Friday, May 7, 2021

Temple Guiting, Gloucestershire


Tradition and the individual

This chunky tower had me scratching my head when I first saw it standing out across the fields. The tower’s position at the church’s west end and its diagonal buttresses are just the sort of thing seen time and time again on Cotswold churches. Usually these towers were added in the 15th century, when the region was prospering from the wool trade. But few of the other details look much like 15th-century Gothic. In particular, the collection of openings – the very plain semi-circular arched doorway, the odd squat pointed window just above it, and the rather more elegant two-light opening near the top – did not seem like typical medieval work. Neither did the very stubby pinnacles with their almost pyramidal finials.*

Seeing it up close, appended to the small church of Temple Guiting in the Cotswolds, it made a little more sense. Temple Guiting was a medieval church: the village name reveals an ancient connection with the order of the Knights Templar, but this is not evident in the architecture and as far as the tower is concerned is a red herring. The history of the tower begins much later. It seems to have been added to the church in the 17th century and is thus an example of the survival of Gothic architecture into a time when Classical styles had become fashionable. This is not at all unusual, especially in rural areas where masons carried on building in a version of the style that had been passed on from master to apprentice, father to son, through the generations. So it’s an eclectic mix of motifs from here and there, and no less charming for that, and for the sense that the structure shows the sort of originality that can emerge when a 17th-century provincial mason blends what he has learned from tradition with the strength of purpose to go his own way.

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* Pevsner has a go at this part of the tower, sneering at the ‘clumsy top stage, naive gargoyles and big square pinnacles’. But I don’t mind either the rather bulky pinnacles or the gargoyles – aren’t most rural gargoyles naive, and isn’t this part of what makes them effective visually? 

Monday, May 3, 2021

Cropthorne, Worcestershire



Cropthorne lies in the orchard-rich country around Evesham, an area full not just of fruit trees but also of houses built with frames of oak. Some have thatched roofs, often with attic windows peeping out under ‘eyebrows’ of thatch, like the ones on the house to the right in my photograph. Thatch lends itself to these sculptural forms, and also to the roof feature that caught my eye in the house on the left: the catslide.

A catslide is a roof that sweeps down almost to the ground over a single-storey extension. If you add a room on to the side of a building, the thatcher can continue the slope of the main roof at the same angle in one continuous run. You end up with a much lower ceiling height inside, but often this did not bother the occupants – people’s average heights were shorter in past centuries, and if you were going to use the room mainly for storage, or for a bedroom, headroom was not the main requirement. The advantage of this type of roof was mainly an economic one. If you’d built the side wall to full height, to keep the same angle of slope you’d need a higher ridge for the whole roof, meaning more money spent on roof timbers and more thatch on the other side of the house too. So many people favoured the catslide.

The name is wonderfully evocative. One can imagine a roof-climbing cat losing its footing, sliding down the slope to the eaves, and falling only a short distance to the ground before walking off with typical feline nonchalance. As satisfying for the animal as for the thatcher completing a smooth continuous slope, capping the whole roof with ornately cut reeds on the ridge, and standing back in admiration.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

In motion and at rest, 2: Delivering the good news

The idea of the Christian minister travelling around and preaching wherever he went is as old as St Paul. It was a practice taken up enthusiastically by John Wesley, who travelled widely and often preached outdoors, to large and appreciative crowds. No wonder, then, that many other Methodists followed in his footsteps and did the same. One way to travel was to use a wagon, caravan, or living van – call it what you will – pulled by a horse, which could act as mobile dwelling, means of transport, platform for preaching, or even tiny, mobile church in which to teach or preach to small groups. The Methodists (both Wesleyan and Primitive branches) used these vehicles in the 19th and early-20th centuries, and called them ‘Gospel cars’.

This one is in fact a replica that has found a permanent parking place near the boat dock at the Black Country Living Museum. It is painted dark blue, from which numerous blessings and Christian maxims painted in white stand out. Along the bargeboard at the front is emblazoned the name ‘Ebenezer No. 11’ – it’s one of a series, then, and calling it Ebenezer is a way of implying that it’s a much a chapel as any bricks and mortar building that bears the same name – a popular one among the Methodists in the 19th century.*

Inside, the gospel car is neatly kitted out with a stove, seating that can turn into bedding at night, and, in true chapel fashion, an organ. Or, I should say, a harmonium, an organ of a very particular sort, with reeds instead of pipes, and an air supply provided by the player as they pump away at a couple of foot pedals. In my childhood I remember seeing the inside of quite a few chapels (maybe some of them were ‘Ebenezers’ – I’m not sure), and before I was born, my mother played the harmonium in her small Methodist chapel in Lincolnshire. So maybe that’s why I didn’t feel at all alienated by this chapel on wheels and why I felt some sympathy for the person ‘on a mission’ and preaching to a handful or a crowd from the platform – framed by roof brackets carved with crosses – of a horse-drawn ‘Gospel car’.

