Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Slapton, Northamptonshire

Christ's strongman

England’s medieval parish churches were originally decorated with wall paintings, collections of images depicting Bible stories, the lives of the saints, and other Christian subjects. Church interiors once glowed with colour as a result, but because of the iconoclasm that followed the English Reformation, most of these paintings were destroyed – commonly by overpainting with whitewash. Some have been restored, but whitewash, the removal of whitewash, and other wear and tear mean that most medieval English church wall paintings are at best fragmentary and faded.

Some of the best are in the church of St Botolph’s, Slapton, Northamptonshire. The subjects, painted in the 14th and 15th centuries, include the Annunciation, the Resurrection, St Michael weighing souls, and St Francis receiving the stigmata. But the best survival is a large painting of St Christopher, one of the most popular subjects of the medieval wall painters.

St Christopher is on the north wall of nave. This is the usual position for a painting of St Christopher – perhaps because he was the patron saint of travellers and his image was designed to be the first thing travellers would see as they entered through the south door opposite.

The image refers to a popular medieval story about the saint. He was said to have been a tall, strong man, who declared that he would serve only a person of supreme power. First he went into the service of a king, but the king was not supremely powerful because he feared Satan. So then Christopher became the servant of Satan, but Satan turned out to be fearful of the cross. So Christopher resolved to serve Christ, and a hermit told him that one way he could do this and use his strength was to help the weak cross a river. One of those he helped was a child who grew heavier and heavier as Christopher carried him. The child revealed that he was Jesus Christ and that he was carrying the weight of the world.

In the Slapton painting, the marks that delineate the saint’s face and the folds of his garment show the economical draftsmanship at work here; the red and earth colours give a hint at how bright the painting would originally have been. The saint’s staff is turning into a living tree, a miracle that happened when Christopher had been baptized by Christ. The teeming life of the river is represented by a handful of rather perky fish and, in the bottom left-hand corner, a small mermaid who, holding a mirror, is there as an embodiment of pride. The saint turns away from her and looks towards the traveller entering the church, and his gaze is as direct as it was 600 years ago.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Hulcote, Northamptonshire

Bricklayer’s Gothic

Hulcote is the estate village attached to Easton Neston, the great house near Towcester designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The house itself is not normally open to the public, though many passers-by are aware of it because of its great Coade stone entrance screen, which is now the grand gateway to Towcester Racecourse on the A5. The village of Hulcote is tucked away up a quiet no-though-road away from the teeming traffic heading to the racecourse (or to Silverstone, which is not far away). At the end of the road are just eight cottages on two sides of a large green.

It’s good to be reminded that a great house is about much more than grandeur and high living. Country estates in their heydays were big employers and there were often entire villages set aside to house the workers and their families. With such an estate village one is always ready for something a bit different – a special design of doorway, say, or battlements, or fancy octagonal window leading – although sometimes the only distinguishing mark is paintwork in whatever shade of Farrow and Ball the management have chosen for the village ‘uniform’.

Hulcote is no disappointment. The cottages are a far cry from the monumental baroque of the big house but no less surprising in their way. Their chequered brick and Gothic windows date to the early 19th century, maybe a hundred years later than Easton Neston itself. Their pointed windows and general ecclesiastical look have gained the place the local nickname of the ‘Chapel Village’. They look quite spacious too, a gesture of generosity, perhaps, on the part of the third Earl of Pomfret, who had them built in this distinctive style. Bricklayer’s Gothic, with residents equipped with new Minis and 4 x 4s now, rather than corduroy and pitchforks. But still surviving well.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Devizes, Wiltshire

House of healing
This is one of the many beautiful buildings on the Market Place in Devizes, a town whose architecture – houses, churches, inns, halls, brewery – is some of the best in the region. It’s called Parnella House, was built in around 1740, and in the early-19th century was home to a surgeon, a man called W. Clare. The façade is an interesting ragbag of elements in which a pair of bays with Venetian windows are sandwiched between the formality of that ground-floor colonnade and the tiny triangular pediment at the top. An eventful frontage, then, and one which holds its own amongst the many minor architectural gems in this large market place.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, the façade also accommodates a statue of the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius (or Aesculapius, to give the Latin form of his name) above the doorway. The usual symbols of Asclepius are a pair of snakes twisted around a staff, although he sometimes also has attributes such as pine cones, or a she-goat and a dog (commemorating one myth of his upbringing that tells how he was abandoned as a baby and how a nanny goat suckled him while a dog protected him). This Asclepius carries a scroll and has one snake, curled around what looks like a young tree trunk.

