Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Shobdon, Herefordshire, again

The architecture of fragility

The church that replaced the 12th-century one at Shobdon was just as remarkable in its way as that lost Romanesque masterpiece, but it could scarcely be more different. It was built for the Bateman family, 18th-century lords of the manor and friends of Horace Walpole of Strawberry Hill. And as one would expect from people with links to Walpole, the church is Gothic – not the medieval Gothic of poised stone structure but the 18th-century reinvented Gothic of exquisite decoration, lace-like plasterwork, papier mâché trimmings, and theatrical interior effects.

This kind of architecture is now known as Strawberry Hill Gothic, after Walpole’s famous house in Twickenham. At Shobdon it is an architecture of pinnacles, double-curved ogee arches, and panelling festooned with Gothic motifs. Arches float in the air, without supporting pillars. Pews, pulpit, reading desk, and walls, all are given the same pale, delicately Gothic treatment.

The architect is unknown. Henry Flitcroft, usually a Palladian specialist, who worked at Woburn Abbey and Wentworth Woodhouse, is a possibility. Or maybe, like Strawberry Hill, it was created with the help of Walpole’s ‘Committee of Taste’, his group of artistic friends. If so, they had the unity of vision to keep the design all of a piece. If visiting the church is a bit like being inside the icing of an overgrown wedding cake, or a particularly elaborate country-house drawing room, it is also unique. In no other parish church was Strawberry Hill Gothic used with such verve; nowhere else do pulpit, reading desk, pews, and other furnishings complement one another, and the interior as a whole, with such conviction; in no other church does 18th-century Gothic delicacy turn into such fragility. And now, well into its third century, the building is as fragile as it looks, with its full roster of cracked walls and rotten beams. Its custodians deserve our support in preserving it.


Anonymous said...

"visiting the church is a bit like being inside the icing of an overgrown wedding cake".

A perfect description. One is almost afraid to sneeze.

By Googling Shobdonchurch, you will find a site with not only more lovely pictures but details of how to help preserve this unique place.

Of course, Strawberry Hill itself reopens in the Autumn,; in the meantime the V&A exhibition of some of its former contents, reunited again, is well worth a visit.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, DC. I'll add a link to the Shobdon Church site.

I've not yet been to the V&A exhibition on Walpole and Strawberry Hill, but it's on my list.

David Gouldstone said...

The first time I walked into Shobdon (the exterior gives little hint of the delights to be found inside) I almost burst out laughing in sheer amazement and exhiliration. I think it has something of the air of a fanciful fairground; the pulpit, for example, looks like a seat for rococo roundabout. It looks as if at any moment it will start moving to the accompaniment of flashing neon lights and Wurlitzer music.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes! I've recently been reading about the 20th-century British artist and illustrator Barbara Jones, who loved fairgrounds and popular art. I'm sure she would have seen this place in the same way.

Peter Ashley said...

Lovely pic. And doesn't that reading desk look like some heavenly chariot waiting for winged horses and angel drivers?

Thud said...

I'm working on a Gothis renovation at present...great fun and so different than the usual Regency/victorian stuff I usually work on.