One Nation Under Perp: Gothic architecture and the perils of nationalism

The humanities, even art history, should be responsible enough to challenge xenophobia and racism that might exist in their narratives and theoretical frameworks. But surely something as genteel as the study of English medieval architecture couldn’t be susceptible? However, an unquestioning use of the scholarship of the past can mean even we, pottering around with our Pevsners, could promote ideas of cultural difference that might be very dangerous indeed.

John Hooper Harvey in 1978

John Hooper Harvey (1911-1997), in his post-war career, established himself as one of the foremost historians in English medieval architecture. His bibliography contains a large amount of popular books with pretty much the same title, but within this he has a number of studies which made an important contribution to the scholarly picture, such as Henry Yevele: The Life of An English Architect (1941, 1943), The Perpendicular Style (1978) and English Medieval Architects: A Biographical Dictionary down to 1550 (1954, 1984, 1987).

61-5-wfpfcl-_sx335_bo1204203200_Harvey seemed to be obsessed about the “great men” in architecture. He longed for a Lives of the Artists of medieval England, and set out to be the Vasari of his nation. Of course, the thing is, England of the 14th and 15th century simply did not have the same culture as Italy, and its artists were not held in any higher esteem than an equally talented butcher, the baker or candlestick maker. This makes the whole idea of writing a “life” of even one of the highest-status masons such as Henry Yevele faintly ludicrous. Indeed, most his “Life of Yevele” is an account of the 14th century architecture that came before Yevele, because there is so little to say about his work and career, never mind his character.

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“Hello John!”, “Hello John”, “Hello John!”, “Hello John”, “Hello John!”, “Hello John”, “Hello John!”, “Hello John”…

Harvey’s biographical dictionary is even more ridiculous. Harvey scoured all the documentation he could to work out careers of individual masons. What he mostly ends up with a big list of individuals were often probably contractors or the equivalent of company payroll managers. As a side note, it is funny, that despite that the main pictorial art of medieval Europe was figures of saints from diverse backgrounds with their names underneath, that England had absolutely no imagination when it came to male Christian names. In fact, nearly everyone was called John, Thomas, Robert or Richard. But mostly, probably to Harvey’s delight: John. If you’ve studied late medieval English history, it will ring true that seemingly, practically every man in England was called John. Not only did Johns call their first sons John, they named many of their other sons John too. There are literally hundreds of Johns in Harvey’s dictionary,  but only seven Michaels. And not one single female, even though Agnes Ramsey who took over her father William Ramsey’s business after his death in the 1349 plague is just as worthy as some of the mostly anonymous Johns who get an entry.

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The West Front of York Minster, c.1331 (ready for glazing 1338). Towers added 1432-1450s.

While the biographical dictionary is fascinating and tempting to see as a Vasari for medieval England, it needs to be approached extremely carefully. For instance, Harvey is responsible for uncovering the attribution to Ivo de Raghton for York Minster’s west front and famous “heart of Yorkshire” window. It’s fairly likely since “Ivo the mason” is mentioned in the fabric rolls of the cathedral in 1331, Ivo is a very rare name, and Ivo de Raghton was a very wealthy mason living in York around the same time. But then of course he makes him into the central character of Yorkshire Decorated Gothic, declaring he either designed or influenced just about every major 2nd quarter of the 14th century work from Carlisle to Southwell. All because “Ivo” appears in a medieval receipt book. Just about every “fact” Harvey states must always be scrupulously researched before it’s used in reputable scholarship: his unwavering positivism means he always prefers a building if you can associate a name with it. He will always take documentary evidence over material evidence. In fact some of his attributions are so bizarre and stretch associations to quite ludicrous degrees you wonder whether he was actually even looking at buildings anymore by this point.

61AB0XdMQxL._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_[1]The Perpendicular Style is probably taken most seriously of all Harvey’s books for his narrative of 15th century architecture. But it is damaged throughout by an implicit refusal to acknowledge the influence of foreign styles of the formation of Perp, such as the French Rayonnant. He also omits the architecture of the Tudors – which most sensible people would see as a revitalisation of English architecture with the tremendous fan and pendant vaults of Windsor Chapel, Henry VII’s Lady Chapel at Westminster by the brothers Vertue and the New Building at Peterborough and King’s College Cambridge by John Wastell – as too contaminated by foreign motifs. Although the book is extremely useful, his value judgements of what’s good and what isn’t can seem perplexing to most readers. But it becomes clearer if we delve into his past.

518n+Ahj0ML._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_[1]His 1947 book Gothic England: A Survey of National Culture, 1330-1550 is Harvey’s most eccentric book, and the closest he comes to letting the mask slip post-war. Although most scholars now appreciate the explosion of exuberance in the 14th century Decorated Style, Harvey finds its sinuous ogees rather feminine and debased. He is also not terribly fond of the eccentricity of Early English Gothic in the early 13th century, probably because it’s a period bereft of craftsmen’s names and identities. Although that didn’t stop him later declaring that Wells Cathedral was the “first truly Gothic cathedral” a few times (Take that France!). But what he loved, above all else, was the monumental and rigid Perpendicular Style of that emerged in the 14th century and dominated the whole of the 15th century. He never claimed that it was intrinsically superior to any other architecture – indeed he displayed an interest in other countries and eras – but he saw Perp as the ultimate display of the character of “his” nation.

P1270003Harvey saw England, after its move away from the Norman yoke, entering the 15th century as the most racially pure and static of the European nations: his diagrams of which look a little bit racialist today. His claims in Gothic England that the royalty of Northern Europe and thus the house of Plantagenet had close “ties of blood” to the “ancient cultures of the East” sound suspiciously close to the irreligious policy of Nazi Germany in which the Aryan Race was the civilising force in Europe. But this is because Harvey was more than an eccentric patriot. He was a bona-fide blood and soil nationalist and a rabid anti-Semite. I mean, it’s easy these days to throw around the accusation of being a Nazi if someone so much as tells you off for misplacing an apostrophe, but when you were a member of a party that had this as their flag…

 

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Flag of the Imperial Fascist League (active 1928-1939)

Uhh, yeah.

The thing is, that it wasn’t until Graham Macklin, a scholar working on English fascism, published “The Two Lives of John Hooper Harvey” in the journal Patterns of Prejudice in 2008 (that most of the below information has come from, so please consider it as essential further reading) that it was revealed he was a fully-blown goddamn Nazi in the 1930s. It was always known there were slightly dodgy bits in his best-selling school textbook The Plantagenets  (which we will come to shortly), but most people did not realise the sheer enormity of his past politics which underwrote his scholarship. You see, although he had extensive bibliographies and obituaries published at his death, they failed to include all the pieces he’d penned in journals such as The Fascist as, in the pre-digital age, they weren’t going to crop up in Google searches. But Macklin’s research has shown that he was a racist and anti-Semite of deepest dye.