There’s something rustic and not too sophisticated about this statue, exemplified in the way the god’s head seems to be propping up the keystone in the crisply cut Gibbs surround that frames his image. It’s a classical subject, but the classics were just there, part of people’s background, and Asclepius could look like you or me or a farmer from the local fields. It’s good to see him still here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ludlow, Shropshire

Wooden world (2)

The west of England (especially the West Midlands, Shropshire, and Cheshire) are full of the glories of English wooden building, timber-framed houses that are as bright and flashy as magpies. I could devote many posts to the delights of buildings such as Chester’s marvellous Rows or the dazzling Little Moreton Hall, whose structure I remember creaking like a leaky old fishing smack as I walked around it. But few places are as rewarding to the admirer of England’s ‘black and white’ buildings as Ludlow.

With most ‘black and white’ buildings the timber was used for the structural framework. It was the province of the joiner, whose skill was principally to make everything fit together properly, and who often incorporated ornament in the form of ogee cross-braces, quatrefoils, and similar designs with their roots in the Gothic architecture of churches and cathedrals.

In Ludlow, though, the timber is often also the province of the carver. And some of this carving is seriously high-status stuff, like this example, high on a building in the very centre of the town. The detail on this bargeboard and finial is simply stunning, the kind of thing that in the Middle Ages would have adorned the alabaster tomb of a grandee. On this urban building it seems to speak of the prosperity of a merchant, a member of the rising middle classes.

But it speaks too of the sheer flair and hard work of the craftsman, who could be bothered to go to all these lengths to create a riot of quatrefoils, spirals, stylized flowers, and snaking borders that could hardly be appreciated without the binoculars or telephoto lens of an age to come. In Ludlow’s world of wood, it is very close to the top of the tree.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Deepest Worcestershire

Wooden world (1)

A recent visit to the open-air museum at Finsterau in Bavaria reminded me of the importance of wood as a building material in many cultures. In the forested uplands of Bavaria and the neighbouring Czech Republic, farmhouses, outbuildings, even churches are made almost entirely of wood. Indeed from Germany to Scandinavia, wood is seen as a good and appropriate building material. In England, though, people tend to look down on wooden houses, and if you can find a wooden house and stand in front of it for a while, it’s not long before someone comes along and starts making remarks about ‘sheds’ and ‘shacks’.

Of course, builders have used timber in England for centuries. Think of all those timber-framed cottages in the Unmitigatedly English Midlands. And weatherboarding is traditional in the southeast. But since the rise and rise of red brick, wooden buildings have been relegated to the minor leagues, along with structures made of corrugated iron.

So I was pleased to come across this wooden bungalow, spic and span and far from ‘low-status’, on a walk in Worcestershire. Looking well amongst the cow parsley, it’s quite isolated, so I’ll protect the privacy of its owners by not revealing its precise location. Perhaps it was built between the two World Wars, when there was a flurry of interest in wooden, often prefabricated buildings. One of the most celebrated of these was the Cottabunga, manufactured by Browne and Lilly of Reading, who promised to deliver its prefabricated parts, ready to erect, to any goods station in England or Wales, for a payment of £245 - 10 shillings.

Such buildings got a bad reputation, not because they were badly built or inadequate as houses, but because their easy-to-build technology enabled ordinary people to become their own builders, expressing themselves in the process in ways that weren’t always to the taste of middle-class aesthetic arbiters. So wooden bungalows got lumped in the minds of these commentators with houses made of old railway carriages, caravans, and tin huts. Such structures were easy targets for people who wanted to fulminate against plot-land developments and their ilk.

All of which is a shame. As the traditional builders of Bavaria and Bohemia knew, wood can be good. Solid, easy to erect, good looking, and long-lasting if properly maintained, houses like this offered an attractive alternative to a brick box in the suburbs. Long may they survive.

