Friday, June 3, 2016

Great Tew, Oxfordshire

Narrow gateway, wide world

Just opposite the vicarage in my previous post is this grandiose gateway, through which one walks along a path to the parish church. You may well feel that there’s something odd about this structure. It seems vastly out of proportion to the low wall on either side of it, and the opening itself looks disproportionately narrow in relation to its height. I think the reason for this is that the gateway has been moved from elsewhere – probably one of the entrances to Great Tew Park – and rebuilt on a smaller, narrower scale to serve as this eye-catching prelude to the churchyard.

What remains is certainly imposing, and the ornament is very much redolent of the first half of the 17th century, when Inigo Jones and his followers were starting to introduce their disciplined and scholarly form of classicism to Britain. The masonry is carved with horizontal bands of vermiculation – the ornamental motif that is supposed to create the effect of the stone having been eaten away by worms – and each pier has a large niche topped with an arch in the form of a shell. Above each niche is a smaller oval indentation. The lintel is carved with festoons of fruit on either side of a central keystone. The use of banded vermiculation reminds me a little of the much more elaborate gateway in London’s Embankment Gardens, another 17th-century gateway that has lost its original purpose and that looks stranded but still magnificent in its current setting.
This carving from perhaps the 1620s takes us back to a time when the manor house at Great Tew was owned by one of the most remarkable figures of the time, Lucius Cary, who became 2nd Viscount Falkland and subsequently Chancellor to Charles I. One of my readers (see the Comments section to the post on the vicarage) has already mentioned Falkland, who invited to Great Tew a stellar group of his contemporaries, men who relished the intellectual discussions on offer, gatherings compared by contemporaries to those convened by Erasmus.* Many of those present came from Oxford (only about 12 miles away), but Falkland had friends from further afield too. In his Brief Life of Falkland, John Aubrey mentions some of the period’s most celebrated writers who were guests at Great Tew: ‘For learned Gentlemen of the Country, his acquaintance was Mr Sandys, the Traveller and Translator; Ben. Johnson [sic]; Edmund Waller, Esq.; Mr Thomas Hobbes, and all the excellent of that peaceable time.’  Falkland, says Aubrey, was not a great writer himself, quoting Dr Earles who said that ‘he wrote not a smoth verse, but a great deal of sense’.

Falkland died young, when the peaceable times had ended and he was fighting for the king at Newbury. It was said that he threw his life away, riding rashly into the fray when he need not have done so, and various reasons have been suggested for this, from his pessimistic analysis of his side’s chances in the war, to his deep grief at the death of the woman he loved.

Whether or not he actually had it built, this gateway, with its design that seems at home here but derives from a wide world of culture and scholarship, is no doubt the sort of thing Falkland would have appreciated. His house has been rebuilt and he has only a modest, 19th-century monument in the church, but such architectural fragments as this can act as his memorials.

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*It was Clarendon who made the comparison, and he also compared Falkland to Cicero, the great Roman consul, philosopher, orator, and letter-writer, who was as it happens an important character for Falkland’s friend Ben Jonson too.


The Greenockian said...

Hadn't heard of Falkland before - interesting post!

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

One of these would look very good in my little garden, in the archway at present framed by escallonia, eucalypt and birch. Or, even better, as casts in best concrete on the walls of the new library being built locally - where otherwise I'm afraid I'll have to close my eyes when walking past... Could some enterprising firm be persuaded to start turning out things like this for our featureless suburbia?

JudyBG said...

Lucius Cary can also be found kneeling piously at a tomb in Burford Church. His much-loathed grandparents are in the tomb--depicted on top as themselves, and rotting below as skeletons. His grandmother was apparently a memorably dreadful person, who supposedly still rides the winds with hell-hounds, or some similar tale. But the inhabitants of Burford also greatly disliked his grandfather.

Lucius looks very nice, however.

Evelyn said...

I've been stumbling across a lot of great info and interesting photos of Great Tew since I read about it in 84 Charing Cross Road- Helene Hanff's book of letters. This edition included The Duchess of Bloomsbury which has an account of her chance encounter with Great Tew. Fascinating ! You never know where you're going to stumble on entrancing history !
Evelyn Wallace, The Castle Lady