of the power and regal ambition of the Mercian kings as the Staffordshire hoard. The echoes for later architecture are something, too. Having seen the entrance and egress routes at Repton, C14 MadleyX looks even more like a conscious A-S throwback; having seen the arrangement of spiral columns around the central space, the possibility that this feature (along with many more minor ones) at Durham is a conscious reinvention or aggrandisement of a pre-existing A-S structure surely increases, especially as here we are within the cultural reach of Northumbria. And more locally, one wants to know more about later use. Why does the priory close embrace the ancient E extension of the church? For what function were medieval modes of access (from within the close, I note) and view (from the W, inside the church) cut through? What is the significance for its understanding of its own history that the priory had a small relic of Guthlac? What do we know about its church?

And what of the accepted story about the crypt itself? I can’t fault Taylor’s archaeological analysis, but his linkage to historical events needs a moment’s caution. We are asked to believe that this is the creation of a king, not a saint, and a creation that had already had two phases of existence; that the saint’s cult only added some corridors to it. Well, this fits the archaeology, but the implications are considerable, especially for what it says about the power and cultural associations of such a king. What else do we know about King X? This is major stuff for our understanding of this world. But it’s not unimpeachable: all we have are phases, and the inherent improbability of cutting access routes through solid rock very shortly after having built an elaborate vaulted crypt that lacked them. Nevertheless, if we argue that the crypt is a creation of the cult of X, a lot of other things fall into place: the earlier phases don’t need to stretch back in time without explanation: one becomes the Royal mausoleum. The design of the crypt itself, especially the St-Peter’s-shrine quoting spiral columns, makes much more sense as the setting for the cult of a martyred king than just the tomb of a king; though Wing could be taken to argue the opposite, that even non-Royal figures might build burial mausolea crypts of real ambition, making Repton relatively explicable. Perhaps no one expected such pressure for access – we know very little about the extent of popular devotion to A-S saints – and the ways through took place a decade or two later: such possibilities are at least worthy of discussion; indeed the historical and cultural implications of either option are so considerable that to avoid this discussion is an issue of itself.

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Towcester, Northants

March 19, 2010 Leave a comment

As so often, the visual impression is of a C14/C15 building, with only clues to indicate that one of only slightly lesser scale – still aisled N and S, for example – existed here in the C13 and probably before. The chancel is a well-cut thing (nice overhangs on the buttresses) of the mid/late C14, with an excellent Dec/Perp E window (how one wishes one had a date) and Perp clerestory stuffed in later with little regard for its predecessor. An unusual, smooth-formed C12 column to the S chancel chapel; a nice arch here has great little C14 peasants holding it up and some battered wall-painting (female saint): also a niche containing a later wall painting. Was this a Lady chapel?. The high altar rises up and there is a space beneat (in its current form?) for C19 heating equipment. The rest is now C15, but the arches reuse C12 caps, lucky they were polygonal and thus fitted future taste; one can even see the extra bands of whiter stone inserted to lengthen the columns. The simplest, Perp-stepped-lancet tracery; clerestory; tower plain as a pikestaff too, but a fine w door with  ironstoneniches and panels, and an intriguing blocked arch reveals something of this period stood in the NW corner, that nearest Sponlee’s grammar school. Inside, the S chapel window has fragments of good C14 canopywork (in one light) and C15 Sponlee-stuff in another: and here he is, his expansive and expensive cadaver, thin and smooth-faced Archdeacon above, Dead Body below, all on a handsome, open, wide-arched table. Each of these is a one-off, patrons comparing notes rather than masons; in this case, with Chichele’s college not so far away, one wonders if the communication went via that grand old man of the cadaver tomb.

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Cambridge

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Just a note on a feeding-frenzy of medieval Cambridge. A few hours with VCH and a map reveals the underlying pattern, at least in outline: the Roman core to the N, by the C12 a castle suburb with three parishes, one at least of A-S origin. The A-S core to the S of the river, in its vesica-shaped enclosure of town ditch and Cam, bisected by the Roman road; parishes suggesting (especially those known to be there by the late C12, which is the dawn of clerkly activity on any scale) a tight series of focuses around the Roman road, leaving space for later Mendicant settlements to the E and clerkly ones to the W. Then that remarkable story, in which the Old Schools come interestingly early; patrons are interestingly varied; the focus around them is set by the mid-C14, but the biggest impression is the great wave of Royal C15 foundations, especially King’s: before this, New and Merton put older, grander Oxford clearly ahead of the game. After that, the story is nowhere near as clear. And the coincidence of the Backs gave each of these – Kings, St Johns, Trinity – room to expand E. As a result the corporate heart of the Uni today is densely medieval, but lacking in grand vistas – unlike Oxford; but the greatest colleges stretch out grand and languid, as impressive as museums of architecture as the more public heart of Oxford is.

Certain compare-and-contrasts to Oxford suggest themselves, too. Both are in strategically vital trading routes, way above average for their significance as meeting-places and mercantile townmaking stuff generally. Both had important castles. Both lacked a single, controlling, dominating religious institution – unusually, for a town of such significance.  In both cases, the Augustinians and soon after the Mendicants took an above-average early interest (Frideside AND Oseney at Oxford; Barnwall AND ?Holy Sepulchre, both developments that can’t have harmed the growth of advanced schools. What of Royal/episcopal power? I’d like to get to grips with this more. The castle, of course. Oxford had Woodstock, too, but did that mattered before HIII? It’s the later C12 and first-half C13 that matters for understanding the birth of the university. And Oxford is unequivocally on the edge of episcopal power, with Winchester and Lincoln both distant after the move from Dorchester; yet interesting once they’ve got a grip the bishops are very interested, often chancellors, often founding colleges. Cambridge colleges are much more varied, and (later) Royal. What of chancellors? And where does Ely fit in, not a bishopric until the early C12, and very aware of its regal grip on the Isle to the N: how much of a grip would it have had on the new addition to its domain in that first 150 yrs? Before that, Cambridge is v as Oxford-marginal, on the edge of Lincoln, not too far from Norwich. And where does the monastic domination of the fenland fit? Oxford was a heavily monasticied county, too, but on a much smaller scale and more piecemeal. Here, everything to the N and E was owned by one (usually ancient) Benedictine house or another; yet the Shire was more ordinary. I think. Much to find here, and the temptation to create big charts of monastic houses and collegiate houses and their development/size over time is a great one.  

More or less N-S

St Peter’s. I thought of Samuel Palmer too. A heartbreaking location, like a lost country church, though presumably originally hemmed in by houses. Roman tile in the tower indicates we are in the Chester. Lovely lateish C12 (1160? 70?) S door – reset from a lost aisle? With some colour intact. Galumphing C12 Norman Merman font: what where they on? I’ve seen another, cruder, in Herts: but perhaps this was just as crude before it was got at. Heads recarved by some antiquarian, methinks. A little arid inside: God has flown, but clings outside.

