Ripon Minster: Gothic disasterpiece

Ripon MinsterRipon Minster, North Yorkshire is the sort of building you could only find in England. In the Middle Ages, it operated – along with Southwell and Beverley Minsters – as a kind of pro-cathedral for the massive diocese of York, and only became head of its own diocese in the nineteenth century. It’s quite dumpy for a great church, but still on a legitimately cathedral scale. But a casual visit belies the series of quite catastrophic structural failures it had.

Under the current church is the crypt of the original Anglo-Saxon minster: the only pre-Norman Conquest fabric surviving in an English cathedral. However, it was not immediately bulldozed by the invaders for a Romanesque juggernaut. Instead, it wasn’t rebuilt until late in the twelfth century, in the soon-to-be fashionable French Gothic style, almost certainly taking after York Minster’s choir, which was taken down and replaced in the later Middle Ages. Quite ahead of the crowd, then.


Ripon Minster

Oh yes, we’ve got the builders in indeed – and look at this: pointed arches! Yeah, yeah, it’s what hot in the Île-de-France right now! No, in fact these guys are surprisingly competitively priced!

Therefore little Ripon has the rarely-recognised distinction of being the one of the earliest pure Gothic buildings – pointed arches, grouped lancets – still standing in England, possibly earlier than Canterbury or Wells. That is, if much of the original job by these twelfth-century Franglais cowboys actually stayed up. Even though the stone rib-vault was clearly given up on by the time they reached the upper storey, there were a series of complications: the three north-west bays are all that survived of the original five-bay Early Gothic choir.


Ripon Minster

Yeah, that’s… …that’s absolutely fine. No one said a tower needs be square. I’m sure our Lord in his boyhood made tables just the same shape. Are you okay for tea lads

The first cock-up, one with repercussions for nearly three centuries was the clueless setting-out of the central crossing tower. Ripon was aiming to be a mini-York Minster, and York had at this time an unusual unaisled nave: no open arcades as is common in every church. Nevertheless, someone clearly thought that having the nave wider than the choir was a good idea. So they built the foundations of the north-west pier further north than its eastern companion, meaning that the tower is not a square.


Ripon Minster

Oh.. yes.. I do see that now that you mention it. No I’m sure no one will notice either! It’s fine, no, really… We wouldn’t want to trouble you to make it match on the other side: I’m sure you builders know best!

It also means that the west wall of the transept is shorter than the east wall, meaning they have to embarrassingly squash the third series of arches in the upper gallery because they didn’t fit (they did do it correctly on the other side). After finishing the nave, these builders packed up and thought they’d got away with it.


Ripon Minster

Oh, yeah, you’re right – can’t be too careful! The big buttresses are fine. No we like really like them. You need them for that proper stone vault you’re putting on..! You… you are going to put a stone vault on, aren’t you?

When the west front was built up around the 1230s, part of the central tower was taken down because, well, it had really slender piers and it was skew-whiff: what did you expect? Then, at the end of the century the choir was in such a state the whole east end had to be rebuilt. The new east front is perhaps the closest you can get to what the choir of Old St Paul’s in London looked like, strictly Geometric, like what was going on in France at the time, except it has absolutely enormous buttresses. And still they ended up chickening out putting a stone vault on it in case it all fell down.

Ripon Minster

Hmm, well Master Simon, you don’t seemed to have matched the mouldings so much as stuck some heads over the join and hoped that we wouldn’t notice

As was usual in extensions to great-church architecture, care was taken to match the proportions of the new work to what could be preserved of the now century-old choir. However, some parts of the matching between old and new were better than others, as is some of the architectural sculpture. Ripon’s canons however, probably just pleased that the choir was now stable and their problems were over.


Ripon Minster


Then of course what was left of the tower fell down, taking with it two crossing arches, the south side of the choir and part of the south transept. These were rebuilt in the Perpendicular style – meaning the choir has three different elevations – and the piers encased to an absolutely ludicrous degree, except that misplaced north-west one (because it was the only one not supporting a rebuilt tower arch), which is why when you look down the nave now, the crossing looks hilariously wonky.


Ripon Minster


Wait, I haven’t finished yet. Remember that unaisled nave? Yep, that fell down too around 1500, and was all but replaced, except by some tantalising fragments at each end, by arcades that are only two stories tall. They’d clearly got a parish-church architect in – a good one mind – and one who could do ENORMOUS BUTTRESSES which were becoming rather familiar at Ripon.

So there you go. The blokes who did the Minster at Ripon in the late twelfth century may have seemed like a cheap way to a get a fancy French-style cathedral, but they were clearly dealing in the sort of Gothic that fell off the back of a lorry.

Here’s all my pictures of Ripon from my recent visit: it’s a lovely place, and I promise that it’s very unlikely anything else will fall down while you’re there.

Trouble at t’ church – around Blackburn

St Luke, Blackburn Blackburn – a hilly Lancashire mill town with wonderful views of the surrounding countryside – is a nice place to get out of, residents seem to agree. But just as I liked to visit the dingier bits of London looking at their churches armed with a Pevsner Guide, it seemed a good place for my first Sunday excursion of architectural exploration by motor car. But perhaps residents are a bit hard on it. It’s been sliced up by roads and nothing whatsoever medieval left, but has a great deal of interest. Of course I just looked at the churches, but there’s mills, municipal munificence, and modern malapropisms (like this bloody thing which looms over the town like the OCP building in Robocop’s Detroit) to be savoured too.



