Thursday, 14 March 2013

The only way is Essex - 2

It's thanks to people power, civic pride, call it what you will, that anything substantial remains of Waltham Abbey. Founded by Harold Godwinson in 1060 before he was king and a mere Earl of Essex and East Anglia, it became an Augustinian abbey - and another building was erected - during Henry II's penance for the killing of Thomas à Becket. Henry VIII loved coming here, not least to discuss his divorce issues, which sealed the abbey's doom but also explains why this was the last of the monasteries to be dissolved. The churchwardens saved the nave from destruction on the grounds that it had always been the parish church.

This exterior shot shows a jumble of styles: the spacious 14th century south (now Lady) chapel makes a very prominent addition to the Norman nave, the west tower is even later - a post-Dissolution afterthought - and the east wall with its wheel window dates from the Victorian era. 

The 16th century rescue explains why the building is only one third of its original length, 100 feet - I still can't think in metres - of nave with chisel-patterned Romanesque columns uncannily close in design to those of Durham Cathedral (there was probably a connection).

There are also a Victorian replica of the zodiac ceiling at Peterborough (I like it) and a rather remarkable remodelling of the east wall in 1859-60 by William Burges. Pevsner dismisses its 'robust ugliness' and finds it 'astonishingly loud after the silent severity of the nave'; Norman Scarfe in the Shell Guide, much fonder of Victoriana, thinks it was 'brilliantly remodelled', and again I tend more to his opinion.

No disagreement seems to flare about the glass in the wheel window and the three single lights, among Burne-Jones's finest. Sadly my handful of details won't stand up to close inspection.

The abbey church has its fair share of individual treasures. Chief is the Denny memorial. It can only be seen as a whole from the seats one side of the sanctuary (I got told off by a charmless warden for putting aside the rope very briefly to do so).

Sir Edward (d.1599), privateer turned rebellion-suppressor alongside Raleigh, clasps the sword he swished about so infamously in Ireland and is recumbent above his wife Joane in the central niche. The repainting of 1965, by a Miss Northolt, may be a little crude.

Below them are six sons to the left, looking like little Camerons (could Miss Northolt be sure that four had reddish-brown hair?)

and on the right three girls and a boy apart, apparently the twin of the sister whose arm he clasps.

Above are the appropriately balanced figures of Fame

and Time.

Beyond the monument is the markedly different 14th century south chapel. I'd hardly agree that the Doom/Last Judgment painting from the same period is 'very faded', as Pevsner insists; you can see exactly what's going on with the blessed souls on the left

and the monster into whose maw the damned are heading.

Another monument is well worth examining, this time in the north aisle. Scarfe does the words for this: 'Captain Robert Smith's white marble-altar tomb, 1697, carved with cherubs in tears, displays his ship, Industria, sailing through a sea full of dolphins'.

Heading west, you pass the bust of a Romanized Henry Wollaston, JP (1670) on one side

and a pretty Stuart pulpit on the other, restored to its rightful place since Pevsner wrote of its removal.

On the way out, I admired the beasts inside the west tower, though I suspect they may be Victorian: very splendid in what little light there was by late afternoon.

There's plenty to see in the abbey grounds, chiefly intriguingly embedded walls and the proposed site of Harold's remains. I suspect it must all be rather beautiful in fine spring and summer weather. A solitary budding gave promise of things to come:

On that bleak February day, though, it was too freezing to linger. I walked to the 14th century gatehouse

but we abandoned our plan to do a circuit round this part of the Lee Valley. Instead we had a very late comfort lunch in a pleasingly old-fashioned cafe looking out on the abbey grounds, gaping through a window with a bullet hole in it (!) at various folk exercising their whippets and pitt bull terriers. A quick spin up a high street with a surprising number of occult and witchy shops, and then we made our way back along the desolating busy road to Waltham Cross station, the view on the return journey even less promising than the outward journey since at least there had been Waltham Abbey's tower to lead us onward.

I must at least insist that we've seen a bit of sun and warmth since then. One day of it, in fact, last Tuesday, when spring was in the air before blizzards and ice struck again. I shifted my work around, having been told it wasn't to last, and cycled down the river to that wonderful free amenity for all, Chiswick Park. I've written about this perfect - and more recently beautifully restored - 18th century landscape garden here as well as here (comparing it with William Kent's work at lovely Wotton) and here, but the spring light and attendant blessings have to be recorded. Above all the circular patch of crocuses to the south of Burlington's villa,

the beauty of bare branches against blue sky and the white house exterior,

steam rising from the pool in front of the Ionic Temple,

and more promise of blossom to come, this time against an almost azure rather than a grey background.

Everyone was in a benign, friendly mood given our one day of grace. The only thing that irked was the huge admission fee being charged to catch camellia blooming time in the Victorian greenhouse (once free). Anyway, it can't be too long before the robins nest again now, can it?


Laurent said...

Cold weather everywhere, just returned from Tampa Fla, it was cold 5 -10 C. not pleasant at all. Cold still in Ottawa but winter is finished and we all know it.
Agree that the re-painting of the tomb figurines is a bit loud, makes it look modern.

David Damant said...