Holy Sepulchre. Just fascinating: for its location at the meeting of two key routes (and right by the Jewry), for its origins, vague as they are. For these round churches are sophisticated thing. Good stuff, two, with its rib vaults arranged in a circle and a grand false gallery. Hugely redone higher up, of course; the original C15 top might even have added a certain battered something; C15 E end likewise, with good roofs.

St Radegund’s. A well-off nunnery, now Jesus college. So interesting: chapter house interest is not brilliantly executed but very well designed. Those inward-turning concave squares that form the opening of the plate tracery could easily be late C12, experimental early Gothic; though NB this tendency is just detectable thereafter, in a handful of places: eg Wyck Rissington, Gloucs. They crop up in the high-grade secular House of Pythagoras, too. Still, it all suggests a building of some grandeur. Church itself hugely got-at in collegisation: no longer with a parochial function, shorn of much of its nave and all its aisles, big plain simple C15 windows (Alcockised). But the c1200 and before is good: very impressive tower arches with enormous dogtooth and lantern-gallery feature above; likewise the choir, a showpiece of high lancets and shafting; a very clever-clever piscina with rows of linear dying ‘mouldings’: EE is a very linear style. E wall sadly C19, based on some evidence or other. Characterful EE this anyway, something of the Worcester E End about it (also 1220s?). No high vaults though, and one wonders how the elevation worked where aisles were. Indeed the story of vaulting in Cambridge jumps from early, Romanesque rib vaults at Holy Sep straight to the display of tierceron, lierne and fan in the various phases of King’s. 1440-1512. Not a single one in between. Not even, I suspect at Barnwell, the ghost at the feast, much as Oseney is in Oxford: it had a C15 hammerbeam roof, now at Willingham.  Cambridge then had urban variety, and all manner of interesting takes on the priestly community, but little of real ambition.

St Michael A really interesting Dec parish chutch, all the better for having some dates (patron buried in incomplete chancel, 1327), and for all this work to be directly associated with its conversion to a (mainly) college chapel. Here as many registers of Dec are on display as can ever be found in grander churches: wilful/advanced (the E and W windows, especially the W one, with its clever combination of ogee curves and pre-Perp straight lines); standard/enriched (the sedilia and the rich door – cf the de Lacy tomb/door at Ely – leading to the presume side-chapel for the founder, with two big rich sub-Ely niches either side of the altar; plain/boring (the tower arches, just capless chamfers, and tower above, big butts, smooth forms). We should remember this willingness to be several things – several modes – at once, appropriate to function, is not just confined to the Great Buildings.

St Mary the Great At first a standard John Wastell perp town church, almost identikit: what interests as much as anything is the clear differences in visual hierarchy between here and the early phase of Kings across the way. Fits the Perp bill, as prescribed by Henry VI: ‘in large form, clean and substantial, setting apart superfluity of too great curious works’. Tracery little more than the Perp version of stepped lancets. But also: Dec E end (does this suggest the W half was paid for by the parishioners?); what can we trust of the interesting but very redone (Pevsner says entirely so) sedilia and piscina? They have cusps (eg) as thin and flat as if cut out of sheets of metal, and with a wilful combination of straight and curved lines to boot. Very similar in spirit to the remarkable (anchorite’s?) room at Willingham. Interesting that such motifs at all are around in this part of the world. Willingham too seems to know about ways of thinking I normally place firmly in the W country. And then at the other end of the scale, the tower stops dead before the Reformation and starts again – exceptionally – a few decades later; how to date the tunnel/panel-vaulted lower stage, with doors N and S to galleries (the galleries themselves C17 or even 19), and a little window looking into the church? I’m trying to collect interesting/unnoticed functional areas built into the W end of Perp churches: is this another, or something post-Ref?

St Edward’s A crowded city church, and the only place in Cambridge where something indefinable stilled the air. Interesting architecturally, too: for the steep, steep lancets of the aisle arcade, surely (see the caps) if surprisingly Perp; for the dated C14 and (not very) Perp C15 interventions (all the aisles) as part of college-isation, for the early pulpit, for its status as a peculiar, which allowed a liberal approach to preaching, which made it a seedbed of the Reformation. Good Perp font. Nice metal IHC’s in a sun, like an ad for the insurance company, nailed C19 into the wagon roof of the chancel.

Holy Trinity A big church with a spire; all plain and Perp inside, but good: cruciform, with a wide-panelled crossing, good roofs, lots of small stone angels, bright clerestory. Bizarre W end where big panelled butts jut into the church and behind them a very wide ?Dec arch spreadeagles.

St Bene’t The tower doesn’t need introduction: and Pevsner notes even long and short walk in the famous A-S tower arch. C15 collegisation doesn’t seem to have done much, though Corpus Christi itself is ambitious enough. C14 chancel, its sedilia and piscina and earlier blocked window nothing but scars. Mad late C18 or C19 roofs.

St Mary-the-Less More dated Dec! Underway 1340, consecrated 1352. And again associated with collegisation: an intriguing story, in which a big C12 church (perhaps even with aisles) is turned into a single academic-collegiate hall: a very early example of same. The commitment to repetition, eg in the sub-Ely lady chapel petal-motif windows, is good, too; decent E end with two niches, sedilia and psicina. The two niches (inside and outside NB) are common everywhere, but seem to be espcially standard for Cambs: almost every church in this city has them, for example. Battered arches to two lost and late chantry chapels, presumably adjacent to the screen separating ante-chapel (or parochial element) from choir. Again, the relationship is to local practise, especially at Ely a decade or two earlier.

St Botolph’s nice late med figures of evangelists-as-pinnacles on the tower.

King’s (and see also below) I’ve never given this extraordinary place real time before, and much flows from doing so. For example, although it hangs together inspite of its long gestation and last-minute vault initiative, this is partly a side-effect of the survival of its fittings: that enormous screen is a reminder of how all these places would have been, an effective pulpitum; you can see why the transepts at Merton and New where deemed surplus to requirements: all you need is a choir and a gathering-place, an antechapel. Without it the design gap between the E and W halves would be painfully obvious. The survival of the first-rate fittings, right on the cusp of Reformation, is of course a la Westminster an indicator of its Royal status (but was there more architectrural polychromy? The rich centre of a fan vault survives in one chapel). These side chapels are a delight now opened up, especially in the Wastell phase, where they have screens a la Gloucester/cage chantries, and fans. Good glass: is that a courtly-female zone (glass: the mystic hunt, iconography on the door, linkage to Royal Catherines and Margarets) in the S choir chapel-aisle? Good bosses, especially in the phase one Reginal Ely tiereceron vaults in the N choir chapel-aisle. Incidentally, it is hugely over-engineered: they surely could have hollowed out the buttresses and made real aisles if they had wanted to. Or perhaps they did’nt want to? Is this a pre-planned series of chantry-type chapels, predicting (A) that Fellows would require to say daily private masses and (B) these spaces would fill up over time with memorial foundations? Fascinating. And the very good exhibition suggests the Fs only spent an hour-a-day in worship: so what of the Offices, which take 8 hours a day? Did they have vicars of some kind? If so, the balance of their lives is firmly on the scholarly. But the main thing is to emphasise just how remarkable it is, in its Henry VII-and-after form: the elevation of the W half is just to die for, every inch perfectly rendered. But it also masks the interesting debt to (and contrasts with) the Ely lady chapel, Reginald Elys home after all. That was the nearest breathtaking, rectangular wall of glass; of course Henry VI’s prescription could be read as saying ‘like that – but not Dec’; and there are Ely-like details in the way phase one handles the vault responds and their transition to the wall: little arches that are almost nodding ogees that support responds; little vertical features in the E corners coming down behind, like the niches and wall arcades at Ely. Anyway, remarkable. With St George’s Windsor an exercise in a new kind of building, the collegiate-chapel-as-Great-Church, with license as a result to try new things: at St George’s in the plan, here in the scale. Quite apart from the quality of execution and unity of experience within, this thing would have dwarfed everything else in the city, and no other academic-college-religious building anywhere before St John’s in the C19 came near it in ambition.