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* A while back I had an email exchange with an old friend who’d been speaking to someone who thought that, because of his name, Dickens’s character Ebenezer Scrooge was Jewish. Brought up among nonconformists, who often called their children such names as Isaac or Leah, this had never occurred to me. There’s nothing in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, as far as I can see, that says Scrooge is Jewish. To someone like my mother, descended from both Jewish and nonconformist ancestors, such names were both ‘Jewish names’ and ‘Biblical names’, available for use by followers of either faith, and so were names like Salem, Zion, and Ebenezer, when used, as they were frequently, on Methodist chapels. 
Thanks to one of my regular readers (see Comments section) for reminding me that Ebenezer means ‘Stone of Truth’, in commemoration of a memorial stone set up by Samuel to mark the victory over the Philistines. Among other common chapel names, Salem means ‘Peace’, Bethel ‘House of God’, and Bethesda ‘House of Mercy’ or ‘Healing pool’. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

In motion and at rest,1: Immortal Diamond

A memory from a visit to the Black Country Living Museum in 2019. Diamond is part of the museum’s fine collection of canal boats. The museum is crossed by canals that belong to the Birmingham Canal Navigations and on a small branch of this network the museum has built a boat dock populated by vessels that were once common on the canals around Birmingham and the Black Country. Many of these are day boats – designed to take cargoes such as coal, iron, limestone, and clay over short distances that you could cover in a day. Among their number are one specific type – the Joey boats, steerable from either end, that I’ve already mentioned in an earlier post.

Diamond is not a Joey boat, but an impressive composite narrow boat (with metal sides and a wooden bottom). She was first registered in 1928 and was built by John Crichton & Co of Saltney, Chester, for the Midland and Coast Canal Carrying Company of Wolverhampton. She was no day boat, but had two cabins, making her suitable for long journeys between the Black Country and the Mersey. She was damaged in an air raid on Birmingham in 1944, and rebuilt, after which she was renamed Henry, under which name she had 16 years carrying coal, after which she was sold again, rechristened Susan, and continued to work until the museum acquired her in the 1970s.

The fact that a narrow boat could be built in the 1920s and see the best part of 50 years’ service before being ‘retired’ to a museum reminds us how long-lasting canal transport was in Britain. Canals began before the railways, survived the coming of rail, and were only really killed off by the inexorable rise of road transport.* So boats sporting the delightful paintwork of Diamond – both the bright colours of the exterior and the lovely images of castles and flowers that appear when the folding doors are opened – had a long innings. That we can still appreciate these beautiful boats is due largely to the canal revival, spearheaded by campaigners such as Tom Rolt and bodies like the Inland Waterways Association in the postwar period. Museums like the BCLM have also played their part. Thank heaven they did, so that such things can still be appreciated and enjoyed, and so that, in these confined times, I can remind my readers of the richness of colour, historical interest, and folk art that’s available online. 

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* For a vivid account of the lives of those working and living on narrow boats in the 20th century, see Sheila Stewart, Ramlin Rose: The Boatwoman’s Story (OUP, 1993)

Friday, April 23, 2021

Rochester Row, London


Built to last?

When I first passed this piece of 1960s concrete sculpture in London’s Rochester Row, I’d no idea who created it. A while later I found out about the sculptor William Mitchell, who made a specialism of creating abstract sculpture out of concrete. I’ve since encountered his work in Coventry and elsewhere. However even then I didn’t make the connection because it slipped my mind that I’d taken this photograph (I got carried away with a nearby fire station, not to mention the famous Blewcoat School just up the street.) Much later, looking for the image of the fire station, I found this picture next to it in my files, and thought, ’Surely, that must be by William Mitchell.’ And so it proves to be.

What the image shows is actually only part of the artwork, which is too long to photograph in one go because it stretches all the way along the concrete beam that links the building’s main structural columns. So I photographed a bit that I particularly liked. Even when I found the picture again, I didn’t realise its full significance. William Mitchell told a friend: ‘This was the first integral piece of concrete art ever produced.’ It’s a ‘ring beam’ which linked all the columns and on which the remainder of the structure depended. ‘I designed it, made the moulds and the builder poured the concrete,’ said the sculptor.

Now William Mitchell’s work is better known, in spite of the fact that much of it has disappeared because it forms part of buildings that have fallen out of use and been demolished – like the northern part (about one third of the whole) of this very building. I think that’s a shame, and I hope plenty of Mitchell’s remaining sculptures do survive. I think they often enliven streetscapes and buildings that are otherwise dull, and that they show a true artist responding to a 20th-century material in creative ways. They are very much of their time, but also, in my opinion, deserve to outlast their time. I’m glad the work of William Mitchell is appreciated at last.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Salisbury, Wiltshire


Doomsday, 2

The painting of the Last Judgement in the church of St Thomas, Salisbury, is the largest of medieval ‘doom’ paintings and one of the clearest. It is, one could say, the rich cousin of the faded doom at Oddington that featured in my previous post. Details of costume suggest that it dates to the last quarter of the 15th century. Like nearly every English medieval church wall painting it was covered with whitewash some time after the Reformation, rediscovered (when traces of colour were noticed during cleaning) in the Victorian period, and restored. It doesn’t seem to be known for sure how much of the rich detail in the painting survives from the 15th century and how much was added by the Victorian restorers, but the overall effect is impressive – indeed, overwhelming – and when a visit is possible, I’ll be able to see has changed since the most recent restoration a couple of years ago and whether the process of conservation has yielded any more information about what the Victorian restorers did or didn’t add.

