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.'

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On the A44

Shires and stones

As I've said before on this blog, I have a mental map that charts my comings and goings, and this map is populated with landmarks – lone trees, filling stations, telephone boxes, barns, and so on. One of these landmarks is the Four Shire Stone, a boundary marker by the side of the A44 just east of Moreton-in-Marsh. It commemorates an unusual phenomenon, a point where the boundaries of four counties once met. It's inscribed with the names of these counties – Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire – and for many travellers it means either' 'You've nearly reached Moreton-in-Marsh' or 'You have about 7 miles to go before you reach Chipping Norton', depending on their direction of travel.

If you look on a modern map that includes county boundaries you will see that nowadays only three counties meet here – Worcestershire is some way off, and was included on the stone because in years gone by there was an outlying parish, Evenlode, that formed part of Worcestershire but was as it were in a land-locked zone or exclave of Worcestershire that was surround mainly by territory that belonged to Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. There were several of these curious exclaves and the Worcestershire antiquary Thomas Habington (1560–1647) deals with them rather poetically, declaring: 'Meethincketh I see our Shyre as mounted on a Pegasus flyinge over the neighbouring counties, and coming to the confines of Oxfordshire … he caryethe the authority of our county about and over Coteswould … as at Evenlode… which altho' seperated with parishes not attending our county yet is wholy ours. It joynethe on Morten Henmarsh heath on the stone which touches four sheeres.'

So four shires there were. I'm not sure exactly how old the stone is, though. Habington obviously knew of such a stone in the 17th century, and the beautiful Barcheston tapestry map of 1580 labels a 'Fowre Sheer Ston'. Samuel Rudder, the historian of Gloucestershire, also knew about the stone, describing it in 1779 as consisting of 'a handsome pedestal about 12 feet high with a dial on the top and an inscription to inform travellers that "This is the Four Shire Stone".' Oddly, however, some early maps depict four stones, one for each county, and the stone's listing text suggests that it is 18th century. These confusions suggest that it has probably been replaced, or altered, during its long history.

Looking at the stone recently it occurred to me that the lettering on it looks 19th century. Local historians seem to confirm the late date of the lettering, at least  – apparently the stone was damaged by vandalism in the late 19th century and the sundial at the top removed. When the stone was repaired, the present lettering and the ball finial were added.

In 1931 there was one of the periodic revisions of the county boundaries. The Worcestershire exclave that included the parish of Evenlode was incorporated into Gloucestershire, and only three counties have met at this point since then. But the stone keeps its place on the maps, both literal and mental, and marks the journeys of many as they whiz on their way along the A44.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ilminster, Somerset

Retail therapy

The High Street, as every television pundit, every economics correspondent, every social commentator, will tell you, is not what it was. Old-fashioned small shops are closing, established chains disappearing, shop fronts being boarded up – and everyone complains about it, then goes home, fires up the laptop, and starts shopping online. Even in my own small Cotswold town ('vibrant' and 'buoyant' are the typical catch-all descriptions) another High Street business closed the other day. But it's not all gloom. I'm always visiting towns and finding old businesses surviving, against the odds, and showing us what shops used to be like and still can be. Rickard's, the ironmongers of Ludlow, are a case in point. Another is Dyer's in Ilminster.

This shop was founded in 1870 by R P Wheadon and, as Wheadon's, it expanded over a 60 year period from a small draper's into quite a large shop with several departments offering men's and women's clothing as well as the stock in trade of the draper and haberdasher. In around about 1910 there must have been a major refit – the lovely frontage with its curving centrepiece and carved swags probably dates to this time. So do many of the interior fittings – wooden counters, all sorts of shelves for bolts of cloth, drawers for buttons and bows, a curved cashier's desk with cash drawer and low glass screens. Some of the glass-fronted counters in the menswear department are perhaps a bit later, maybe after R A Dyer took over the business in 1937.

Like quite a lot of drapers in the early-20th century, Dyer's expansion from cloth to clothes turned it into a kind of ur-department store. The shop has shrunk again since then, but it's still a wonderful sight, a business from another era, still going in spite of everything the pundits say about the decline of the High Street. I hope it continues to do so.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Burford, Oxfordshire


Prevented as I am by back pain from sustained sitting at the computer, here's a fragmentary post about a fragment of medieval stained glass.

In quite a few of our medieval churches, the odd bit of medieval stained glass has survived time, iconoclasm, and breakages caused by such things as poorly maintained supporting ironwork. At first glance these patches of colour, broken and removed from their context, appear rather sad, but look closer and the light that shines through them illuminates hidden worlds. Here, at St John the Baptist, Burford, one of my favourite parish churches, are the head of lady, a patch of blue sky, some Gothic script, a few tantalizing scraps of pattern. The colour alone of that wedge of blue and the drawing of that face are enough to make one pause and marvel.