Colleges to the visitor the early (C14 on) colleges, of which much survives at Cambridge albeit much changed, are almost impossible to distinguish: a single close containing rooms, Carthusian-like (but also an earlier collegiate tradition, only now evidenced in vicars’ closes? But early vicars’ closes are not coutyards) a gatehouse a hall, sometimes a chapel (I don’t think there’s a single medieval chapel extant apart from the parish churches that were college-ised, and of course King’s; and their footprint where they existed is everywhere small in scale, often smaller than the hall, and nowhere all-dominating as their role in the life of the community ‘shoud’ suggest: one never sees this ambivalence in monastic churches), always a hall and a master’s lodging. Everything goes up a gear, in general height and grandeur, in the C15; some even get two courts. The gatehouses start to be features, with good vaults and a façade, with their own intra-Cambridge story but all ulimately Perp versions of Michael of Canterbury’s St Augustine’s abbey, c1300, with its enormous towers. Queens’ is the most charming college; but everywhere – in the hall at Queens’, in the prioress’s room at Jesus, in the little oriel for Madge Beaufort at Christ’s – there are first-rate medieval secular interiors off-limits to the public. Then King’s comes and the Tudors follow. King’s in some senses always a fish out of water: no college anywhere had such a chapel, designed to be this size if not this perfectly enriched, from the off, and starting a trend for super-grand C15/C16 colleges that spread well beyond the academic, and gave rise eg to Cardinal, Oxford (now Christchurch), as well as St John’s. What’s lost is the original plan, which revealed its founders’ debt to New college, Oxford, and would have been by far the most interesting and advanced medieval college plan in the town – indeed the only place where pre-1500 Cambridge architecturally got close to Oxford, where after New there are I think several good plans, and both Merton and New set a standard from the earliest times for grand chapels that was invariably risen to. I would love to reconstruct how Oxford relates to the growing town; it seems to me Cambridge is a bit more violent with it, or at least King’s is; but that it also establishes a corporate architectural ‘centre’ to the uni quite early, certainly by 1350. What a time to be founding colleges! Yet there are several.

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Dorset: Milton Abbas, Dorchester

March 1, 2010 5 comments

Milton abbey. In some ways Pevsner is right about this: it’s an exercise in a current interest of mine I call Boring Dec, interesting for the neglected perspective it offers on Dec’s less boring variants, and for the aesthetic undercurrents that survive from EE and were soon to trigger the widespread acceptance of Perp. But he’s not completely right: there are enough specific details to show an awareness of other versions of Dec, and to situate it in the slipstream of the oh-so-interesting Thomas of Witney/William Joy ideas factory, with specific linkages to the great rebuilding underway at Exeter – choir drawing to completion as Milton begins; this is particularly interesting because one of the most crucial points about William Joy is the way he is at once part of Boring Dec (witness Ottery) and also something far more complex, individual and interesting.

So the dominant note in the tracery is an updating of the EE stepped lancet: give it some extra cusps and put it under an arch. Indeed the arches are as steep as steep can be. But the cusps have a cut-from-sheet metal quality, and the two-light windows have stretched-out quatrefoils at the top that have no lower boundary and instead flop round the top of the lights beneath.

From the outside there is an intriguing attempt to give this a rhythm: three-light, two-light, flying buttress; but because of the east wall and the crossing this is only sustained for two bays – though it would perhaps read more rationally if we had a nave – and inside the effect is very confusing. Even outside, the two-light and three-light windows are of different heights. One wonders if it reflects something in the previous church: paired bays, or a sexpartite vault. The narrow-wide bay alternation that results is a design feature pure and simple, yet quietly rather odd.

Big plate glass quatrefoils in the flying buttresses, a gross bit of over-engineering given the lowness of the church; ballflower corbel table in the transept probably originally continuous, given that the big quatrefoils of the parapet seem to be a C15 addition (they are on the tower, too; the S transept suggests the parapet was plain). Niches and stuff on the buttresses themselves, slightly differently detailed on N and S aisles. Eastern bays – retroquire, chapels, Lady chapel of some description – lost: one would like to see behind the reredos. Very good figures on the label ends of the aisle windows. On the N side, three doors (and one on the S), their simple, hollow-curve mouldings emphasising the passage from inside to out rather than vice versa. The E-most door has a semicircular head, a reference to old times. Boring Dec is often about two things: referencing the past (Ottery) and decorum (St Albans presbytery), neither of which ae mutually exclusive. And indeed there are other clues: the transept buttresses are very C13 in form. Some kind of two-bay structure, vaulted, stood off the N aisle; one wonders if the cloister probably extended down here given the presence of the doors. A cloister access-narthex? Sacristy? A chapel is more likely.

At the transepts, the detailing changes slightly, and the first explicitly-Exeter motif comes in: the petal motif in the big three-light windows are taken straight from those in the Exeter transepts (also seen at Bristol) which from memory are mid-second decade C14. Three light windows have playful cusping, and one notes how Bording Dec leads the eye to focus on forms with great clarity, to take in both their smoothness and their oddness, and this is part of what Perp likes, too. The enormous S transept window is anything but the regular reticulated Pevsner calls it: the reticulations are stretched out, and the upper one curved round; an interest in a vertical extension of a norm that could be 1320s or 30s: see proto-Perp windows in such otherwise Rich Dec places like Tewkesbury and Dorchester-on-Thames. Big newel.

Then the C15 tower, as simple but also very handsome as can be; and recased or completed N transept, especially the outer bay. Let’s go in.