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A characteristically unsubtle cartoon from The Fascist, the monthly newsletter/journal/Jew-hate rag of the Imperial Fascist League, 1937 (via archive.org)

The thing is, you could forgive someone, in the tumult of the 1930s, without the benefit of hindsight, for falling under the spell of extreme politics. But Harvey wasn’t just sympathetic to Oswald Mosley’s rhetoric and the British Union of Fascists. He joined rabid anti-Semite Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League, which found Italian fascism a bit too airy-fairy and instead met with the Nazi party and adopted ideas of Aryan supremacy, removal of citizenship for Jews and put a fucking swastika on their logo. While the British Union of Fascists allegedly hit a high of 50,000 members, the Imperial Fascist League only ever mustered a few hundred. Harvey was not in good company. This wasn’t just right-wing, it was full-on National Socialism with all of the biological racism that went with it. He seemed to see World War II as an opportunity:

“If Britain defeat Hitler it is a victory for Jews all over the world, if Britain is defeated by Hitler it is a defeat for the Jews and Britain would have a chance to put herself on the map again.”

Of course the war was pretty much the end of a party sympathetic to the regime of the enemy, and during the war, Harvey was investigated by the authorities for his associations.

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Some proud (so proud they blacked out their faces after taking this obviously hurried wonky photo) British racists who put some naff plastic flowers at the former shrine of Little St Hugh at Lincoln Cathedral in 2015. The flag they have draped on the shrine is the “Sunwheel” of the British National Socialist Movement.

The reason Harvey loved late medieval England so much is that he was convinced its national character was improved by the expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward I, a character that was greatly damaged by Oliver Cromwell readmitting them in 1655. One passage in his popular history book The Plantagenets (1948), praising Edward I’s statesmanship in removing the “exotic mass” of the Jewish community which in turn “united the national body”. Additionally he attempted convince his readers of the veracity of the most infamous case of Blood Libel: the accusation in 1255 of the Jewish community of Lincoln ritually crucifying a young boy called Hugh (later given a kind of informal local canonisation as Little St Hugh of Lincoln) upon the discovery of his body in a well. In his most disturbing show of unwavering positivism he claimed that because he’d read the original chancery rolls, the medieval court’s judgement on the case was “unassailable”. After repeated complaints from Jewish groups and even the Catholic Church in England, his publishers gave him a chance in 1984 to amend the text. He refused, and the book, which had been a mainstay of sixth-form history classes, went out of print.

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Possible crypto-portrait of Edward I (dubbed “the Great” by Harvey for his expulsion of the Jews from his kingdom), sedilia, Westminster Abbey, c.1307.

So really, Harvey’s adoration of strong, masculine identities of his nation’s kings and craftsmen is built on a bedrock of “Gothic” being interchangeable with “Aryan”. His admiration of Perpendicular architecture, in its rigidity, seems allied to revival of stark classicism by Albert Speer in Nazi Germany. For Harvey, it really was One Nation Under Perp.

Harvey is an extreme case, but he shows that scholarship should be very careful not to blindly embrace standard narratives of the “progress” of “civilisation”. An understanding art and architecture filtered through multitude of factors is essential: economical, material and climatic. A proper study of English architecture should move away from the masculine power structures of genius artists and admit the influence of learned clergy , women, the art of North Africa and the Middle East flowing into Christendom, and, God forbid, even the French. Harvey is an illustrative case of how promoting cultural difference can lie above very dangerous world-views. So many of the world’s current problems, in the most extreme case the reprehensible ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, stem from an inflexible nationalism and xenophobia. Even scholars of Gothic should be challenging the foundations of toxic national identity in the age of Brexit and America First.

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Carlisle: The Unluckiest Cathedral

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Carlisle Cathedral from the SE, before restoration. Engraving by John Coney, 1822

Carlisle has a cathedral? A real one? Yes, but its well-meaning architecture, along with a propensity for pratfalls, make it the Frank Spencer of the English medieval cathedrals. Its, at times, quite cringeworthy story is rather different to the other cathedrals of medieval England, which were rebuilt in the monumental Romanesque style shortly after the Norman Conquest either on top of an existing Saxon one (e.g., Winchester, Wells), or moved to a new site (e.g. Dorchester to Lincoln, Sherbourne to Salisbury). Carlisle was founded as an Augustinian Priory in 1122 by King Henry I, and was elevated to a cathedral a decade later to stabilise the English Church on the border with Scotland.

Loss of the nave, 1646

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Truncated nave from SW

Okay, let’s get this one out the way first. Not only has Carlisle lost its cloisters, chapter house, and most of its other conventual gubbins, but the first thing you notice is that it lost its nave during the War of the Three Kingdoms after the siege of Carlisle of 1644-5. The town was garrisoned in 1646 by Lord General of the Army of the Covenant Alexander Leslie, and his army pulled down the west front, six bays of the nave and most of the conventual buildings in order to repair the castle and fortify the town. If Cromwell had not ordered them to surrender the garrisons after defeating the Scots at Preston, it is likely that Carlisle Cathedral would have ended up totally destitute like many Scottish cathedrals such as Elgin and St Andrews. The Parliamentarians may have desecrated Lichfield, but ironically it was an army on the Royalist side that ransacked Carlisle (The English Civil War as more complicated than you might think!).

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Daniel King – an agent for Dugdale, author of the great Church history the Monasticon – has drawing allegedly showing its pre-occupation state with the nave complete, but King is perhaps one of the worst artists ever so it’s not really much use. I don’t even think it IS the south prospect like it says: the vessel on the left has the higher roof which would make it more likely to be the east end and thus the view would be the north prospect. It’s impossible to confirm because the windows are just generic and even on the drawing itself both arms have one more bay in the lower windows than they do in a clerestory which doesn’t make sense. I think this was done from an extremely hasty set of notes he made before he did a runner to avoid being beheaded by an angry Presbyterian.

But even before it had lost the nave, the Cathedral managed to make more than enough problems for itself.

Settlement of the original Romanesque building, 1120s-30s

As usual, the first problem was that which plagues so many English great churches: differential settlement.  It is quite spectacular how much the footings of the tower have slipped, particularly the west wall of the south transept, which look like it’s going concertina in on itself any minute.

 

 

Every arm from the crossing is distorted by the sinking piers, even the first bay of the nave has a spectacularly saggy gallery. So different are the levels of the two sides of the bay that when it came to putting the clerestorey on top, the builders did the laziest cop-out of fixing the two levels with a wonky sill. The shafts above the piers terminate below the gallery, advising they were planning on a high vault but gave up on the idea pretty sharpish. Aisle vaults were also abandoned. One suspects the Scots didn’t need to do that much to the nave to topple it.

