Monday, 27 October 2008

St Michael, Amberley

Amberley is the show village of Sussex, sitting on a hill above the water meadows with its church and castle forming an unforgettable skyline like a smaller, cosier version of Arundel a few miles south.
Artists have always been attracted to Amberley with its unique combination of rustic charm and a reasonable rail service to London. In 1907, Kelly’s Directory listed no fewer than five artists living and working there, including the genre painter Edward Stott, the watercolourist Cecil Ross Burnett and Arthur Wintershaw, whose painting ‘Summer’, showing cows drinking in the river Arun, is a hardy perennial in the repro market.
The churchyard is full of them. The high wall separating the church from the castle has a stone lettered by John Skelton in memory of the illustrator Arthur Rackham and his wife Edyth, also a highly talented artist, who lived at Houghton House on the other side of the valley throughout the 1920s.
The biggest memorial in the churchyard is to Edward Stott ARA, who lived in the village from 1889 to his death in 1918. He is still famous for his rural scenes such as Changing Pastures, showing cows being led through a gate, almost certainly sketched close to Amberley. His tall monument has a bust on top carved by his friend, the sculptor Francis Derwent Wood. It shows Stott dressed in the studiedly casual uniform of an artist of the day, with a big floppy tie. Wood himself lies close by, his grave marked with one of his own bas-reliefs, a pieta in bronze he originally designed for a west London church.Inside the church is a semi-circular stained glass window to Stott, designed by Robert Anning Bell. Other windows have inscriptions by Eric Gill and his assistant Joe Cribb.
But all these artists have not made the church into a gallery, however. It is actually rather plain, the most dramatic note being its Norman chancel arch, heavy with zigzag ornament and supported by double columns with leaf shaped capitals. Only the size of the nave windows and the chancel arch, enormous by Norman standards, reveals that that it was built for a bishop, not just as a parish church.
For it was the Bishop of Chichester who owned the manor house formed the basis of the castle built by Bishop Rede in about 1380. Like Bodiam, which was built at almost exactly the same time, it is a toy fort rather than a real defensive structure, demonstrated by the fact that the church tower is taller than the castle wall, so any besieger could dominate the walls with just a few archers.