The geological colour scheme, though presumably the designers never expected anyone to see it, is one of the most characterful aspects of the building today. An orange-stained limestone? is used for all the ribs, most of the window embrasures, and I think increasing amounts of he upper portions; in the transepts, it is everywhere. But vault cells are filled in with white clunch – chalk; a hard white limestone is sued for the arcades and other lower features in the E end, and knapped flint fills entire stretches of lower wall. Orange, white, off-white, shiny black. It works expecillay well in the transept, where, stone aside, the effect of a big window-lined vaulted hall is impressive and intended. A portion of C15 screen-wall here is nice; and lapidary bits, including a very good C13? angel annunciate and bits of C15 moulding thick with colour. Tiles set in an easily-stumbled step in the floor, late C13 in character though presumably decades later.

The vault is all C15, but the pattern, with big diagonal liernes that would fit perfectly with the Exeter/Witney/Joy axis made explicit by the windows; there is at least one Samson and the Lion, a very popular motif, almost a tic, at Exeter, too. Goodish GM over Emost door to the two-bay near-cloister feature: a two-ay chapel here with a memorial function, perpahs to an abbot or patron of post-1309, would make sense; two bays west a king carries two floral sprigs.

That the C15 work goes to a fan vault for the corssing is another suggestion  that an older vault intention was being honoured here. This fan vault is not a true one – it is a pattern of ribs, separate from the infilling, like the famous one at Sherborne, the masons not yet sure the egg-shell engineering will work on this scale: if the few stumps of cloister against the transept wall outside are any guide, they could do true fan vaults on a smaller scale if they wanted too. All assigned to abbot Middleton, after 1481, presumably on the basis of his rebus on the vault: it may in fact be a more drawn out story.

Things are quieter e  of the enormous C14 pulpitum screen, with its attached Purbeck shafts, bell capitals, and big boss; features that would have been standard-up-to-adate a century earlier, if more attenuated in their proportions.

Here, the vault is a simple X-vault – another backwards-looking feature, and the carefully placed balane of decorousness and self-effacement is further underlined by the lack of a middle story. Arches everywhere have attached, but not bundled, columns, bell capitals, big smooth mouldings. But the rhythm we noticed outside is handled inside so that the two-light bays have no arcade at all, are simply blank wall, a very odd thing.

Details: enormous corbels make way for the (lost, or at least very unremarkable in their current form) stalls. A C15 bit of micro-architecture has been added to the top of the pulpitum facing E and is thick with painted (trustworthy?) heraldy and polychromy. The intensity of colour here, on the surviving parts of the reredos, and above the big image niche in the S choir aisle (near a door from the S?) might suggest the rest of the church was not richly coloured. Two awful/charming vernacular images of A-S Royal founders, models of chivalry with their big model church and hawk on her arm. Sedilia/piscina: the dividing wall to the aisle cut through to take it at the fitting out stage. Not great quality, but the detailing again shows the keeping-up-with-Exeter, and thus now more W Joy than T Wit, tenor of the transepts: the concave-curve of the gables, almost triangles, is visually emphasized by the lack of a retaining arch beneath. Inside the toy vaults are completely smooth surfaces, an idea which at Tewkesbury has been linked to the germination of the fan vault; some kind of rib or panel pattern can be imagined painted on. No bosses but big individual ball flowers at the head of the dividing internal arches. Very good C15 wood pyx canopy, updating that at Wells by 300 yrs. Even better C15/C16 Great Screen – another – its upper parts apparently effectively plaster C18, its lower portion in good nick with more colour.

Outside the landscape extends to the abbots hall, if that what it is, for is its location not closer to where the refectory should be; now part of the school. And St Catherine’s chapel, directly inline with the E end, a C12 two bay mini-church, chancel heightened at some point, simple but good (late) segmental-headed doors and a very rare and interesting inscription advertising an indulgence to wayfraers who stop here. This is a hilltop chapel outside the precint but somehow conceived as part of it, perhaps balancing the liturgical and the lay-cultic aspects a la the comparable example at Abbotsbury. But its locked. 

Dochester One of three formerly, and with a date at which the current structure was underway: 1420. Perp so close to other places it could be a photocopy; so interesting more because of the date than anything inherently interesting. Wagon roofs, nice simple geometric bosses: are they original? I notice one of the Virgin and Child by the tower arch on the S side, exactly as at Westbury. Two great late late C14 knights loll in windows reset. Windows set back Perpishly; I always assume this is to make space for altars or guild paraphenilia a late med thing. Columns have polygonal bases but more 13/C14 in spirit round bell caps. Great C12 S door: they say it was perhaps reset with a point when the church was redone, but the inventive 3d zigazag, the little florets that sink into chamfers instead of caps and columns, all suggest we are at the very least after 1160s, and possible a decade or more later: so the point could be original. Crowded, dark, town church, handsome outside: big Dorset/Somerset gargoyles spring like chivalric bearers from attached pins, handsome tower with equally local long belfry windows, attached pins including one in the middle rising of more chest-bearing beasties.

Roche rock, Cornwall

March 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Cornwall is not a rich county; and here, in it post-industrial heartland, but with the Eden project pulling punters right by, one might be forgiven if every availably penny was wrung from the ‘historic environment.’

Yet here it is, in a area of rough heath hemmed in by hosing estates, football fields, abandoned clay pits: one of the most extraordinary sights in England, unknown, unexpected, and completely defying even the thought of a health and safety audit or a visitor assessment.

There are karst landscapes in China that look like this; and strange cloud-like tors that rear up in Flemish landscapes as I’ve their author had only ever dreamt mountains. Neither have the twin benefits of being surrounded by post-industrial wasteland – a little sublime with your unemployment, sir? – and being topped by a ruined hermitage. The resulting profile, as seen from the road, is extraordinary: a series of granitic (this is something far more obscure and complex than true granite) lups that reach up like rain-washed fingers, at once knottedly heavy and weightlessly vertical. These mountain-ette nodules rise to a central peak that clumbs almost ridiculously upwards, like a solid cumulu nimbus bidding to be a thundercloud; and it is this that is topped by the broken hermitage, the construction of which on such a site is an achievement in itself. The whole thing can be explored using a pair of terrifying, rusting metal stepladders bolted into the solid rock.

At first site its rather like the lower two stories of a Cornish Perp tower, but amazingly we have a dedication date, 1408, and it feels rather early for these. And although there is detail, at close look it is not completely confident; perhaps the mason were more used to slightly lower-grade stone buildings than churches: you might want bridge or castle experience to pull something like this off. Where it fits into the story by which, during the C15, Cornish patrons fell in love with the hard aesthetis of granite even as their wealth was increasingly derived from working and opening that material, is an as-yet-untold story. 

