Friday, June 18, 2021

Little Comberton, Worcestershire


Reading the entry in the (excellent) Pevsner volume on Worcestershire did not make me especially keen to visit the church at Little Comberton, a village I’ve passed through several times. But the other day we paused in the village anyway, and although the church was locked, found several things of interest. This is a buidling that was heavily restored in the Victorian period by an architect called William White.* White was not in the front rank of Victorian church architects, but was prolific: some 250 church projects are attributed to him, and he also designed many parsonages and schools. Like other more famous Victorians (Butterfield and Teulon, for example) he was interested in the architectural use of colour, and this is reflected here in the bands of dark red stone used around windows, up buttresses, and in quoins.

My photograph shows a tiny window in the Norman style, a partial replacement by White of an original Norman window. Even this small opening shows the effect of contrast produced by the different coloured masonry, laid out symmetrically. But at the top, symmetry is broken and White preserved the original Norman stone that forms the rounded head of the window, complete with the band of cable ornament that runs around it. If the result is more Victorian than medieval, it could be seen as an effective compromise, which preserves the most ‘artistic’ part of the old window, while renewing the remainder in a way that fits in with the style of the other windows in the restored church.

It’s also revealing about 19th-century attitudes to restoration. Literally, ‘to restore’ means to put something back, to return the building to the state it was in when it was new, or at some other ‘ideal’ time in its past. In practice, the Victorians often used restoration as a way of ‘improving’ churches, of making them more ‘correctly’ Gothic or ‘properly’ Romanesque than the often hybrid or mongrel or unevenly proportioned buildings that the Middle Ages in practice produced. Victorian architects were also of course at pains to make ancient buildings suitable for 19th-century worship, which would also mean architectural and decorative changes. Here, this fragment of 12th century carved ornament shows that White did not want to sweep away everything, that he was happy to respect the art and craft of his ancient predecessors while also introducing a different visual approach, which was very much his own.

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* William, White (1825–1990) was great nephew of the naturalist Gilbert White.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Pershore, Worcestershire


Pershore beasts, Pershore plums

I’ve noticed the former church of St Andrew near the abbey in Pershore several times, and my photograph of the medieval carving on the tower is not actually the first I’d taken of this curiosity, although it’s the first in which strong sunlight picks out the details. Admiring this carving, and wondering exactly what the beast it depicts actually is, made me look closely at its bared teeth, bulging eyes, and bushy tail. Hitherto, peering up at it (it’s quite high up) in poor light, I’d wondered if it was Jesus’ donkey with a palm tree in the background. A better look at the teeth through a zoom lens made me inclined to think it might be a muzzled dog. But in that case, is that really a tree behind it? And is that the faint impression of a face, popping up above the creature’s back?

No reference book I have seems to throw any light on this carving. Pevsner mentions some ‘grotesque carvings’ and moves swiftly on. The listing description says that the grotesques adorn buttresses, which is true, but says no more. Maybe there’s not a definitive solution to this question; many such carvings are the result of artistic whimsy.*

Curiosity did at least make me look up the history of the church. In the 1060s the crown gave much of the land in Pershore to Westminster Abbey. The abbot of Pershore refused tenants of Westminster the right to worship in his abbey, so the church of St Andrew was built to give these people somewhere to worship. After the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, the monks’ church became available to the locals and the two churches continued side by side. Nowadays the parishioners worship in the abbey church and St Andrew’s is used as a parish hall. The abbey rents the land on which St Andrew’s stands for a very small sum, and one that speaks of one of the drivers of the local economy. The annual rent is one pound of Pershore plums. Truly they are plums beyond price.†

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* However, see the update, below. Nevertheless, to make a general point, I was pleased to hear no less an authority than the medievalist Professor Paul Binksi refer to medieval grotesque carvings in this way in a recent Zoom lecture I attended. He sees such church carvings – grotesques, sheela na gigs, and the like – as equivalent to the whimsical marginal illustrations in some medieval manuscripts, in which images, sometimes apparently outrageous or even erotic, appear in the margins of serious, often sacred texts.

† I have only an online source for the ‘pound of plums’ story. I do hope it is both true and still current.

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Update One of my readers suggests that the carving represents a wolf with the head of St Edmund. This is almost certainly correct and I am kicking myself for not having picked up this allusion. St Edmund was killed by Viking raiders, who shot so many arrows at him that he bristled, then cut off his head. The king’s men heard cries, and found the body and head guarded by a wolf. When they put the head back on the body, the parts fused together. Miracles were attributed to the king, and he was made a saint. His tomb is in Westminster Abbey, and the links between Pershore and Westminster make this interpretation of the carving very likely indeed. I am indebted to my reader ‘Per Apse’ for this suggestion. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Trowbridge, Wiltshire



