Thursday, February 20, 2020

Rousham, Oxfordshire

Finishing touch

After my recent dovecote post, I remembered one more dovecote that couldn’t resist sharing with my readers. This is the one close to the great house at Rousham. The little building, tucked away in a walled garden, is unregarded in a place that’s full of interesting architecture: Rousham’s gardens have few rivals in this respect, and because they’re not vast and always open, the impressive array of garden buildings and sculpture is not difficult to see. This dovecote is in marked contrast to the small-scale but grand classicism and gothicism of the garden structures. It’s a country building in the vernacular tradition, with local stone walls and a stone-tiled roof. ‘Dovecote of 1685, with a conical roof with hipped dormers’ is about all Pevsner feels the need to say about it.

But look at the lovely louvre* at the top, with its lead-covered ogee top (mirroring a similar ogee cupola on the nearby stable block), and its neat wooden bars, with wider spaces at the bottom to let the birds in and out. I don’t think there are birds living in it now, but this culminating louvre (being wooden it’s presumably a modern replacement) seems to me a perfect finishing touch. Its artful design seems typical of the place: whenever I’ve visited, Rousham has given me the impression of a place that’s well cared for by the family who own it – and who’ve lived there since the house was built in 1635, fifty years before this charming structure was first erected across the walled garden next to their house.

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* Louvre is the accepted term for the a turret- or lantern-like structure at the top of a roof, open in some way to let out smoke from a hearth or to admit the inhabitants of a dovecote.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Chiselhampton, Oxfordshire

Commandments and curlicues

Looking through my pictures for something else, I came across this wonder, and it occurred to me I ought to feature it here and say something about it. It’s part of one of the Commandment boards at Chiselhampton church in Oxfordshire. When I first visited this place I was so struck by the exterior that I felt compelled to blog about it straight away – even though I couldn’t get inside because there was a wedding in progress. Several years later, I returned, found the place where they key was held, and managed to get inside. The whole interior of the tiny building is a joy – a full set of 18th-century furnishings – box pews, pulpit, wooden gallery, the lot. Including these boards behind the altar.

The walls, as is usual in Georgian churches, are quite plain and the glass clear. The usual thing to say about this is that churches of this period are ‘preaching boxes’, in which ornament is eschewed in order to create a space in which one can concentrate on the word of God without the distraction of statuary, stained glass, or carved stonework. What the architecture needs to do, they seem to say, is provide good light so people can reads the prayer book and good acoustics so they can hear. the sermon.†

And yet the aesthetic impulse won’t rest, and the urge to decorate will not be quelled. So here§ is a detail from the commandment boards showing the huge initial letter of ‘Exodus’, an E elaborated with such a dizzying array of curlicues that my eyes go out of focus when I look at it; the C at the beginning of the word ‘Chapter’ is similarly adorned.* Marvel at the skill and control involved in painting these long, curving lines, with their subtle variations in stroke width. Admire the way in which the main strokes themselves bend and how they taper from broad swathes to stiletto points. Contrast the complexity of all this with the simplicity and clarity of the rest of the text.

So when we reach the nitty gritty of the commandments themselves, everything is plain, legible, and unambiguous: ‘Thou shalt not make to thy self any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above…’. And it’s still pretty much as clear to a modern reader as to someone in the 18th century – clear, that is, apart from the occasional use of the ‘long s’, the letter that looks somewhat like an ‘f’, as in ‘shalt’ on the board. That’s what it is, the long s, subtly different in appearance from an f. If you look at the word ‘self’, the difference is clear: the long s has only a truncated cross-bar, in contrast to the full bar of the f.

Georgian writers, calligraphers, and ‘writing masters’ were not always consistent about when they used each form of s – the long form is more often seen at the beginning of a word, the modern form at the end, but there seem to have been no hard and fast rules about this. When you read a lot of early modern text, you get used to the variation and accept it, just as you accept the variations in a persons’s handwriting that can mean, for example that they write their e or r inconsistently. This beautifully delineated plain text is easy to read, and easy on the eye. Amen.

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† I originally typed ‘god acoustics’ in that sentence. Thank you to the reader who noticed first! I had to correct it, but at the same time I didn’t want to forget it either.

§ If you click on the image the details should be much clearer.

* Having said all this, an 18th-century reader would have known instantly what these elaborate initial letters are leading to. To anyone who knows their Bible, or indeed anyone who knows English, it can only be ‘Exodus’ and ‘Chapter’.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Spetchley, Worcestershire

For dove devotees
As is often the way with my explorations of English buildings, I went in search of one thing and found something else as well. In this case I was heading out of Worcester on a road I don’t usually take, in order to visit the church at Spetchley, with its impressive group of Berkeley monuments. Not far away I spotted this, and although the picture is from a while back, the stormy sky seemed appropriate for this month’s rough winds in Britain.

It’s a dovecote in a farmyard. I’ve posted pictures of dovecotes before. They’re often interestingly shaped buildings – circular or octagonal, for example: round dovecotes are especially favoured because they worked well with a ladder on a pivoting arm, enabling the owner to reach the young doves in their nest boxes.

This one however is square, probably 17th or 18th century, and timber-framed, reflecting much of Worcestershire’s traditional architecture. The walls are plain but there’s a touch of swagger in the little turret or louvre at the top, with its arched entrances through which the inmates can come and go. Its tiny overhanging pyramidal roof, covered with the same red tiles as the main roof, is a charming touch, sheltering the entrances and providing a landmark for returning doves seeking shelter from the storm.

