Nairn’s Chichester

It is now a year since my first post on Stained Glass Attitudes! What was intended to be a PhD research blog quickly transformed into a front-end for my Flickr uploads, and generally accounts of me messing about in pointy buildings, be they the correct date for my thesis (which, I think, is going rather well I might add) or not.

Chichester Cathedral

Chichester’s steeple

Reminiscent of that trip a year ago to Leicester, Chichester was something I had been putting off for a while since it involves me coordinating a lot of usually inaccessible buildings. It’s also the last of the medieval English cathedrals I haven’t been round. I did actually visit the city two years ago to see the Edward Burra exhibition at Pallant House, but refused to look in the Cathedral as I could hardly fit in a proper visit alongside a rare opportunity to see Burra’s rarely-exhibited watercolours, so, except for the Lady Chapel sedilia, I pretended it wasn’t there.

Chichester, unusually for a small cathedral town, is actually quite nice (c.f. Peterborough, Gloucester). The Cathedral is possibly the most unloved of the English medieval cathedrals, as it has no outstanding work that admits it into the textbooks. It is essentially a smallish example of the Norman Romanesque cathedrals thrown up after the Conquest: dinky compared to Ely, Norwich or Durham. Then, after a fire in 1199 (the usual excuse), the Norman apse (on the St Bartholomew Smithfield/Norwich three chapel plan) was demolished for a retrochoir, which, again, pales in comparison to the slightly later square-ended  explosively ornate eastern extensions of Ely and Lincoln. The Gothic remodelling of the Norman work is also embarrassingly superficial: a few Purbeck shafts stuck into nooks, nothing like the modernity lashed out of Gloucester choir and Worcester nave in the fourteenth century. The weirdest thing about it is it has a set of buttress chapels added to the nave in the thirteenth century: very common in France, but unique in England, possibly because it interferes with the dado arcading (and we LOVE dado arcading).

Chichester Cathedral

Elevation of the early C13 retrochoir


Aftermath of the spire collapse, 1861

Norman cathedral crossing towers falling down is not unique either, but Chichester was the only one to have it happen in the modern age. In 1861, the crossing piers started to buckle and then the spire spectacularly collapsed in on itself, bringing down the whole central tower and the first bay of the choir to its east. Luckily, with can-do-attitude, George Gilbert Scott came along and built another one. This does mean a large chunk of the middle of the Cathedral is a replica, and while it’s easy to spot, it’s remarkably cohesive.

But this is what makes Chichester a really interesting building – it is an everyman cathedral. And that is why it is very appropriate that the Buildings of England account is mostly written not by my usual guide through churches, the German art historian émigré Nikolaus Pevsner, but by Ian Nairn, to whom Pevsner delegated the western half of the Sussex volume. Nairn was much more of a critic and populist than Pevsner, sensitive to the everyday and the townscape. This does mean that the account of Chichester has a slightly different character to the other cathedral towns of England.

Chichester Cathedral

Late C13 sculpture high up in the triforium spandrels in the retrochoir

Pevsner modestly claims Nairn’s writing to be far superior to his own in the Sussex introduction, with a caveat that he may have interfered in his text to pander to those “fervently interested in mouldings”. Thus Nairn begins with an “aesthetic summary”, where he actually considers the whole building rather than just diving in for the earliest Norman nook-shaft. Also, Nairn appears to amplify the charming idiosyncracies of the BoE, so sometimes, it’s hard to tell if it’s a pastiche of Pevsner, or Herr Doktor has snuck in one of his own paragraphs. First there’s the long mulling of dates and construction sequences, question marks with no actual answer, such as the date of the strange chevron of the vault in the north-east transept chapel.

Chichester Cathedral

Nave elevation

Then there’s the injections of Empathy Theory: Nairn constantly speaks of  rhythm, descriptions that inject anthropomorphic motion into an inanimate object, a tactic Pevsner learnt from his mentor, the great art historian Heinrich Wolfflin. He is sensitive to the building, and assumes that the architects who added to it were too, respecting and adding to its character with the style of their own age. And then there’s the cheeky asides. Robert Willis, the mid-nineteenth-century architectural historian antiquarians loved to hate (because he had a tendency towards being right) observes the nave must had a revised plan because he measured the piers and arches and found a discrepancy between the fifth and sixth bays. “God bless him” adds Nairn. Such objective methods would be entirely alien to his, and also to Pevsner’s, much more aesthetic approach. It is of course, the sort of thing the art historians today are expected to do. God bless Robert Willis indeed.


