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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.

Parish church problems

December 31, 2009 Leave a comment

I probably should have had my mind on higher things during the Christingle service in our local parish church, but it only takes a few waterholding bases and a hint of reticulation in the east window to make my mind wander…

This, it must be stressed, is a very ordinary building; over-restored, and entirely lacking in really notable features. Yet it struck me that the church exemplifies a whole series of problems that are common to a great many parish churches. It may be that these problems are beyond solution, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to address them. Each relates in important ways to the wider project of understanding medieval architecture; each applies to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of standing buildings across this country (… and how one would love to know whether and how they can be mapped onto comparable buildings in other countries).

So, what are these ‘parish church problems’, at least as they currently present themselves to me?

1) Origins Our village has a (partly) pre-Conquest name; the church stands on a pronounced rise that might suggest a long period of activity on the site before it was constructed. The oldest dateable part of the building is late C12, late in the 2-300-year period of parish creation; and one could make a good argument for our parish having been carved from a much larger parish or minster territory whose epicentre was in another village two miles to the south. So when was a religious building first created on this site? Where there preceding Christian sites elsewhere in the vicinity? What kind of structures, architecturally, preceded the current one?

2) Site The precise location of parish churches vis a vis other elements in the landscape, especially centres of settlement and power, can change radically, making a superficial analysis of the modern landscape a poor guide to that in which the building was created and developed. This is particularly true of our church, which is distinctive, if by no means unique, in one way: it stood adjacent to a small priory whose mother house lay in Normandy. And there is much about its site that raises questions. The presume site of the priory cuts the church off from the village; indeed the village’s primary feature may be the wide curve of the priory site, which today contains nothing but the manor house and its gardens, rather cut off from the main focuses of settlement in the modern village itself. And the church is even further from the village. So was its main function originally monastic? And did that emphasis change when the priory was dissolved, in the early fifteenth century? These are pretty specific issues, it must be admitted, and in many ways the most interesting aspect of the building, but the general question of sites and their developments remains of potential interest in almost every location.

3) Development over time By this I don’t mind the simple fact of development, which is a given; more the patterns of it. When was the greatest parish church building boom? The mid C12? The late C15? How do the patterns of when and where resources were devoted to parish churches relate to the comparable patterns for great churches? The latter, at least can be reconstructed – I do so in my book – but establishing a comparable picture for parish churches is rather more of a challenge, given the lack of documentation, and the extent to which one phase of development tends to obscure another. Something like this can, however, be done for my church: an apparent new-build of the later C12, resulting in a nave, two narrow aisles, and a square-ended chancel; the tower is unknown. A substantial refurbishment in the C14, possibly including a tower, and a wholesale updating of the chancel: possibly only, however: the one completely diagnostic surviving feature, the east window, may be C19. And then a Perp-ification: all the other surviving windows, all the parapets, a clerestory, widened aisles, a porch, a tower: the result is a building whose bones precede the C15 but which visually is externally entirely of that century. The timing in our churches case is particularly interesting vis a vis the dissolution of connections with its mother house – which was replaced by an English Royal college; yet the architecture that results is no different from many standard parochial churches.

4) The late C12 a particularly interesting subset of this. It is of course a period of the greatest significance in great churches: this is when galleries and crypts and apses are abandoned, when east ends and axial Lady chapels begin to be created everywhere, and when gothic emerges. Comparably radical developments are hinted at at parish churches: a great many new east ends here, too; but what is one to make of the countless buildings that contain two arcades, one (often the north?) a decade or two later than the other, or perhaps just more plainly detailed, and built contemporaneously and with little mutual co-ordination?

5) Dull Decorated a particularly undemonstrative brand of C14 architecture is frequently encountered. Formulaic tracery: reticulated, or triple lancets cusped and placed under an arch. Arches with simple detailing: little more than double-chamfered mouldings, sometimes given a wide wave; the only firm clue to date is the lack of capitals, and the fact that a C15 attempt at the same thing would feature different arch profiles (for example). This overlooked brand of Decorated is disturbingly common – my churche’s chancel arch and tower arch both fit the bill, and arguably the much-redone windows and simple sedilia in the chancel, too. It is also hard to date confidently, raises worrying questions about style – can one really be sure it is C14 at all? – and undermines received wisdom about the aims and concerns of architecture between the death of stiff leaf and the birth of the panel.

6) Understanding Perp Dull Decorated exists in a context where there are a great many other models for how architecture can be. Early English is only ‘fixed’ for a couple of decades. By contrast the Perp ‘makeovers’ that so many churches – including mine – underwent can be extraordinarily formulaic. There are, for example, a couple of Perp/reticulated tracery types (and associated detailing) that can be seen replicated in countless churches across the country. Is the date range for these really a wide as it seems, ie late C14-Reformation? If so, where does the burden of change really lie, and is the apparent dominance of Perp really as great as it seems, or merely a side-effect of architectural repetition over a long period?