Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Meysey Hampton, Gloucestershire
A practised classicism
According to the way the history of English church architecture is usually written, there were relatively few churches built between the point when Henry VIII dealt his knock-out blow to the old religion by breaking with Rome and the rise of Classical architecture, which, although it had a brief flowering under Inigo Jones in the Jacobean period, really only got going with Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The churches that were built in the years in between these two watersheds are often in a kind of hybrid style that isn't always easy to classify – a mix of Gothic, Classical, and vernacular – that means they're not 'good examples' of any one style, and so they get overlooked or glossed over.
But if there's not much church building, there's certainly a lot of church architecture from this period. How can this be? Because the architecture is not for the living but for the dead: it is the architecture of church monuments. Here's a wonderful example, from the church at Meysey Hampton in Gloucestershire – it's worth clicking on the picture to reveal some of the detail. It's the monument of James Vaulx, a physician, and his two wives, Editha (on his right) and Philipe (a Jacobean Phillippa, presumably, on his left). The portraits of the three are charming – Vaulx in his doctor's gown and pointed beard, resting his arm on a skull and leaning towards his first wife, whose head is slightly inclined, in turn, towards him. Philipe stares ahead, by contrast, looking life in the face. She has no skull and carries a protective pomander: she survived her husband and lived to marry again. I find these figures rather moving and the nuances of pose that the sculptor allowed himself (or was allowed by eldest son Francis who commissioned the monument) very English in their restraint. Below them are tiny images of the children, Editha's twelve (how those women worked at childbirth) and Philipe's four; some, shown in bed, presumably died before their father. Above amongst the pediments at the top of the monument are figures of the virtues.
And then there is the architecture. Look at the way the sculptor has invoked the panoply of Jacobean classicism – pediments variously shaped, scrolls, composite columns, panels, keystones, cartouches, cherubim with winged heads, niches – to frame and display his subjects. He was able to add colour too, reminding us that even in the supposedly retrained phase of the English church, things were brighter and more vivid than we sometimes think. It all adds up to a grand monument but in a rough-hewn provincial manner. Perhaps this is right for its subject. Vaulx was eminent but didn't make it to the top job of royal physician. When King James asked him how he knew how to heal, the doctor replied that he had learned by practice. 'Then by my saule thou hast killed money a man,' responded James. 'Thou shalt na'practise on me.'