Thursday, December 23, 2010

Huish Episcopi, Somerset


Season's greetings

The more medieval parish churches I visit, the more I’m struck by the way their architecture and decoration varies form region to region. Often this is a matter of building materials, but just as frequently it’s a question of some local preference for a specific kind of feature or visual effect. And sometimes, this preference produces work of such quality that it stands out from the crowd – the graceful stone spires of Northamptonshire, the extraordinary decorative carving of the small Romanesque churches of Herefordshire, the woodwork – screens, font covers, angel-crowded roofs – of East Anglia are all memorable examples. So are the wonderful late-medieval towers of Somerset, of which Huish Episcopi is one of my favourite examples.

These tall and elaborate towers, built in the 15th century, dominate town centres and sometimes surprisingly small villages. They mostly follow a similar pattern, on which the masons played subtle variations. There is a large window above the doorway; above that, storeys are separated by bands of carving, and the upper levels have openings that look like windows but contain pierced stonework to allow the sound of the bells to carry. There are sometimes niches for statues. The tower is crowned with a lace-like openwork parapet and slender pinnacles. The tower at Huish Episcopi has all these features, arranged in a beautiful balance, so that we look up in admiration. The 100-foot tower is rather big for the church it crowns, but, no matter, it takes the breath away.


The interior of this church has one treasure from a later era that also stops visitors in their tracks. This is the stained-glass window of the Nativity, designed by Edward Burne-Jones and produced in the workshop of William Morris. Crowded round with onlooking and music-making angels, Mary reclines on the straw of the stable, cradling the infant Jesus in her arms. The Magi wait on the left to present their gifts. It’s an unusual composition, dominated by the pale robes and pinkish wings of the host of angels, topped by the stable roof and the hint of a starry sky, and the elongated figures are very much of their time. If the recumbent Mary seems odd to our eyes, she has a long pedigree: there are examples of this posture in Nativity scenes in medieval stained glass in Chartres and Cologne, worthy sources of inspiration for a window in this noble building crowned with its wonderful tower.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog this year. Season’s greetings to you all.

* * * *

Note: A commenter has pointed out that the Mary is often portrayed in a recumbent posture in Byzantine art. There are a couple of examples here.

30 comments:

VoiceTalk said...

Lovely waking up to this post and Burne-Jones' window. I've enjoyed your blog immensely. Wishing you a wonderful holiday season - Daniel

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks, Daniel. It's a beautiful window - quite a surprise, in its late-medieval context, but a good surprise.

Vinogirl said...

The Nativity window is beautiful.

alaine@éclectique said...

I certainly have enjoyed your posts. What drew me to this one was the word Huish; my maiden name was Hewish and our ancestors came from Cheriton Fitzpaine in Devon. There has been many derivations of our name. I know that one of them, Huis, is the Dutch for house and have now found that Huish meant 'household' or 'hide'.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Vinogirl: Pleased you liked it. Hope you have a good and vinous Christmas!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Alaine: Yes, there are several place-names containing the word 'Huish' in Somerset and Devon, and the Oxford Dictionary of British Place-Names says that they mean 'measure of land that would support a family', ie 'hide'. An early spelling of the place-name is Hewis.

Neil said...

What's wonderful to me is the fact that the Victorians could allow Burne-Jones/Morris to install this stained glass in a medieval church. I don't think that nowadays you would get Tracey Emin or Grayson Perry supplying new windows for a parish church - they would probably be delighted to do so, but the mentality of parishioners and church officials would be decidedly against. And thanks so much for a year's worth of special insights into special buildings.

shui-long said...

Seasons greetings to you - and thank you for another year of a blog which is always worth reading, with some striking images and fascinating sidelights.

bazza said...

What a delightful way culminate the season of superb posts!
The stained-glass window is a real bonus.
May you and all of your loved ones have a wonderful Christmas and New Year with best wishes from Bazza of ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Shui-Long and Bazza: Many thanks for your good wishes.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Neil: This is a very good point. Here you have a top-ranking late-19th century artist designing a window for a medieval church. He's stimulated by the medieval style, but in many ways his design is nothing like a medieval window. Yet he is welcomed by the Victorians. Today the attitude is very different. While cathedrals will allow modern art in - think of Gloucester's recent successful sculpture exhibition and the same cathedral's hosting of Gormey's Field -it;s often in the form of a temporary installation. And as for this kind of thing getting near parish churches - it's unlikely indeed that Emin or Perry will be commissioned very soon to do a window for a parish church.

Marc said...