It’s a two-storey thing, or rather three stories if one includes a basement layer expressed by a lower string course, filling an area where the rock dips down; a hole in the E wall here may be connected with drainage or simply a putlog hole. The lower/’ground’ story above has been partly shaped into the rock, which takes a smooth sided and massive gulch to form its floor and large portions of wall. A south door faces the sheer drop and must always have been the main entrance. One assumes this lower storey is some kind of living quarters, but it may equally be about reception of visitors; certainly either whoever lived here (and perhaps visitors too) were expected to move through it as there is a very similar dooe on the north side, up a rock-cut stairway: in other words, access was required to the N; a simple internal ladder could have facilited access to the chapel otherwise. All in all, ingenious use of the from of the thing, though of course there is no way of knowing if there were not already structures here , or the rock had already been altered or become a focus of some kind of religious activity, before the C15.  The access routes could be interpreted a way ‘through’ – in one way, out another, bout they could equally well be purely practical. In any case how any self-respecting pre-modern person could *not* surround it with Belief is hard to imagine.

These two doors have rough mouldings, the scooped forms of the lower one marking out its status as main way in and speaking of some ambition over and above the strictly utilitarian. The northern one, and other areas of walling, especaily associated with arches, has blocks of a whiter stone – is this real granite? Can the sources of the rocks be established?

There is an aumbry-like rectangular gap immediately inside the main door, and a  single-light, off centre, east-facing window: squared headed Perp with a cusp to the outside, but oddly, arched within, leading to a faintly bizarre conflation of lintel and keystone in its design.

The upper storey is marked, tower-like, by a string mould, and its function is clear. The east window is central in the facade, arched and large enough to have taken two or even three lights: no traces remain of this; the arch, as in the doors, is more equilateral than four-centred, perhaps underlining the comparatively early date in the Perp sequence. In the wall immediately S, a pointed-arched unmoulded piscina; at floor level in the ground a recess: so this had an altar, and mass must have been said daily, strongly suggesting that someone resided or spent most of their time here.  Also two rough gaps or openings either side of the E window: just the kind of suggestive but inconclusive feature one often gets in these ‘cult-related’ (or at least sub-parochial) buildings, so interesting, so potentially illuminating, so unexplored, and once so very widespread. The roof was gabled and is open to the wide view over to Castles an Dinas and Dennis and the hail-spattered, half-landscaped Austell Lumps.

The obvious human intervention does nto end here: the upper story door leads to another, lintel headed, and one can easily walk on natural stone round the back/W of the upper storey and across a saddle, and here immediately SW of the chapel-thing anther portion of the topmost rock has been hollowed into a space; there are traces of rough granitic supporting walling at floor level, too; an area presumably also with some function. The lintel-door suggests this was not religious in nature.

There’s said to be a rock with a hole in at the bottom somewhere, into which water does mysterious things; and there are various legendary associations, not least with John Treccarel, my favourite Cornishman, whose sotires cannot fail to bridge politics and myth, uncertainty and clarity, ancient and modern, in ways that show an unnering sense of where the landscape justifies some myth-spinning.

Categories: 1

More c1200 thoughts

February 2, 2010 Leave a comment

… Of course, the new distancing of altar from congregation in the ec13 might itself have fuelled the demand for more accessible altars and led to the founding of more memorial masses, thus driving the putting up of the aisles. If that’s the case it’s the second, usually N aisle that is the most interesting side effect, as that’s the one that usually appears an add-on (…if it *is* an add-on… ). Or is it also a universal swing towards the creation of Lady chapel aisles, more traditionally on the N than the S, a kind of parish church equivalent ofthe axial Lady chapels but again in its way even more remarkable because widespread and apparently grouped quite closely in time? Of course, one would in any case put up/design in the S aisle first as that is where the entrances are.

The c1200 parish church problem

February 1, 2010 2 comments

It strikes me with greater and greater force that the coming of Gothic is but an element in what makes the (broadly defined) 20 yrs either side of 1200 so remarkable. There is also a crystallisation of a series of attributes for the ‘great church’ which include some pretty radical reactions from previous norms: abandonment of the apse, abandonment of both galleries and crypts: these are big changes, and the resulting ‘great church’ canon would remain more or less unchanged until the Reformation.

And then there is the scale of the changes in parish churches, which if anything are even greater. This is hard to quantify, but surely a very signficant percentage of these buildings had been re/constructed in the previous 50+ years or so – say, c1120-c1160, that is, not so very long – only for the vast majority to have their chancels enlarged and apses in the process demolished, and then two aisles added within a couple of decades of each other.

I’ve been reading Peter Draper for elucidation, and he’s right, the aisles – surely the most counter-intuitive of these changes (though the universal flattening of the E wall is equally remarkable in its way) – must  reflect new levels of demand for altar space: more priests in the average parish (no altar should have more than one mass a day), more memorial masses; though the evidence is lacking.

What he doesn’t seem to emphasise is the revolutionary scale of the change over such a short period, especially as such a very great many of these churches seem to build one aisle only to rest a few years and then decide to build another. I would love to quantify these statements.

And all of this hand in glove with a new style; and if this is a mini-building boom does it also help explain the relative stasis of style itself from the first decade of the C13 for several decades: as with Perp (but not with Romanesque?) a building boom that was so widespread and at such a ‘low’ level may have encouraged the adoption of an architectural ‘standard’ that could be replicated in many places; perhaps especially if liturgical correctness is one of the motivators of the era.

It’s a very good standard, too, and like Perp emphasizes decorum over ostentation: a graceful and appropriate and easy-to-reproduce setting for sacred events. The sense that Lateran IV is as much a reaction to powerful currents as a catlyst for them is everywhere here.

What Draper does emphasize, and he’s quite right and why hadn’t one thought of it before, is that the installation of standard, pre-designed stone altar fittings is part of this building boom. If there were sedilia and piscinae before this, they were rare as anything; now they were put in in such numbers that an amazingly high number of good c1200/1240 egs were put in and subsequently never replaced.

Likewise, grand s doors and grand fonts are often an emphasis, only here the features themselves are not new: what is new is the rejection of the Romanesque fad for figure scuplture on them.  Yet here the picture is less emphatic: showpiece fonts and doors seem to have been the only *essential* stone furnishings of the C12 church, and where very often kept throughout the many changes of ensuing centuries, the doors on occasion even being moved outwards when new aisles were constructed. So the fact that their c1200ish equivalents are bereft of figure sculpture – geometrical patterns, stiff leaf, en delit shafting, rich moulding is the norm – is not a rejection of the past in the same way that the death of the apse is. Nor are they as widespread – churches with two c1200 apses and 1200 features in the e end often retain magnificent C12 doors, fonts, even chancel arches?…

More anon, I’m sure…

Portbury, Somerset

December 30, 2009 3 comments

Portbury is an interesting place. There’s the hillfort above; the great battered knob of hill immediately around the village; the battered ‘priory’; an enormous church stuffed next to the M4; you could almost spit on Gordano services if you wished (and I sometimes do). Some kind of history is here: is this an Anglo-Saxon minster settlement? A C12 planned town, perhaps another work of the Fitzharding-era Berkeleys?

