Saturday, April 13, 2013

Swinbrook, Oxfordshire

Still here, for now

When it comes to the way I look at buildings, context is everything. Swinbrook is an Oxfordshire village known as the home of the Mitford sisters and famous among church-crawlers for some striking monuments inside the parish church. But before we get inside the church, the place itself. The "brook" in the name is a key clue. This is a place in a valley that is often flooded and the village is dominated by water. A stream flows through the centre, following the line of one of the roads; a street meets the stream at a ford; one is never far from the sound of trickling water. When I pass within a mile of the village on the A40 near Burford, I always glance down into its valley to see if the fields are flooded.

Swinbrook is also a place of stone, the oolitic limestone of the Cotswolds. There are stone farms, stone barns, a stone pub. People here live in stone houses and when they die, they are buried beneath stone monuments.

Some of the most vigorous stone-carving from the late-17th and 18th centuries is found on these monuments, the chest tombs in this and other churchyards on and near the Cotswolds. These box-like tombs sit above the grave (the deceased is buried in the ground beneath, not in the stone structure itself) and provide five surfaces for the carver to work on. In this area, the chest is often topped with a half-cylindrical upper section. These curved tops have reminded some of bales of wool, and these structures are often known as bale tombs. 

The bale tombs in Swinbrook churchyard reveal the work of carvers quite at home with the classical language of mouldings and frames and – as far as one can see, as the inscriptions are very worn now – with classical lettering too. And in and among these classical details are deeply carved cherubs, foliage, scrolls, and skulls. The bales that top the tombs, some incised with a few elegant bands, some carved deeply with spiral ridges, enhance the effect. It's lively work – if that's not a contradiction when talking about tombs, some of which portray symbols of death such as skulls – and one can sense a happy combination of Cotswold stone, artistic talent that can combine classical norms with individualistic details, and local families keen to remember their dead in this striking way.

One reason why these tombs are so moving is because they are no longer in perfect condition. The details are getting blurred, the corners softened, the lettering is hard to make out, and some of the tombs are subsiding into the ground. One feels privileged to see them, their carving rendered all the more effective when the early evening sunlight warms the stone and throws the work of the sculptor into deep relief, in the same way that one is relieved to find that Venice has not yet slipped into the lagoon. 

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