Friday, July 28, 2023

Crowcombe, Somerset


I am always on the lookout for monsters in churches. I live in an area – the Cotswolds – where a long tradition of stone carving made it easy for masons and parishioners alike to indulge a fascination with gargoyles and grotesques of many kinds. Most of these carvings are on the outsides of churches, where they range from the oddest of Norman corbels to the most amusing of late-medieval grotesques. No one really knows what they are doing there, but an answer connected to the notion of ritual protection (from evil spirits for example) is probably not too far from the mark. Grotesques and monsters carved on the walls of a church, especially around or near the doorway, may have been put there to protect the sacred space within from malign interference.

Sometimes, though, grotesques and monsters get inside the church too. In areas of the country where a lot of medieval woodwork has survived (Somerset and Devon spring to mind), foliate heads, grotesques, and other such images were sometimes carved on the ends of the benches or pews. The church at Crowcombe has an impressive set of late-medieval bench ends and one of the most striking of all features this remarkable scene of two naked men fighting a bizarre two-headed creature. It seems to be not quite a classical chimera, not quite a medieval amphisbema. I turned to my copy of M. W. Tisdall’s book, God’s Beasts,* a lavishly illustrated catalogue of animal carvings in churches. The author seems to agree, placing this carving in a chapter on dragons, but e glossing it as a ‘twin-headed monster’. Dragons generally are seen in Christian iconography as a symbol of evil, making these two human antagonists brave fighters for good. There’s also a sense though, that medieval woodworkers simply liked carving this sot of thing: images of evil overcome could be enjoyable to portray and behold.†

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* M. W. Tisdall, God’s Beasts (Charlefort Press, 1998)

† For a scholarly account of grotesques and similar images in medieval art, see Michael Camille, Image on the Edge (Reaktion Books, 2019)

Monday, July 24, 2023

Crowcombe, Somerset


Parties and pieties

It may come as a surprise to those who view the medieval period as an age of piety, but church records of the 13th to 15th centuries are full of complaints about ‘inappropriate’ uses of church property – reports of markets being held in churchyards, of football playing, even of social gatherings in which much alcohol was consumed. Bishops sometimes impose bans on these activities, even mentioning eating and drinking alcohol in the church building itself. A notable example of objection on the part of senior clergy was Archbishop of Canterbury Walter Reynolds, who complained in 1325 that

certain sons of gluttony and drunkenness, whose god is their belly, hastily swallow the Lord’s body at Easter, and then sit down in the Church itself to eat and drink as if they were in a tavern.

Carousing in the churchyard, feasting in the church: what was going on?

Medieval parishes used such celebrations to raise money for the church. Collecting parish dues or soliciting one-off donations was easier, the thought went, if the wheels of donation were oiled with a little food and drink. The custom of holding ‘church ales’ to raise money was well established, but in most villages, the only indoor gathering place was the church itself. If there was a clean, empty barn available, the event could be held there, but if not, the party was sometimes held in the churchyard or in the church itself.

In some places, to avoid what many saw as an improper use of the church, a dedicated hall called a church house was built to accommodation church ales and other gatherings. By no means every village had a church house, and they seem to have been more common in some parts of the country than others – Somerset is a county in which there are records, or physical survivals, of this kind of building. One of the best, most intact church houses is opposite the parish church in Crowcombe. It is a substantial two-floor building, constructed of stone from a nearby quarry in 1515. The lower level was used for brewing beer and for storage; on the upper floor was the hall where gatherings could take place. An exterior staircase allowed those attending the church ale to arrive without going through the service rooms below.

This church house was used for its intended purpose for no more than 150 years. By the mid-17th century, the Puritan influence on English life meant that the custom of ale consumption for religious purposes was dying out. Some church houses passed into private hands in this period and, ironically, were later turned into pubs. Crowcombe’s church house became home to a school and accommodation for the poor. Restored in the early-20th century it eventually reverted to something closer to its original function, becoming a village hall. A further restoration and upgrade in 2007 brought its facilities up to date and the building is now available for hire for events, from wedding receptions to exhibitions – a valued community facility, as it must have been when it was built in 1515.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Devizes, Wiltshire

When is a castle not a castle?

...When it’s a toll house.

This small building was erected some time in the mid-19th century, probably the 1840s, to collect tolls on a turnpike road form Devizes to Chippenham. The building is all of a piece, with stone walls, windows with dripstones, and a parapet with battlements that remind one of a castle. But there are three distinct sections. The largest part, to the left in the photograph, would have provided residential rooms for the toll-collector, whose accommodation also took up much of the middle, octagonal, section. However the octagonal shape of this part was also useful for work, because the windows in the canted walls have good views of approaching traffic on either side – the building is actually at a fork in the road the forms the meeting place of the modern A361 (to Trowbridge) and A342 (to Chippenham). Toll houses of this period were often octagonal and the resulting angles of view were often cited as the reason for this unusual shape. Another reason could be the very distinctiveness – an octagonal building stands out on the road.