I wrote at more length, here, on some more preserved shards of glass, bearing images of the head of a saint and a fragment of architecture, from the same church.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Back again

More than five and a half years ago (sometimes I find it hard to believe I have been blogging for so long) I wrote a post about this building in Oxford, and accompanied my thoughts with a rather lacklustre photograph, the best I could muster at the time. Aware that my photograph did not do the building justice, every time I've been in central Oxford since then I've had a look to see if the facade could be viewed with sunlight on its stone and without cars parked in front. As you can see, I have almost managed it – just the rear end of one car prevented me from getting the whole facade in the frame, and even with this intrusion, the result seemed closer to the mark.

So here it is: Vanbrugh House, a building of the early-18th century by an unknown designer that has more than a hint of the eponymous architect (or his brilliant assistant Hawksmoor) about it: those very plain window surrounds, with just the keystones emphasized on the upper floors and aprons in the middle floor; the exaggerated cornice and canopy; the pair of giant pilasters rising all the way up the building; the narrow space between the pilasters; the very plain doorway. The pilasters are especially odd: they seem to have been parked in front of the rest of the frontage, filling the gaps between the evenly spaced windows like an abandoned piece of stage scenery. The decoration towards the tops of the pilasters, beneath the protruding canopy, is also rather like scenery – a couple of those three-banded triglyphs to provide the idea of an entablature, but not the thing itself.

Like all scenery, it needs good lights. On a dark day, it can look brooding and oppressive. But with some sunshine it comes to life – although there's no getting away from the sheer weight of all that stone. Whoever designed it, he deserves Abel Evans's epitaph for Vanbrugh himself: 'Lie heavy on him, Earth! For he Laid many heavy loads on thee!'

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

Between the fish and the water

Because I'm drawn to small buildings that take unconventional forms I've posted about lock-ups – round, square, pyramidal – on several occasions. This is one of my favourites, a small building on the town bridge in Bradford-on-Avon.  It has the typical lock-up features – small windows, strong stone roof, compact footprint. But its position on the bridge and over the river, and its structure – the base corbelled out from the bridge pier and its roof corbelled back in again and tapering to an elaborate finial – make it more striking than most.

The bridge itself was originally medieval and was repaired in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the lock-up's history is slightly confusing. Many sources say that before it was used to lock-up petty thieves and other miscreants, the building was a chapel, or that the lock-up was built on the 'foundations' of a chapel that existed here before. The building's official listing actually describes it as a chapel, saying that it was later used as a lock-up and an ammunition store. But the Victoria County History is doubtful. The only evidence for its use as a chapel is a comment by John Aubrey, who described in about 1660, 'a strong and handsome bridge, in the middest of which is a little chapel, as at Bath, for Mass'. This is said to be the only evidence for the building's religious use.* Leland does not mention it. By 1757 it was certainly a lock-up. William Hitchens, an early Methodist from Cornwall, was locked up in it for a night during that year.

The weather vane on top of the lock-up is in the form of a fish, a gudgeon, and apparently gives rise to a local expression for temporary imprisonment, 'below the fish and above the water'. Although some sources say the vane is 16th century, again there seems to be little evidence for this. The VCH notes that it is recorded in 1858 but not shown in an engraving of about 1800. It now seems to be brilliantly gilded, an eye-catcher for passing photographers, whose efforts ensure that there will be plenty of evidence for the building's survival into the 21st century.
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*On the other hand, Aubrey was a Wiltshire man, so may have had local knowledge.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Potsgrove, Bedfordshire

Out of place?

It has recently been announced that the Royal Mail, the service that delivers letters in the UK, is about to become a private company. This state-owned letter-delivery service can trace its history back 497 years to the reign of Henry VIII, although in its present form it could be said to have had a new beginning in 1840. This was the year when, with the introduction of the penny post and the first pre-paid postage stamps, the service guaranteed to deliver any letter posted to an address in Great Britain for a uniform rate, paid by the sender.

An essential element in the postal system is the mail box, and I've blogged before about some of the various kinds of box found in England, including pillar boxes and wall boxes of various types. Here's another kind, the compact metal container known as a lamp box because it is designed not to be inserted into brickwork, as in my photograph, but attached to a lamp post or telegraph pole by means of  pair of metal loops fixed to the side of the box. Lamp boxes originally had steeply curving metal tops, but this design, with a shallower curve, came in the time of George V and lasted into George VI's reign (1936–52) – the later king's monogram is cast into the front of this example. The gently curving top reminds me slightly of the roof of a telephone box and harks back to the time when telephone and postal services were both run by the same body.

If this lamp box is rather out of place with its side loops removed and set into a brick pillar, it's clearly still doing its job. And how often have I seen the happy blend of a red rural post box and a growth of green ivy working its way around the metal, to be cleared away occasionally but never obliterated? Will the postal service be out of place in the public sector or manage to accommodate itself to the demands of shareholders, pressing around its edges like the invasive ivy around this box? Time will tell.