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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