One point to bear in mind is that until the latish 19th century there was no local government in the English countryside the towns including London yes, and there was from an early date a national parliament, but the countryside was run by the landowners, acting county by county. Their houses were not just large houses for rich people, they were the centres for operating the estates, the parliamentary representation, the local regiments, the magistrates, the churches etc. All was centred on the big house. At Belvoir ( admittedly an extreme case as the Duke of Rutland was a very great figure) 600 meals a week were served in the castle. Elizabeth 1st urged her gentlemen not to stay long in London, where " you are lost in the crowd, whereas in the country you are like galleons" And they took her advice and took their responsibilities seriously, whereas thanks to Louis XIII and Richelieu the French aristocracy crowded at the court. This is relevant to all the adornment and especially the monuments to families found in the country churches, which are the physical record of a way of life which lasted until the 20th century

Incidentally the original colours on many tombs and many rooms in houses were very bright. See a Robert Adam room newly repainted. Seems almost OTT to our eyes, used to faded colouring

David said...

Laurent - I guess you should have been guaranteed better weather in America's south, but here it's still a risk to head to Italy or Greece well in to May. We shall see for ourselves if we're lucky!

David - thanks for the historical insight. You're quite right about the colours, of course. We are assured that the garish but lovable painting of the fabulous roof bosses in Norwich Cathedral is true to the original. I'd certainly rather have a guess than a faded museum-piece.

David Damant said...

Sometimes it is a guess of course but on a wall ( for example) which has been painted over and over one can scrape down and get the original chemical makeup and at certain places the original colour. Sometimes the original plans exist which gives a guideline as to the chemical makeup. This of course can be expensive but at the club attended by the Euro-mate and myself it was done, and also at quite a few stately homes

We have another reason for deprecating the Reformation ( I would even deny that appelation) and Cromwell, for having destroyed so much of the decoration of the churches. They may have been over colourfull in our eyes, but what a fount of human and artistic knowledge we have lost

jondrytay said...

Funny to see Chiswick Park through those eyes. For me it was always 'the walk to school'.

David said...

David - lots of church histories will tell you that much of the damage was done AFTER Cromwell - but he still has a lot to answer for.

Alas, Jon, is it only an unhappy memory - as you wrote it was in the last Chiswick entry - that occasions the bone of a comment? I thought the odd opera or even Liza might do it for you...But, more important, back to blogging with you! And hope all's well otherwise.

Susan Scheid said...

The Edu-Mate reminds me that we have been on the grounds of Waltham Abbey, but for whatever reason didn't go inside the Abbey, what fools we, or perhaps it was outside the visiting hours, who knows? The memorable event on our walk along the Lee River, would it have been, was of a radio somewhere broadcasting the fabled Borg-McEnroe tennis match. "Hewn out of rock," one of the commenters said of McEnroe, I think it was. Funny what sticks in the mind! Well, what's clear is that we must go back and go inside--so much to see.

And thank you so much for sharing the sunshine and flowers. We're desperate here, too, for warmth and the appearance of blossoms. Lovely photos, all.

David said...

But it's precisely details like that which make travel writing worth reading. That and its juxtaposition with the landscape - I'm sure every time you see or read about John McEnroe the Lee Valley swims before your eyes.

Just back from The Other Mary, senses reeling. Will knock scribbles into shape tomorrow morning when I've had some time to digest. Be assured that I was one of the first to stand.

Susan Scheid said...

David, your review of The Other Mary is spellbinding! Bravo, bravo, bravo! As you always do, you bring chapter and verse from your broad and deep knowledge of music in general and Adams in particular to demonstrate what makes this piece such an achievement. I'm saving it, of course, to refer to before heading off to hear it 3/27.

David said...

Dear Sue, it was doubly generous of you to echo those sentiments on the site. Especially as we're battling against misguided 500-word restrictions which they think will help to get the hits up (how they're going to prove it I don't know).

We're supposed to be a collective, and the majority is against the drive by the ed-cos. My resolve, like several others', is to bear the proposed limit in mind but write at greater length when the subject is massive and important, as this so evidently was. I'm still thinking about the achievement - listened to El Nino again today, staggering - and wondering how Written on Skin can possibly match up tomorrow (I've bought a standing pass).

Susan Scheid said...

I've actually tried to comment on the Arts Desk a time or two before, but the comments didn't seem to go through. I thought I'd failed again this time, so was surprised to see it there when I went back to re-read the review. Will be interested to know what you think of Written on the Skin. (Alex Ross has a review in the New Yorker this week, it looks like. I haven't read it yet, as the digital version drives me bats, so waiting for my hard copy to arrive.) As for El Nino--it's not a piece I know, though it's been on the list. Now it moves to the top.

David said...

Just come back from Written on Skin and, in a nutshell, can't understand all the fuss. Refined orchestration, but so remote from the eroticism, murder and cannibalism of the (to my mind not very interesting or meaningful) story. Terrible libretto by Martin Crimp. Fine performances from the three leads, well-lit set but the modern 'framework' seems pointless. Quite unmoved for more than a couple of seconds where the music seemed to be leading somewhere. Only puts Adams's depths in a stronger light, so to speak.