St Silas, Blackburn

St Silas, BlackburnI drove there for the 10:30 service at St Silas, a church of 1894 that, with its striking profile from the road, cannot fail to make an impression on the passer-by. It’s by Lancaster firm Paley & Austin, a firm which Pevsner had much affection for, although his account of St Silas in 1969 is rather grumpy and succinct, judged to have “none of their spatial ingenuity”. Indeed, the inside is basically two great arcades with a chancel at one end and a tower at the other, but still with a great honesty throughout, just like a top-whack medieval building. The way the chancel arch for instance, is slipped in almost non-nonchalantly: as if it’s grown up between the piers.

The Holy Communion was dignified and enjoyable, and everybody very friendly, I’m just glad the fill-in organist arrived since everyone seemed to think I might be doing it. I left my car here and ventured into Blackburn for more traditional foot-based urban reconnaissance.


St Luke, Blackburn St Luke, Blackburn St Luke, Blackburn

I was quite fortunate to get into St Luke, for which I had a magnificent preamble down a hill and past the gas works. Judging by the brackets around the description of the interior, even the Pevsner revisers didn’t get in here. Inside it’s a bit lumpy, with a great honking barrel roof with dinky pretend aisles. These are currently all piled-up with chairs, as all the pews have recently been removed, leading to a ramshackle feel like a church hall. The star attraction here are the magnificent windows in the north transept by Heaton, Butler and Bayne for the War Memorial Chapel. Startling to think that even in 1919 they were still making glass of this quality, and of some rather obscure Old Testament scenes. Moses held aloft by Aaron and Hur, anyone?

St Mark, Blackburn

St Mark, Buncer Lane – a like a temple to Hades built out of Duplo

St Luke was until recently a joint parish with St Mark, by scholar-architect Edmund Sharpe in 1836-8. Rather than in his Dec Gothic Style for which he was later known, it’s in the then still in-vogue Neo-Norman, but remarkably primitive-looking. Pevsner reviser Clare Hartwell writes that it is “almost Soanian in simplicity”. The tower has a rather menacing, pagan look to it, and it seemed as if the very sky turned to lead as I approached it.

I heard that this church had recently become redundant, and was to be handed over to a non-denominational Christian group. This is somewhat surprising, as I thought this was something the Church of England stopped doing in the ’80s. Despite the obvious attraction of a church staying in the Church, many of these independent Churches – unlike Wetherspoons – simply have no idea how to look after a historic building, and they can get into a horrific state. It looks like it could survive a thunderbolt from Zeus, but is St Mark tough enough to survive a happy-clappy congregation?

St Phillip, Blackburn

The orphaned tower of St Phillip and some colourful paraphenalia

It would be a shame to lose such an unusual church as St Mark, but for many other churches in Blackburn, one has to accept that just because the Victorians built it, doesn’t mean it must stay forever. The large Asian population means that by the late twentieth century Blackburn had a surfeit of buildings with Christian altars at the end, and many churches have been demolished. A few orphaned spires remain. Many others, such as St Peter’s in the centre, have all but disappeared without trace.


Blackburn Cathedral

Blackburn Cathedral Gothick nave, stodgy transepts and concrete crown

This situation makes it all the more peculiar that Blackburn a diocesan centre for the CoE, with a thoroughly Anglican Cathedral, what with all its concessions, bodge-jobs, but undeniable charm. The medieval church was demolished and replaced in the 1820s with a surprisingly pleasing bit of pre-Victorian Gothic Revival. In the 1930s the east end was demolished for a protracted campaign to construct cathedral-scale transepts and east end, in late Gothic Revival so conventional it borders on pastiche. In a surge of modern ambition (or realisation they couldn’t afford the projected tower), the crossing was finished by a concrete corona in the 1960s, which decayed so badly it had to be replaced in the late ’90s.

Blackburn Cathedral

The high altar (dressed in red for martyr saint St George)

This woeful set of mishaps does not mean that Blackburn Cathedral is an embarassment. The plaster-vaulted nave with its pretty decoration provides a fine entrance to the eventual experience of the crossing with its abstract stained glass, with the altar directly underneath. Rather than succumb to the fallacy of the 360-degree priest, the east end is fenced off by screening, to create an ambulatory and eastern chapel. This does leave the transepts as feeling rather pointless, with nothing much in them except from the misericords from Whalley Abbey.

Blackburn Cathedral

John Hayward incised glass screen and stained glass in eastern chapel of Blackburn Cathedral

The 1960s furnishings at Blackburn Cathedral were entirely ignored by Pevsner, which is a shame, as they are by John Hayward, shortly after his initial success with paintings at London Fields but before he went into stained glass full-time. His spikey high altar baldachin does look like something from Hellraiser, but hey, that’s cool with me, and his decoration of the eastern chapel, is nicely minimalist and well-judged.

When I visited Blackburn Cathedral in the afternoon, there was a service for the Royal Society of St George, which basically seemed like the excuse for the mayor’s wife to wear a hat, but we all got to sing Jerusalem so what’s wrong with that? At least we could celebrate the horrific multiple martyrdoms of George with a delicious cake.