Bishop's Palace, ChichesterBishop's Palace, ChichesterBishop's Palace, Chichester
I had got up bloody early to go to Chichester, but I could have frankly stayed in bed and had a cup of tea because the first train from Waterloo I tried to catch was cancelled due to vandals on the line, and then the back-up train with a change at Three Bridges was delayed, missing the connection, essentially losing me an hour. But while sitting on the platform at Three Bridges, I realised that I had not fixed up to go into the Bishop’s Palace next to the Cathedral. I rang up the Cathedral, they put me through to the Palace, I asked how hard it was to get in, and how about this afternoon, and the chaplain said this was fine! So after my tour of the Cathedral architecture, I went into the Bishop’s Palace. First, along with a lady who was lucky enough to be granted permission to hold an event there, we saw the Tudor parlour with its ceiling by Lambert Bernard, an early sixteenth-century English painter. He’s more of an “and decorator” type rather than an English Michelangelo before you get too excited, but did a lot of work in the Cathedral: he redid its vaults with Flemish-style ornament (one bay survives in the Lady Chapel), and some cigarette-card style pictures of all the bishops of Chichester and other scenes in the Cathedral transepts (collect ’em all).

Bishop's Palace, ChichesterBishop's Palace, ChichesterBishop's Palace, Chichester

But the real reason to get in the palace is to see the Bishop’s Chapel. This all visitors will walk past when they visit the Cathedral, it’s an unassuming box to the south of the west front, with fourteenth-century curvilinear windows. However, going in through the door from the Palace, it reveals itself as a two-bay tour-de-force of the early thirteenth century, with magnificent rib-vaults and corbels as lush as anything in Ely retrochoir. Yet the main treasure is a miraculous survival on the south wall. The Chichester Roundel, star of many an English Medieval Art History textbook, is an extraordinary mid thirteenth-century painting with all the delicacy of a manuscript, and the materials; gold, lapis lazuli and silver, to match. There is a sweet, if stilted affection between mother and child, as if they are two awkward Romanesque actors cast in a Gothic romance and not quite confident enough to the intimate performance. But the decorative borders and technique are stunning. It was a pleasure to see, but I did have a barely-supressable urge to unscrew the perspex.


Guildhall (Greyfriars), ChichesterGuildhall (Greyfriars), ChichesterGuildhall (Greyfriars), Chichester
Next up was the Greyfriars in Priory Park. Now known as the Guildhall, as it passed to civic ownership at the Dissolution, it is open some Saturdays, but usually kept locked. Built in the 1280s, it is the only roofed former Franciscan building in England. It’s one of those puzzles that although it looks like it should have had a nave and the crossing piers are blocked up, it may be it never was any longer than it is now, but of course all the cloisters and such have gone. Inside it is stark, austere, but through choice, not poverty, a very powerful building. I had never seen the sedilia group, which is always an exciting experience. There is no drain in that niche to the right, so who knows what it was for.


Chichester, St Mary's HospitalChichester, St Mary's HospitalChichester, St Mary's Hospital
Then it was over to St. Mary’s Hospital, founded by the dean and chapter of the Cathedral. The “nave”, or really the former ward, is an enormous space with an impressive timber roof, now subdivided into individual almshouses with chimneys that tower up through the roof like a substitute arcade, which you walk past like a little street up to the chancel. Here was another set of sedilia I had never seen, and also some remarkable choir stalls dating with the rest of the building to the 1290s, extraordinarily early for church furniture. The most charming thing was the grotesque stop on the end of the piscina. Anathema to the Franciscans over in Priory Park no doubt, it is very affecting how one mason’s essentially silly little idea has survived the centuries to amuse me and countless others who come in here. Very cute.

Chichester, St Mary's Hospital

Carved stop to piscina in St. Mary’s Hospital. 1290s.