 

Eccentricities in the Early English east end, 1220s-80s

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Looking west from the presbytery to the crossing.

But subsidence was only the beginning of Carlisle’s woes. The decision was then made to greatly expand the east end with a Gothic replacement, not only longer, but wider. Conventual buildings obviated expanding south, so all the extra width was placed on the north side. Construction started in the 1220s with an aisled north transept and the north aisle wall so the old apse could remain in use for services on the south side until the new extension was almost finished. You can see the lop-sided legacy of this inside. The presbytery sits on top of the Romanesque south aisle wall, but is much wider than the old apse. This means that the crossing arch is not in the centre of the choir anymore, and you can see the old roofline where the old apse aisle used to be. Looks very odd.

We can work out where the apse extended to because of a wonky arch. The fenestration changes on the south aisle, suggesting that work stopped in order to demolish the apse, and then building resume in a different style, with stepped triple rather than double lancets.
Below are south bays 4, 5 and 6. 6 looks odd because it was the original end bay, so the sizes of the arches are uneven so that the right one is fatter to accomodate the east wall. Although bay 5 is a Victorian replacement of a late-medieval perpendicular window (see first picture in this post) with the north-aisle scheme, you can tell it’s probably correct because the right arch of bay 4 “weeps” right because the level of capitals of the triple lancets needs to be lower than the paired ones. Took me ages to work this out. The pedantry of medieval masons knows no bounds.

 

New E.E. east end burns down almost immediately, 1292

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Presbytery arcade, carved capital, first quarter of the 14thc

So, the new choir was finished some time in the second half of the thirteenth century. Then in 1292 the roof caught fire and collapsed in on the furniture causing a lot of damage. As you can see from my above account of them, the aisle walls survived, but the central vessel was extremely badly damaged. Nearly all of the elevation needed to be completely remade: piers, triforium and clerestory. The results are a triumph. Although the east arm at Carlisle Cathedral is almost unknown in the literature, it’s a uniquely proportioned, wonderfully airy and light essay in English Gothic. The triple-window triforium is particularly memorable in the elevation, but most impressive are the capitals, which famously contain lots of animal tomfoolery and general foliage-bound jiggery-pokery.

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Presbytery elevation, first quarter of 14thc (arcade arches and aisle walls 1220s)

But ho! What is this. The arches themselves have dogtooth, which is a 13thc motif! The aisle vaults also seem to be 13thc! Even if you don’t know much about architecture, you can usually be sure that the oldest bits are usually at the bottom. Here we have 13thc sandwiched between 14thc piers and a 14thc triforium! How can this be? The answer is that they must have retained all the voussoirs when they dismantled the elevations, and then reassembled them on top of brand new piers. Why waste good doogtooth? This is confirmed by the extra short bay they put on the end that lacks the dogtooth. The short bay also copies the the aisle dado arcading in a 14thc stylee. But as you’d expect in a building that reuses old fabric, there are pretty obvious mistakes here too.

Mess ups in the new presbytery

The short bays were added but the north one has a curious bit where the arch is too high so the triforium string course jumps up over it. Is it a mistake? Well, did they do it on the other side?

 

Welp nope they didn’t, mistake it is then

The east front, ready for glazing around 1340, so probably begun in the 1330s (except for the aisles, which were completed earlier) is one of the most spectacular essays in the Decorated Style on an English cathedral facade. It has pairs of niches on its big east buttresses, the top ones being ogee and gables as found in parish church Decorated such as Heckington in Lincolnshire. The composition is thrown off symmetry by the big stair turret on the north side – the principal access to the upper levels of the building – which is also elaborated with Dec flourishes such as blind tracery and a wave parapet.

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One confusing thing in the new presbytery is this at the east end of each aisle. It’s a vault spring from the respond of the nave arcade that goes nowhere. Instead the vault springs from a corbel further up the east wall. What’s it about? Is it a plan to revault the whole aisle that was abandoned in favour of reusing the 13thc ribs? Is it, as Billings forwarded in 1840, because they realised would obscure the main arcade mouldings? (Seems a bit petty to me) Is it a flying rib? Clearly something’s not gone to plan because the south aisle has separate headstops for the wall transverse rib and the cross rib, while both those spring from the same corbel on the north, and the headstop holding the main arcade label is clearly visible on the north side but buried in the wall on the south.

If you understood all that, maybe you can help me understand what the hell all that’s about because quite frankly I’m stumped.

Tower falls down almost immediately after the east end is completed, 1380

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N transept, choir entrance with masonry break from collapse of crossing tower

Anyway, no time for that because in 1380 the tower fell down *sad trombone*. Thank goodness it didn’t fall onto the just-rebuilt choir, that really would’ve been a Swamp Castle tragedy, but it did land on the north transept basically destroying all the Early English work there. You can see the remnants of the east arcade springing into the wall where the east chapels used to be. It was probably the tower collapse that left the voussoirs of the chapel entrance frighteningly slipped out of place.

 

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N choir aisle entrance, from W, showing springing of N transept arcade

The opportunity was not taken to build a new tower that would line up with the new presbytery, probably because the idea of building a new, bigger tower was a stupid idea given all the subsidence. So they perched this thing with a funny diaphragm arch on the side where it fell down on top of the old low Romanesque crossing.

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Rebuilt crossing from NE.

Postscript

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Nave, from the N aisle (From Winkles Cathedrals, 1836)

Then little mischief befell Carlisle until the aforementioned pesky Presbyterians. After their penny-pinching truncation of the nave for cheap stone, the remaining stump became St Mary’s parish church, and was cruelly given a ceiling, which I’d like to think was a joke on the vaulting shafts terminating at the gallery, but that’s probably unlikely. Preliminary restorations were carried out by Ewan Christian in 1852-6, and then Street cleared all the crap out of the nave in 1871-80. Sadly Stephen Dykes Bower filled it up with junk again in 1947. But despite being the cathedral missing off so many southern softies’ lists, you should go. It’s great. I bet you any money it’ll be bloody raining while you’re there though.

The Rape of Chartres

P1250032One does not like to use the word “rape” carelessly in rhetoric. But what is going on at perhaps the finest-preserved ensemble of medieval cathedral art in the world deserves it. In the classical sense of the word, rapere, as in abductions by Zeus, Our Lady of Chartres is being stolen from us by the megalomania of a self-deceived cabal, and its interior being replaced with a gaudy pastiche.

There has been a lot of discussion of the quite drastic change to the largely 13th-century interior of Chartres Cathedral in the press, most notably Martin Filler’s all-out attack in the NY Review of Books, and a subsequent rebuttal by esteemed art historians Jeffrey Hamburger and Madeline Caviness. Also worth reading is this piece from the New York Times.