Holy Trinity, Blackburn

Holy Trinity, Blackburn – You’ll need more than Faith, Hope and Charity to get in ‘ere, lad.

The last two churches I went to look at in Blackburn overlook it from a hill to the north. One is a clearly-oversized bland Late Victorian hulk Roman Catholic Church of St Alban, the other the rather important Holy Trinity, 1837-46. Also by Lancastrian Edmund Sharpe this gives a whole other side to him from his primeval building-block terror we saw above at St Mark. It’s an amazingly pure bit of fourteenth-century architectural scholarship, more of a model than a real church. It’s been redundant since the 1980s, but is kept by the Churches Conservation Trust. However, unlike most CCT buildings, which have a friendly keyholder, here, as someone from the Cathedral advised me, first you need to know where the key is, then you need to do some serious grovelling to actually prove you should be able to go in. Not a very happy prospect.

St Cuthbert, Darwen


St Cuthbert, Darwen

Interior of St Cuthbert, Darwen

The last church I got in was after a quick drive south, towards the hills, to St Cuthbert, Darwen. Always nice to bookend the day with Paley & Austin, this was built in 1875. The saddle-back tower of 1907-8 with an inappropriate clock by a borough engineer is a bit daft, and the whole thing looks from the outside as if it’s going to plow off into the street. “Sound and serious, nothing more”, says Pevsner, obviously satisfied but at a loss for words. Indeed, it’s a lovely atmospheric building, honest in every degree, but not much to say about the interior, except that it works in a thoroughly modern Gothic manner. The best thing is the 1908 window in the north aisle by Shrigley and Hunt, that shows St Cuthbert with his attribute of an otter at his feet. To show the Edwardians weren’t above a bit of animal whimsy, he’s wearing a mitre.

St Cuthbert, Darwen

Thanks I love otters in hats

The Director’s Cut – Flickr Box Set

William Blake: the alchemy between painting and poetry

Michael Phillips turning the infernal machine of his printing house in Hell, 25 Feb 2015

Michael Phillips turning the infernal machine of his printing house in Hell (The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) 25 Feb 2015

Last week, to celebrate my successful viva (minor corrections as is normal, reflective post on PhD experience coming in due course) I went to Oxford to catch William Blake: Apprentice and Master in its final week at the Ashmolean Museum. For many, Blake is simply the pedlar of the whimsical Songs of Innocence, and the rousing but surprisingly-hard-to-sing Jerusalem of the Women’s Institute and the Last Night of the Proms. For others, who’ve dipped into his Prophetic Books, he’s the Gothic nightmare-merchant who conjured up impenetrable scenes of Michelangelesque terribilitia accompanied by obscure prophetic ramblings, the sort of thing that makes for a cracking heavy metal album. Blake certainly spoke to angels and his deceased brother on a regular basis. So why is this Romantic nutcase so rewarding to constantly revisit in exhibitions, books and artistic tributes?

William Blake - Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils c.1826. Tate Britain

William Blake – Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils, Ink and tempera on mahogany, c.1826. Tate Britain. Too much visionary power for a mere jpeg file to contain

This show set out to explore the actual making of Blake’s art, and was curated by Michael Phillips, who heroically has taken up print-making to understand the master’s methods. Like the fourteenth-century Sienese painter Simone Martini, another artistic hero of mine, Blake made tremendous innovations in the form of his artworks, their content, but also the physical processes by which he made them. He despised oil painting beloved by the establishment, finding it incapable of rendering his visions. Instead, he sought to revive techniques of medieval painting: what he called ‘fresco’ but which is actually more akin to tempera, where the pigment is mixed with a binding agent such as egg yolk, or in Blake’s case, animal glue. Like medieval masters, he did not sully colours by sloshing them together on the canvas, but let the pigments give out their own natural brilliance. Sometimes his experiments failed and are all but illegible now, but when they worked – such as the sun in Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils – they are truly extraordinary, and something that reproduction simply cannot do justice to.

The Creation of Light by George Richmond. Anatomy's a bit dodgy, but he painted this when he was seventeen. What were you scribbling on the back of your college folders at that age? Quite!

George Richmond – The Creation of Light, Tempera, gold and silver on mahogany, 1826. Anatomy’s a bit dodgy, but he painted this when he was seventeen. What were you scribbling on the back of your college folders at that age? Quite!

However, unlike Simone, Blake can hardly be said to be immediately influential. The only other artists who really paid attention to him were a band we now refer to as ‘The Ancients’, who gathered around Blake when he moved to Felpham in Sussex. They referred to him as ‘the Master’, wore funny clothes, and made him realise he preferred it when he was left alone, probably going back to London because they were getting on his wick. A number of pictures by these followers were at the Ashmolean, the most exciting being George Richmond’s The Creation of Light, which I’ve seen on the cover of a paperback of Paradise Lost, but never seen out at Tate Britain. It’s an extraordinary thing: the abstracted triangular flames of the sun, the feeling of space and majesty add up to possibly the most accurate pastiche of Blake’s style ever made. Yet there’s something missing in this image that reminds us that Mr B. was more than just the sum of his techniques.