Certainly, the church was big from the off. Its cliff-like proportions are mainly the result of a C15 (or early C16) heightening of all the walls; its barn-like plain interior of an early/mid-C14 makeover – which is why I’m here – but the basic and sizeable footprint is C12. The piers of the chancel arch are massive enough, and slender enough to be after the middle of the century. The big flat buttresses at the east end show the chancel was always as large as it is now – which is big – and no reason not to suppose a nave of the same proportions of the current one. More intriguingly they seem to be replicated at the E end of the N aisle; and if that is right then the C12 church had at least one aisle of comparable scale to the nave. As for dateable architecture, there is the font, and the very good south door, its two orders displaying all manner of inventive 3D-variants on chevron, etc, (surely firmly in the second half of the century) — and those chancel arch piers. They start high above the floor – there is wall beneath – and there seems to be some speculation that the chancel floor was raised. That would be interesting. Dramatically raised altars in parish churches, and the question of what goes beneath them and the history of such initiatives, have become a sub-theme of my interests since my work on Westbury. But I’m sceptical. It all looks very new to me, and indeed the whole e wall of the chancel, with its rich painting, and the equally tarted-up roof show there was quite a concerted and grand medievalising of this part of the church in the C19.

Anyway, one or both of the aisles must have been added in the early C13, that is within decades of completion of the church: a rate of expansion that is not baffling in itself but is remarkable when one sees how often it takes place. It’s a parish-church phenomenon, as impressive as, and even more widespread than, the rebuilding of greater church east ends at this time, and of course also goes hand in hand with the full hegemony of Gothic. Here the evidence are the two sedilia, and this is interesting in itself: just the pattern I’ve posited for Westbury: a grandish one by the high altar, a secondary one, slightly toned back in its detailing, at an important subsidiary altar, at this point in the (new?: which means the south door was kept and moved when it was built, though that is not an unusual thing to do) south aisle.

Two sedilia in a parish church suggests some serious pretensions, though apart from the polished stones on the shafting the quality is not high; a pattern that will be repeated over the centuries to come. The natural assumption is that this is the Lady chapel, but if so it is on the wrong side of the church; and at Westbury (which of course was collegiate) we proved that in spite of a C13 sedilia in just the same place the Lady chapel was elsewhere. So caution again.

And then there’s the triplet window in the enormous squint linking the nave south aisle and the chancel. From the inside it looks rather like a ‘medievalising’ (haha) work of the C14, but if so outside the hood mould and head stops outside are unnervingly well-informed about earlier architectures. Anyway, it demonstrates the altar here – where a Lady chapel would more normally be – was of some importance, too. Which then raises the Westbury problem: who on earth would install a second sedilia in any church in a location that was not that church’s most important subsidiary altar? These things are sent to worry us: Obama only has Afghanistan to make a decision on: nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.

Which brings us smartly to the C14, where my money is. This isn’t just a ‘church of the Berkeley familia’ ( a la Winterbourne) or a ‘church with Bristol-influenced Dec work’ (a la Backwell): it’s both, or so I’m hoping, and not any old Berkeley: Maurice III Lord Berkeley himself ran this part of the great family landholdings effectively as a subsidiary Lordship until his father died, establishing it as his main seat; he then only had a few years to make his mark as Lord in his own right before being sucked into the anti-Edward II rebellion, arrested by the King and thrown into Wallingford castle where he died. Yet he emerges as one of the most interesting builder-Berkeleys: at least as likely as anyone to have kicked the rebuilding of St Augustine’s, Bristol into touch, and known to have involved himself architecturally elsewhere. And for those crucial decades, Portbury was not just an important Berkeley seat (where *was* their seat here?); it was effectively the deputy capital of the whole caboodle. I don’t have time to go trawling through records at this moment (this is a blog, not a conference paper); but I recall Maurice buried his wife Eve here, and founded a chantry; and then Thomas III his son, an equally intriguing figure (for his piety as for his energy and his (potential) architectural patronage) greatly enhanced its endowment and had his much-mourned (if his chantry foundations are anything to go by) and politically well-connected first wife Margaret Mortimer remembered here, too. I recall too that the Lady chapel was the focus for this… wherever that was. So any Dec work is of the greatest interest to me.

Well, there’s plenty of it. And it’s at once ambitious and plain as a pikestaff. The great capless tower arch, with its wave mouldings, is probably Dec (Perp tower arches can do this kind of thing, too: a problem noted and even more urgent at Westbury). The marching and massive rhythm of the arcades certainly is; not a cap and barely a moulding to be seen, bold in its simplicity, and knowing of it too, when one glances at the fiddly bases to some of the piers (especially those in the bays parallel with the Dec N and C12 S doors; also note here a big C14 head poking out of the apex of one arch). Yet it’s not a rebuild; it makes the church *feel* Dec but in fact it has been on a grand scale since at least the 1160s, and this suggests a trawl back through the Berkeley patrons and foundations of the C12 and C13 may be in order, too. Bring out the Wells-Furby! Anyway, all this seems to be built with congregants in mind: in particular, stone seats are provided around all the aisles and around all the bases of the arcades; an exceptionally layman-focused gesture at this date. St Augustine’s has aisle-edge seating, too.

Of course it is easy to link the simple force of the design with the St Augustine’s/Wells-strainer-arches approach, and there is certainly a commonality; but this kind of thing, a little-celebrated ‘polite’ version of the style I call ‘boring Dec’ is amazingly common, and frustratingly hard to date. It is interesting as a harbinger of Perp thinking; as a different model from show-off Dec; as a rather un-medieval taste for the plain, unadorned Form, and it is not at all unusual to stumble across it. At the grandest level buildings like Milton Abbey and in some senses Ottery St Mary are in this tradition. What role if any the William Joy axis, or influences from other architectures – Mendicant churches, Edwardian castles – has in its creation or spread it is too early to say.

It is also obvious here in the windows, which are also testament to the extent of the Dec makeover of the church. Both aisle-end windows, one aisle west window, and all the windows in the chancel go with it. Only one, interestingly the S window overlooking the high altar, has any kind of tracery elaboration – though this example is pretty good – all the others are a type familiar from Ottery and Milton and elsewhere, which is basically the EE stepped lancet updated for the tracery age: three cusped lights under an arch. Indeed five, in the case of the aisle east walls. It couldn’t really be plainer. And one other relevant madeover-in-the-C14 barnlike church comes immediately to mind: Berkeley, which has just this tracery. Witness too the simple ogee of Berkeley’s south door, compared to that of the little Dec stoup by the south door here at Portbury. The problem with this simplicity is it lacks stylistic ‘smoking guns’. But Berkeley has another thing in common with this building: though it plainly knows of more sophisticated architectures (at Berkeley, how could one not, with that surely-William-Joy castle chapel new or underway? next door; here – well, I’m coming to that) it is not just bare, it is also not particularly well done. At both places the patron is determined to make a pretty grand gesture, but equally clear he’s not throwing a top team of masons at it. It’s even speculatable that this is the same team of masons, working at the same time, which raises the game rather. Whether the aesthetics of the result is a conscious choice or a reflection of a limited budget is harder to be sure about; they were certainly happy to leave good older work – the two sedilia, the south door, the font – in place.