The Nativity with a recumbent Mary surrounded with angels is how the subject's depicted in Byzantine iconography, so there's a very long pedigree for Burne-Jones's composition.

Somerset churches do indeed look beautiful; St John the Baptist's in my home town of Cardiff has a tower built in the same stages you describe, but is nothing like as finely detailed. Are there are any others, besides Huish Episcopi, that you would particularly recommend?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Marc: Thanks for the information about the scene as depicted in Byzantine art.

There are lots of beautiful Somerset towers. My personal favourite, apart from Huish Episcopi, is Isle Abbots- it's not one of the larger ones but beautifully detailed and in a lovely village setting. Chewton Mendip is another good one; also the large town churches in Taunton (St Mary Magdalene) and Wells (St Cuthbert). I revisited Isle Abbots recently and will do a post about it soon.

CarolineLD said...

Merry Christmas! And thank you for this lovely tower: I grew up in Somerset and still have a special fondness for its churches.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Caroline. More towers, soon!

Wartime Housewife said...

Merry Christmas Wilko!

Philip Wilkinson said...

And have a good one yourself, WH!

peggy braswell said...

How I appreciate your pictures+all your posts-so blessed to have found you!..looking forward to another London trip in 2011. Merry Christmas from Southern CA..usa xx peggybraswelldesign.com

historo said...

Happy Christmas from Bucharest! Your blog is a constant source of learning, providing excellent methodological clues for my research and activity in the field of historic houses in Romania!
Valentin Mandache
www.historo.wordpress.com

lostpastremembered said...

I am a new fan of this blog but have had no end of fun looking at the lovely sights you share... that window must be heaven in person... add to the view list!!!

Gaw said...

Merry Christmas, Philip, and thank you for introducing me to this beautiful window. I wonder if you're familiar with the window I posted today on my blog? It's in a Cotswolds church and is one of the last -beautiful and moving - creations of the same Arts and Crafts movement:

http://gawragbag.blogspot.com/2010/12/something-beautiful.html

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you all so much.

Gaw: Lovely window, which I'd forgotten about - I last visited Bibury church about 20 years ago I think. Time I went back.

Ron Combo said...

Great blog, great post (as ever) Wilko. Thank you and hope your Christmas is suitably vinous too!

Frank D. Myers said...

Your posts are a recurring gift. Merry Christmas (on the second day thereof)!

DC said...

This church was featured on a UK postage stamp in 1971, as part of a series of English churches.

Philip Wilkinson said...

John Piper also did a lovely print of the tower, one of his many of English churches.

dave e said...

I have been lurking for ages, but wanted to break my silence and say thank you for this wonderful site. England is so lucky to have these buildings. I wonder how we stack up against Italy and France etc in terms of built heritage

Anyway, this beautiful tower is a favourite of mine. It is hauntingly beautiful and majestic architecture. It inspires awe now, let alone the peasant folk who used it anew.

This blog is superb and has inspired me to do something similar in Lincolnshire which will appear in time

Keep up the wonderful work

dave e said...

I have been lurking for ages, but wanted to break my silence and say thank you for this wonderful site. England is so lucky to have these buildings. I wonder how we stack up against Italy and France etc in terms of built heritage

Anyway, this beautiful tower is a favourite of mine. It is hauntingly beautiful and majestic architecture. It inspires awe now, let alone the peasant folk who used it anew.

This blog is superb and has inspired me to do something similar in Lincolnshire which will appear in time

Keep up the wonderful work

Philip Wilkinson said...

Dave: Thanks very much indeed for your comment. It's much appreciated, and I'd have responded sooner if I had not been away from the internet for a few days.

Britain stacks up well against its European neighbours, I think, but each country has its particular strengths.

All the best with your Lincolnshire project. If you see this, let me know when you go public.

dave e said...

Hi Philip,

No problem at all! I think we excel in the UK in churches, houses and villages/small towns. I think we have damaged some of the bigger cities too much. On recent visits to Birmingham and central London, the large amount of uncomfortable modern architecture is upsetting. Having said that, Newcastle is fabulous for the building lover I hear.

I will let you know about the Lincolnshire project. I havent done anything like it before, so setting up the website and visiting the places (this is a huge county and not easy to navigate)is a challenge. I havent decided on format. I am not sure whether to concentrate on churches or go for all historic buildings (with a modern building here and there if it is exceptional. I relocated here from my home in Surrey a few years ago and the county seems little known outside its boundaries and ripe for appraisal. There are 600 medieval churches here alone so I have my work cut out. Lincoln and Stamford will take some work!
Thanks again for your reply and wonderful blog.