Albion awakes! Hey - I can see my house from here.... (Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion, c.1804–1820, page 71)

Albion awakes! Hey – I can see my house from here…. (Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion, c.1804–c.1820, page 71)

While Richmond’s Creation of Light is basically just illustrating the Genesis account by showing a big man with a beard making the world, Blake’s art is consistently sophisticated and nuanced. It is never what it immediately seems, and is deeply connected to his poetry. Now, if one is honest, a great amount of Blake’s poetry is what Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to as ‘Parnassian’: competent, but ultimately, well, boring. If you read a transcription of his final magnum opus Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, when you get to the bit when Blake lists all the counties of England AND Wales as part of Albion’s gigantic body, you may be excused to feel a little exasperated. But this is because you should never read Blake’s Illuminated books without the illustrations (for instance in the Complete Poems). It’s like thinking you can read the shooting script for Apocalypse Now instead of watching the film.

Infant Sorrow, from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy L, 1795 (Yale Center for British Art)

Infant Sorrow, from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy L, 1795 (Yale Center for British Art)

Blake’s arguments and philosophies lie between his words and images. As an art historian, it’s easy to sometimes forget it is as important to read pictures as carefully as texts, and that an image can carry just as nuanced a meaning as poetry. For instance, look at this simple poem in Songs of Experience: Infant Sorrow. Who is the speaker of the verse? Could it not be the Nurse reflecting on her infancy rather than the baby? Or is it both, developing the meaning into a circle of maturity smothering youthful vivacity? This is a very simple example of how Blake invites you, as reader, to also become an artist when engaging with his work. He sets up many absolute dichotomies, as well as text and image, he sets male versus female; infant innocence versus adult experience; and inert reason versus active imagination. We often tend to speak in absolutes of positive and negative, but a close reading of Blake reminds us that the truth always lies in the middle: like the surface of his paintings, infinitely complex and open to interpretation.

What struck me: a guide to conference questions

Some say the real heroes in our world are those like the police officers who keep us safe, the soldiers who fight for our freedom, or the doctors who keep us in good health. Yes, those guys are great and all, but don’t forget the unsung hero of the academic. As well as having to spend their days wondering how on earth shelfmarks work and curse the fact that you can’t put footnotes to your footnotes; they tirelessly attend conferences where they all gather together to namedrop French philosophers and linguists, their only reward being coffee breaks with often poor-quality biscuits. Of course, the most heated section of any conference are the question and answer sessions, when a paper is open for skewering by an audience of esteemed professors and over-enthusiastic master’s students. To make things easier for these noble paper-giving heroes, here’s a handy guide to what a question’s prefix may indicate as to what’s coming next.

(Because this isn’t the TLS I’ve put some pictures in)


whatstruckmeOne thing that struck me was…

There was one really interesting thing I saw in your slides and I’d rather we talked about that rather than what you actually said


haveyoureadHave you read…

You haven’t read…


grotesques+f.185r[1]This isn’t really a question, more of an observation…

I’m not giving a paper today but I really think I ought to be


grotesques+f.154r[1]Could you speak a bit more about…

You seem to be getting dangerously close to something I’m working on and I have to see if I need be worried


grotesques+f.203v[1]You should take a look at…

I actually know what you’re talking about and I’m going to make sure everyone here sees my mastery of the bibliography


grotesques+f.50r[1]I was thinking during your presentation, about…

I’m going to ramble about nothing in particular for at least eight minutes

grotesques+f.50r+4[1]I just wondered what you thought about – and the other speakers could also answer this – …

I’ve actually remembered what this conference is supposed to be about and I’ll be damned if I don’t make you people actually address it before the wine reception

LP-Monster-6-2[1]I’ll think you’ll find that…


Okay so basically no one can ever ask a question now without looking like a grotesque from the Luttrell Psalter. Sorry about that, everyone.

Six crazy Victorian church-builders

If there was one thing the Victorians were crazy about, it was building churches. Not just in number, to cater for rapidly expanding suburbs and mill towns, but in their embracing of a fantastical and rich medieval style. Here are six architects I think are set apart from the rest by their polemic ire, prodigious achievements, marvellous ambition and questionable aesthetics.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin

The frontispiece for Pugin's An Apolgy for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England. Which is ironic, because this is not an apology, but more "CHECK OUT MY CHURCHES YOU MOTHERFUCKERS"

The frontispiece for Pugin’s An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England.
Which is ironic, because this image is less of an apology, but more “CHECK OUT MY CHURCHES YOU MOTHERF…

The daddy of all crazy Victorian Gothic architects is without doubt the man who has a plethora of names to match his sheer lunacy. A.W.N. Pugin rose to fame through his polemical pamphlet Contrasts, which illustrated his belief that society could be fixed up by making everything pointy. Architects had been reviving Gothic (or as Pugin preferred, “True Christian architecture”) forms for some time, but arguably Pugin was the first to reunite medieval architectural forms with their religious context. A church should not just look Gothic, but it should be Gothic: the furnishings should be Gothic, the vestments should be Gothic and ultimately the people would be Gothic. Pugin even believed a door-hinge should aspire to the grand Gothic scheme.