P1250033Anyway, this is my blog, not a historically detached analysis or summation of the controversy in the press. This is my personal reaction after my first visit to the cathedral in June 2016. I went with an open mind – there is a chance I could have liked it – and actually I surprised myself with how much I despised it.

There is quite an aggressive tone to the rebuttals to accusations of destruction of the historical record, and the defence is often patronising. We critics are blinded by our adherence to a “modernist aesthetic” in our appreciation of bare stone. They are merely “restoring” (whether this means revealing or reapplying is never really consistent) the false-masonry pattern that the “original creators” envisaged. But, not surprisingly behind this absolutist, almost Trumpist defence, seems to be deeply deceitful, and flagrantly violating the 1962 Venice Charter on art restoration. But most of all they’ve also deceived themselves in thinking what they’ve done to Chartres Cathedral is not a horrible, horrible thing.

P1250038Firstly, they have restored a number of areas of the Cathedral to schemes of totally different dates. The first thing that sticks out in the restoration is the east end. You very rarely, if ever, see the interior of the apse of Chartres in Gothic textbooks, even though, liturgically, it was the most important part. Surveys of architecture nearly always have the elevation of the nave as a metonym of the whole building. This is because the presbytery arcades were recut for a Counter-Reformation sanctuary: still pointed but with classic soffit decoration instead of mouldings, and diamonds at the apex of the arch. The sanctuary is, to paraphrase Pugin, decked out with furniture like the saloon of a hotel. It’s quite a shock, but now that all the 18thc polychrome has been restored, it’s a particularly striking blot on the building. The spandrels are pale blue, with is tolerable, but the piers are painted in a faux-marble tiger-stripe pattern. The effect is more like a whore’s boudoir than the sanctuary of Our Lady Immaculate. Of course it should not be ironed out, but this re-vivifying of its colours make it unduly prominent in an extremely important Gothic building where it is, undeniably, not the main attraction.

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P1250166There are a number of exposed parts of wall painting throughout the Cathedral that don’t fit with the “religiously adhered-to” (that choice of words was so deeply ironic) scheme. The current line seems to be “we’re deciding what to do with it”. Put more false-masonry over it, I bet, for the skewed idea that a cathedral should have all superficial inconsistencies ironed out into a single purity of conception. Where there was formerly bricolage, there shall be naught but bricks.

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Painted vault in the ambulatory of the church of St Pierre, Chartres

The other thing is that a lot of the new brick-pattern is clearly painted free-hand and looks rubbish. Every time I’ve seen genuine medieval false masonry it’s so straight it’s clearly been painted with the use of plumb lines and taut string. All in all, the main point is that the restoration isn’t unnecessary, it’s just not being executed well. It’s sloppy. It’s inconsistent. And it just doesn’t look that good. If you go to the other end of town, you find St Pierre, a fantastic church in its own right. And in its ambulatory it has the remains of medieval paint. Yes, you can imagine it greatly transforming conception of the architecture, but you can see it was painted well. It is forgotten that medieval polychrome was done with all the same subtlety as we expect from the stone underneath. When repainting Chartres, they may have the right ideas, but they don’t have the skill. They’re rushing it, and making a pig’s ear as they go.

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If they want to restore Chartres to how it was, then you’d need to put back the altars, statues, candles, a whole chapter of canons, chantry chapels, gleaming reliquaries, chanted Latin, incense and turn it back into the machine d’prier that it was built as. Why re-polychrome the architecture, if you aren’t redoing the statues of choir screen? And the statues of the portals? And building the seven further spires they obviously would have put on if they had the money in the Middle Ages? It ends up not “restoring” any previous state, but instead just being just another unique stage in the building’s history – but one that has destroyed a great deal of evidence, and most importantly, looks like crap.

P1250169I don’t doubt that under the grime there was a lot of original decoration to be found. No doubt it needed a clean. But the supremacist, absolutist, heavy-handed way it’s been done, without communication with the wider scholarly community has been lacking. To nearly everyone outside of the immediate team, it’s a shocking surprise quite how far it has gone. It’s a unique experience for a medieval cathedral: nothing feels old, nothing feels real. Rather than engagement, discourse and debate, the restoration team are on constant defence of their drastic alteration of the appearance of a monument that before could easily vie for a place in any modern-planet Earth Seven Wonders. Perhaps then they would realise the problem isn’t with us and our blinkered aesthetics, it’s them and their folly of trying to make a 800-year-old interior “good as new” again in a way no one has ever tried before. One day this foolish “restoration” will be scaled back in its effect. But it would have been better if they’d just done it well time round.

 

Bad art in cathedrals

Cathedrals used to be depositories of some of the finest works of art in the world. Then the pesky Reformation came round and stripped many of them back to the walls. What has filled the place of the original medieval artworks has, over the years, been subject to changing tastes. While the Victorians despised all classical additions, the twentieth century in turn, had a bit of a clear-out of what they found dowdy and gloomy.

So what tat should be chucked out in a fantasy aesthetic Reformation? Let’s dispense with the polite introduction that pretends this is anything other than just a list of things I don’t like, and find out!

The café paintings in Worcester chapter house

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Worcester chapter house is an immensely important monument. It’s the first in a long line of English centrally-planned chapter houses. The walls retain traces of painting, and the stone vault once contained a complicated sequence of Biblical scenes showing the typology of the New Testament foreshadowed in the Old. These are gone now, so when they put the café in there, they thought the best way to make up for this massive loss to English art it was by putting some paintings up on the dado that they look came for free with the frames from Wilkinsons.

South presbytery aisle screen, Ripon Cathedral,

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I’m surprised this thing survived one night without the cleaners chucking it out. It looks like it’s made out of giant pipe-cleaners. Glitter and Pritt-Stick also involved. Really all it needs is some dried pasta, paper plates and split-pins to really finish it off.

Piper Tapestry, high altar, Chichester Cathedral

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Now, actually, this one is by a proper artist, John Piper, who I actually really like. He’s one of the few artists who can capture the gritty drama of a parish church rather than just making it look like something out of The Darling Buds of May. But not everything in his name is brilliant. His south aisle windows in St Margaret, Westminster, are some of the few in England that can give abstract continental glass a run for its money in sheer grimness. This thing too, I don’t like. It’s trying to hard to be modern and groovy. If it was commissioned for Whitbury New Town Leisure centre, it’d be fine. Worse thing is though, is what it replaced.