The other day I found myself in Trowbridge, strolling around the town centre looking at the rich mixture of industrial and domestic buildings that contribute so much to the visual character of this town. The industry was cloth-production, and I’ve already posted an example of its architecture – the Handle House for drying teasels, with its remarkable pierced brick walls. Here’s an outstanding domestic building, one of the palatial clothier’s houses built in the 18th century. I like this one in Fore Street, built for Nathaniel Houlton in the early-18th century, for its baroque features. What I mean by this is the quirks of design that take it beyond the highly satisfying but straightforward classical ‘box with sash windows’ that gets its effect mainly from its pleasing proportions. I’m thinking of the banded pilasters, the heavy string course and cornice, and above all the handling of the central part of the frontage. This breaks away from the standard window sizes with narrow, round-arched windows on either side of the doorway and central window. The whole central bay steps forward from the flanking bays, and then the central section of this bay is emphasised with columns (Tuscan on the ground floor, Corinthian above), above which the cornice and strong course break forward still more than the rest of the bay. Much effort has been put into all these design details, and they’re set off to advantage in glorious ashlar limestone masonry. The facade is one of many quiet triumphs in this town.

On my recent visit to Trowbridge I did not have with me the new edition of the Pevsner volume for Wiltshire, which is published this week. I see it covers this house and many more, pointing out details that will no doubt send me back to the town, looking again and finding buildings I’ve missed before. I plan to review the book some time during the next few weeks, but I’m already finding it both useful and absorbing.

Endnote My apologies to the 40 readers who saw this post when it was headed Trowbridge, Worcestershire. Trowbridge, of course, has never been in Worcestershire and for it to be so would entail a boundary change that is unimaginable, even in the context of the mess that has been made of county boundaries in the past. Call it a slip of the finger, or a brain in neutral.  

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Elmley Castle, Worcestershire

Here comes the sun

When you’ve visited as many parish churches as I have, you get used to finding odd things in churchyards, from bee shelters to bone holes. Sundials come fairly low on the scale of oddity. Time is after all a familiar religious theme, whether in terms of knowing it’s time for divine service or in terms of thoughts about human mortality (‘You’ve had your time’) or a person’s best use of their time (‘Redeem thy precious time’). Before the era of church clocks with faces everyone could see, marking time was a matter of bells to call one to church (or to indicate that the solemn moment of the elevation of the Host at Mass had arrived. Or it was a matter of sundials. But these sundials in the churchyard at Elmley Castle are exceptional. There are two, and each has many separate dials, facing in different directions, and set in different ways, in part to catch the sun at different times, and in part for reasons that experts on sundials may know much better than I.

No one seems certain about the date of thee dials, although there’s a consensus that they are 16th or 17th century. Some writers link the dials to the visit of Elizabeth I to the village in 1550, when she may have consulted them. The decorative carving, making up an unusual concatenation of moldings, is not incompatible with these dates. Whenever they were made, they are much worn and in spite of the restoration of the gnomons in the 20th century, some of those have already disappeared again, as if the dials seem determined to remind us of the relentlessness of the passing time they are designed to mark.

One dial bears the coat of arms of the Savage family, lords of the manor from the mid-16th century on, in the form in which it appears on a monument inside the church to William Savage, his son Giles and Giles’s wife Catherine, who died in 1616, 1631 and 1674 respectively. It’s likely that the dials were made in the time of the Savages, and owe something to their culture and scholarship, or of that of the vicar in charge of the parish in that period. Someone in the village was certainly a sundial enthusiast, probably someone who had knowledge of and interest in the science of telling the time when clocks were generally inaccurate and the sun, even in England, was the most reliable source of time we had. Like a rich man with a Rolex or a Breitling Chronograph today, they wanted the best, and no trouble was spared.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Altarnun, Cornwall

The hard stuff

In the list of English building stones most familiar are the sedimentary rocks, such as limestones and sandstones, that are so widely found and widely used for building. In the Middle Ages, when so many of the country’s churches, castles, and other notable buildings were constructed, these stones were widespread, plentiful, and widely used. Many of them were also sympathetically yielding to the carver’s chisel, and whether for the hunky punks of Somerset or the glorious Romanesque carvings of Herefordshire or their contemporaries in many other places, often just as stunning, masons and carvers used these materials enthusiastically. But there are other stones with very different qualities. One such group are the granites of parts of Cornwall, Devon, and Lancashire, igneous rocks that are so hard they rapidly blunt any tool that one is rash enough to use on them.* Early builders were sometimes thankful to find ‘field stones’, chunks of granite that they could pick up and use with little or no chiselling. An entire church built of granite is a testimony to a lot of very hard work.

Such a church is St Nonna’s, Altarnun, in Cornwall. Not for this building are the glass-flat blocks of ashlar stone that we see so often on the limestone belt or in the sandstone country. The surfaces, though well worked, have a roughness that gives them a character of their own. My photograph shows a detail of the superb Norman font. There’s a carved head at each corner and in the middle of each side, a roundel with a six-petalled ‘flower’ motif, embraced by a some kind of two-headed serpent. It’s simply detailed – getting fine detail into this stone is a real challenge – but wonderfully strong. It would have been further enhanced with coloured paint, of which traces remain – a hint of red on the cheeks of the face and a little grey to suggest hair. Whoever carved this has not been cowed by the hard rock, but has gone with an approach that suits the quality of the stone. A lesson in making the best of a material, something that ancient craftsmen did magnificently.