Cheadle polychrome

Pugin with wallpaper at his magnum opus St Giles, Cheadle (1841-6)… Image by Lawrence OP


The problem is, because he tended to see Gothic as this systematic solution to society’s ills, his churches tend to conform to a very regularised plan, basically just two arcades with a roof on top. He was most talented at enlivening flat surfaces with his seemingly inexhaustible capacity at creating patterns. Sadly, his work on the Palace of Westminster sent him spiralling towards an early grave, the familiar mix of overwork, insanity, and syphilis.

Our Lady Star of the Sea R.C., Greenwich

… and embarrassingly naked at Our Lady Star of the Sea R.C., Greenwich, 1851 by W.W. Wardle with more than a little help from A.W.N. Pugin.

Apparently, he also swore like a sailor. I would have liked to see a clergyman’s face when the architect effed and blinded at a workman for doing something like putting up the wallpaper in the Lady Chapel upside down.

Sir George Gilbert Scott

G. G. Scott. You could buttress a Norman central tower with those mutton chops.

G. G. Scott. You could buttress a Norman central tower with those mutton chops.

Harrow school chapel

Harrow School chapel, 1854-7 Roomy, indeed

Scott is an absolute titan in Victorian architecture. He was as crazily industrious as Pugin, but also had the good sense not to contract syphilis, so had an incredible career restoring nearly all of England’s cathedrals. His knowledge of Gothic architecture was equalled by his skill in engineering, and he formed an admirable restraint in his restoration as time went on, that would eventually lead into modern conservation ethics.

It is somewhat surprising then, that a bit like Pugin, his new churches are so boring. He’s so eager to be proper that his buildings commit that cardinal Victorian sin of seeming like heartless pastiches of the medieval. His prowess with cathedrals means he often got the commissions for the big new churches in cities, but rarely did his imagination rise to the scale of demanded by the amount of pews. If you think I am being a bit mean on him, well, I do think St. Pancras station is the most marvellous building in London.

John Loughborough Pearson

St Augustine, Kilburn. Chancel.

St Augustine, Kilburn. Internal buttresses = more vaults

St Michael, Croydon. A fifty-three foot high vault in South London

Not all Victorian architects’ attempts at getting medieval resulted in half-baked imitations by any means. Some could actually be as subtle and creative as the era they aspired to. Probably the best candidate for the most authentic Victorian Goth was J. L. Pearson. His St. Augustine, Kilburn, in north London, is one of those rare churches that stands out as a statement of pure architecture. Why is it such a powerful building? Everything! There are no gimmicks or simple quotes of his favourite buildings, but instead a single thought process working towards a cohesive whole. He also loved stone vaulted ceilings, as found in great cathedrals, using them as much as possible. I think he would have put a vault over the church outhouses given half a chance.
Pearson’s output only appears effortlessly sensible, the ambition of his buildings sets him apart from so many of his contemporaries, and he is a bona-fide genius of Victorian architecture. This is why he got the honour of designing the only Anglican cathedral built in Victorian times, at Truro in Cornwall. He must have felt pretty smug about that.

William Butterfield

Boom All Saints, Margaret Street

All Saints, Margaret Street, 1850-9

The neo-Gothic Rugby Butterfield School Chapel

Rugby school chapel, 1875 Photo by Dr Hilary Rhodes

Then of course we have the Victorians who didn’t give a babewyn’s about being authentically medieval, but wanted to use Gothic forms towards a whole new style. The king of this was Billy Butterfield, about as subtle as a monster truck. His churches are almost infantile in their gaudy colours, big shapes and simple patterns. Butterfield wants the church to be an explosion of colour that would hospitalise a visiting Presbyterian, most famously All Saints, Margaret Street, just off Oxford Street in London.Unlike Pugin and his wallpaper, his colour comes from the building material itself, meaning his exteriors, such as Rugby school chapel could be as loud as a raucous recital of “Guide Me O Thy Great Redeemer” by the school’s choir.

Butterfield’s reputation suffered immensely in the twentieth century, John Summerson amounting “his love of ugliness” to “purposeful sadism”. Indeed, he may have got a bit carried away in his restoration of some medieval churches, that with their tell-tale polychromatic tiling can only be described as being BUTTERFIELDED. It seems in everyday life he was a very shy retiring fellow who only expressed his true feelings in his work, a Schubert of architecture. Although he didn’t die of syphilis.

Edward Buckton Lamb

St Martin, Gospel Oak, 1864 Where do you even start with this

St Martin, Gospel Oak, 1864
Where do you even start with this

Everybody loves E. Buckton Lamb! Lamb is part of a motley gang of architects popularly dubbed the “loveable rogues”, the churches of which make Butterfield look like a conservative pedant. If Butterfield’s churches look like he’s stuck a foot pump in them and inflated everything to crazy proportions, Lamb’s churches look like he did that until they burst, and then he had to stitch them back together again like a desperate taxidermist.  His buildings seem the product of such a maniac that one wonders if he hadn’t been an architect he would have been off doing something much more unsavoury like murdering prostitutes in Whitechapel. He mixes forms and genres without regard for their original context. This brought him much tutting from that great legislator of Anglican architectural taste, The Ecclesiologist magazine. Check out this:

Christ Church, West Hartlepool

IT’S ALIIIIVE!! Christ Church, West Hartlepool, 1854. Photo by John Lord.

