Saturday, 9 March 2013

East Bergholt, Suffolk

Both Pevsner and Mee have large entries for St Mary the Virgin  so I'll be brief - I loved it, more for the exterior than the interior but nonetheless this would make it into my top ten in Suffolk.

ST MARY. Eminently picturesque, with its incomplete W tower and the brick gable to its E, crowned by an C18 cupola. The church is entirely Late Perp, partly flint and partly brick. The W tower was begun in 1525 on a sumptuous plan, with a stone base with quatrefoil frieze and a passage through (cf. Dedham, Essex). Broad N and S entrances. The room inside the tower was intended to be vaulted. S aisle of coursed flint, tall three-light windows with tracery, battlements decorated with many shields. The same battlements on the S chancel chapel. Two-storeyed S porch, its entrance again decorated with shields. Polygonal turret in the W angle between porch and aisle. The N aisle is mainly brick and has a pretty polygonal turret at its E end. Simpler four-light windows. Battlements as on the S aisle. Ornate N doorway with canopied niches and again with shields as decoration. When they were still all coloured they must have made a proud and ostentatious display of heraldry. Interior with five-bay arcades. Piers of four-shafts-and-four-hollows section with capitals only to the shafts. Two-centred arches. A new aisle is mentioned in a document of 1442-3. Clerestory of ten windows to the five arches below. - ROOD SCREEN, REREDOS, and STALLS. By Sir T. G. Jackson. - (WEST and NORTH DOORS. Both have linenfold panelling and a central Renaissance baluster.) - EASTER SEPULCHRE. Against the back wall C15 WALL PAINTING of the Resurrection, surrounded by large leaf decoration. - STAINED GLASS. In a S window John Constable Memorial Window by Constable of Cambridge, 1897 (TK); bad. - PLATE. Set 1767; Almsdish 1771. - MONUMENT. Edward Lambe d. 1617. Kneeling figure. Two well-carved angels l. and r. pull away a curtain.

BELL HOUSE. In the churchyard; a unique piece, built probably when the plan for the W tower had been given up. One-storeyed with steep pyramid roof with louvred top. Heavy timbers to support the bells inside. The outside walls are a grille of timbers above a dado. The horizontal timbers woven through the vertical ones.

St Mary the Virgin (3)

Edward Lambe 1617 (1)


EAST BERGHOLT. It is Constable’s village, and for ever therefore a place of pilgrimage. It gave the world two boys who won fame: William Branwhite Clarke, who grew up to find gold in Australia, and John Constable who found the gold at his door. Clarke travelled all over England as a geologist and 15 times visited the Continent, and being at last driven to Australia in search of health he there discovered gold, but kept the knowledge a secret to avert a gold-rush, which he feared would be against the public interest.

It was here that Constable found his inspiration in the common beauty of the countryside. It must have been this church, the glory of its walls, that set him dreaming of beautiful things like Salisbury Cathedral. It must have been these lanes that set him longing to be an artist and to put our countryside into pictures. We know it was the lovely little mill at Flatford that filled him with delight and thrilled him with the love of ancient simple things. His house has gone and it is sad to see no beauty in its place, but these lanes, this splendid church, and Flatford Mill two miles away, are as they were.

With the feeling of the artist stirring within him he must have loved it all. He would love the quaint thatched houses with their marvellous timbers, the old wooden bell-cage in the churchyard which is like no other in the land, and the stately walls and windows and doorways of the church. He would stand at Bergholt Corner and see it much as we see it today. He would wonder at this red brick tower, covered with rubble and faced with flint, which Cardinal Wolsey started in his greatness and left unfinished at his fall. It stands, a broken thing, like a monument to that proud broken life of a man who started as a butcher’s son not far away, became almost master of England, and was struck down in his pride.

It was in this church that Constable met his wife. They waited long and patiently, for there were money troubles, but they were to have 21 years of happy married life, and it was Maria Bicknell, the rector’s granddaughter he met in this church, who inherited a fortune of £20,000 and made it possible for him to give his life to the work which brought him immortality, though it made no money for him.