A fine altarpiece by Somers Clarke, which had been, shockingly kept into the triforium gallery for half a century until it was finally brought back downstairs only last year apparently.  If you’re going to get rid of art you find old and outdated, you best be sure you are conjuring up something REALLY inspired. Like when Michaelangelo got the go-ahead to destroy some Perugino frescoes for The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. Which this is not. The Last Judgement is still unequalled in its terribilità. The Chichester tapestry has been equalled by a Fruitopia bottle.

Various creepy stuff in Durham Cathedral

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There’s loads of weird stuff in Durham. Of course I don’t have any of my own photographs of any of it because I’m not going to be risk being told off by a custodian for the sake of one of these. I found this one on Google images though. Just look at it. It looks like Gumby’s fallen over and a house ornament from seconds at TK Maxx doesn’t look very interested in helping him up.

Basically everything from Westminster Abbey

Regular viewers will remember I don’t like Westminster Abbey much. This of course it is famously filled to the brim with rubbish that distracts from the architecture. Pearson’s mutilation of the north front, Scott’s ugly choir screen, the overbearing reredos, that out-of-place goldback altarpiece on the south side of the sanctuary (seems to have gone now), loads of Hugh Easton glass, the banners in the Lady Chapel which obscure the architecture, Blore the bore’s choir-stalls (makes for a great rhyme though)… WESTMINSTER ABBEY

But worst of all are all the soapy bloody eighteenth-century monuments of admirals ascending into Heaven or a viscount knocking over a pyramid or some lady crying over a pillar that’s fallen down. There was actually a plan in the nineteenth century to build a Westminster “camposanto” for all these and give them the heave-ho from the medieval abbey church. It fell through, of course. Someone needs to treat Westminster Abbey like an elderly parent who’s been hoarding things around their house in plastic bags on the floor, kindly sit them down and say “Mother, we need sort this out”, then hire a skip and get the lot in there.

New Bishop’s Throne, Leicester Cathedral

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P1180013Oh dear. After the excitement of exhuming Richard III and reordering the whole place as a tourist trap, uh, pilgrimage site, Leicester went a bit overboard and decided to redo the liturgical furniture in the crossing. Even though they had a fine carved Neo-Gothic Bishop’s Throne already (in the background there), they decided they needed to replace it with something a bit more “down wit’ the kids”. So they got this thing that looks like the least exciting Transformer ever, made out of MDF (Magnet-tron: ha ha!). As well as looking naffer than a branch of C&A, it also has the disturbing effect of looking like it’s suddenly going to collapse in on itself, crushing any occupant into a perfect cube.

I didn’t really believe this thing was real so I went round the back to try and process it. Then I saw it was attached to the crossing pier, so it’s not going anywhere soon, folks.

The apse clerestory in the Abbey of St Denis, Paris

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I could probably dedicate a whole post to terrible glass in continental cathedrals, but it would probably be so tedious that it would only be worth reading if you got stoned and pretended it was a lava lamp. Anyway, the stuff at St Denis, really takes the cake. All you want to do is deliver Abbot’s Suger’s ecstatic speech about “delight in the beauty of the house of God” but the apse is full of gaudy crap. Worst of all is this terrible pictorial one of Napoleon of all things.

 

Both sides of the west front of Liverpool Cathedral

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1552114_db13328a[1]I love Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. It’s the last gasp of the Gothic Revival. It is truly sublime. It’s almost that the space inside surpasses the mass of the object in its sheer volume. I recommend any medieval cathedral enthusiast visit: it might be a white elephant, but it’s a miracle it was finished, and it’s incredibly moving. However, the problem is that this green thing greets you on your way in. It’s supposed to be the Risen Christ, but it’s hardly Piero della Francesca: it’s more the sort of thing you make out of blu-tack in a boring meeting then crush when the coffee trolley comes in. And then you have some sentimental bit of tripe by Tracey Emin on the counterfacade, that I thought was temporary but it never seems to go away. I’m getting tired now, so time to wind it up. This list isn’t in any particular order, except for comedy potential, and of course I’m going to end on the worst. And most of you won’t be surprised by my top choice.

Statue of the Virgin Mary, Ely Lady Chapel

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So, yes. Ely Lady Chapel’s foundation stone was laid on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1321, but since the crossing tower of the cathedral collapsed the following February, it’s unlikely much was done except the site dug and some bits of the raft laid out. The building was resumed in the late 1330s, and perhaps benefited all the more for it, as this was really the apex for English sculpture. And the plan for Ely Lady Chapel was to have it in spades. The “nodding-ogees” of the wall arcades are vivaciously organic to the point of eroticism. Indeed, since the vescias contain statues of the royal ancestors of Christ, one might wish to hazard that it’s supposed to be quite that suggestive: Honi soit qui mal y pense and all that. It’s an incredible work of art, quite simply a masterpiece of Gothic. With its full sculpture, altars and stained glass, it must have been ravishing. Makes things like Giotto’s Arena Chapel seem like they done on a budget.

Ooh! Do your o

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Ely Lady Chapel as Holy Trinity parish church, before 1938

It is of course, hacked about. The narratives of Mary’s early life and her divine intercessions have been pedantically decapitated by a Reformation busybody, and the whole east wall with the culmination of the devotion to the Mother of God has of course been utterly wrecked. It was, until the early 20th century, kept as a parish church, and all the later paraphernalia such as pews and wall monuments taken out in the late 1930s. In its stripped, naked vulnerability, it has a uniquely eerie, poignant beauty, showing the preciousness and transcendence of art.

Then of course someone thinks “ooh, it’s just missing something” and ruins it by putting this load of old shite bang right in the sodding middle of it.

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I mean, sculpturally it’s pretty poor, I’m never really sure if she’s supposed to be accepting the incarnation of Our Lord through the Holy Spirit, saying “I JUST CLEANED ALL THIS MESS!” or receiving an incoming message from The Big Giant Head.

And there’s also the white-washing, that she looks more like a caucasian Disney Princess than a girl from late-antique Palestine, which wouldn’t be so bad if she was classically recognisable as the classical Virgin Mary. Instead she looks more like the homonymic Queen of Pop circa Ray of Light.

It’s made of Portland Stone, not that you’d know, because it looks like it came from one of these sets:

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Right down to the crappy water-based primary colour paints applied all over the porous surface with no shading or highlights. I mean at least he didn’t go over the lines.

Have you some tat in a big church you love to hate? Tell us below in the comments! Or, if you’re a Russian bot, post some alt-right nonsense! Up to you!

How to defuse the parish church crisis

England’s medieval parish churches are a unique asset and a ticking timebomb. However, they are a Doomsday Device with no digital display. People thought it would blow thirty years ago. But here it is, in 2017, still ticking.