Christ Church, West Hartlepool, recently erected, by Mr. E . B. Lamb, is one of those uncouth and grotesque combinations of incongruous architectural tours de force, which it requires the inartistic and withal presumptuous mind of Mr. Lamb to conceive. Such a mass of absurdities, as the apse with the eastern triplet, the horrific chimney, the octagonal central tourelle, the beacon turret with its “wide-awake” capping, and the out-corbelled battering termination of the west tower, can, we should imagine, be hardly equalled elsewhere.

Ouch. In many ways, his willful craziness is not unlike current streams of postmodernism in architecture, striving to be noticed by being a bit zany. Not that I am saying any current practitioners of postmodernism are likely to start going around butchering women in East London if they lose their jobs. It’s just that novelty for its own sake is not likely to endear one to the ages like some of his contemporaries.

William Burges

Burges dressed as medieval jester (as you do) c.1860s

Burges dressed as a medieval jester (as you do) c.1860s

Unlike most of the people I’ve discussed, Burges was actually a bit barmy, at least after he started on the laudanum. He had the good fortune to get to know the Marquess of Bute, literally the richest man in the world, which lead to a number of horrifically over-the-top churches for toffs with more money than sense.

Christ the Consoler, Skelton-cum-Newby

Christ the Consoler, Skelton-cum-Newby, 1871. Photo by Peter Mattock.

Although more stylistically congruous than Lamb, with a taste for the Early English of c.1200-1280 he has absolutely no sense of restraint when he had the cash at his disposal. A building like Christ the Consoler, Skelton (N. Yorkshire) is not much bigger than an ordinary parish church, but has enough sculptural ideas to cover a cathedral. He also really likes rose windows to the point of cramming them in the most inappropriate places, like his new east end for the medieval nave of Waltham Abbey in Essex. Most Victorian architects couldn’t even dream of being as crassly bonkers as Billy Burges. At least not with a good dose of opium.

Normans uncut: A look at Anglo-Romanesque ornament

St Alban's Abbey, 1080s. Early Norman - big, plain, and a little big dodgy

The tower of St Alban’s Abbey (Hertfordshire), 1080s. Early Norman – big, plain, and a little bit dodgy

The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought more than just a new regime to England, it brought a new style: the Romanesque. The Normans proceeded to flatten every single one of the Anglo-Saxon cathedrals and rebuild them on a heroic scale. Their first churches went for scale above anything else. However, the crowning towers of these triumphal buildings had a nasty habit of falling down. Among many more, the bell tower of Old Sarum (Salisbury) blew down 5 days after the cathedral was consecrated in 1092, Ely famously tumbled down on to the Gothic choir in 1322, and Chichester lost its south-west tower in 1210, its north-west in 1635 and its central tower as late as 1861.
The Normans realised in the twelfth century that they were better off taking their time and the sculpture for their big thick walls became richer and richer. Many of the habits of ornament such as chevron or “zig-zag” are peculiar to England, and affected the whole course of English architecture. Of course, some of their ideas were better than others…


Earls Barton, Northamptonshire

Earl’s Barton (Northamptonshire). Blind arcading, c.1150

Why do we put this zig-zag stuff on like every arch we carve, Master John?

Chevron? I’ll give you one guess

It’s pretty easy?

Ding ding


Kilpeck  church (Herefordshire), 1130s or 40s

Kilpeck church (Herefordshire), 1130s or 40s

So did you guys finish that corbel table yet

Oh yes

Let’s have a look round then

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Sorry this one was my first go, my bad


Well, that’s okay, I do like these wide-eyed monsters though

John did these, he’s good at them

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAh, a sheela-na-gig, my favourite

Yes, we remembered you like them

Those dames eh

Hmm, yeah

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIs this that Lamb of God I asked for over the east window


It looks like a horse

John is not as good at animals


It is a puppy and a bunny

What are they doing on my new church

Being best friends

It’s not the sort of thing I expect out of you guys, frankly

Well I thought it just balanced out that bald demon lady pulling her vagina open


Iffley, Oxfordshire

Iffley church, west portal (1170s or 80s) – photo by Martin Beek

Master John, why do we carve these funny little owl faces on every doorway we do these days


Whatever they’re called


Are they some sort of reminder of the sin that besets all Christian souls in this dark fallen world of temptation

No try again

Is it because they are basically just zig-zag with eyes

Quite, now, get carving


Tickencote (Rutland). Chancel arch Photograph by Richard Croft - From

Tickencote (Rutland). Chancel arch
Photograph by Richard Croft – From

So how many elaborately carved orders would you like in the arch at the end of the nave


We usually do about three, just to give you an idea

Yes but I want five

You do realise that is going to be a really big arch

Yeah well I have big ideas and one of them is that this arch needs to be HUGE

Well if it ends up not quite round and slumping in the middle don’t think we’re coming back to fix it

Don’t forget the beakheads


St Leonard's Priory, Stamford

St Leonard’s Priory, Stamford (Lincolnshire), west front – very late Romanesque, 1180s or 90s