So far, so inconclusive-yet-intriguing. What justifies getting the place unlocked, which took two phone calls and a lingering nice little old man in a flat cap who bemoaned the tiny congregation and the dangers inherent in the proximity of the M4, is the one piece of Dec (surely) work in the place, and that is the addition made to the chancel.

It’s basically a little chapel. Almost a tiny transept, stuck off the side of the east end. Its arch is steep-edged and plain; the caps merely a ledge, as if they were Anglo-Saxon. The walls have been broken through to do this, and they are finished off but left entirely unadorned, but step back slightly with a slight curve as if something was expected to lie in the lower part of the arch – an effigy? a fitting? The window, sadly, is part of the C15 makeover (a nice small elaborate Dec window here would have balanced that on the other side of the chancel very well); less easy to date (and explain) is the enormous squint, which runs from an arch in the NE chapel at preist’s-head-height through to an arch into this chapel. It contains the C14? C13? window mentioned earlier, so small it was surely made for it, thus raising issues of dating and of what stood on the sight of the chapel before.

What dates the chapel-thing itself is its vault. A vault! A tunnel vault. A tunnel vault supported by six massive close-together arches, each identical, setting up a powerful ribbed rythmn that reaches out from this tiny space to bring a shock to the entire chancel. The ribs have bold, simple mouldings, chamfered fading into flatness at each base, and the confirmation that (however rough the execution) someone In the Know is behind this comes with the ridge rib, which is articulated like two ribs or planks of wood meeting each other or bent in the middle, and which runs right past the outer arch to the chancel only to stop as if chopped in two.

This kind of thing is directly related to St Augustine’s in its most brutal/archaic register, and in particular the massive ribs over the two tomb-arches cut between the choir and the Elder Lady Chapel, surely additions made by Thomas III in association with the burial there (and associated lavish soul-remembering) of Margaret Mortimer (and see also the little vaulted passage built into one wall of the Outer North Porch at St Mary Redcliffe). It’s by someone who knows of this work, both in its boldness and in its plainness and in its go-out-of-your-way-to-be-oddness. From here, too, may come the knowing reuse of C12 details, for example in the corbels built into the chancel for the Lenten veil, and perhaps some of the corbels for the nave (?and chancel) roofs; and more crucially, the keeping of the C12 chancel arch piers but rebuilding of the arch above: witness Urchfont. And while the jury is out as to whether we finger Maurice or Thomas for it (or indeed the abbots of St Augustine’s, who held the advowson, raising even more interesting stuff to explore), the balance of probability given the link with those tomb arches has to be Thomas, that is later rather than earlier, 1330s and 40s rather than 1310s (1322-7 is out for reasons of War). So Berkeley church, too?

Any sign of a function? Well, firstly there is no sign of any fittings of the period. A big Berkeley arms (quartered with those of someone else) in the south chancel aisle is surely C17; other parts of the same lost monument are scattered through the church. More interesting, a collection of stained glass fragments have been grouped in the north choir aisle, and they are almost all rich in colour, c1320-50 a la those at St Augustine’s, and the recognisable white-on-red crosses of the Berkeley arms are prominent among them (there’s traces of polychromy, too, big red chevrons up the arch nearest the south door). These could have come from anywhere of course, but they once again raise the question of the significance of one aisle altar over another; pushing the balance the other way, the big, bold but not very well carved corbel heads for the roof in the south aisle are surely C14, when all the others look later. But more than anything else, the combo of recorded chantry foundation, elaborate squinch/priest’s passage and show-off Chapel Thing (there is no piscina now) near the altar, when compared with the other contemporary memorial fittings and changes that I’m investigating, suggest that various functions might be complementary rather than exclusive: remembering Berkeley souls, especially those of Eve and Margaret; Marian piety; settings for Easter sepulchres. It’s increasingly becoming clear how personal tomb and Easter sepulchre could overlap; how at this stage the architectural expression of chantry spaces, memorial spaces and other liturgical functions is very much up for grabs, is indeed a nexus of creative tension: this is all more grist for the mill. The Easter sepulchre function is further suggested by the fact that for some reason the church today remembers our Ribbed Thing as the chapel of St Helen; those step-backs at the entrance to the Thing could well be for this, or a tomb, or both. Enough already: I’m glad I came.

As for the C15, as ever it’s hard not to fall asleep. But the enormous aisle walls and their parapet-of-panels (crenellations above) are interesting – on the S side the big flat-topped windows have a retaining arch set high above, as if someone though the walls might squash them. The porch was added then, and there’s good colour on the nice niche above the south porch door, which has been brutally shaved off in the C16 or C17. It has a parvise, surely a treasury, as plain and secure as Westbury. There are tracery panels from C15 bench ends grouped together to make the modern choir stalls, and some fragments of very plain, light late medieval foliage motifs in the glazing of some of the tracery lights. The tower is plain as a pikestaff if unmissable from J19. it’s west window is quite Deccish, but again this window is often a place for designers to be a bit more, er, Decorous, and the whole tower is plainly an addition to the previous Dec buttressing of the west wall (so the previous tower must have been rather thin). But the roofs are good, and very close to Westbury. I’ve noted in the past that north-of-the-Avon Perp masons rarely cross the water; perhaps competent carpenters where more flexible, or there were fewer of them.

And with that we leave, noting that two trees in the churchyards are surrounded by more seat-like platforms, the eastern of which is octagonal and thus surely supported an external cross; that the yew is 2000 years old (it says, on the sign pinned to the ancient ribbed red bark); that the standing stone outside the primary school came from a field to the N, suggesting a ritual focus has gathered in the Gordano services/springline/hill/floodplain on the S side of the Avon nexus for a giddyingly long time. Intriguing stuff, indeed.

Backwell, Somerset

December 30, 2009 Leave a comment

I didn’t look at the Other Bits of Backwell for long: I’ve been here before, and I knew what I was here for. And anyway, dare I say, it the rest of the building is basically Just Another Perp Church (nothing wrong with that); except for the font, basic ?early C12; an attempt at recarving it in the C15 entertainingly abandoned halfway round; and the tower, in its current form apparently rebuilt in the C16 or C17 (there’s an inscription on it, cited by Pevsner); but with various features that suggest there was once something with a big, handsome, presumably eC16 ogee feature at parapet level, and rather more intriguingly the mullions of lower windows splitting at the *bottom* to form a big wide quatrefoil: the kind of eccentricity that rings C14 Bristol bells; St Mark’s chapel on College Green has this on its tower, too.