Consecration Of Rachel Treweek As The Next Bishop Of Gloucester

“So glad you can join us in the Silly Hat Club, Sarah”

The maintenance of many churches spread over our green and often-pleasant land is becoming unsustainable, and the architecture and art inside is at risk. Money needs to spent on them. But where should the money come from? People often labour under the impression that the Church of England is very wealthy, indeed greedy, in that they own billions in land, only the squander it on silly hats. However, despite the size of their assets being indeed large, as much of it is indeed these rural parish churches, they can’t be monetised.

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Holy Trinity, Blythburgh (Suffolk), tower c.1330, new church begun 1412-

Church buildings used to be entirely funded by wealth generated by their parishioners. The villagers were responsible for the upkeep of the nave, and they also paid tithes to their parish priest, which would provide his livelihood and maintenance of the east end of the building, the chancel. In reality, rich donors such as the lord of the manor were the fiscal means for the building programmes we see today. Since the abolition of tithes in the 1930s, parish priests are directly waged by the Church of England. The parochial church council is the guardian of the church building, and is required to pay a “parish share” to the diocese for the running of the Church of England. Even bolstered by its other investments, after clergy wages, pensions, administrative work, etc., the CofE can only keep ticking over by a whisker. It cannot afford to maintain ancient buildings by itself – especially when historically, it never did. Very often it is still private donations from individuals that solves maintenance problems.

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“So You Want to Be a Vicar”, pinched from the pages of Viz comic (more specifically the pen of the frequently hilarious Simon Ecob)

But for less fortunate churches that aren’t in wealthy Cotswolds villages: who should pay? A small number of parish churches have become redundant for parochial worship and subsequently vested in the Churches Conservation Trust (founded 1969 as the Redundant Churches Fund). The CCT was founded by the church commissioners and receives state funding at its core, but government commitment to it has been reduced since 2010, making it ever-more dependent on voluntary donations. Most churches, however, can only raise money through applications to bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and National Churches Trust, which require tenacity and dedication from the parish church council.

As a card-carrying lefty, rather than hoping Andrew Lloyd Webber will take care of it, I believe that (as suggested by Paul Binski in his closing remarks to our parish church conference at The Courtauld Institute of Art in June 2017) the benevolent hand of the state should preserve our artistic heritage which is culturally, aesthetically and historically significant, including all listed churches. One day, it would be ideal to have a branch of government which actively provides maintenance for our built heritage. Indeed, it would have been a better use of money than having the civil servants of Whitehall dedicated to perusing the folly of an exit from the European Union in seeming hopeless perpetuity.

P1020219.jpgIt’s not that it would take that much money. Certainly less than what that other dilapidated clockless timebomb, the Conservative Party, spent on propping themselves up with the DUP in Northern Ireland. It’s just very hard to justify, especially since, the sort of people who might support the radical collectivisation of cultural assets for the public good are not the sort of people who tend to go into churches. Just have a look at these comments, that I can only assume were all written by sandal-wearing school teachers in between their bites of muesli. You will find opposition to any notion of organised religion (mostly fuelled by the nadir of Christianity that is the supreme intolerance of the American religious right), the perceived wealth of the Church of England, but very often a complete ignorance to what churches are actually like to visit. Many of these people will have been to an art gallery recently, or an English Heritage property, but will have never been in a church except for weddings.

Before we can justify putting public money into churches, we need to get these sort of people into the idea of church tourism, the churches are friendly places and the Church of England is our most valuable cultural asset. Here’s my entirely personal perspective on what some churches do that are good, and some that are bad and are close to cutting the red wire that’ll blow this joint to kingdom come.

Get down!

DO open the church

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“Come in and Pray” oh wait

Well, this is the first step, really, isn’t it? Some parts of the country, every church around will be kept open. In many villages it actually makes life easier having it open: people in the village can complete errands without an unsecure number of copies of the key floating around. The churchwarden only locks it up after checking on it at dusk.

Some parts of the country – and in these regions it’s not really connected to it being a hamlet or urbanised market town – churches are only unlocked for services, with the keys held by the churchwardens and priest-in-charge. If the church really does need to be kept locked (because it does suffer from repeated thefts or vandalism while open, or it’s so remote it’s hard to keep an eye on) the key should be accessible – e.g., it is available at reasonable times, and the street address – especially if it’s a named house – is clear. Anyone other than diehards aren’t going to make the effort. Nothing more than the churchwarden’s name and a phone number without the area code, and even I’m not going to bother.

DON’T be adamant that the church is “not a museum”

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St Denys’ Church, Rotherfield (Sussex): late 13thc and early 15thc wall paintings.

It seems bizarre that churches often stubbornly separately themselves from art galleries and museums, as if all the beautiful, old, interesting things they own are a distraction which ought to be ignored. People go to art galleries to contemplate, relax, not unlike why people visit churches.

The important thing is that people know how to behave in art galleries, but they can be scared of churches. But people don’t shout in the National Gallery, they don’t eat crisps in the British Museum, and they don’t rollerblade around the Serpentine Gallery, so it’s actually a pretty good behavioural template for them to go in a church with. It’s not one that will distance them from a worshipper, instead it’s probably the closest you can get them to one.

DO be permissive with photography

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No photo!

Similarly, as art galleries now have almost entirely given up on controlling photography, be endlessly positive about people taking pictures. It’s actually a more productive exercise than it ever used to be: even ordinary people’s holiday snaps can be seen by hundreds of people on Instagram, unlike when you could only bore your neighbours or immediate family with them.

Embrace this chance to spread images of your building across the public perception. Only confront people if they are being disruptive, like using a flash or having a loud fake-shutter noise. Otherwise, why not let people take pictures of the liturgy? Don’t you want a record of what goes on in buildings too?

DON’T cast off that vast moth-eaten brocade of tradition

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St John Tue Brook, Liverpool, by G.F. Bodley, 1867-70.

Now, some churches look to the funky-groovy church Evangelical church-plants with jealously, and the hundreds of people they get packed in on Sunday prayer meetings for a happy-clappy sing-a-long. But the reality is that these only tend to work in established urban Bible Belts. Most people don’t want to hear Shine Jesus Shine, they want to hear a hymn that doesn’t sound like it’s trying to be cool. They come into a church to experience its beauty and history.

While you might keep people comfy for the short term with your plush carpets and blue-cushioned stackable chairs, if you make a church interior just like every other bland meeting-room interior people come across in their drab lives, you’re going to lose the transcendent atmosphere that makes a church uniqe. And then what will you have? Oh, a sad smelly sofa with croissant crumbs between the cushions.P2170078.jpg

DO let everyone feel welcome

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Spot the dog

People should not feel like they are unwelcome if they haven’t been to Church the Sunday before. Or ever, in fact. They shouldn’t feel unwelcome if they’re wearing nothing on their shoulders, a Deicide T-shirt or even if they’re an adult man in shorts ending above the knee (*shudder*). People should feel happy they’ve been in a church, not leaving it guiltily as if they’ve sullied it with their presence. Who knows, it might be the beginning of a new fascination.

