Monday, January 17, 2011

Uffington, Oxfordshire*

Pointed architecture

Read the architecture textbooks and they will tell you that Gothic architecture is a way of building that developed in France – specifically at the Abbey of St Denis near Paris – in the 12th century, spreading to England by the beginning of the 13th century. In its classic form it’s a way of designing churches with pointed arches and high stone vaults, supported by flying buttresses, and lots of stained-glass windows that flood the interiors with coloured light. That’s quite a good description of the way the Gothic cathedrals were built, from Notre Dame in Paris to Salisbury and York in England. But what about parish churches? In the countryside, few parishes had the resources to build ambitious stone vaults and flying buttresses – if there are stone vaults they are on a smaller scale than the soaring stone ceilings of the great cathedrals. So in most medieval parish churches, Gothic means above all the use of pointed arches.

The parish church at Uffington, built around 1240, is a typical and wonderful example of the first phase of parish church Gothic – the style that the Victorians called Early English. The dominant feature is the tall, narrow pointed lancet window. These lancets can appear singly or in groups – there are lots of pairs and trios of lancets at Uffington. From the outside, they look rather austere. But inside, they’re treated decoratively, with slender shafts on either side of each window. Uffington is unusual in having an octagonal tower. The upper section is an 18th-century addition – the lower section was originally topped with a spire which came down in a storm in 1740 – but the extended tower still provides a graceful focal point to the building.

* * *

Since writing this post, I've had some interesting comments, including one from Helen of Art and Architecture, Mainly, who asks who needs stone vaults and flying buttresses: 'Early English Gothic was about height and elegance, and the church dominating the townscape.' I agree, and I'd add that this way of building was also about line, as evidenced by all those interior shafts – and the shafts and mouldings at churches such as Eaton Bray, which I posted about a while ago. Height, elegance, line, and shadow: the essence of Early English architecture.

Uffington, chancel interior

*Although I still think of it as being in Berkshire, and it will be found in the Berkshire volume of Pevsner's Buildings of England series.


Terry said...

Thanks so much for this. There is a nice handful pictures here.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Terry: Thank you - there are some interesting details there.

bazza said...

It's intersting to speculate which of today's buildings will be around in 800 years and, further, will be of interest to future architectural writers! This building looks solid enough to last another thousand years.

David Gouldstone said...

I love the view of this church from White Horse Hill.

As well as the graceful simplicity of the EE windows, of course, there's the elegant Decorated window (on the right under the tower in your photo), and, (under the tower on the left) an oddity, a weird sort of bastardised Perpendicular window, presumably a 17th century development of Gothic.

Didn't the 2nd ed of Pevsner's Berks come out recently? I've not yet seen it.

Philip Wilkinson said...

David: Yes - the Decorated window to the right of the tower is a lovely addition. The revised Pevsner Berkshire is out, but I've not got it yet.

Hels said...

Who needed stone vaults and flying buttresses anyhow? They added to the architectural security, but not to the beauty of the building.

Early English Gothic was about height and elegance, and the church dominating the townscape. Uffington's octagonal tower is (now) an unexpected delight.

peggy braswell said...

I always learn so much from your post.Thanks

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Absolutely. In fact I'm going to add something to my post about what constitutes the essence of this kind of architecture.