The third, right-hand, section of the house is a porch, the door of which is now blocked because an entrance on the end is more convenient these days. Another doorway in the side has been blocked too, and the space decorated with a trompe l’oeil image of a half-open door – you’d not want to step out of it these days, into the path of a passing bus. The porch afforded some shelter for the toll-collector on rainy or cold days. In the road, there would have been a gate and, when the toll-collector saw traffic approaching, he could lurk here in the dry until whatever it was – coach, carriage, cart, horse rider, pedestrian – was at the gate. He could then come out, collect the traveller’s money, and open the gate. Nowadays this is a busy stretch of road – getting a picture of the building without any cars, lorries or buses in front of it entailed some patience. Although it has been altered and now seems rather marooned between the two main roads, this castellated building still offers a glimpse of a past way of life.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Devizes, Wiltshire


Now showing…

Entranced on previous visits to Devizes by such buildings as the delightful stone-fronted Parnella House and the massive Victorian red-brick brewery, I’d overlooked the cinema, which stands between these two landmarks. When I did look at it, I found it pleasant but rather enigmatic. There are Art Deco things about it – notably the very plain pilasters or piers, which run right up to the parapet, where the central ones pierce the skyline. But the facade also has the look of an earlier era – the swags and the various curved dripstones feel to me Edwardian. Likewise the rather demure torch-bearing statues that stand on brackets above the cinema’s name: they’re a far cry from the celluloid lasciviousness of some Art Deco cinema decoration, while also avoiding the stylization or symbolism common in other 1930s cinemas, although the faux-flaming torches do feel to me a bit more akin to Art Deco.

The Devizes cinema, in its first incarnation, was an early one, opening, according to the excellent Cinema Treasures site, in 1912 as the Electric Palace. The same website also tell us that the cinema was enlarged in the late-1920s – could this be the date of this white, rather chaste facade? The latest edition of the Pevsner Wiltshire volume actually gives the date of the building as 1932 and the architects as Satchwell and Roberts of Birmingham. So what I think we have here is something very much of the Art Deco period but in a style that fits the more restrained setting of a country town better than the sometimes brash, sometimes stylish full-blown Art Deco efforts of the architects who worked for the Odeon or Gaumont chains. The current owners, according to press reports earlier this year, are said to be intending to upgrade the building. One hopes that they produce plans that are both viable and respectful of the frontage and setting, so that this modest but elegant cinema can serve the town once more.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Devizes, Wiltshire

Boot’s Corner

One result of spending some time thinking and writing about the history of shops is that one becomes aware of the way different multiple stores liked to design their shop fronts – the light oak window frames of W. H. Smith, the muted, modernised neo-classicism of Marks and Spencer, and so on. Among the best of the bunch were a number of Boot’s branches in town centres, which were often placed on corner sites and sometimes adorned with statues of famous historical figures with a local connection. When I looked up at the corner of St John’s Street and Wine Street in Devizes, it wasn’t long before I guessed I was looking at a former branch of Boot’s.

In the 19th century, Boot’s began to diversify their range beyond the company’s core pharmaceutical products, taking in everything from cosmetics to photographic processing. As a result, they needed larger stores, often with room for an upper sales floor. They also chose corner positions to take advantage of higher footfall and shop windows facing in two different directions. The Devizes branch was one such corner shop, with the added feature of a round tower to emphasize the building and turn it into something of a landmark.

Then there were the portrait busts in roundels on the upper walls. Some of the more spectacular Boot’s stores (for example, in Newcastle, Derby, and Bury St Edmunds), boasted full-length statues. The Devizes branch, in a smaller town, made do with busts, but they’re still impressive. The busts form part of a decorative scheme involving very fancy window surrounds, running even to putti beneath the top-floor windows, and pilasters that extend up the full height of the building. The busts, set in garlands, are at the tops of the pilasters. The two busts in my photograph portray Hubert de Burgh and Edward I. Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent in the early 13th century, fought alongside Richard I during the third crusade, encouraged King John to add his seal to Magna Carta and became chief Justiciar of England. However, his enemies brought about his removal from office and he found himself imprisoned – in Devizes Castle, which is how his portrait came to be displayed on the walls of the Boot’s store in the town. The reason for Edward I’s presence here may be that the town sent two representatives to this king’s 1295 parliament, the so-called Model Parliament, because it set the precedent of boroughs sending two representatives to Westminster; for some historians, this makes the Model Parliament the first such representative assembly in England’s history.

One gets the impression, looking at the decoration on this building’s facade, that it was built to last and that Boot’s intended to occupy the store for an extended period of time. Although they no longer do, the facade remains as a reminder of the times when retailers put real effort into the design and construction of their shops, making the country’s numerous ‘Boot’s Corners’ a pleasure to look at.

