Antiquarianism

This Easter saw my usual trip up to the Midlands, beginning with a visit to Kempley in Gloucestershire. A rather remote church that has lacked an accompanying village for hundreds of years, it’s sufficiently isolated for me to have heard cuckoo calls in the distance. The isolation of the building may well account for its interior, where medieval frescos survive on the walls and ceiling. A wheel of life fresco adorns one of the walls, while Jerusalem is depicted above one of the windows and seraphs line the ceiling flanked by apostles on either side of the chancel wall. Probably more than any other place I’ve been to in England, it does give a good sense of what the interior of a medieval church would have been like, excepting the rather odd presence of some Kempe stained glass in the windows. Next is Much Marcle in Herefordshire, a rather larger and more austere structure but whose interior includes a number of medieval monuments, including one in wood and gesso. Outside, an ancient yew tree has had a seat carved into its interior. Last on that day is the Rotherwas Chapel, a private Catholic chapel that has a medieval structure, an Elizabethan timber ceiling and Victorian finishings by EW Pugin, including the usual Minton tiles and stained glass showing St Winifrid.

The following day is given up with a visit to the Barber Institute in Birmingham, which is hosting a small exhibition of the Myers collection of Egyptian antiquities. The thing that most strikes me is a sculpture of Horus on horseback spearing Seth; inevitably it looks almost exactly like St George and the dragon. Similarly, a statue of Isis suckling Horus pre-empts the Virgin and child. The other exhibits are more what might be expected but are impressive nonetheless; Fayum mummy panels, painted Shabti, a sarcophagus lid, a Barbotine jar and a faience sistrum.

The next day takes me to Shropshire and to Tong. The church exterior is rather unusual; an octagonal tower surmounted by a spire. The interior is almost the match of a cathedral, being almost filled with large marble monuments. One particular monument to the church’s founder has a garland of roses applied around her effigy. Another one surmounted by a bronze relief includes a somewhat amateurish rendition of an elephant, presumably based solely on hearsay. A chantry chapel in the church proves most unusual; the fan vaulting on the ceiling still has medieval paint, as does the tomb effigy within it. The choirs seats also have a set of misericords, including a green man. I’m also lucky enough to be able to visit the church tower. I then head onto Attingham Park, a mansion designed by John Nash and featuring his usual range of embellishments. The entrance hall features a set of trompe l’oeil designs on the walls and leads directly through to the house art gallery, designed by Nash to have a conservatory style roof years before Paxton had the same idea (although Paxton’s didn’t leak), which then in turn leads directly through to a grand staircase, similar to the one I saw last year at Trinity House. The gallery is actually somewhat nondescript, save for a solitary Salvator Rosa painting. There are some interesting paintings by Hackert showing Pompei during its excavation and nearby Lake Avernus though. There are some impressive rooms by the original architect, Steuart, such as matching octagonal rooms for the Lord and Lady, both featuring delicate wall decorations.

On the way back, I stop off at Compton Verney. The gallery turns out to have a rather odd installation by the lake; a camera obscura within a large silver sphere. Inside, the first section showcases Neapolitan art, an interesting if somewhat peripheral subject. Most Neapolitan art bears Spanish influence as much as that of Italian sources like Caravaggio, with the result being a great many religious and mythological scenes characterised by the mixture of light and dark and loose brushstrokes. Very few of them are outstanding, so what proves more interesting are the Trapani coral sculptures, the various veduta scenes of the Bay of Naples or Paestum by the likes of Gaspar Von Vittel or various scenes of Vesuvius erupting by the likes of Grenier de Lacroix or Volaire, although neither quite match the Joseph Wright version of the same scene that I’d noticed a few days earlier at the Barber Institute. The next section on North European art is perhaps more successful, containing a number of Cranach paintings and a set of portraits. The British section is also heavily weighted towards portraiture, with various depictions of monarchs from Holbein’s school. Some of the orientalist portraits stand out; a Reynolds portrait of a merchant’s wife in Persian costume and a portrait of the Persian ambassador to the court of George the Third. The upper floors are mostly given over to a display of Chinese bronzes, equestrian figures, gilded heavenly kings and cloisonne enamel. The last thing I look at is a somewhat bizarre section on naval art; stitched depictions of ships embroidered by sailors who served on them.

I also look at some nearby places, like the church of St Leonard at Charlecote Park, a rather elaborate gothic revival building containing a number of funerary monuments as well as the somewhat unavoidable Kempe stained glass. The nearby church of St Peter, is another gothic revival building albeit one conceived on a significantly grander scale by Gilbert Scott; nonetheless the austerity of the design tends to lead me to prefer the smaller St Leonards. I also have a look round some places in Oxfordshire I’ve wanted to visit for sometime, beginning with St John the Baptist in Burford. This proves particularly worthwhile, beginning with a crowded churchyard filled with bale chests through to a higglepiggledy building that alternates romanesque and gothic. The interior proves as much of a gallimaufry, with a wooden chapel made up of medieval screens, a monument with elaborate painted weeper figures, another monument with Indian tribal figures, as well as the usual Kempe stained glass. Next is St Mary’s church at Fairford, a building mostly known for its surviving medieval stained glass showing the last judgement, although the churchyard proves to have a particularly odd tomb with Pharaonic atlantes at each corner. After that, I move onto St Mary at Kempsford. Although a medieval structure that retains a romanesque arch, it was extensively reworked by Street and counts as having one of the few Victorian renditions of the last judgement that I’ve seen. The crossing is probably the most striking feature, with elaborate heraldic designs emblazoned onto the ceiling. The penultimate place on my list is St George at Kelmscott, with its suitable combination of medieval frescos showing the fall and Morris tapestries. I pause at Morris’s grave outside before heading to my final destination; St Mary at Buckland. On this occasion, I was spared Kempe as the church instead contained a rather fine window by Henry Holiday, as well as a transept whose walls are covered in mosaics showing angels, as well as inserts showing ships and whales.

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