DON’T hide the donation box

P2140819However, you should also not be embarrassed to prominently display a request for donations: again, something museums and galleries do. Partly this is so people who are prepared to give actually can find the place where you can put the money, but also to remind people that nothing comes without a cost. Do the old “this building costs this much to run”, but also do a typical breakdown of expenditure from your yearly budget.

If someone happens not to pay, don’t be cross: they may have no change on them, they might have slipped a fiver in and you wouldn’t have heard it, or indeed they might not have a penny to their name. However, chances are they’ve bought a cup of tea that cost over a quid in their life, and they probably could easily spare a wee pund for you.

Also, a secure place to the put the money, please! It’s off-putting to think that said wee pund could be swiped by a thoughtless ne’er-do-well. Even if it’s only a Poundland padlock, it’s important to have something both as a deterrent and a comfort.

DO listen to your visitors

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All Saints North Street, York: The Pricke of Conscience window, early 15thc.

And yes, this is a sticky point. And us art historians need to do it a lot more too. But it’s yet another thing that the public galleries have started to do that churches could learn from. Custodians of churches occasionally seem to pose as if they are custodians of all knowledge related to the building. But no church is an island: the experience of others – especially an “outsider” – can greatly lend to interpretation of an object. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

DON’T feel the need to give a guided tour

P1600235.jpgSome people are there for the memorials. Some people are there for the Victorian stained glass. Some are here because it’s where their parents married. Not all of them are interested in the herringbone masonry in the south transept. And some of them are REALLY interested in the herringbone masonry in the south transept, in fact they wrote their whole PhD on the herringbone masonry in the south transept. Make information available, but make it available at all levels, and never try and have the label out-do the object. Let people have their own personal experience in a building. It will ultimately mean more to them than looking at a few info boards.

DO love nature

One of the reasons English parish churches are so varied and fascinating is that they are deeply connected to the equally varied landscape of the British Isles. Nearly all village churches are built of stone from local quarries: be it Red Sandstone, Ironstone, Granite or, where there is no stone, bits of pebbles bedded in mortar. A church building is the bedrock exhumed and reanimated by human hands.P2000523.jpg

But nature also poses a problem. Insects can infest woodwork. Bats in the belfry can excrete all over your furniture and fittings. Play the All Things Bright and Beautiful approach: work with local wildlife groups, have part of the graveyard overgrown to encourage biodiversity, tempt the bats away with cosier bat boxes.

DO visit other churches!

There is no single church which is the model for others to follow when it comes to being accessible. Learn from other churches, see what they do, and also what makes your church special in its own way: because rest assured, practically every church building is.

The tragic tale of St Alban’s Abbey

St Alban’s Abbey, St Albans, is not your usual case of wonky arches. It doesn’t have much in the way of alarming settlement, poor setting out, or desperate solutions to prevent collapse. What it does have is the worst west front of any English Cathedral. This is the result of two disastrous architects they employed: the first a medieval cowboy builder; the second a bullying nobleman, who was endowed with a vast ineptitude for architectural design, and a huge fortune enabling him to inflict it upon this poor historic building.

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Aye, we’ve still got our original tower. Not too tall so we don’t lose too much heating up there. We ur on White Meter, ye ken!

The story of St Albans starts, as with basically all wonky arches, with the Normans. Despite not being a cathedral until 1877, it was one of the most important abbeys in England at the time of the Conquest and was rebuilt in the Romanesque style pretty sharpish: before some of the cathedrals. In fact, it’s one of the earliest bits of Romanesque architecture we have left in England, much of it not being replaced by Gothic rebuilds. It never suffered a central tower collapse, nor was any of it, quite surprisingly, demolished to make it more manageable as a parish church. Instead, it comes off a church that was rather parsimonious with its fabric, seemingly always waiting till the last minute to get the builders in, with disastrous results.

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Verulamium Park, St Albans, Roman wall, 3rd century Aye, why spend ye spondoolies on rocks when all these bricks sittin’ abit fur free!

To be fair, the monks of St Albans cultivated its ramshackle appearance in order to emphasise how old it was. Much of the Romanesque work is built out of bricks salvaged from the Roman town of Verulamium. You can see what’s left of it if you walk through the town’s park: great walls and gatehouses, all taken down to what would have been the ground level to make a great church from.

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Nave N arcade. Daein us weel since the 1090s.


Even by early Norman standards, the interior elevation is extraordinarily plain, almost brutally so. What it lacks in ornament it makes up for in size, with a nave at least nine bays, the longest church in the country after Winchester Cathedral. This length is what makes the late 12th-century extension of the church under Abbot John de Cella all the more perplexing. At this time, with the Gothic style coming in from France, great churches were demolishing their pokey apses and putting great stonking presbyteries on the east end. St Albans however, chose to leave its presbytery alone, and add another three bays on the west, and necessarily with it, a brand-new facade.

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Western extension of nave, 1190s, into early 13th century. We thooght abit a vault but ‘en we cooldnae be arsed.

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The central porch of the W front in 1870, as executed by Hugh Goldcliff, 1195-1214.

This is where the first cowboy rides in. Famous resident and chronicler of the Abbey Matthew Paris tells us of Hugh de Goldcliff (even his name makes him sound dodgy), a builder who, like a good conman, managed to convince John de Cella what he wanted was a big fancy west front with two massive flanking towers and lots of bits of fiddly ornament that would conveniently keep him and his hand-picked team of masons busy for many seasons, even though the abbey couldn’t afford it. It was so badly built the west front fell down, and people came from miles around to come to point and laugh at it. Paris described him as “vir quidem fallax et falsidicus, sed artifex praeelectus“. He was dismissed without pay, so at least the monks would have been pleased about saving a wee bit of money there.

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South elevation of presbytery. Note how the clerestory is still in Verulamium brick despite the late 13th-century fenestration. Dinnae wanna tae waste those bricks, they’re only a thoosain years auld!

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Presbytery, W bays, S elevation, last quarter of 13th century. Looks new, but we didne spend a lot ay bunsens oan it.

Another mason called Hugh, much more promisingly-surnamed Eversholt, was called in to complete a scaled-back version of the new Gothic west front and complete the new west bays of the nave. In 1257, probably because the groin vault was cracking, the monks finally bothered to replace the east end. However, the new work is really just a recasing of the Romanesque end with the apse lopped off, as you can still see the brickwork outside (which would have originally have been rendered as to be invisible). The first three arcade bays are filled in, presumably because they were desperate not to risk any money on the tower falling down.

