Saturday, 26 October 2013

St Paul, Stansted

When the Renaissance arrived in England in the 17th century the old medieval style of architecture was abandoned and derided as 'Gothic', a term intended to associate it with the barbarians who sacked Rome.

In the middle of the 18th century the Gothic style began to creep back, at first as a bit of fun for rich patrons who wanted their country houses to reek with chivalric romance. Horace Walpole, who started the trend at Strawberry Hill, said he aimed for 'gloomth'.
At this point, Gothic was not taken too seriously. Architects did not know very much about it and were more concerned with atmosphere than historical accuracy. Historians now refer to this period as 'Gothick', a spelling made popular by Walpole.
The chapel at Stansted House, dedicated to St Paul, is a lovely example.
It was commissioned in 1812 by the owner of the house, Lewis Way, as a sort of mother church for his life's mission to convert the Jews. The architect is not recorded, but it may have been Thomas Hopper, who was working on the main house at the time and was responsible for several Gothick country houses made to look like castles.
The west wall of the chapel is genuinely old - a fragment of the Tudor mansion that stood on the site. Pass through the Tudor brick arch, however, and you enter a low, dark, vaulted chamber with a forest of columns, like a crypt. 
When you go into the nave, all is light. The big traceried windows and the high vaulted ceiling and the white painted walls combine to maximise the light. So the chancel is another big contrast, with its slender columns holding up delicate vaulting, richly painted in blue, scarlet and gold and illuminated only by a painted east window with Old Testament iconography designed to appeal to would-be Jewish converts. It is jewel-like.
It is all fake, of course. The columns are cast iron and the 'medieval' vaults and carving are plaster. The window tracery is wood, not stone. But it all adds up to a captivating effect.
The chapel made a big impression on one member of the congregation at the dedication service - the poet John Keats. Many details such as the window 'diamonded with panes of quaint device' appear in The Eve of St Agnes.

Friday, 27 September 2013

St Peter, East Marden

The basic structure of St Peter's church at East Marden has changed barely at all since it was first built in the early 13th century, when the parish was given to Chichester Cathedral.
The gift included some land to form a prebend, a sort of endowment that was used to pay priestly officials of the Cathedral. The idea was that the income would make them independent of the bishop and would also attract the younger sons of the nobility into the church. 
Of course, the prebendaries lived in the city close to their cathedral and had no time for parish work, so they would use part of the income from the prebend to employ a substitute called a vicarius, from the Latin for deputy, and that is where the word 'vicar' comes from.
The prebendary of East Marden clearly did not want to spend huge amounts of money on a church he rarely visited, so the structure is as simple as it could be, with just one room and no division between nave and chancel.
The windows are simple lancets, and instead of a tower there is a small bellcote supported by beams across the western end of the nave.
The church and village today have a timeless quality, sitting in a fold in the Downs that blocks out the noise of the modern world. The houses and church huddle round an ancient well with a thatched roof, the only source of water until as late as 1924.
The only changes were to the church's interior. The Victorians decided to make the chancel more distinct from the nave, covering the walls with panelling and boarding the roof. But their biggest crime was to tidy away the accumulated character of 500 years of history.

Monday, 5 August 2013

All Hallows, Woolbeding

The church of All Hallows at Woolbeding makes a powerful first impression. There is the dramatic position, next to the lovely 18th century manor house with elegant columned arcade along the front. Then there is the plain west tower of 1728, topped by eight curious little pinnacles like stalagmites.
But it is when you approach the south porch and the wall of the nave comes into view that you get the biggest surprise - a perfectly preserved Saxon wall dating from before the Norman Conquest.
The walls of most Saxon churches have been destroyed over the centuries by the addition of aisles to north and south, but here they survive. They are pebbledashed with vertical stones called pilaster strips for decoration. 
In the middle is a blocked doorway uncovered in 1980. The crude arch is circular and the door jambs are 'long and short work' - tall corner stones anchored into the wall by flat stones between. This is very characteristic of Saxon work.
Inside, unfortunately, almost all ancient detail was swept away by the Victorians who rebuilt the chancel and replaced the windows. The best features are the great 13th century timber roof beams supported on corbels carved into leaf shapes, and unusually made of wood instead of stone.
Woolbeding House and its gardens have just been restored by the owners, the National Trust, and opened to the public after decades of renting it out as a private residence.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