So how would you like your west portal

Well I imagine it will have all that zig-zag stuff round the arches like usual

Ah yes but regular common-garden chevron is totally yesterday’s news

What do you recommend then

We can give you on the central portal an order of angled chevron, with syncopated-hypenated lozenge work in the second order and then a third order with hypenated chevron with a ringed-shaft and then of course crocket capitals in the French style atop the engaged shaft-work

That sounds expensive

Do you want everyone to remember you still have an apse round the back

Ugh fine, room any beakheads though I love those little guys

What is this the 1130s


Burton Agnes (East Yorkshire). Photograph by Evan McWilliams

Burton Agnes (East Yorkshire). Chancel arch capital. Probably c.1200. Photograph by Evan McWilliams

Did you finish carving the arch capitals yet this church is getting consecrated tomorrow



You see I improved on the scallop capital design by putting these little lines at the top, so they look like flowers ready to bloom


Do you think the priests will like them

Son let us go and never speak of this again


If you enjoyed this Norman sculpture, then there is plenty more at the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture of Britain and Ireland, where you can search to see what carving there is in your area. You can also volunteer to go around photographing this stuff so they can catalogue every surviving example in the British Isles to try and understand what was going on with this wonderful enigmatic artistic style.
The photographs are taken by me, except Tickencote which is by Richard Croft, Iffley which is by the appropriately-named Martin Beek, and the capital at Burton Agnes was shown to me by Evan McWilliams to much merriment.

A blagger’s guide to stained glass

HarrowWhat is a church without stained glass windows? They’re such a ubiquitous feature that a lot of people can take them for granted and coo “ooh, isn’t it all beautiful”. But not all stained glass is created equal. Some of it is stunningly beautiful, and some is… not.

Here’s my entirely partisan rundown of what to and what not to get excited about in the windows of churches.

ooh let me get my field binoculars out because you have a bit of…: ACTUAL MEDIEVAL GLASS

Warlingham, Surrey

This is in Warlingham, just south of Croydon. Make sure you look at this FIRST because it’s all broken and clearly old


Deerhurst (Gloucestershire)… isn’t she lovely…

Most important thing to know: basically, there’s no such thing as bad medieval glass, because with so little left of the stuff it’s your solemn duty to pretend to be excited even it’s a tiny broken bit of canopy or a badly painted face. As snobby as it seems, it’s kind of true. The craft behind medieval glass always assured it had a jewel-like quality that is very difficult indeed to replicate.

When light shines through medieval glass, it does not project the picture on to the floor like a magic lantern. It refracts through the uneven surface, and it is this effect that makes medieval glass so valuable. My favourite example of this is the relatively small early-fourteenth-century figure of St. Catherine in Deerhurst (Gloucestershire). She is rather out-of-place, marooned in a great sea of later medieval fragments, but cannot fail to capture the passing gaze of any visitor.

Chichester Cathedral

West window of Chichester Cathedral, 1848. Looks like someone just hit the jackpot on an ecclesiastical fruit machine

Better get your sunglasses on for: WILLIAM “BOILED SWEETS” WAILES

When people started building pointy Gothic churches again in the early nineteenth century, there was a new demand for glass that looked medieval. Problem is, for the past hundred years or so the only coloured glass in English churches was enamelled, where you paint colour straight on to the glass – cheating! Real stained glass has the colour fired directly into the material, the only way to paint two colours on it is when you fire silver nitrate to “stain” part of the glass yellow (hence the term stained glass), or the more complicated technique of “flashing”. The first major firm to try to recreate proper jigsaw-puzzle-like glass was that of William Wailes. The problem is that his glass is mass-produced sheet glass (I said sheet), which has none of those all-important imperfections. Consequently, it leads to a horribly even quality that makes them look as lurid as a row of jars in a candy shop. Similarly it’s initially enticing but rather quickly makes you feel quite ill.

St John the Baptist, Clay Hill, Enfield

1850s glass at St John the Baptist, Clay Hill, Enfield, attributed to early Heaton, Butler and Bayne

That’s actually rather special, you know…: EARLY “PRE-RAPHAELITE” STYLE GLASS

William Morris as St. Matthew, Christ Church Southgate, 1862

William Morris as St. Matthew, Christ Church Southgate, 1862

In the 1850s there was a striving to try to recreate glass with medieval quality. Possibly too much emphasis is placed on William Morris, who worked with the fine artists Ford Madox Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, when actually a lot of the early trail-blazing was done by John Clayton, Alfred Bell, Clement Heaton, James Butler, Robert Bayne, Nathaniel Lavers, Francis Barraud and Nathaniel Westlake, names that are now only familiar to churchcrawlers from the firms they subsequently went on to found. These men wanted their glass to be worthy for the medieval churches they restored rather than inadequate pastiche. It still often has quite a lurid hue, but the designs are unlike Wailes’s stiff figures and full of life, and the uneven thickness, bubbles and imperfections go toward that Holy Grail of getting medieval on your glass.