Meanwhile, even in my photographs, it’s a feast for the eyes. Christ sits at the centre, on a rainbow, with his feet resting on another rainbow. Beside him stand angels holding the instruments of the Passion (cross, crown of thorns, pillar, spear, sponge), and nearby are the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Beneath the lower rainbow stand the 12 apostles. To the left, angels blow their trumpets to waken the dead, who climb from their tombs, some naked, some in shrouds, one with a hat on, another with a bishop’s mitre. Angels guide these righteous souls towards Heaven, the architecture of which awaiting in the background. To the right, devils chain up a group of souls and drag them towards Hell. Hell, as is common in such paintings, has the fearsome mouth of a monster, in which flames are licking the souls who have already been pushed inside.

Even if some of the detail may be attributable to 19th century restorers, this doom painting takes one back to the 15th century with a jolt. It’s a colourful scene (medieval churches were colourful of course), it teems with figures, it’s at home with symbolism, both the symbols of the Passion and the symbolic headgear of some of the participants – mitres and royal crowns are visible among both Heaven-bound and Hell-destined souls. This painting lacks the faded atmosphere of Oddington, but repays lengthy scrutiny in its details – where both God and the devil reside.
St Thomas, Salisbury, Heaven

St Thomas, Salisbury, Hell

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Oddington, Gloucestershire

Doomsday, 1

Medieval wall paintings are among the most fascinating and tantalizing works of art. The fascination comes often not from the quality of the drawing but from the fact that virtually every English example is damaged, faded, and fragmentary. This is a result of iconoclasm in the 16th and 17th centuries, when images in churches were destroyed, often by covering with whitewash. Nearly every English church wall painting has been recovered from beneath at least one coat of whitewash, and the art’s condition depends on the damage done by this overpainting and the skill of the restorer or conservator, as well as the effects of time, damp, and modifications to the building.

Even so, medieval wall paintings can be extremely powerful. Visiting St Nicholas’ church, Oddington – which entails a trip down a long lane to a spot far away from houses and wonderfully quiet – makes one unprepared for the surprise on opening the south door. The enormous 15th-century doom painting stretches over virtually the entire north wall of the church.

The doom or last judgement is the event that takes place when, at the end of time, the souls of the dead are allotted their final place in Heaven or Hell. The events are complex and doom paintings are crowded with figures. As the light in Oddington church isn’t ideal for photography, I’ll describe what I think is going on in this one.§ At the top sits the figure of Christ (slightly to the right of the centre in my picture), with his feet above a disc, symbolising the earth. On his left and right sides are disciples. On either side of the world-disc are angels, and they are probably blowing trumpets to waken the dead and announce that the last judgment will take place: it’s possible to discern a narrow pale line coming from the mouth of the right-hand angel: the tube of a trumpet, I think. Next to the left-hand trumpeting angel stands a figure with a crown: St Peter. Groups of the righteous and repentant are welcomed to heaven by more angels, clearly recognisable by their spread and feathery wings. Heaven itself is, of course, architectural – there’s a slender tower with crenellations on top, linked by a wall (with more crenellations) to what is probably another tower on the far left. The celestial city had a wall, naturally, as any medieval city would do. One of my favourite touches is the small angel on top of the tower, who seems to be helping a soul into Heaven (or is it a bad soul trying to get into the city without authorisation and being pushed away?). On the right is Hell.* Yellow flames are discernible towards the bottom right. A horned devil fans the fire with a bellows. Other devils, dressed in striped garb, round up sinners and get on with the business of torturing them. Further touches: a person hanging from a gallows and another figure kneeling as if begging for mercy. Gruesome stuff, but it would have looked even more dreadful when the paint was new.

The fact that the colour has faded and so much of it has gone is perhaps what makes these paintings so moving. We can only look at them at all thanks to the lucky accidents of discovery and conservation, and their distressed state seems to lengthen the distance between our time and the painter’s. If medieval worshippers trembled with awe at the fate of the lost souls, we are more likely to be awed by the connection this art helps us make with their distant world. We don’t travel back in time or indulge in some ‘virtual medieval experience’ when we look at these paintings. We’re forced to confront another harsh reality: the power of passing time.

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§ Clicking on the image to enlarge it may make it easier to see the details. 

* The whole lower part of the painting has two different background colours. The right-hand half has a red background: this is hell; the left-hand section has a grey-looking background which maybe was once blue: it’s the heavenly realm.