Posts Tagged ‘god’s house at portsmouth’


January 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Ugly, unbeautiful, raw, yet emphatically Not Heritage: Pompey, where no self-respecting young man needs a jacket, even when its snowing, and the few historic remains stand separated from functioning shipyards by armed guards, or silent and unvisited, or alone in playing fields and car parks carved from bombsites.

Yet, rather unexpectedly Portsmouth is home to three medieval religious buildings of real formal interest. Each has a high status patron, yet none is a great church, offering insights into how new ideas might play out in lesser churches; they are well dated, and within a crucial, gothic-creating, era-defining, century.

Sitting alone in a corner of 3rd-century Portchester castle is the church of St Mary, built for a short-lived Augustinian Priory (another grand castle-chapel-community), presumably immediately after founding in 1133 (though it seems a church was already there: VCH). The community moved to Southwick where the estates of the former monastic house remain in quasi-feudal hands.

It’s cruciform, shorn of one transept, both transept chapels, and the original east end. Grand west front. Blank remains of wall arcading in the chancel, and, intriguingly, in the surviving transept. Transept E window, like the yet-grander west front, disported with recently-invented chevron, here given a further twist by having its inner order stretched and ended with a flat geometric circlet. The chancel has the wall shafts for a vault, more remarkably the transept does, too, but this cannot have been completed if the current height of the east-chapel arch is right: a mark of the move of the canons elsewhere? Hall like simple nave, big round headed windows, enormous fine crossing arches with big volute capitals, and one of those great show-off C12 fonts, the kind of fitting that never needs replacing, with exhausting flourishes of land-clearing interlace imprisoning struggling beasts and figures. A splayed naked human handled oddly in the nether-regions, like the so-called sheena-na-gig at Winterbourne Basset, Wilts.

Sixty years and an aesthetic away, the east end of my main quarry, one of a series of rule-breaking local churches in planned port-cities; in status not-quite parish churches (the parish church in each case already existed, so these were institutional cuckoos-in-nests made necessary by townmaking) but in architecture not-quite cathedrals: New Shoreham has another (Old Shoreham church nearby), and St Mary Redcliffe in its original form was a third (shared parochial status with Bedminster). All around the same date, all up to the minute emerging gothic, all, as far as on can tell, intended to be vaulted throughout and with ambitious elevations: ie qualities that were then ambitious in cathedrals, let alone not-quite-parish-churches. But then the rulebook of architectural hierarchies is at this moment being redrafted.

Why does the little east end of St Thomas’ ‘chapel’ (founded c1180- east end functioning by 1188; lands from one John de Gisors, of whom one would like to know more, working with Southwick priory, see above), the climax of Portsmouth’s weird, airy, C17/18/19 two-nave cathedral, move so? Is it the openness of the original design, with two arches in the arcade tied by a single arcing semicircle? The sparseness of the low Anglican furnishings? Or the way the wide, much later nave/choir to its west permits it to be viewed as if from the outside, like a toy? In any case, you can see why builders of this era might have thought these for-them perilously thin arches and heavy vaults might have needed new kinds of support, even if the walls remain thick and the windows bigger than heretofore, but by no means enormous. Great single columns of Purbeck; mature stiff leaf and immature water-plant-like forms side by side; the mighty enclosing arches push the gallery up into a pronounced clerestory-level wall passage: is this the latest thing in ripping up the old ways, or an avoidance of lese majeste? Likewise the flat east end, a single great arch containing a low lancet an odd resolution of the ‘Lady chapel problem’: what’s all that about? All this is packed with dating thoughts: the foliage remains this immature for decades, or matures early, depending on how one sees it; and here too are stepped lancets, already in a minor church in the decade of Wells, a decade before Lincoln or Rochester. Indeed while the elevation is heteredox by the standards of the 1120s or 1220s, the vocabulary is entirely what-would-become canonical EE.

The thoughts continue in the Royal Garrison church nearby, ‘God’s House at Portsmouth’ a hospital pure and simple unless someone can publish (VCH doesn’t) evidence of its much-vaunted pilgrimage connections. Big though. Boring Dec nave (I don’t mean it’s boring; this is shorthand for a particularly undemonstrative brand of Dec that is rarely noted), now roofless; tiny two-bay chancel is Peter des Roches, ‘recently built’ in 1214 (VCH), and so same patron and date as, for example, St Mary Ouverie; not to mention the decade-or-so-old Winchester retroquire. If the windows can be trusted the stepped lancets sometimes have cusps, or are grouped tightly under single arches, or have good plate tracery: interestingly early signs of the ideas that would be tracery, given that simple displays of enormous lancets are the norm in even the most ambitious projects well into the 1230s. The usual crisp classicality of the emerging ‘episcopal style’ (or is it a Southern style? Or somehow an Elias de Dereham style? The debate rages on… ) in spite of some slightly second-rate carved bosses and corbels, and again both real stiff leaf and not-yet-taboo variants side by side. By 1220 stiff leaf is the *only* foliage and the EE canon is set. And the usual sudden I-am-following-my-logic-rigorously scholastic eccentricities, a decade before Salisbury, such as the way the enclosing moulding of the east windowX suddenly steps outwards to follow the different trajectory of the vault’s wall-ribs.  

And most pointed of all, at a period I normally think of as rather restless, how much of the vocab is in place in a comparatively unimportant building in 1180, only tightened and refined 30yrs later.

These are the three: but Portsmouth is also a happy hunting ground for religious buildings of the C18 and C19: just for example the strange, rambling, chapel like St George’s church in X; St Agatha’s, ‘cathedral of the car parks’ with its extraordinary Heywood Sumner decorative scheme and now run by a more-Anglo-Catholic-than-thou community: next stop Hambledon Hill; the later phases of St Thomas itself; and of course the Victory, which is to all intents and purposes presented as some kind of sacred site.