About the only solecism that the decidedly Ready-Salted architecture of the presbytery allows is when they get to the corners and there’s no plain spandrel space for the vault corbel to go in, so they decide to bend out the arch mouldings to catch it. It looks kinda gross.

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E bay of presbytery arcade, N side, detail of junction. (The wooden construction is the watching loft to check no cheeky wee bairns nick anythin’ at the shrine)

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Lady Chapel, 1310s, restored by George Gilbert Scott. Braw.

The glorious exception at St Albans is the Lady Chapel, which was added on to the completed presbytery ambulatory shortly after it was completed, probably in the 1310s. It is the most sumptuous space, even though it was used as a school after the Reformation, still retaining a multitude of saints under nodding-ogee canopies in the window jambs. A lot of it seems quite precocious for its date: it’s actually pretty special. But for the most part, the monks of St Albans liked to play up their antiquity. It’s like your neighbour who won’t replace his rotting garden fence even though you know he’s loaded because the flash git has a fancy car in the drive. A Ford Fiesta or something.

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Nave, middle bays of S arcade, late 1320s. Hud tae be dain.

Possibly because of something a pissed-off Goldcliff had done to the new south arcade, the Abbey had its second disaster in 1323 when, quite exceptionally, in the eastern part of the nave, part of the Romanesque south arcade simply flat-out collapsed. This leaves St Albans nave in the bizarre position of having three different elevations: 11th century on the north, 14th on the south, and the late 12th/early 13th at the west end. And except for new fittings, such as the late 14th-century rood screen and gigantic reredos of around 1480, that was basically it for the medieval architecture of the church.


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Purbeck marble shrine base of St Alban, 1308. All the auld bits meticulously sorted and put back together, good as new, by Gilbert Scott. Bit he wears naethin’ under his kilt.

The picture so far is that St Albans is interesting yet unremarkable. However, in the 19th century, a ne’erdowell would descend on the building that made Hugh de Goldcliff look reputable. This menace was Edmund Beckett, better known as the first Baron Grimthorpe. Lord Grimthorpe might sound like a Saturday-morning-cartoon villain, and indeed his megalomania wasn’t far displaced from one. Although he was known for creating the clock mechanism of Big Ben’s tower, he will above all be remembered for absolutely ruining St Alban’s Abbey. Sir George Gilbert Scott clearly had a soft spot for St Albans, allegedly saying that it was his favourite building. He carefully restored the Lady Chapel in the early 1870s from its interim use as a school, saved the tower, and prevented the nave S wall from collapsing (again!). His reconstruction of Purbeck marble shrine base of St Alban from fragments found in the dividing wall between the Abbey and the Lady Chapel he thought to be one of his proudest achievements, and indeed it is an absolutely stunning object. Perhaps saving the best till last, he died in 1878 having never done a full restoration of the building’s fabric.

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South elevation of the nave, which would have originally interfaced with the monastic areas. You can see the three stages of medieval work in the clerestory – 1190s / 1320s / 1080s – but note how Grimthorpe has just slapped buttresses through the fancy remains of the cloister as if they arenae theaur! Whit a bawbag.

Scott having done all the difficult and important stuff, Lord Grimthorpe offered to pay for the whole restoration under the stipulation he could do whatever he wanted. The St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society made a visit in 1889 while he was still wreaking havoc on the building. They note that he’d ruined the south side of the nave by whacking windows in it and sticking buttresses through the arcading. The nave ceiling had be broken up and was used as construction hoardings.

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SW prospect of the Abbey from Verulamium Park. Note Grimthorpe’s five lancets in the S transept. Inside there is a flat ceiling at the height of the outer pair that cuts off the tops of the middle three. Bastart’s aff his heid!

Often our view of great cathedrals misses out that many of them had their fenestration modernised in the late Middle Ages with Perpendicular-style windows. Like pretty much anyone, Grimthorpe hated Perp for its rigidity and tedium, but unlike most restorers, he just stuck in whatever he fancied, rather than something he had evidence for, or even something that feasibly might have been there. The south transept he smacked a poor copy of the “Five Sisters” at York Minster, without the slightest bit of understanding of the proportion and elegance that actually makes those good architecture. On the outside, Grimthorpe’s lancets ascend in height to go right up into the gable, but on the inside (where the gable is cut off by the ceiling), they’re all the same height. This mismatch between interior and exterior is deeply dishonest.

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N transept, N elevaaaaaaaaaahhhghzf..

The north transept is even worse. The Eccles Soc, in the best sarcasm they could muster, said that the “design appeared to have been evolved by laying on a sheet of paper a Jubilee sovereign, and surrounding it by a row of three-penny pieces, with outer rows of shillings and sixpences of the same class”. It’s a trypophobic’s nightmare.

All this really climaxes in the ineptitude that is the west front. As you may remember, the original west front from the turn of the thirteenth century had been a medieval bit of jerry-building and had originally partially collapsed and vastly scaled back from its initial ambition. As it was, it had come down to the Victorians essentially as a late medieval encasing of John de Cella’s folly, with only the interior of the porches hinting at the planned splendour of the original design. Preliminary investigations by Scott revealed the mark of one of the original gables over the porches, clearly visible on the south side:

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The west front shortly before restoration in the early 1870s, Victorian autochrome photograph. Looks braw tae me.

All that the current west front owes to the original design, as conceived by Goldcliff, are the proportions of the gables of the three porches. About everything else is a barely-competent Gothick pastiche. It’s very shallow, which gives it a cardboard feel like a cheap street facade of an urban non-conformist church. The medieval front was originally designed to have two full-sized flanking towers, and in this sense it would have been a true west front – a separate block on the end of the building, not just a representation of the building behind. Grimthorpe’s front links together two turrets that just seem inconsequentially silly, with the two bands of bland [sic] arcading wrapping around. It has neither noble simplicity nor decorative invention. It makes you realise that designs of the Middle Ages aren’t celebrated just because they’re old, but because they’re good.

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St Albans Abbey, west front from the SE, 2015. Crivvens.

In sum, Grimthorpe’s work managed to ruin almost every single vista of the historic building. The only positive outcome of this is to make you realise how sensitive to the historic fabric often unfairly maligned Victorians like Scott were. If Matthew Paris found the aborted west front of 1214 embarrassing, he’d be mortified to see what was wreaked on his edifice in the 19th century. If you visit the cathedral, the interiors of the porches are still indicative of the craziness of the original medieval vision for St Albans, although the central porch has had its design altered the most with an extra-superarch on the side arcades. Grimthorpe even had the temerity to add a portrait of himself as Matthew in the Evangelist cycle he added here. It would have been more appropriate if he’d posed for Luke. And not the head, either.