Saturday 18 May 2019

Fairford's gallery of glass

I knew there was a magnificent early 16th century west window to be seen in St Mary's, Fairford, in Gloucestershire, with the most Boschian devil in English stained glass (above, hell; below, the ensemble).

What I hadn't realised is that the church has. uniquely for England, an entire late medieval set, give or take a few repairs and a major restoration between 1988 and 2010. The master of works was Barnard Flower, King's Glazier, and the design more or less of a piece with what Betjeman calls 'a complete and perfect Perpendicular church' of 'warm and mellow' freestone instigated by Cirencester wool merchant John Tame and completed after his death in 1500 through his son Edmund, knight at the court of Henry VIII.

Four grotesque demi-figures beneath padlocks guard the tower, while below one of them a boy is climbing over the string course.

Recent local history deserves a look-in, too; the medieval craftsmen would no doubt have incorporated Tiddles the church cat into their work, but the tabby's regular attendance at services - usually sitting on parioshioners' laps - until her death at the age of 17 in 1980 ensured a memorial from local stonemason Peter Juggins.

I understand there was a Tiddles 2, but not for so long. The post is currently vacant. Other beasts were taking up residence, though - bees were swarming around several holes in the stonework, complementing the black bees we'd seen in their multitudes earlier at the gateway of Quenington.

So to the stone-panelled, fan-vaulted south porch

and in to a nave which, despite glass in every window, is surprisingly light, at least on a brilliantly sunny Easter Day. The bells, thanks to Perpendicular placement of the tower, are between the nave and the chancel.

The pictorial Bible running all round the church begins officially with Window One to the north, just west of the Lady Chapel.

Of the four scenes from the Old Testament, three foreshadow the New. Eve is tempted by a blue serpent with woman's head and bust and cat's paws.

The Burning Bush, unconsumed, betokens the pure body of Mary. At first I thought the kneeling figure was a fox, but it's Moses with his beard jutting at an angle, and wearing those horns which Michelangelo also gave him, thanks to a mistranslation about the fire surrounding his head.

Gideon, handsomely armoured, kneels before the fleece covered with dew though the ground is dry

and a handsomely coloured Angel of the Lord protects him.

The Queen of Sheba giving a silver casket to Solomon foreshadows the Adoration of the Magi.

In figurative panels facing each other, the Twelve Apostles are matched by twelve prophets. All are worth examining in detail, but so as not to bore you with the similarities, I've chosen a one-off  of four Latin doctors: Saints Jerome, Gregory the Great, Ambrose and Augustine.

The Great West Window (how it deserves its capitals) needed substantial restoration above the transom in 1863, but I still like the detail of the angel hosts around Christ.

Other judgements flank the big 'un: David and the beheaded Amalekite who stretched forth his hand against Saul are to the south,

and King Solomon settling the dispute over a child between two women to the north.

There are some fun details of folk leaning out of the windows in the upper row.

Christ's story runs across the Lady Chapel, chancel and Corpus Christi Chapel. Presentation, Magi, Nativity and Annunciation appear not in the Lady Chapel's east window, but to the north,

while the Flight into Egypt, Assumption and Christ among the Doctors have pride of place.

Passion and Crucifixion, as you might expect, are above the main altar,

while Window Six features Deposition, Entombment and Harrowing (missed it; how could I?) Most pertinent to our visit were the lovely greens and blues of Resurrection Morning,

so I took a detail of Christ meeting the holy women as they leave the garden.

Fabulous architectural details grace the Supper at Emmaus and Thomas putting his finger to Christ's wounded side

and rich colours prevail for Ascension and Pentecost: the draught of fishes, the Mount of Ascension and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Misericords, or rather the wood carvings on the undersides of the tipped-up ledge on which monks would perch while seeming to be standing, have been an obsession of mine since the church-visiting of my youth, so I was delighted to find a complete set in choir stalls which predate everything else in the church; they possibly came from Cirencester Abbey after its dissolution. Some forcing of the woodwork was done to make them fit, but their completeness mirrors the glass gallery. And since it was a joint labour to shine torchlight and snap them all - at a point when I didn't think there was a leaflet on them (the kind warden actually found me one later - you're going to see them all in their wit and vigour. Starting on the south by the entrance to the Corpus Christi Chapel - and I'll take the captions from the leaflet - the first is of a woman dragging a youth by his hair and beating him with a washing beetle.

2. 'A well fed man asleep beside a table on which there is a bowl of food'.

3. 'Two men and a wheat sheaf; the man on the right has a mug in his hand'.

4. 'The man on the left appears contented and shows an empty dish to a hungry man who looks upward in despair'.

5. 'A man squatting [to pee or shit; we thought we could make out the exposed member but you can't here] and two dogs'.

6.'Two wyverns [biped dragons] with their tails entwined possibly representing the devil'.

7. 'Two women holding a bird between them, and possibly discussing its merits'.

8. 'Dog stealing food from a cooking pot while a woman spins'.

9. 'A woman threatens to hit a man with a ladle as he places a shoe at her foot. Alternatively it may be a frolic with the man attempting to tip her over backwards'.

10. Grotesque figure.

11. 'A drunkard scene; a man fills a cup from a barrel and urges a woman to further excess'.

12. 'Two birds, possibly courting'.

