Monday, October 31, 2016

Axbridge, Somerset


1636.* Charles I, full of a sense of his own importance as an absolute monarch, is ruling without Parliament; he’s attempting to get round the awkward fact that only Parliament can raise taxes by imposing the hated feudal levy called Ship Money (normally only used in wartime and only charged in coastal areas) in peacetime and across the whole country. The church is being reformed by a new Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, who is reducing the Calvinist influence on the church, standardizing liturgy (emphasizing the use of the Book of Common Prayer) and ordering churches to be arranged – with altar rails, and an altar raised on a platform – in a way that sharpens the focus on the altar and on the sacred rite of Holy Communion. Both these changes – the taxation, the religion – cause upset and tension. More tension, and the Civil War, are around the corner.

In Axbridge, Somerset, it’s not just fittings like altar rails that are exercising the parishioners. They’re reroofing the nave of their church – and giving it an astounding ceiling quite remarkable in its network of plaster ribs and decorations. The very idea of a ceiling is, if not unusual, far from the norm in English parish churches: many make do with open roof timbers and these are often displays of virtuoso carpentry. This, on the other hand, is virtuoso plasterwork, from the hands of a local man called George Drayton.

In the 1630s, plaster ceilings in grand houses often have a network of protruding ribs, frequently with pendant features where the main ribs intersect. The patterns can be intricate and dizzying to look up at, and the effect is frequently one of worldly richness.† Here, Drayton has taken this idea and adapted it, adding curves and pointed cusps that turn some of the shapes into quatrefoils. This cusping and quatrefoiling is a motif of the Middle Ages – in other words the plasterer has taken a 17th-century design and applied medieval additions to it, turning it into something that looks almost Gothic. The result, combined with the striking blue and white paintwork, is dazzling.

I don’t know whether this mix of old and new styles reflects in any way the mix of old and new ideas prevalent in England at this time. Some would perhaps see the addition of Gothic into the decorative scheme as a nostalgic backward glance to the old Catholic religion that inspired medieval churches. Others might compare it to the nostalgia prevalent in the theatre of the period, which featured frequent reworkings of earlier dramatists like Shakespeare and Jonson, as if Charles I’s anxious citizens wanted their previously great country back. Or perhaps it was a more neutral preference – people just liked Gothic.

Such speculations are interesting. But today we can marvel at this ceiling for its own sake, and for the pleasure in the ways that English churches, so apparently conventional and part of the establishment, can pull breathtaking tricks on us, just when we think we have them taped.

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* This has turned out to be a rather long post. Here’s an executive summary for those in a hurry. This is a wonderful intricate church ceiling. It was made in 1636 but incorporates design elements from 250 years earlier. There are many possible reasons for this stylistic puzzle, but we don’t need to know the answer to enjoy the effect.

† Such ceilings in country houses were also often studded with images of heraldic beasts, flowers, and other decorations. There’s one from Lanhydrock on this page.


Inigo j said...

It is very much a product of the time I think. It reminds me of the Neo-gothic woodwork of Bishop Cosin in Durham churches. It seems things were turning around a century after the reformation. The country was in flux in many ways, but men were also looking back, perhaps as you say, for comfort and because of distaste for the current time.

Anonymous said...

Many parish churches did, in fact, have ceilings - albeit of a plain white plaster, though this may have been installed by a C17 or C18 churchwarden to seal a draughty roof, rather than being original. In accounts of Victorian restorations you will frequently find a note that "the roof was opened and repaired", meaning that the ceiling was removed to expose the woodwork.


Philip Wilkinson said...

Inigo J: Thank you. Yes, I'd forgotten about that Durham woodwork. Part of a larger trend, clearly.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Shui Long: Quite. A lot of ceilings were removed by the Victorians, along with the box pews and other post-Reformation woodwork.

per apse said...

Lady Chapel at Ottery St Mary over the border in Devon has panelled ceiling - can't find a date quickly! - of some splendour. Axbridge reminds me of Addison's
"The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great Original proclaim."
Thank you once more.

David Gouldstone said...

On the question of the motives of the builders of Gothic Survival (as we might agree to call them) structures, two examples from a little later than Axbridge are interesting. The well-known Staunton Harold (Leics) of 1653-63 (i.e. during and immediately after the Protectorate) - it's owned by the National Trust now - was built as an expression of determined Roman Catholicism, and Gothic was chosen as a visible expression of this allegiance. On the other hand, the less well-known Guyhirn (Cambs) was built at the same time (c1660) but by a Puritan community. Yet the church, while a lot less ambitious than Staunton Harold, is still Gothic. So Gothic could represent two more or less contradictory viewpoints.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Per Apse: Thank you. I don't know the Lady Chapel at Ottery St Mary, but looking online I see it does have similar cusping. However, the rib pattern is different and I presume it is earlier - I'm not sure. Fascinating.

Philip Wilkinson said...

David: Absolutely – it can mean lots of things. There's something very ceremonial and, yes, Catholic, about Staunton Harold; there's a clearly Puritan simplicity about Guyhirn (which I've not seen except in pictures). And there are also churches where, irrespective of the particular shade of religion, local craftsmen have just built in the Gothic way there forefathers did, because that's the way they did it, or because people just like it that way.

Eileen Wright said...

The Axbridge ceiling is absolutely stunning, Philip. About St Mary's at Ottery St Mary (the town partly named after the church), it was built in the 14th century by John de Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter (1327-69), and was a scaled down model of Exeter Cathedral. Some more info can be found at the link below (a shameless plug for my own website, lol).

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks, Eileen. Good to have some local knowledge! But it's not a simple story about these vaults as, looking online, the church seems to have vaults of several different styles. I'll obviously have to go to Ottery St Mary and have a look for myself!

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

The church at (South) Malling, Lewes, is very convincing Gothic, except for the south doorway. I don't think the use of the Gothic style in the reign of Charles I has any particular partisan "meaning" - the politics is as messy and ambiguous as anything leading up to a civil war. And the 1630's in particular seem to have been a good time for building things, including a remarkable number of tombs - no ancient parish church seems complete without one of that date!

I think we can discount nostalgia in the use of 17th century Gothic - windows and tracery follow straight on from the Tudor period - none of the hankering after the Decorated period as in the 19th century Gothic Revival. I don't recall seeing in person any Irish church building of the period - but London/Derry cathedral is supposed to be very good Gothic: we can't usually accuse the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland of High Church tendencies. And some of Wren's churches (in spite of his quirkiness) are convincingly so.

Don't some of the older stone-built churches in the West Indies and e.g. Virginia date from the earlier 17th century? How "Gothic" are they? Judging from the pictures, the big house (not church) St Nicholas Abbey in Barbados looks very medieval, with its massive chimneys and thick walls and irregular plan.

Stephen Barker said...

Philip I am sure that you are familier with Kings Norton church in Leicestershire built 1760-61 to the designs of John Wing the Younger. The church is an eighteenth century preaching box but the external architecture is Gothic taking its cues from the Perpendicular style. The question raised by this church is it a continuation of the Gothic tradition or is it an example of Gothic revival? The Wing family background is that of stonemasons so it is reasonable to suppose that they were familiar with Gothic architecture from working on churches in the district.

By the time of the reformation i don't suppose there was a great need for new churches in the country, so the opportunities to experiment with new styles would have been limited. No doubt any design in a classical style would have looked foreign and attracted the suspicion that it was somehow Papist.

per apse said...

Try Low Ham in Somerset for Gothic of C17 - why go for new forms and plans when the old served well? Even if tracery and mouldings were not what they had been, they served their purpose ...
and anything approaching Greek or Roman was pagan, of course.

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