Actually, scrub that: I’ve just looked at my photographs, and have no doubt that the parapet is the only thing on this tower that was redone after the Reformation. The angels with their sacred heraldry on shields are surely late medieval; and thus so must be the quatrefoils in the windows and the big ogee. And the arcades and chancel arch could just be a standard-C14, though I think not. Anyway either side of the chancel arch two rather entertainting corbels, a man to the S and a woman in a big wimple to the N, take or took the rood beam or some such feature.

Anyway, inside, off the chancel is one of the only structures anywhere outside Bristol and St Mary Redcliffe to not only use Bristol East End motifs without understanding them (Dorchester abbey, St David’s pulpitum) or be generally stylistically bold without specifically referencing this *particular* brand of experimentalism (Cheltenham St Mary), or even to use Bristol motifs very interestingly, without *quite* being able to show a smoking gun (Minchinhampton transept, St Davids bishops palace): but to actually be the Holy Grail and Real McCoy, albeit on a small scale (Urchfont, St Mary Redcliffe): that is, a work surely by the Bristol master or someone of equal skill who knows his work intimately.

It’s a frustating thing, too. For some reason (was the original chantry never properly founded? Or perhaps was it not originally a chantry?) the place I’m about to describe, which I will call the Chapel Thing, was redone in the C15 – there’s a good TSANHS article on this. The arch was filled with a curious thing displaying heraldry (but is the curious thing part of the C14 phase?); a big table tomb with more heraldry, with a screen of panelling above it, was also inserted; a Perp window was put in to light the space. And (for example) the little squint, lined with a reused stretch of C12 masonry, in the E wall could be of either date. As I guess could it’s intriguingly interlinking with adjacent spaces, all of which would be very suggestive… if one could date them.

A wall was cut through the ?Lady chapel to the W, so an arch leads directly from one to the other. The Perp E window of this chapel is above this new arch; and both it and the N window have Deccish Perp tracery, different to the conventional Perp in the rest of the church, that might just go with the chapel-thing too. And to the E, and here we are surely in the C14, our space is attached to vestry or treasury with a steep gable and a single high-up lancet in its gable (the vestry has a C19 e window, too). Our Chapel Thing has outside now a Perp parapet, but one wonders if the original profile was not an M-like double gable. I’d love to get into this vestry.

So vestry, access from E chapel, access to high altar, and Chapel Thing itself are all potentially part of one conception. This is very comparable to Portbury, where the resulting work is much less sophisticated (but more likely to be all of one period), and more to the point very comparable to the Berkeley chapel at Bristol cathedral and its archaeologically confus/ing, culturally/aesthetically interesting multiple modes of access and conflation of sight line, physical access, creation of exclusive space, clerical space, chantry space, altar space, easter sepulchre, tomb (…Lady and Easter linked?..) … no wonder the world breathed a sigh of relief when Perp came along and the cage chantry solved all this. Another C14 comparitor, functionally but not stylistically comparable to the Berkeley chapel, is at Bere Ferrers: intriguingly, this latter is a sub-Thomas of Witney take on the same idea.

As for the Chapel Thing itself, the C15 entrance screen-and-tomb is contained in an extraordinary C14 (?1310-1350) gable. Its outer outline is simply thick and steep and energetic; in form, not special in other ways. But the moulding is unusual, a big thick bare roll breaking up into more fiddly elements: very sub-William Joy. At the top is a colossal and very well-carved crocket. It rises off abnormally wide pinnacles which show us their angles rather than their sides, just like the Elder Lady Chapel arches do at St Augustine’s. All the finials have the curious and very distinctive necking feature also seen in the Elder Lady Chapel and the side doors to the Outer North Porch at St Mary Redcliffe – including the even more colossal, almost Berkeley-chapel-anteroom-fevered finial this gable contains, which is the peak of a separate gable-within-a-gable, an inner gable, whose mouldings collide with (and in their lower registers die into) the outer one. This takes a hard-to-describe form: as if a hexagon had been cut in two, but only half way up its two outermost sides; and to boot at its peak the corner of the imaginary hexagon, instead of meeting at a corner, is given a slight curved up to the enormous finial. This allows the uppermost of the three big cusps contain within this inner gable to end ogivally; the other two do not. And the panel-and-heraldry screen is set within this form, but only just touching it, creating more rather Bristolian games: perhaps it is not entirely a C15 addition? Anyway there can be no doubting the form of the two gables; they are, like the Berkeley chapel ante room itself, an entertaining scrap from the master’s table (or perhaps, if he is not W Joy or N Derneford, the other extreme, a small commission given to a man too odd to have enjoyed widespread acceptance.

Inside, life continues to be just as exciting, for a la Portbury, and again the Elder Lady chapel arches, the roof is a colossal tunnel vault, but its form is the chopped-off hexagon of the inner gable, and it is, again a la Portbury, supported on a tight series of six ribs, but these of course follow the hexagon too, and more to the point they are (unlike Portbury, which is comes out looking distinctly third-rate), very finely detailed: good, clean, simple mouldings; cusps which plainfully alternate as depressed semicircles, where they lie against the flat sides of the hexagon, and ogees, where they sit into its corners); it likewise relates in quite a clever way to the inner side of the cut-hexagon gable, which is cut through the wall and faces into the chapel and so has a chancel-side with finely moulded and subcusped ogee cusps all round – now very close to the inner side of the stellate recesses at St Augustine’s of which this is now such an obvious cousin – and chapel-side has a lower version of the vault ribs, but now again with ogees all round (… only this time no subcusps).

If anyone can follow this it will be plain that this is on a small scale as clever and effortlessly unique (does one call it ‘Dec’ or ‘Perp’ or just ‘Bristol?’ as anything at the Great Enigma on College Green.

By contrast the arch to the east-aisle chape is a la Portbury as plain as a pikestaff, simply cut through the wall, but ashlar faced and with a little step-mould all round; its profile another low depressed semicircle. Hard to be sure if this is C14 or C15; but the squint beyond on the inside does seem, from the stonework linking the two, to be an addition to the inner cut-hexagon arch to which it is adjacent, and if that is right the two-light window it contains is more Perp panel than two-cusped Dec lancet, though in appearance it is a little more the latter; and the emphatic four-centered arch which heads it is thus not another early use (frequent in W Joy and in Bristol stuff: see the Exeter pulpitum [from where too perhaps come the enormous-foliage-idea and the straight-line-arch-suddenly-taking-a-curve-at-the peak]; the central feature of the Bristol east window; the blank arcades (almost panels) within Redcliffe’s Outer North Porch) but a suggestion that in its current form at least this, the arch to the e chapel, and much of the e chapel itself are part of the (re) chantryfication of the space in the C15. So the jury has to be out on this dimension of the whole shebang.

Frustrating, but this is still a beast that it rare as topsy. I’d publish some pics but I’ve promised myself not to: if I start adding bangs and whistles I’ll only end up undermining the precious seconds I get to blog thusly at all. The only question being, does anyone out there remotely understand what I’m on about?….
Posted by the extollager at 15:20