Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sunningwell, Berkshire*

Classicism, Tudor-style

St Leonard’s church, Sunningwell, is a small parish church mostly built in the medieval period and restored by the Victorians. It has one extraordinary feature: this seven-sided porch at the west end, added to the church just after 1550. I’ve no idea why the porch should have seven sides, although the number seven is a widespread one in Christian symbolism, from the seven days of the rcreation to the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. The porch is interesting not only because of its seven-sided form, but also because of its mixture of architectural styles – it’s half-Gothic and half-Classical.

This strange stylistic mix is very much of its time, the second half of the 16th century. In this period, rural buildings were still using the Gothic style of the previous century, with its pointed arches and cusped window openings, though the pointed arches had got flatter (as in the doorway here) and the windows were sometimes rectangular rather than pointed. More adventurous builders, though, were learning about the Classical style of ancient Greece and Rome – but their Tudor Classicism is often an insular affair, in which the standard designs of columns and capitals aren’t in quite the right proportions (there is often the addition of decidedly unclassical ornament, too).

At Sunningwell, the columns are of the Ionic order, the one with the spiral volute decoration, but the spirals here are much smaller than on Greek or Roman buildings. And whereas Ionic columns are usually fluted, these are plain. So these details represent a rustic form of Classicism, but they’re still remarkable – Sunningwell may be the first English parish church to have Classical columns supporting part of its fabric.

The reason for this unusual stylistic adventure in a rural church is that the porch was paid for by a man of great learning and international connections. John Jewel, scholar of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, theologian, apologist of the Anglican church, and eventually Bishop of Salisbury, began his church career as rector of Sunningwell in the 1550s. His learning no doubt influenced the design of the porch, setting a trend in architecture in the unlikely setting of a quiet English village.

*I'm using the traditional county divisions here, as does Pevsner's Buildings of England series. Postally, the village is in Oxfordshire.


peggy braswell said...

Never tire of seeing your images or reading the text.

historo said...

Thank you for bringing to our attention and detailing such a fascinating and full of meaning creation!!!
I was wondering if John Jewel would also have had a say in the heptagon or heptagram (if one considers the columns as pointed corners of the structure) profile of this wonderful porch. Euclidean geometry and its spiritual implications since antiquity (Pythagoras comes to mind) as well as the Greek-Roman architecture were among the chief preoccupations of many European Renaissance era scholars such as Jewel.
I very much like the part heptagon profile of the base of the column structure, at the ground level,a reflection of the shape of the larger structure. Also interesting is the way how the c16th builder solved the load distribution over the pseudo-pointed arch doorway, which in fact is a beam, poorly suited for that load bearing, by inserting a filled in arch just above the door top architrave.

Chris Partridge said...

Sunningwell isn't just 'postally' in Oxfordshire - it was transferred to that county in what Peter Simple used to call "infamous Heatho-Walkerian reforms" that saw the abolition of Rutland and Flint and the creation of pseudo-counties like Avon.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peggy: Thank you so much.

Valentin: I think Jewel must have had some influence on the seven-sided form of this porch. You;re right, he moved in circles in which geometry would have been much discussed. The load-bearing arch above the doorway made me smile.

Chris: Yes! I abhor these rascally 'reforms' and mourn the fact that part of the county of my birth was swallowed up into Humberside while part of the county where I live disappeared into Avon. Although these names have gone, and Rutland was restored, the scars remain into the form of entities like 'South Gloucestershire' and displacements like that of Sunningwell.

bazza said...

I'm surprised that classical influences were around this early in Britain. I had always assumed that Tudor isolationism meant that the rennaisance arived here a century later. It's very strange to see the mixed styles like this.
Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Yes. It's interesting to see this Renaissance influence filtering through in the Tudor period. It's very hybrid – and this, it seems to me, is one of the interesting things about it. When Inigo Jones gets going in the early-17th century, everything changes, and you get a much purer, more academically classical style, which is admirable in its way but not as lively as the Elizabethan stuff.

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STAG said...

The unusual.

What I have come to expect here.

Thank you.

Peter Ashley said...

I think somebody just happened to have some columns left over from another job. Or is that architectural heresy?