Monday, June 8, 2009


Life and soul

The 1981 Shell Guide to Buckinghamshire describes Buckingham as ‘A small, quiet, ancient country town of stone and brick buildings with red-tiled roofs, in a tight loop of the Great Ouse’. I was pleased to see that the centre of Buckingham still answers to this description, and that the interest spreads out from the impressive market place (with gaol and Town Hall) to the neighbouring streets. Up a narrow road off the Market Place is this medieval survivor, the Chantry Chapel.

Chantries were medieval institutions, set up to provide priests to celebrate Mass involving prayers for the souls of those who set up the chantry and for others nominated by them. Chantries were widespread in the Middle Ages, often based in chapels within parish churches, but they were suppressed in the 16th century, ultimately because they were linked with the Catholic doctrine of Puragtory.

Many chantries disappeared without leaving any architectural trace, but this chantry chapel survived by beginning a new life as Buckingham’s Latin School. The building now belongs to the National Trust and in its most recent incarnation houses a secondhand bookshop that is open two days a week. Opinions will differ as to whether this is a good use for the building, but clearly the chapel doesn’t fit into the familiar Trust template (tasteful paint finishes, tea rooms, gift shops selling pot pouri) so often used in its country houses. At least the chapel’s Gothic windows (including the lovely round one) and still older crisply carved Norman doorway, are well maintained and continue to enliven the townscape in this quiet side street.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

John Russell

Thank you (3)

I don’t keep up with the obituaries enough these days, so was saddened recently to read about the death of the art critic John Russell in August 2008. John Russell was born in 1919, went to St Paul's School and Magdalen College, Oxford, and in 1940 went to work as an unpaid ‘attaché’ at the Tate Gallery. The gallery’s pictures and staff were evacuated to Worcestershire soon after Russell arrived, and the young man soon found himself called up, first to the Ministry of Information and then to Naval Intelligence, where he met Ian Fleming.

Russell’s time in Worcestershire must have helped him write his first book, Shakespeare’s Country, for Batsford. His encounter with the creator of James Bond bore fruit after the war, when Fleming introduced him to the Sunday Times, where Russell became Art Critic in 1949. In 1974 he moved to the USA, to work for the New York Times, which he did for many years. He did many other things too, curating exhibitions, writing books (including excellent ones on Seurat and Francis Bacon), and writing for television and film.

I first read John Russell in the Sunday Times in the late 1960s where, week by week, he introduced me to modern art – big beasts like Moore and Bacon, younger artists such as Hockney and Hodgkin. I also read Shakespeare’s Country, because I lived on the edge of it. At first I didn’t realise it was by the man I was reading in the paper every week – the book seemed backward-looking whereas the weekly art reviews presented the new with all its shocks. But then the books of regional travel and history that Batsford published during the Second World War were precisely designed to look back in order to remind people what they were fighting for. At the Sunday Times Russell was engaging in different kinds of looking – whether casting backward glances at the career of Picasso or assessments of everything from Pop Art to Joseph Beuys. Most of his writing, though, was thoughtful, insightful, and appreciative – he liked best to write about what he best liked.

When I first read Shakespeare’s Country, I found the writing rather mannered: the book has a tendency to compare places in England to more glamorous ones overseas, so that the countryside resembles the Italian campagna or a town is like Auteuil. But such comparisons are meant to reassure the 1940s reader that the short journeys then possible could yield pleasures equal to those of grander continental tourism. And I was grateful to be introduced to such pleasures - the isolated church at Strensham, for example, with its chancel full of monuments,romantic and deserted country houses, the backstreets of faded, elegant Cheltenham. It is the territory, of course, of this blog. I came to see too that Russell's style was not always mannered, and that he was at pains to show that writing about places and buildings, though it might look back, did not have to be deadeningly nostalgic, or wallowingly indulgent; that it could embody precision, and impart interesting and useful information. That it could be the result of interested enquiry and that it could provoke further enquiry in the reader. And that it did not have to be, as Russell himself put it, reliant on ‘the strange sexual-anthropomorphic idiom of English country-writers, in which villages nestle, valleys girdle, and rivers are said to have issue’.

And so it was that John Russell fired my growing interest in buildings – their history and context as well as their architecture, starting balls rolling that are still in motion. And that he also helped me to find what I could like in art, and how I might understand it. And above all that criticism isn’t always about, or even primarily about, demolishing things – it can also be about taking them apart to show how they work and why you like them.

For starting me off, and keeping me going, thank you, John Russell.