Sunday, April 18, 2010

Shobdon, Herefordshire

Oliver's arches

In the Middle Ages the Norman Mortimer family was a powerful presence along the borders of England and Wales. They came over with William of Normandy, maintained castles to defend their lands against the Welsh, and took key parts in political and military history – one of them, Roger Mortimer, led the rebellion that deposed Edward II, for example. In a family as powerful as this, their key servants were powerful too. In the 12th century their steward – the man who ran their estates – was called Oliver de Merlimond, and he was important enough for the Mortimers to grant him a manor of his own, at Shobdon.

Soon after he acquired the manor, Oliver undertook two acts of piety – he went on pilgrimage to the shrine of St James at Compostela and rebuilt the small Saxon church on his manor. The tantalizing evidence we have of Oliver’s church tells us that it was small but stunningly decorated, its arches carved with dazzling patterns and mythical beasts, its shafts adorned with intricate interlaced decoration and figures, the semicircular panels above its two doorways bearing beautiful depictions of Christ in Majesty and the Harrowing of Hell. The church seems to have been the first building decorated by the celebrated Herefordshire school of sculptors, and was followed soon after by Kilpeck, Castle Frome, and a host of others.

So ornate is the Herefordshire sculpture, so unlike what was being done in the rest of England at the time, and so like other work in Europe, that there has been speculation that Oliver’s journey influenced it in some way. Did Oliver bring back a carver from Spain or France? Or did the group of pilgrims with which he travelled include a local stoneworker who absorbed the powerful influence of buildings on the route to Compostela?

We will never know, but whoever worked for Oliver created a masterpiece at Shobdon. He worked at other churches in the area too, carving in a style that seems to combine French, Celtic and Scandinavian influences and also teaching apprentices, sons perhaps, who carried on his work in the pink Herefordshire sandstone that must have been so rewarding to carve.

Oliver’s church survived until the 18th century, but then a lord of the manor with a taste for a very different kind of architecture decided that it was time Shobdon had a new church. In a curious act of creative vandalism, he pulled the old church down, but preserved the entrance doorways and chancel arch, taking them apart and re-erecting them – with added gables and pinnacles – as an eye-catcher in his park. They’re still there, and are universally known as the Shobdon Arches.

Although they are very worn now, the arches give some idea at least of what a wonderful building the old church must have been. To add to our enlightenment – and also, it has to be said, our frustration that such a building should have been swept away – a plaster cast of the Christ in Majesty was made in 1851 for the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. As for the originals, they are sadly weathered, as if the once-crisp Romanesque carving has begun to melt away, like ice at the end of a long winter.

Shobdon Arches, detail

Cast of Christ in Majesty, Victoria & Albert Museum


DC said...

although, given the beauty of the Strawberry Hill Gothic church with which he replaced it - which surely must be the subject of your next post!? - perhaps a little leeway might be extended?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Absolutely, DC. Stand by...

Sandy said...

Oh that is so very very pretty! You's are so lucky over there having such history...i'd REVEL in it!!!! Lovely article

Wartime Housewife said...

Wouldn't it have been wonderful to see it in the flesh? We castigate ourselves nowadays for acts of architectural vandalism, but compared to our forbears we are positive zealots. No excuse for getting complacent though.
Love the title by the way.

Lord Carrot said...

How odd. We were in Shobdon church on Saturday afternoon, amazed to find it open. But sadly we didn't have the time (well, the pubs were open) to walk up to the arches. Now, of course, I wish we had.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Odd, my lord, how we sometimes follow one another round or cross paths. Sometime I half expect to bump into that fellow Peter Ashley on my travels, too.

Anonymous said...

We've been following your blog for over a year and this post really resonated with us. The plaster cast of the Shobdon Arches is so crisp, in contrast with the present day Arches. Did the Industrial Revolution contribute to the rapid deterioration of the Arches? It's just amazing how quickly they wore down between 1851 and today.
Thank you so much for sharing this post with us!!!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Designslinger: This is a really good question. There's little industry near Shobdon – it's in the middle of the countryside. But I suppose pollution could have been brought to the site from farther away in the form of acid rain.

Philip Wilkinson said...

And, by the way: thank you all for your comments and for following the blog so faithfully. Your interest is really appreciated and I hope future posts keep you interested and entertained.

Anonymous said...

The 'cast' is a plaster recreation from the 1854 Crystal Palace on Sydenham. It was made by Raffaelle Monti for the Mediaeval Court, commisioned by the Crystal Palace Company and donated to the V&A after the Palace burnt down in 1936.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Oh that's fascinating, thank you. So not made for 1851, then. And not a cast but a copy? I've seen this object referred to as a cast, but did wonder that it was so perfect, given that the original must have eroded a lot by the 1850s.

C B Newham said...

This is a very old post, but I thought I would answer your last response. Here's a copy from the V&A's own web page. It is a cast but "slightly worked-up". As the arches were moved to their current position in c.1751 and the cast made c.1850, that's only 100 years of weathering, so much of the detail may have remained.

Given by the Trustees of Crystal Palace in 1938


Sculptor unknown
About 1140
From the church at Shobdon later removed and re-erected in Shobdon Park, Herefordshire, England

Shobdon Church was demolished in the 18th century and its two doorways with their tympana and the chancel arch were re-erected in Shobdon Park as a folly and are now decayed from weathering. The plaster cast, made in the 1850s for the Crystal Palace, was slightly worked-up by the caster.

Philip Wilkinson said...

C B Neewham: Many thanks. The information is very helpful. I don't remember there being so much information when I looked at the V&A site when I wrote this post back in 2010, but whether it has been added in the intervening years or I missed it first time round, thank you very much.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Sorry about the excess of e's there.