St Mary, Easebourne

Most church guides list the monuments to dead worthies last, but at Easebourne the tombs are virtually the only reason for visiting.
The building itself is without interest, as almost every visible trace of the medieval building was swept away by the Victorians. Only its odd layout, with two naves and chancels side-by-side, recall the time when it was shared between the parish and the nunnery next door. The nuns had the south chancel and half of the south nave, a wall separating them from the gaze of the secular.
It is the monuments to past owners of next-door Cowdray Park that make the place worthwhile.
Chronologically, the first is the recumbent figure of Sir David Owen, the natural son of Owen Tudor and thus Henry VII's uncle, who died in 1535. He is immortalised in alabaster as a young man with flowing hair, a fact explained by the fact that Sir David commissioned it forty years before he died. Originally it was gilded.
The most impressive tomb is that of Viscount Montague, whose family had bought Cowdray from the Owens. Dating from the 1590s, it originally stood in Midhurst church but was taken to Easebourne in 1851 when the nun's chancel was made into a Cowdray chapel.
Lord Montague, in his Garter robes, kneels at a chest on top of a sort of viaduct, above the sleeping figures of his wives Jane and Margaret. Small figures of their children kneel at the side of the plinth beneath. It is all very florid and Elizabethan.
Unfortunately, the tomb had to be hacked about to fit it into its new space. Originally it was free-standing, with his lordship in the middle between his wives and a tall obelisk at each corner - exactly the same arrangement as the tomb of the Earl of Southampton in Titchfield, by the same mason.
The sequence of monuments is completed by a pair of enormous marble figures of Elizabeth, the last of the Montague family, and her husband William Pointz.
The statues look like a pair, but Elizabeth's grieving figure in white marble was carved in 1838 by Sir Francis Chantrey, one of England's finest sculptors, and William's was made in 1848 by an Italian refugee called Raffeale Monti.
The epitaphs are in the full 19th century florid style. She was "a lady whose spotless life adorned by every Christian grace shone before men a lovely and venerable image of female worth and dignity." He "was upright, generous and sincere". Both epitaphs go on in the same vein for so long it is impossible to believe these paragons actually visited the earth.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Holy Trinity, Bosham

There is a picture of Bosham church in the Bayeux tapestry. It is shown as a square building with a shingled roof, a line of windows and a big doorway flanked by little towers.
Harold, then Earl Godwin of Wessex, strides towards the arched door on his way to mass before embarking on his ill-fated voyage to Normandy where he was captured by William the Bastard...and the rest is history.
The artist who created this compelling image of a pious man going to make his peace with God before embarking on a perilous sea voyage probably had no idea of what Bosham church actually looked like. In those days, few people except aristocrats and sailors travelled further than a few miles from the place they were born. The Canterbury embroiderers seem to have designed a model church based more on jewelled reliquary boxes rather than the real thing.
But we today have little better idea of what Harold's church looked like. The surviving Saxon details - the south door, the tower with its round-headed windows and above all the glorious chancel arch - give clues. But alterations and restorations have changed the church beyond recognition.
You can get an impression of what the Saxon church looked like by standing in the nave and imagining tall walls where the nave arches are, punctured by small round-headed windows like the ones shown in the tapestry. Then imagine the chancel half the length it is today.
The picture that emerges is of a tall, dark mysterious space. Monks of the college that used to stand to the south of the church would be singing and praying most of the day. For us, it is just as far away as Bosham was for those embroiderers in Kent nearly a thousand years ago.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Christ Church, Forestside