The church is worthy of its proud association, for it has the stately beauty of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, with noble windows, splendid screens, a marble floor in the chancel; but most of all it has an impressive exterior, with a mass of windows and battlements and turrets and doorways, which would give it distinction anywhere and make it peculiarly fitting in this home of beauty. Its walls are flint and stone, and it has richly panelled battlemented parapets adorned with hundreds of tiny arches and shields. There are niches in the chancel buttresses and two little stairway turrets with cone-shaped caps, one leading to a room over the massive south porch, on which is a sundial to which Constable used to look up as he painted the porch: Time passeth away like a shadow, it says. There are three square-headed old doorways, and in two of them still swing their old doors, opening in the middle, with linenfold panelling and a fine band of carving in the centre. It is the north and west doors that are old; the south door has been copied from them.

The great church (it is 40 yards long) is lit by 40 windows, half of them in the clerestory. The windows are precious for the light they give, and only a few are stained. An extraordinary effect comes from the huge crimson cross in the north chapel window. The west window has Faith, Hope, Charity, and Patience in deep rich colours, and there are three big windows with about 50 Bible scenes. A poor window to Constable has the Ascension with the Twelve looking on, and it has a small scene of an artist painting the Madonna and Child. By Constable’s window is a pencil drawing of the church by him, showing the interior in the days when the chancel arch had a gallery resting on eight pillars; the drawing shows the 14th century chancel roof, and is signed in pencil.

In place of the gallery the chancel has now a screen designed by Sir Thomas Jackson, architect of the choir-stalls and the reredos. Beside it is a perfectly charming small screen to the lady chapel, looking medieval but quite new, and between the two screens stands the oak lectern with a figure of John the Evangelist. The lectern is a thankoffering for forty years of happy married life, the chancel screen is a memorial of fifty years of married life, and the screen of the lady chapel is in memory of eighty years of singing in the choir. It is the gift of Mr Mann, who was eighty years a chorister here and gave the church both these fine screens, for himself and for his wife.

The walls have many simple memorials, and one fine monument to Edward Lambe who founded Lambe’s School here and helped to found the church; he kneels in marble at a desk with angels drawing back curtains. A stone in the floor has the name of Abram Constable, the uncle of John’s father; John’s brother Abram has the font in his memory, given by the friend with whom he lived at Windmill House. In the west wall is a curious stone to John Mattinson of whom we are told that he was eleven years a beloved schoolmaster and “then unfortunately shot.” The church chest, said to be about 600 years old, has a carved lid of one piece, secured by three locks.

The north wall of the chancel has an Easter Sepulchre with a painting of Our Lord on the back, and in the floor of the nave is the only brass surviving; it shows Robert Alfounder in his spurs and riding boots with a cloak over his tunic and breeches, ready for a ride, all unruffled by the thought of the Civil War then coming on.

There is a big round-topped chest made before Agincourt from the solid oak of a tree grown in the churchyard, and on the walls is an unlovely but dramatic thing - a bomb; it is one of forty that fell in the parish in the Great War, none of them hurting a single soul. On the roll of honour is a charming small bronze of St George.

The most curious possession of East Bergholt is the old timber bell-cage in the churchyard, with five bells in it which only miss representing five centuries by a few months. The oldest comes from 1450. The next from 1601, and the other three from the 17th century, 18th century, and 19th century. We have seen no other structure like this low square timber bellhouse through whose open beams we peep to see the five great bells. They weigh more than four tons, and carry on the tradition of bells that have been ringing in this strange little house for 400 years. One of them says, My name is Mary; for my tone I am known as the Rose of the World. One has coins of Charles Stuart let into it, and the oldest bell of all says: Here sounds the bell of faithful Gabrielle. It is a desperate business ringing these bells, the ringer grasping the stock of the bell with his hand and catching it again as it swings to and fro.