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* I once tried to drill a hole the granite wall of a house, to fit a curtain rail. My good quality hammer drill was defeated: once through the plaster surface, the tip of the bit just danced about on the surface of the rock, knocking away more and m ore surrounding plaster as it did so. We called in the professionals, who had a machine the size of my arm that did the job.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Grantham, Lincolnshire

Stone and angels

As a follow-up to the jeweller’s shop window in my previous post, here’s another rich bit of symbolic decoration, spotted in the same town on the same afternoon. The Angel and Royal Hotel is one of Grantham’s most famous buildings. It’s among England’s most celebrated inns, a stone structure in the form of a gatehouse, with a central archway. Before the Norman conquest, the site was occupied by a manor house belonging to an Anglo-Saxon queen; it was subsequently a hostel of the Knights Templar. When the knights’ order was dissolved in the 14th century, the hostel was rebuilt as an inn, and there was a further rebuilding in the 15th century, plus numerous additions in later eras. Quite a lot of the frontage is from the 14th and 15th centuries – the central flattened pointed arch is said to be 14th century.

Among several bits of medieval secular Gothic detailing (stone parapet, string courses and hoodmoulds, for example) is this carving, over the central arch. It’s testimony to the way in which Gothic, a style seen most obviously in churches, was also adapted for secular use. For this is very much a Gothic detail – a carved Christian symbol – adopted for secular use as the identifier of an inn. Back then, houses in towns and cities were often known by carved or pictorial symbols near the front door. When no house numbering system was in place and few people were literate, it was the obvious thing to do. Innkeepers, who were in the business of welcoming strangers, found this as useful as anyone, and the custom of calling inns with a name that could be represented by a sign has continued.

What is now the Angel and Royal was originally the Angel, tout court. It had a long history of royal connections, starting with that Anglo-Saxon queen and continuing with numerous rulers (from King John to Charles I) who put up there, journeying southwards or northwards on the Great North Road. More humble travellers on the coaches that went along the road in the 17th and 18th centuries also stayed here, increasing its popularity. But it remained the Angel until the visit of the future king Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales in 1866. Only then was ‘and Royal’ added to the name. The Great North Road (aka the A1) bypasses the centre of Grantham now, but the Angel and Royal remains, its angel glittering as effectively as the jeweller’s glazing in my earlier post.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Grantham, Lincolnshire

Bling and beer

Grantham when I last passed through (a few years ago on a summer evening), was as closed as it must have been recently: hardly any shops open, St Wulfram’s church closed, nowhere much opening hospitable doors. Drifting along the quiet High Street, I spotted this, above a shop door adjacent to the facade of what was once the George Inn, a building mentioned in Nicholas Nickleby and bearing a plaque to Grantham’s most famous son, Sir Isaac Newton. The front of this building looks much later than the George. It seems to speak of the fashion for small paned bow windows and restrained classical fancywork that was popular at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The shop window below fits with this but with more ornate detail including foliate carving and some eye-catching glass.

Back in the Victorian or Edwardian period, then, this place was a jeweller’s and one keen to display its upmarket credentials. ‘Goldsmith’, one panel says, while another declares ’Silversmith’. What more could an Edwardian with an appetite for bling require? Diamonds, naturally, and the glass panel in my photograph, directly above the door, reassures us that this is the place to get them. This kind of effect is made by either etching or cutting into the glass to create the lighter areas. The glassworker can then grind the surface to make it opaque, and then add gilding or colour to help the etched lettering stand out.* The result is redolent of the ideas of brilliance and the skilful working of hard, bright surfaces that’s common to diamonds, both glitzy and well made. It’s impressive, to be sure, although not perhaps as upmarket as it seems nowadays. But we get the jeweller’s message, especially when the glazing is backlit by the lights inside the shop so that it glitters invitingly. Who can blame later owners of the premises for retaining the panel?†

And yet this sort of decorative-informative glass was not so exclusive in the 19th century. It’s just the sort of thing we’re apt to find on the most loudly decorative of Victorian pubs, saying ‘Public bar’ or ‘Ales and stouts’ and often garlanded with etched images of flowers, foliage, and even songbirds. How appropriate, then, that this building was recently in use as a Pizza Express and glittering not with diamonds or best bitter but with the fizz and amber glow of Italian beer. Alas! I read online that this branch of the restaurant chain was closed permanently last year. Quiet again.

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* For more on these glass techniques and their use in 19th-century public houses, see Mark Girouard, Victorian Pubs (Yale Uinversity Press, 1984).

† The building seems to be listed as part of a group with the George, but the shop front is not mentioned specifically in the text of the listing.