The little church in Forestside is a bit of a mystery - nobody seems to know who designed it.
Christ Church was certainly built in 1852, and we know the name of the man who paid for it because it is written in stone - the foundation stone, to be exact. It was Charles Dixon, the philanthropic owner of nearby Stansted Park. 
But the architect remains unknown, and such is the power of the design there has been much speculation as to his identity.
In the Sussex edition of Buildings of England, Ian Nairn suggested the style was that of Samuel Sanders Teulon, a particularly virile and aggressive architect with the power to shock even today. The Sussex Parish Churches website points to the then vicar of Westbourne, an amateur architect called Sperling.
The church is part of a complex of buildings including a parish school and a house for the schoolmaster, both of which are now private homes.
The church is faced with knapped flint and Caen stone, a very expensive finish. The main accent is a bellcote in an unusual position on the east end of the nave roof, above the chancel, presumably to make a bigger impact from the road.
But it is inside where the building packs the biggest punch. The nave is filled with light pouring in through big traceried windows, but the chancel is lit only by small trefoil windows so it seems dark in comparison. This heightens the effect of the east window, which consists of an almond shape called a vesica piscis ("fish bladder" ) above two lancets - an unusual and striking composition.
The left hand lancet contains a vivid stained glass depiction of the Tree of Jesse with Old Testament kings, and prophets appear on the right. The Jesse window has Jesse at the bottom, naturally, but the Prophets window has a dragon. Nobody seems to know why - perhaps the artist had to fill in a counterpart to Jesse and just indulged his penchant for dragons.
And that is the last mystery of Christ Church - the designer of the stained glass is also unknown. 
No, wait...there is yet another little mystery...the identities of the corbel heads supporting the chancel arch. A notice in the church says they are Queen Victoria and the Bishop of Chichester, but she doesn't look at all like Victoria and the Bishop, Ashurst Gilbert, is always depicted clean-shaven.

Commandment Boards

Burton Park church

The Commandment Boards that form part of the fittings of most parish churches first appeared when literacy began to spread to the common people, but before they could be expected to own their own bibles.
They were officially instituted in 1604 as one of the measures of the Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical of the Church of England, under which bishops would have to ensure: ".... that the Ten Commandments be set upon the East end of every Church and Chapel where the people may best see and read the same, and other chosen sentences written upon the walls of the said Churches and Chapels, in places convenient. All these to be done at the charge of the parish....."
Interestingly, even then lawmakers were keen to emphasise that they were not going to be responsible for the cost of their enactments.
St John, Chichester
Some 30 years afterwards, the Bishop of London, Chichester-born William Juxon ordered the restoration of the tiny church at Burton Park, and a very early example of the Ten Commandments is painted on the plaster over the beam separating the nave from the chancel.
The black letter text is rather difficult to read from the ground and one wonders if any of the parishioners could make them out.
It was more usual for the Commandments to be painted on boards by the same itinerant artists who did the royal arms and hatchments (and pub signs). Unfortunately, this means that they were vulnerable to being removed and burned when they got a bit tatty, so many have disappeared.
In Georgian times the word became much more important than ritual and in many churches the pulpit became the dominant feature of the church, but the commandment boards also gained importance. The trend can be seen at St John's in Chichester, where the commandment boards are very large and ornate and positioned right over the communion table. However, both table and commandments are hidden behind the massive three-decker pulpit.
In early Victorian times, commandment boards became even more lavish. 
The boards at Aldingbourne, for example, are lettered in gold on oak boards with delicately carved crocketed finials above. The boards at Fishbourne were painted on slate.
In the later 19th century, however, commandment boards fell out of favour and began to disappear. Aldingbourne's boards were moved from behind the altar to the south wall of the chancel, and many were simply thrown out in the course of restorations or when they became infected with worm or rot.