Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire

Architecturally incorrect

It’s a happy coincidence that I visited Sunningwell, in the previous post, within a few days of going to Chipping Campden, where in the large 15th-century parish church I found this memorable monument in the chancel. Although quite large, it’s easy to overlook in a church that contains still bigger, more eye-catching tombs not far away. What links the monument to Sunningwell is that it’s from the Tudor period and is another example of the arrival of a particularly eccentric architectural classicism in England.

It’s the monument of Sir Thomas Smyth, who died in 1593, and what concerns me here is not his effigy, recumbent on its tomb chest, the head resting on the knight’s metal helmet, nor the figures of his two wives and 13 children arranged around the base, charming as they are. What I’m interested in is the canopy.

You can tell straight away that this is a classical structure – there are Corinthian columns with their capitals of curly acanthus leaves, holding up a canopy topped with a triangular pediment. But look a bit more closely and the design breaks all the rules. The pediment does not run the whole width of the frontage and is far too high – and there’s half of another pediment on the short side. The carving in the triangle depicts not classical scenes but a coat of arms. Around the frieze beneath run designs that are neither Greek nor Roman but Elizabethan patterns including, near the corners, motifs that look a bit like interlaced strips of leather and are known as strapwork – there are also large versions of these on the underside of the canopy. And another thing – at the front there are three columns, one at each corner and one in the centre. True classical design does not use odd numbers of columns – an even number is used, so that there’s a gap, not a column in the middle.

All of which is enough to tell you that this monument has not been built according to the rules laid down by the architects of ancient Greece or Rome, or of their Italian Renaissance imitators. And this is not surprising, because English builders of this period got their knowledge of classical architecture not from Greece or Rome, where virtually none of them had been, but from France and the Netherlands, where the classical style had already been adopted and developed with the addition of different kinds of ornament. When the English took it over, they put their special spin on it too. The result: architectural hybrids like this tomb canopy.

But what a glorious hybrid! The monument is carved with vigour. It makes you look, but it doesn't dominate the entire church. The blend of Roman details and English ornament is happy. The whole thing has a liveliness that later English Classicism sometimes lacks. It reminds me a little of Shakespeare, its contemporary, who had ‘small Latin and less Greek’, but who put what he had to good use, in order to make something out of it that was special and rich and, occasionally, strange.


Wartime Housewife said...

You weave a good tale, Wilko. I was expecting to be told the thing had come from somewhere and had been moved and hacked about. It's rather pleasing to be told that the builders pretty much made it up.

I know this monument and it is a lovely thing.

Philip Wilkinson said...

WH: Thank you. The builders of the Elizabethan period were rather good at making things up.

Gareth Williams said...

What a wonderful post. Fascinating and strangely inspiring. Mongrel can often be more interesting.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Gaw: Thank you very much. Mongrel can be good!

Gill said...

Thomas Smith is an ancester of mine, nice to see the picture.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Gill: Thanks for your comment. An illustrious ancestor. In case you're interested, I did another post about Chipping Campden here:

Evelyn said...

I knew it looked odd even at first glance but you clearly defined the oddness. Well done ! I just got through writing about Chipping Campden so it was nice to see a little bit of architectural detail.