St Saviour, Walthamstow

Heaton, Butler and Bayne, the Transfiguration, 1887 St Saviour, Walthamstow


St Paul, Brentford

East window of 1882 in St Paul, Brentford, Hounslow

Good high Victorian: HEATON, BUTLER AND BAYNE
So into the 1870s, 80s and 90s, when probably more glass was made in England than any time since the Middle Ages. There are a lot of firms to choose from who have their own distinct styles, but my favourite are Heaton, Butler and Bayne. They weren’t shy of mixing styles of Renaissance and Gothic, and bold colourful designs, while keeping away from the violent colours of the 1830s and 40s. They often sign their work, so keep an eye out for what I think is their consistently high level of work glazing England’s churches. My favourite glazing by them is the west lancets of 1877 in St. Saviour’s Walthamstow, so much in fact I’ve been using as my WordPress header for the past year and half I’ve had the blog. It’s so gloriously proto-art nouveau: hopeful and jewel-like: positively a stained-glass attitude on life. It’s amazing to think how much money was spent by Victorian parishioners and rectors just on bringing that little bit of colour into people’s Sundays. Now churches struggle to fix the roof or get a new toilet.

Erith, St John

No someone hasn’t sneezed, it’s a Kempe window of 1905

Nice tracery, shame about the: KEMPE

Basically everyone in Kempe looks like they've just eaten a lemon

Basically everyone in Kempe looks like they’ve just eaten a lemon

As any medievalist will no doubt enthusiastically tell you, a lot of nineteenth-century glass is difficult to get excited about. C. E. Kempe is exemplary of this. High Anglican Victorian clergymen loved Kempe’s work, but I’ve never met anyone else who does. His windows are conservative, but most of all they’re EVERYWHERE. I think if you just left a church alone in the nineteenth century that Kempe glass would just grow between the window mullions like rising damp or bat droppings. I will admit there is some good quality stuff, but he has such a low quality threshold some of it frankly is just hideous. Even the better ones seem are united by awkwardly pinched faces, and most of all, a distinct griminess that makes them look as if they’ve gone mouldy. That’s not a good aesthetic.

(For the sake of balance here are the Kempe Society and the Kempe Trust who I wish all the best in their endeavours)

Bit soppy but the colours are nice: 20th CENTURY ARTS AND CRAFTS

St John the Divine, Richmond

Christopher Whall, detail of S chapel window, 1908, at St John the Divine, Richmond

Our Lady and St. Thomas of Canterbury R.C., Harrow on the Hill

Joseph E. Nuttgens, c.1920 window in porch Our Lady and St. Thomas of Canterbury R.C., Harrow on the Hill

So while Kempe went on into the 1930s pumping out the same old nonsense, at the turn of the century the Arts and Crafts movement legacy inspired many to go back to basics, firing glass with distinctly rough surfaces and experimenting with new techniques. Some names to look out for are Christopher Whall (whose glazing in Holy Trinity Sloane Square I feel beats out the famous Morris and co. east window), M. E. Aldrich Rope and J.E. Nuttgens. It often still has an awkward lingering Victorian sentiment in the face of continental modernity, but it actually looks like glass and is shiny and nice which I hope you are learning is the most important thing about church windows.

Comper, Orders of Angels, 1933. All Saints, Carshalton

Well no one would claim it as his best work: COMPER
A rival aesthetic to this was that of Ninian Comper. Comper was a hugely popular church architect and designer who is best known for his work in the early twentieth century, particularly his magnificent rood screens. But I’m not talking about that here. I’m having a go at his glass. Generally I don’t think Comper liked stained glass all that much. All his stuff is very non-committal, usually just blue and white, and lingering yellow stain. And the stuff itself is lifeless, flat and thin. I think even the biggest Comperholic would say you do not visit one of his churches for the windows. I think he just wanted to let more light in so you could see his massive shiny reredoses.

Modern stuff can be good: JOHN HAYWARD

St Mark, Prince Albert Road, St Mark window detail

Red flashing taken to new heights with the bloody body of St Mark in St Mark, Regent Park, 1966

St Michael Paternoster Royal

St Michael Paternoster Royal, The City of London, 1968

After the War, it became the thing to eschew colour for a brighter church interior, and stained glass lost out, becoming less confident, clearer, and well, less like stained glass. One artist who went against this in the 1960s was John Hayward. His magnum opus is no doubt St Michael Paternoster Royal in the City. In the centre is the church’s patron saint beating down the devil, of which the rich hues and thick textures in the glass work with the subject towards an explosive Armageddon of colour and light. These spectacular windows are one of central London’s modern hidden treasures. If you live or work in the City, and haven’t seen them (which I bet is true), go see them, please.

augh no my eyes make it stop: HUGH BLOODY EASTON

East window, St Dunstan, Stepney

East window, 1949, St Dunstan, Stepney

Crayford, St Paulinus

East window, 1953, at St Paulinus, Crayford

Okay, finally, the nadir, Hugh Easton. His glass best represents the post-war problem of putting floating figures into a sea of clear glass, and also lazily ignoring the shape of the window and tracery in the design. But more alarmingly Mr Easton also brings a rather bizarre eroticism into Anglicanism which would have given any Edwardian parson a brain haemorrhage. See his east window at Stepney, where a bare-chested young Christ flexes his abs permanently at the congregation. Put them away, Jesus. And then the east window at Crayford of the four archangels, my Lord. I wish no damage upon this window, but I wonder if it would be happier if you put some flashing lights behind it and installed it in the basement of a Soho nightclub. How this guy got so much work in Westminster Abbey of all places I’ll never know.