Saturday, February 15, 2020

Chiselhampton, Oxfordshire

Commandments and curlicues

Looking through my pictures for something else, I came across this wonder, and it occurred to me I ought to feature it here and say something about it. It’s part of one of the Commandment boards at Chiselhampton church in Oxfordshire. When I first visited this place I was so struck by the exterior that I felt compelled to blog about it straight away – even though I couldn’t get inside because there was a wedding in progress. Several years later, I returned, found the place where they key was held, and managed to get inside. The whole interior of the tiny building is a joy – a full set of 18th-century furnishings – box pews, pulpit, wooden gallery, the lot. Including these boards behind the altar.

The walls, as is usual in Georgian churches, are quite plain and the glass clear. The usual thing to say about this is that churches of this period are ‘preaching boxes’, in which ornament is eschewed in order to create a space in which one can concentrate on the word of God without the distraction of statuary, stained glass, or carved stonework. What the architecture needs to do, they seem to say, is provide good light so people can reads the prayer book and good acoustics so they can hear. the sermon.†

And yet the aesthetic impulse won’t rest, and the urge to decorate will not be quelled. So here§ is a detail from the commandment boards showing the huge initial letter of ‘Exodus’, an E elaborated with such a dizzying array of curlicues that my eyes go out of focus when I look at it; the C at the beginning of the word ‘Chapter’ is similarly adorned.* Marvel at the skill and control involved in painting these long, curving lines, with their subtle variations in stroke width. Admire the way in which the main strokes themselves bend and how they taper from broad swathes to stiletto points. Contrast the complexity of all this with the simplicity and clarity of the rest of the text.

So when we reach the nitty gritty of the commandments themselves, everything is plain, legible, and unambiguous: ‘Thou shalt not make to thy self any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above…’. And it’s still pretty much as clear to a modern reader as to someone in the 18th century – clear, that is, apart from the occasional use of the ‘long s’, the letter that looks somewhat like an ‘f’, as in ‘shalt’ on the board. That’s what it is, the long s, subtly different in appearance from an f. If you look at the word ‘self’, the difference is clear: the long s has only a truncated cross-bar, in contrast to the full bar of the f.

Georgian writers, calligraphers, and ‘writing masters’ were not always consistent about when they used each form of s – the long form is more often seen at the beginning of a word, the modern form at the end, but there seem to have been no hard and fast rules about this. When you read a lot of early modern text, you get used to the variation and accept it, just as you accept the variations in a persons’s handwriting that can mean, for example that they write their e or r inconsistently. This beautifully delineated plain text is easy to read, and easy on the eye. Amen.

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† I originally typed ‘god acoustics’ in that sentence. Thank you to the reader who noticed first! I had to correct it, but at the same time I didn’t want to forget it either.

§ If you click on the image the details should be much clearer.

* Having said all this, an 18th-century reader would have known instantly what these elaborate initial letters are leading to. To anyone who knows their Bible, or indeed anyone who knows English, it can only be ‘Exodus’ and ‘Chapter’.


David Gouldstone said...

I love the idea of 'god acoustics'!

It reminds me of a report of a memorial service in the Guardian (years ago when it was still notorious for misprints); so many people attended that they couldn't all fit in the church, and the service had to be relayed to the crowds outside via 'laud speakers'.

www.icknieldindagations. com

Philip Wilkinson said...

David: Thank you! It was worth making the error for the line about the 'laud speakers'. I've corrected the slip, but memorialised it in a footnote.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

It's a moot point whether you can concentrate on proceedings better in a plain room than where there's something beautiful to look at. While some were worshipping at Chiselhampton, on the Continent they were in those astonishing Baroque buildings full of dramatic detail. Which works better? Personally, I found the austerity of Wesley's New Room in Bristol to be rather oppressive: I could imagine myself letting my attention wander in there, unless the preacher had any odd mannerisms. How one would attempt to keep young children quiet I wouldn't like to guess.