Susan Scheid said...

Well, David, all I can say is you sure know how to pack it into a nutshell! Meanwhile, over here, I've listened to El Nino three times this afternoon. I'm only sorry I wasn't able to give it the concentrated attention it so clearly deserves, but I just didn't want to wait, and it is gorgeous. And the voices! I wish there were a DVD of it, but I haven't spotted one as yet. Still, between that, and just now, coming over not only to your "in a nutshell," but also seeing those beautiful flowers and sunlit scenes have made for quite a nice day, so thank you!

David said...

I'm actually glad there isn't - as far as I know - a DVD of El Nino because Sellars's realisation there was a catastrophe of information overload, and if you look in Hallelujah Junction you'll see that Adams is quite candid about that: I guess he might have vetoed a film. Sellars has pared down so since then, which is why The Other Mary was such a pleasant visual surprise (others still hate it and find it phoney).

Was talking to my Berlin friend who came to Written... last night: she's studying Messiaen's Poemes pour Mi for performance, and said that considering Benjamin studied under Messiaen, and that the text immediately speaks of angels and light, so little is done to illustrate them musically along the lines of the French master. Whereas the Annunciation and the birth in Adams's Part One are such an angelic blaze...The real highlight for me, though, is Upshaw's long and scary massacre solo in Part Two.

David Damant said...

David, I am not sure that I am talking sense but here goes

I read your Arts review of The Other Mary in parallel with the FT review which found the imposed social views of Sellars tedious. Well, I have long held that Sellars, and other directors who push their modern views inappropriately into operas where the plot and the music were written with other aims and backgrounds, are either silly or even corrupt. But in the case of The Other Mary, as I understand it, everything is coherent and therefore valid - so that, even if it does put forward certain social views, that is part of the work of art written as a whole and now. In this case therefore I might suggest that the FT review is just wrong, even though I would agree that Sellars' social views are in themselves tedious

wanderer said...

I'm dashing by David, completely unable to engage in what sounds like something wonderful over at TAD. Sadly, I'm caught short with some tedious documents which need to be submitted forthwith. But, these post on Essex are, can I say the bleedingly obvious, so terribly English. It continually amazes me that such history (for we have no white history by comparison) is there for the everyday, for the going to school, for the picnic. Not until I came to Camellias did a reality bubble emerge in my mind as I drifted back to my father's garden, a creek running through, with C. japonica and reticulata, bearing handsome names like The Czar and Lady Loch. What a shame such beauty can't be free. Perhaps a carefully placed little donation box would suffice, and I wonder if they might not garner even more.

David said...

David - I don't find Sellars' social views tedious - when he speaks about them, he's spellbinding. But sometimes they are indeed superimposed on existing works - worst case Mozart's Zaide. What worried me more was to learn of his deeply held Christian views, which may have accounted for the evangelical zeal in Act One of The Other Mary (I'm sure Adams isn't that way inclined at all).

Wanderer - This blog helped me to realise that, after years of wandering and liking to think of myself as a 'citoyen du monde', I was after all terribly English. Bawden, Ravilious, churches, countryside - all recurring themes. Not sure what you're referring to re admission charges: Waltham Abbey is splendidly free, though I always put a pound coin or two in the collection box.

wanderer said...

The camellias David, the camellias.

"The only thing that irked was the huge admission fee being charged to catch camellia blooming time in the Victorian greenhouse (once free). "

David said...

Oh, right, I'm hoist by own my own profuse petard. But even that's temporary, and it's quite amazing to have an 18th century landscape garden maintained by the council and free for all.

David Damant said...

As the Master of Trinity Cambridge ( Astronomer Royal, PPRS, OM, peer, atheist, etc etc) says, it appears that the human being is hard-wired for religion. And as Jung says, if the Christian religion is not true, it is still psycologicaly valid. The fact that many Christians and indeed the formal bodies which embody Christianity come out with views and policies which bring so much unhappiness is not unique to them. Many non believers may be even worse. Human nature has many faults. And in Christianity there is a philosophy that adapts itself to every human intellect ( Macaulay I think?)and which adds a meaning and coherence to life which ( due to the hard-wiring I suppose) is not in every way wrong.

And for avoidance of doubt, as the lawyers say, my foundation is (one could say) the Enlightenment. But as has so often been said, once the human individual and crowd are abandoned to reason alone, every man's individual reason leads to revolution and war, and unhappiness of a new kind.

David said...

Indeed, why do I seek it out in music so much? Is it some sort of yearning for transcendence? We were discussing this with our soprano friend from Berlin who wonders why she always inclines to Bach.

We can pick and choose. Which is why I'm so uncomfortable with the resurrection of the dead Lazarus. I can buy so much of Christ's wisdom, but the miracle-making is just stupid in my eyes, and in this case seems like a slap in the face for the millions of bereaved whose beloveds don't rise from the dead.

David Damant said...

Yes. In the face of the mystery of life, and looking at billions of stars and galaxies revolving around each other in virtually infinite space, what can we find to help us to accomodate ourselves to our tiny and helpless role? I think in music Bach, as your Berlin soprano finds, since he speaks of transcendence.