Friday, April 3, 2015
Long Sutton, Somerset
Turning up the brightness
I have a bit of a preoccupation with the use of colour in buildings. Over the years, in various posts, I’ve noticed the varied colours of shopfronts and other structures in towns such as Launceston, Saffron Walden, and Alcester, have admired the interior decoration of a Tudor building and chronicled the varied delights of medieval church wall paintings. One thing I've not posted about is a subject I was reminded of the other day when visiting the church at Long Sutton in Somerset: the coloured paint applied, or not applied, to church woodwork.
Long Sutton has a beautiful and delicate screen, essentially late medieval but restored, that separates the eastern and western parts of the church. My picture shows the central portion, with its filigree tracery and wooden vaulting crowned by a strip of carved foliage, amidst which sits an owl. The design of the tracery (similar but not identical to that of the East window beyond), the slender shafts, and the ribbed vaulting are all very much in harmony with the late-medieval architecture that surrounds the screen.
But what catches the eye first, of course, is the colour. This screen was restored in the 1860s and it seems to have been then that the woodwork was painted brightly in red, white, blue, green, and gold. These colours are very much along the lines of the decoration that could well have been on the screen when it was first installed. There may even have been medieval traces of colour on the woodwork before the restorers got to work.
I’m sure my readers will have varied opinions about this paint job. Many will lament the covering of what is most likely a wooden surface that’s beautiful in its own right with colour that they’ll see as garish; they might also reflect that Ruskin, Morris, and the modernists were right when they expounded their doctrine of truth to materials. Others will enjoy the vivid impact of the colours, and opine that medieval art was much more colourful than we sometimes admit; they might also like the way the painter has picked out the architectural details so that the details of the tracery, the capitals, the vaulting ribs and bosses are easy to see and not lost in a mass of brown.
Whether or not this colour scheme is historically accurate, it’s still hard to see it as it would have been seen in the 15th century. Context is everything. We look at it now against the background of a church with white plastered walls, exposed stonework (some of it beautifully carved), and glass that lets in lots of light. It stands out. Not, in my opinion like a sore thumb, but like a daring and thought-provoking bit of recreation.