Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sherston, Wiltshire


In the large village of Sherston in Wiltshire, roughly east of Malmesbury, this graceful medieval church stands at one end of the town. The church has a Norman core and was extended in the 13th and 15th centuries. The tall tower at first glance looks like one of the 15th-century additions, its style not a million miles from the more ornate church towers of Somerset. The openwork parapet at the top, the pointed openings with pierced stone panels to let out the sound of the bells, the niche for a statue – all these are things you can also see on 15th-century Somerset towers. Only the two little windows right at the bottom of the tower beneath the niche strike an odd note.

And those windows give a clue to what is different about the tower at Sherston: it dates not from the 15th century but from 1730. It was the work of a master mason called Thomas Sumsion, who came from Colerne, which, although in Wiltshire, is quite close to Bath and the world of those stunning Somerset towers. Sumsion worked very much in the medieval tradition. In 1730 George II was on the throne and classical architecture in the vein of St Martin in the Fields was all the rage. So the Gothic style of Sumsion’s tower here at Sherston was unfashionable in 1730 – maybe 250 years out of date.

But this kind of work was what Sumsion had learned, perhaps from his father, who had learned it in turn from an earlier generation. They’d no doubt continued building country buildings in the Gothic style through the Elizabethan period, through the Classical age of Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, and into the Georgian period. This phenomenon is known to historians as the Gothic survival. At Sherston it makes you feel pleased that Gothic survived in this way. Thomas Sumsion produced a tower of particular beauty and grace.


Anonymous said...

In France, Gothic just stopped in the late XVth C. (the closest church to where we live, Saint Gervais – Saint Prothais, in the IVth arrondissement of Paris, has late gothic vaults inside (ca. 1495, I think) with rare (for France) hanging keystones and a jarringly baroque façade (with three superposed orders) from the early 1600s (designed by Androuet du Cerceau? but I am much too lazy to check). A striking contrast.
Then nothing until Viollet le Duc, or a few instances of “troubadour” sryle in the 1830s/1840s.
In England, on the other hand, Gothic was practised, and built, throughout the XVIIIth and XIXth cs. It makes it all very difficult, for us visiting Continentals, to date English Gothic structures: real (late) Gothic? XVIII or XIX c. pastiche? I cannot conceive of a French railway company ever building Saint Pancras… Our loss, of course.
Thank you for your brilliant blog.
François-Marc Chaballier

Hels said...

Love it! Especially because I find it particularly interesting when a piece of public architecture is built with a conscious nod of historicity to a period long gone.

I always assume that nothing is designed and built like that by accident. If Thomas Sumsion built churches in the gothic taste because he had learned no other style, and if the contemporary taste was _exclusively_ for classicism, young Sumsion would have gone out of business. Clearly there was a minority taste for gothic, at least in some counties and at least for some types of buildings.

Architectural historians might be perfectly correct to say that the majority taste in 1730 was classical, but generalisations run the risk of missing the minority, the specific, the individual, the quirky.

Philip Wilkinson said...

François-Marc: Thanks for your comment. It must have seemed quite shocking in 19th-century France when Viollet started taking Gothic seriously again after all those years.

I know what you mean about dating English Gothic structures. After a while you get a "feel" for the later revivals and pastiches, but it helps if you live surrounded by it all.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Absolutely. In the 17th and 18th centuries there were people who wanted Gothic, and traditional masons like Thoams Sumsion supplied that want. `We don't know how they expressed their liking, because they didn't, so far as I know, write about it. But there it is. I used to think that Gothic Survival was mainly a country thing and that it was a case of town sophisticates preferring the latest Classical style, whereas in the country, Gothic prevailed. But of course there are plenty of country Classical churches (vicars were educated and often fashionable people, after all) - and even one or two urban Gothic survival ones, like the wonderful big parish church in Warwick. So, yes, it's down to individual taste and circumstance.

Peter Ashley said...

Blimey, that's a big un Phil.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Peter.

Vinogirl said...

How orderly those tombs seem.

Philip Wilkinson said...

VG: Yes, the uniform tops make them seem very ordered, although my photograph masks the fact that they're rather higgeldy-piggeldy.