13. Angel with shield.

14. 'A fox having killed one goose has another over its shoulders with the neck in its mouth. A third goose is attacking the fox from behind.'

You think I've overdone it? Nothing like. As I was left last in the church, I felt I ought to catch the others up - and forgot about the clerestory windows high up (which I could easily have viewed with my Leica zoom lens). The four windows with 12 martyrs and confessors of the faith look lovely from the illustrations, but it's the four with the 12 persecutors of the church which fascinate with their 23 overlooking demons. Here's the bottom half of a page from the handsome (and reasonably priced) church guide to whet the appetite. The 'wicked priests' are Annas, Judas and Caiaphas.

And partly for the demons' sake we have to return with Cally and Jill and do a big sweep of a walk taking in Cirencester and the Ampneys. The heat was rather confounding over Easter weekend, so our tramping was restricted to a short circuit around the lovely town. Not for nothing is it called Fair Ford, with various waters meeting the river Coln (and an impressive system of flood defences in place).

Our original plan had been to walk from idyllic Quenington (more anon) to Fairford and back, but no on the Ordnance Survey, the public footpath near the Coln seemed to break off less than halfway there. In fact, there was a permissive path, open every day except Tuesdays, along a parallel brook. Here were more of the marsh marigolds we'd already seen at friends Deborah and Andrew's amazing garden in Lacock - the image from there is more striking, I think, because of the way the trees are reflected in the water by the late afternoon sun -

and a multitude of orange-tip butterflies, early lepidopteral arrivals. I had no idea they had leaf-camouflage on the underside of the hind wing until I saw this.

Timeless views across to cattle on the other side of the brook

and spring glory of white poplars.

Quenington has a waterwheel beneath the bridge over the Coln at the bottom of its hill

but its glories are the two Norman doorways and tympana of St Swithin's Church. The north doorway within a protective porch (unlike the south one at even more remarkable Iffley, which as I remarked on the post about that marvel had lost the one that ensured its good condition)

has a tympanum of the Harrowing of Hell

earlier than the mid-12th century three-ordered doorway proper, 'of unusual richness and splendour' says David Vevey in Pevsner.

He adds that 'the south doorway is a finer composition, as it is all of one piece'.

Unrelated space-filling in the tympanum is lively; the theme is the Coronation of the Virgin, complete with a 'little domed temple of several storeys, perhaps indicating the heavenly mansions' (Vevey) plus emblems of the Four Evangelists and two seraphim.

Beakheads, as at Iffley, are complemented by ox and horse, animal magic equal to that of the corbel table at lovely Kilpeck.

Had the church been locked, we wouldn't have missed much inside; a brutal Victorian restoration has robbed it of much charm, though corbels and stones line the walls towards the west end. The outside and the graveyard, though, have a quiet charm.

The gatehouse to Quenington Court, or rather to the Preceptory of the Knights Hospitallier which preceded the house on the site we passed on the way down,

but only on the way back did I trace the humming of innumerable bees to fierce activity around the nooks and crannies. I took a little film, but the sound doesn't register as it did in the moment, so here's Deborah watching all the coming and going.

All this and a perfectly good lunch at the quiet and snug Keepers Arms - excellent place to base yourself for a weekend in this wonderful area, I'd imagine -

heightened the pleasures of a perfect Easter Sunday.


Charles Payne said...

Tremendous piece - 90% of folk who live in the area don't know half of this (self included)! The sparing of the stained glass from the ministrations of a Parliamentarian visitor is absolutely miraculous, they have to be seen to be believed. And the Masons is indeed a cracking place to stretch your legs and have a pint!

Deborah van der Beek said...

Thank you for all that David. You've put names to all the Fairford stained-glass stories I also enjoyed, which enriches them further.

David said...

Charles, I've so appreciated our 'chats' on LinkedIn: you assured me that this area would be a far from snooty zone to live in, unlike a lot of Gloucestershire. Of course we saw it under the most idyllic circumstances possible, but Quenington seemed like a perfect village by any standards (as, of course, is Lacock, but that's not so quiet during visitor hours...)

Deborah, thank you both for making it possible. Not an easy place to reach by public transport, so the car was invaluable. But I think the choice ended up pleasing everyone, so more to add to the general air of happiness.

David Damant said...

Far be it from me etc etc but the more one looks at history the more one feels that the Reformation was unfortunate, whatever reforms were needed at Rome.

David said...

Indeed. By the way, splendid assessment of yours on Facebook (I peer at J's sometimes) about the current vortex in UK politics. A plague on both main houses at the moment.

David Damant said...

What is a pity is that we are in this political mess at a time when many MPs both Tory and Labour are able and decent men and women

David said...

Not on the Tory Front Bench, alas. And not enough generally.

David Damant said...

I can only repeat my usual point, that we are at the mercy of the media, which always adopts an attacking mode when reporting or filming politicians. They are out to trap an MP and anyway are looking for sound bites, which are unrepresentative. So our picture of them is far more negative than is justified. I argue that politics should be reported like sport - never hiding failures or incompetence, but recognising the underlying value of the activity.

David said...

Impossible to be more negative about May, Raab, Davis on the one hand and Corbyn and Abbott on the other than they deserve. The real perspective through which to see these word-breakers is that of Verhofstadt, Barnier and co - real statesfolk - in Storyville's excellent two-parter on behind the scenes at the Brexit negotiations.