Thursday, February 6, 2020

Deerhurst, Gloucestershire

Ancient and modern

St Mary’s, Deerhurst, was one of the first historic churches I ever visited. I was sent there by a school teacher, who wanted me to see a Saxon building, and to go there I had to persuade my parents to take me in the car a few miles along the A38 Gloucester to Tewkesbury road, and up the lane leading towards the River Severn. We enjoyed seeking out details of almost unbelievable antiquity – Saxon carvings inside and out, the font, with its spiral decoration – and marvelling when the guidebook told us that the latter had been at one time removed from the church, lost, and found again doing outdoor duty as a planter, trough, or some such.*

I’ve been back many times since, and taken in the building’s later architecture too. I’m fascinated, for example, by the capitals of the nave arcades. They seem to date from the early-13th century, when the church’s aisles began to take their current form. They are all different. One is like capitals I’ve seen before in churches of the Early English Gothic style: this is a variation on the stylised foliage that the Victorians called ‘stiff leaf’ (Pevsner calls it ‘windswept stiff-leaf’, with the addition of small heads peeping out from the vegetation. I always find these heads charming, whether they come in large numbers, as at Much Marcle, or are thin on the ground, as they are here.

Another capital has just stylised foliage, which is given a bit more space and takes a striking form. The date must be similar, but the shapes of the leaves, with their strong lines and elegant curves, seems akin to the Art Nouveau of around 1890–1900. I’m not suggesting for one moment that some late-Victorian decorator saw this capital and based a whole artistic movement on it. Both medieval carvers and Art Nouveau designers looked at nature appreciatively and derived patterns from it. No wonder they sometimes ended up with something slightly similar; the medieval masons were no doubt also influenced by some of the foliage in earlier Romanesque ornament. Wherever the inspiration comes from, the effect made me catch my breath.

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* I’ve heard similar tales in several other churches, to the extent that I’m wondering if this is the ecclesiological equivalent of an urban myth.

1 comment:

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Writing as a paid-up Friend of Deerhurst Church, I couldn't agree more about the church being worth several visits. Particularly by those who still think Anglo-Saxon architecture/sculpture was primitive and undeveloped. And the bonus is Odda's Chapel - just nearby - dated precisely, all poised to become Romanesque proper, but confidently A-Saxon all the same: "Saracenic" almost horseshoe arches. On a good day, a pleasant spot beside the Severn: the active walker can stroll on into Tewkesbury and enjoy that place too. Regular bus to and from Cheltenham.