Saturday, March 23, 2019

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Looking sideways, reaching skywards

I mentioned in a recent post the perils of concentrating on ‘what one should be looking at’. My point was that in going in search of, say, the rightly celebrated early-Georgian houses of Bridgwater, one might miss a Victorian shop front, an Art Deco clock, and other delights. So you will sometimes find me taking a perverse look in an unpredicted direction – going to Bath and looking not at Royal Crescent but at public lavatories, or finding Gog and Magog in Norwich rather than medieval churches, or when I am in a medieval church, making time for some modern fixtures and fittings as well as the more obviously ‘interesting’ Norman carvings. It’s my version of what the designer Alan Fletcher called The Art of Looking Sideways.*

In Cheltenham, the town where I grew up and near where I now live again, I’ve had several decades to look sideways in many different directions. Cheltenham, of course, is a Regency spa. But there’s much more to it than that. Most visitors, their eyes on the town’s Regency terraces and squares, its spa buildings, the shops in its Promenade and Montpellier, don’t look, for example, at the town’s collection of 19th-century churches. And Cheltenham has some fine, not to say extraordinary, churches, the fruit of an interesting religious history in a town that embraced both Tractarianism and a vigorous evangelical revival – both high and low Anglicanism, in other words (not to mention most other branches of Christianity, from Roman Catholicism to Unitarianism).

Here’s one of my favourite Cheltenham churches. It’s Christ Church, built in 1837–39 to designs by the brothers R. W. and C. Jearrad. Although its architectural components are in many ways standard Gothic ones (Early English or 13th-century-style Gothic mostly, with a Perpendicular or 15th-century-style tower) they are wielded with such originality that the building makes you stand and stare. There are acute-angled gables, pointed-topped buttresses, and little spires on the tops of stair turrets everywhere, all sending the gaze relentlessly upward, as do the narrow lancet windows. The tower’s walls are more ornately carved walls than the rest of the building, but its slender corner pinnacles and tall windows continue the upward pointing theme, as do the curious gable-like features that frame the clock faces half way up. The gable visible on the face of the tower in my photograph makes it look at if the tower is set some distance back from the west front, but actually it’s hardly set back at all.

How to sum up this extraordinary building? Pevsner can do no better than quote the description of Harry Goodhart-Rendell: ‘An outstanding fantasy in the style of a Staffordshire china ornament, that could stand on the largest chimneypiece in the world. There is also a tall Perpendicularish tower with a lamentable expression; you expect it to sob.’§ That’s apt, and gets to the heart of this design. In a way, it’s a decorator’s idea of a Gothic church, the fulfilment of the idea that Gothic points heavenward and uplifts us, with a surge of verticality. It is then, above all, a design that’s keen to provoke emotions in the beholder, in a way that 19th-century churches did much more than those of the previous period. But then (and this is perhaps where the sob comes in) it’s a design that seems to lament the fact that as mere mortals we can never quite reach as far into the sky as we’d like.

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* See Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways (Phaidon Press, 2001)

§ For Goodhart-Rendell’s description, see his English Architecture Since the Regency (Constable, 1977)

¶ The way the Victorians placed emphasis on a building’s ability to move its users is excellently expounded in William Whyte, Unlocking the Church (Oxford University Press, 2017), which I reviewed here.

1 comment:

Joe Treasure said...

One of the occasional pleasures for me in reading this blog is seeing buildings that are familiar to me as if for the first time. In my teenage wanderings, I registered in passing some of the drama of this building, but never stopped to give it the attention it deserves.