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Stourhead, Wiltshire

The great indoors, 2

The other day I did a Google image search of ’Stourhead’ and eight of the first ten pictures it produced featured the Pantheon, the garden’s great domed and porticoed temple. For many, the Pantheon is the climax of the garden, a visual focus whether viewed from near or far; seen across the lake from the end of the garden nearest the house, it is a goal for anyone about to walk around Stourhead’s glorious landscape.

‘Pantheon’ means a temple dedicated to all the gods, not just one deity as was the norm in the classical world. The Stourhead version is modelled loosely on the much larger Pantheon in Rome, one of the best preserved of all Roman buildings. The Roman Pantheon has a large dome and a portico with eight massive Corinthian columns. Stourhead’s version is smaller and its portico has six columns and unlikle the Roman prototype does not stretch right across the front of the building. This leaves room for a large niche at either end of the facade, containing a statue of a deity, Bacchus, god of wine, on one side, Venus, goddess of love, on the other. To be more precise, the love goddess appears in the form known as Venus Callipygos, Venus of the beautiful buttocks. Apart from her physical appeal, Venus is probably here because she was the mother of Virgil’s hero Aeneas – when laying out the garden, Henry Hoare made several allusions to Virgil’s epic, The Aeneid, although the scholarship in this case was in part an excuse for the male gaze to linger over an image female beauty.

For many, the point of the Pantheon is what it looks like from the outside and how it enhances its garden context. But of course the building also has an interior and a use – the family held supper parties there and used it as the setting for picnics. These forays away from the dining room in the house took place in a stunning interior. Beneath the coffered ceiling of the dome are panels of classical scenes in relief, but the walls of the circular building are dominated by a series of seven large niches containing statues of deities. The most famous is a Hercules by Michael Rysbrack but for a change I show his statue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. The others are: Livia Augusta, a Roman empress (she was Virgil’s patron and her statue at Stourhead is an ancient one, acquired by Hoare from another collector); the ancient Greek hero Meleager; Flora, goddess of fertility, flowers, and gardens; Isis, the Egyptian mother goddess (also worshipped by the Romans); and St Susanna (a saint connected to the city of Rome). Livia is an ancient Roman statue, acquired by Hoare from another collector. They seem a miscellaneous collection, but several have garden or country connections, a couple are heroes like Aeneas, and Livia has a close link to Virgil; they also, in different ways, reflect Hoare’s interest in collecting and in commissioning art. Like so much at Stourhead, they also embody Hoare’s liking for a mix of scholarship and the pleasures of beauty, nature, food, and wine. I’ll drink to that.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

Stourhead, Wiltshire


The great indoors

I’ve visited several gardens this summer. Lest anyone think this represents time off from historic architecture, my recent posts about Painswick and Warwick will be proof of the opposite – gardening, from Renaissance Italy to Victorian England, is also a chance to build more not less and gazebos, summerhouses, temples and sheds abound. So garden visiting is not all about the great outdoors; the great indoors has its role to play too. In England, garden buildings might be ornamental but are also practical – they provide shelter from the wind and rain; in warmer climes (how quaint that phrase seems now), they also provide welcome shade and cool.

One kind of structure that afforded a retreat from hot weather in Italian Renaissance gardens was the grotto. A subterranean, cave-like grotto, with water trickling through, is just the thing on a baking hot day. When Henry Hoare, cultured banker and owner of Stourhead, laid out his famous landscape garden, he was particularly pleased with his grotto, and was not above taking a dip in its pool: ‘A souse in that delicious bath and grot, filld with fresh magic’ pleased him greatly. He called it an ‘Asiatick luxury, and too much for mortals, or at least for subjects’ – after a session in the grotto, Henry Hoare felt like a king.

Stourhead’s grotto is also an example of the way in which visiting a landscape garden can be a journey of discovery and surprise. We enter a dark passage, lined by rough-hewn stones – the atmosphere is of something dark and mysterious. But on our journey through we encounter, as well as the expected cool flowing water, two classical figures. One is the River God, who is probably meant to represent Tiber, the god of Rome’s river – ancient Rome being a key inspiration for the gardens at Stourhead. The god points us on our journey. The other figure is the nymph whose grotto this is. She reclines in a lighter space, lit by a skylight from above. This figure, recumbent by her pool, is probably meant to evoke the nymph and grotto in the Aeneid, where the Aeneas and Queen Dido of Carthage fall in love. An inscription from Virgil’s epic is from this part of the poem; translated, it reads: ‘within, fresh water and seats in the living rock, the home of the nymphs’. Another inscription, in the floor in front of the pool, imagines the words of the nymph: ‘Ah spare my slumbers, gently tread the cave And drink in silence or in silence lave’. This is not Virgil but a translation by Alexander Pope of a 15th-century poem. The lines remind us that this magical space, in which the statue and the cascading water are caught in light from above, was also seen as eminently practical. Drink, or bathe, or sit and take your ease…then continue on your journey…