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For more dovecote posts, see, these round, octagonal, and square examples, all built of stone; or, for yet more, click on the relevant word in the tag cloud in the right-hand column.

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.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Ufford, Suffolk

In love with building

Since the 13th century, when churches were ordered to keep their fonts securely covered to prevent people stealing the consecrated water,* font covers have been the norm. Often, there is a simple, lockable wooden lid; frequently the cover is a little more elaborate, a structure that complements the font on which it sits. In East Anglia, however, the font covers of the 14th and 15th centuries became memorable works of the wood carver’s art.

Rising some six metres towards the roof of the nave, the font cover of the church of the Assumption, Ufford, is one of the most magnificent of all. At about 20 feet tall, the cover is a stunning wooden confection made up of niches, arches, and pinnacles. It tapers to the point where a pelican stands, pecking at her breast to feed her young. The Pelican in her Piety is of course a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and its reenactment in the Mass, and this would have been but the climactic symbol on a font cover that was once covered in statues of biblical figures and saints – these were all lost during the iconoclastic purges following the Reformation. Apparently the statues had already been removed when the notorious 17th-century destroyer of images, William Dowsing, visited the church and had oversaw the smashing of stained glass.

What is left is still breathtaking, an essentially architectural object, in which the niches and pinnacles taper towards the top so that the cover takes the shape of a spire. I can’t help being reminded, looking at structures like this, of the words of the Arts and Crafts architect and educator William Richard Lethaby, when he wrote about the architectural form that decoration so often took in the Middle Ages:

The folk had fallen in love with building, and loved that their goldsmiths’ work, and ivories, their seals, and even the pierced patterns of their shoes should be like little buildings, little tabernacles, little ‘Pauls’ windows’ .

Chaucer, too, described someone with the patterns of Paul’s windows on his shoes, by which he meant designs like the tracery of the rose windows in Old St Paul’s cathedral. This use of architectural motifs such as tracery, niches, and pinnacles, is seen throughout medieval art. There’s nothing typical about the sheer richness of grand Suffolk font covers, though.† They are outstanding, and Ufford’s is one of the best of all.

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* For use in ‘black magic’ or other non-Christian rites, it was said.

† And occasionally elsewhere. For an Oxfordshire example with a Suffolk link, see my post here.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Sea views
I suppose I'm not the first person to notice that there have evolved, over the years, certain styles of house that seem especially at home at the seaside. I’ve noticed before the pastel shades that people like to paint buildings and beach huts in towns like Lyme Regis, and how resorts such as Brighton favour houses with big bow windows to let in plenty of light and offer good views – sea views preferably, but any view of a pleasant street or a garden is better than none. At Aldeburgh and other towns on the east coast, there seems to be a preponderance of bay windows and white-painted wooden balconies.

In a house like this you can sit out and watch the sea, or the comings and goings on the path below, or if you don’t want to sit out, you can safely throw the French windows open to let in fresh air, the sounds of people enjoying themselves on the sea front, and the salty smell that pervades the atmosphere. There may be no front garden, but you can enjoy a sense that the whole sea front is your garden. Places like Aldeburgh have been the scene of such enjoyable idling since the early-19th century. There is much, of course, for the architectural idler to admire. I was struck, when taking in these houses, by the curvaceous gable revealed when you look from this angle. If that seems a little Dutch, this coast has long had contact with the Low Countries, and both bricks and some of the architectural styles that went with them across the sea were imported to East Anglia before local brick-making was reestablished on a large scale.

Nowadays most people come to Aldeburgh for recreation, and most of the town’s businesses seem connected one way or another with tourism. But as you walk along the beach, notice boats pulled up on the shingle and see a tarred and weatherboarded shop selling fresh fish,* you’re reminded that this was once a thriving fishing port and there is still some fishing here. So sea views must once have been useful to those looking out for the arrival of boats with their catches. If I mourn the decline of these local fishing industries (as I also do of those in my native Lincolnshire), I’m grateful that towns like Aldeburgh still thrive.

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* Or enjoy some of the excellent fish and chips available here.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Aldeburgh, Suffolk


Watching my aged mother-in-law, a few months before the end of her life, bravely tackling the two steps up to our front door, and seeing the immense effort this entailed, has made me think a little differently about steps. I’ve lived places four or five floors up without a lift, and thought little of it, but now I’m grateful that there are only two steps at our door and, although there are stairs up to our bedroom floor, they’re shallow and kind to the legs. The entrance to the house in my photograph is very different, and unusual. Those eight steps lead up to a front door that seems to be midway between the upper and lower floors, an eccentric arrangement for a house, but not uncommon in a public building such as a custom house, which this once was.

Aldeburgh, by the sea, would once have had use for a custom house, and this one is on the main street and not very far from the waterfront. Apart from those steps, the architecture of this early-19th century structure is very plain – just a panelled central door and those four large multi-pane windows, the one on the lower right provided with a second front door at a more practical level. Pantiles, typical of this region, make a roof that looks very much at home. But the simplicity, with that touch of the grandiose provided by the steps, must make for an agreeable house. And although it’s plain it’s easy to recognise: long live individualism!