A quick perambulation around Chichester (I did not have time to see the Stanley Spencer paintings from Sandham Memorial Chapel at Pallant House: not when I’d seen them for free at Somerset House many times anyway), I returned to the Cathedral for the monuments and fittings. Nairn here eschews Pevsner’s east-to-west schema and instead takes us on a circuit round the perimeter. Again, even by Pevsner’s standards, he is delightfully opinionated. A “really terrible Flaxman“. Bishop Story’s tomb is of “no special effort extended by the shop-workers”. Graham Sutherland is “too self-conscious”: not his fault, but of the “inertia that has sat on the Church of England for a century”. Bishop Sherbourne’s monument “could have been carved out of cheese”. And of course, stained glass by Kempe, “terrible.” (That one never below Pevsner either)


The Raising of Lazarus, from an early twelfth-century choir screen at Chichester Cathedral

Chichester Cathedral

Mary and Martha witnessing the raising of their brother Lazarus (BEHIND PERSPEX)

But there are two very important works of art in the Cathedral. The first are the Chichester reliefs. These were part of the original Noman choir screen, and were found attached to the piers of the crossing in 1829. Thank goodness they moved them before the tower fell down. Unfortunately, they are disgracefully imprisoned behind very cheap, reflective perspex which both a barrier to photography and experience: a rope would be preferable (partly because I’d just look over my shoulder and duck under it for a minute). Nairn is very moved by these, and so was I, as well as countless English artists such as Sutherland and John Piper. He tries to compare the tortured faces of Mary and Martha reacting to the stone-cold stinking Lazarus’ miraculous reanimation to Grunewald, but such anachronism demonstrates that the expression that comes out of the sculpted actors almost reaches beyond Style to a region of emotion that one can truly call poetic.


Chichester Cathedral

Monument to Richard Fitzalan and wife. Late C14.

The other work of important work of art is poetic in another way, the monument to Richard Fitzalan d.1376 and his wife Eleanor. Not in itself: it’s a disappointingly stodgy, run-of-the-mill double effigy, only notable for the rather unusual conceit of their holding hands (although the whole piece of the joined hands is restored). “What went on in the minds of the designers as they made their hundreds of standard effigies?” remarks Nairn in 1965, stuck for anything to say. But what is important is that the poet Philip Larkin  must have seen this effigy about the same time as Nairn, for it inspired An Arundel Tomb in his 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings. Larkin was just as baffled by this rather unconvincing display of affection, but rather than moving on to be rude about the E. W. Carew monument in the next chapel, he wrote an enduring poem about time, entropy and our delusions about the power of love.

blogs are a load of crap

An Arundel Fridge Magnet. Early C21.

I went into the cloisters gift shop in hope that they had a Chichester Roundel mug like I had seen in the Bishop’s Palace. Apparently this was an exclusive episcopal product, but I did find something even better. Earl Fitzalan and his wife had been made into this wonderful little kitsch souvenir (in the shop itself, an uncommon bargain at 75p). To think, their memory endures next to hundreds of Whirlpool logos and over countless till receipts because they had decided to plump the extra mark for the “hand-holding” model on their visit to John Mason’s tombe shoppe. Their final blazon: what will remain of us is a fridge magnet.

Flickr set, with the Cathedral pedantically following the BoE description. I lost the captions for the first part of the Cathedral and had to do them again, so I hope someone, some day, finds my labelling of things like the north-east crossing pier helpful.


3 thoughts on “Nairn’s Chichester

  1. Jeremy Haselock

    Dear James,

    You probably know that the best examples of Lambert Barnard’s oevre are the set of painted panels of powerful ladies originally at Amberley Castle and now in Pallant House and, if you want to get some idea of how his cathedral vault decoration must have looked, the vault of nearby Boxgrove Priory. I was Vicar of Boxgrove for some seven happy years and much enjoyed Barnard’ simple but effective decoration with its stems of flowers and heraldic devices. Not very sophisticated but very gently good. The de la Warr chantry is a fine thing, too. Worth a visit if you have not already been.

    Best wishes

    Jeremy Haselock

    The Reverend Canon J M Haselock BPhil MA DMus FSA
    Precentor and Vice-Dean, Norwich Cathedral
    Chaplain to Her Majesty The Queen

    Tel: 01603 218314

  2. Pingback: What will survive of us | Dreams on Paper

  3. Thom Hickey

    Thanks. Really enjoyed reading this. Good to see Nairn praised .. He was a passionate and humane writer. Lots for me to follow in your blog. Regards Thom at the immortal jukebox.


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