Such is East Bergholt, but two miles farther along the road is Flatford Mill on the River Stour. We do not wonder that it moved the greatest artist of our countryside, for nowhere has England a sweeter little place. It is all as Constable saw it, the timbered house on the left, Willy Lott’s white cottage in front, the wooden bridge and the mill. It all belongs to the National Trust and is let to the Council for the Promotion of Field Studies. The students come here to watch the life of this Suffolk river - its fish, moles, rats, insect life - and to note the plant life which here grows so richly.

Constable loved this place; here he spent his boyhood until he came to London. We turned the wheel of the old sack-lifter as he used to do. We sat by the great scales on the ledge of the open door looking at the mill wheel as he used to do, and looking across the room we see through the old iron-framed window the lovely 16th century cottage of Willy Lott, little John’s own paradise. We may go over it, opening the very door John Constable opened so many times, looking out on the scene through the windows as he did sometimes (through the original glass). There are great ship’s timbers in the walls ; and in the dairy walls, with their wattle and daub work, are unglazed windows with wooden mullions and one window still with its old glass, for dairy and cheese room windows were not taxed in those days. In the mill itself are some of the iron-framed windows of Constable’s day, and old millstones used as doorsteps, and we may climb up to the little white Hoist, up to which they would raise the corn. Charming it looks up there, and from it we have the very peeps of England that Constable had in the 20 years of his youth, when he had the freedom of this place.

We owe the loveliness of Flatford Mill to two men - to John Constable whose fame inspired the saving of it, and to Mr Thomas Parkington, who found it a ruin and made it fit to be the gate of heaven. Fitting it is that it should belong to the National Trust, for it is a tiny corner of England with a haunting beauty, charming in its simplicity, the loveliest memory we have of the man who made our English beauty famous throughout the world.

John Constable

JOHN CONSTABLE, who gave a new meaning to the art of landscape and set on his canvas the fields and streams, the trees and sky of the English Scene so faithfully that we seem to hear the rustle of the leaves and the gurgle of the water as well as seeing them, was born close to the soil he glorified. He was the son of a wealthy miller who owned water mills at Flatford and at Dedham (in Essex), and at one of these young John Constable actually worked for a year as a miller. But he did better for the mills than that. He painted them, and gave
them immortality.

It is said, and probably with truth, that though he worked hard at the mill he worked harder at sketching and drawing round about Dedham in company with his friend Dunthorne. He had encouragement from Sir George Beaumont of Coleorton, a patron of better known painters than Constable was then or for a long time afterwards. Sir George lent him some paintings of Tom Girtin to copy, and used his influence to have him sent up to London for study. Here it appeared for a time as if his natural genius was to be schooled into a narrow academic tradition. It is certain that he received both encouragement and good advice from Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy, who did him the best service possible by preventing him from becoming a drawing master.

But Constable’s best adviser was his own untrammelled spirit, which moved him to decline success or popularity if they conflicted with his own ideal of painting landscape as he saw it without fal-de-lals (the very word he used). He wrote that he knew he would some time or other make pictures valuable to posterity, even if he did not reap the benefit of them. For a long time he seemed likely to gain very small benefit from his work, for he was too original, too English, and altogether too unlike anybody else, for he imitated none; and after 20 years’ work he could only make money by copying.

That did not depress him. He went on, and when he was 43 he exhibited at the Academy his landscape The White Horse, a view on the River Stour, which today is one of his titles to fame. It did not win him much fame then, and it was five years before the first breath of triumph came. It came from Paris, where his picture The Hay Wain was exhibited at the Salon, and the French painters acclaimed a new master. They did more, they rendered to him the imitation which is the sincerest form of flattery, and it is not too much to say that Constable’s influence founded a new School in France. But he was never truly popular in England in his lifetime. Ignorant critics unable to appreciate the beauty of the way his sunlight trickles through the leaves and glimmers on the water spoke of Constable’s “snow.” When he was elected an Academician eight years before his death he sadly declared that the honour had come too late. But the National Gallery and the Collection at South Kensington have made the highest reparation possible by hanging his great pictures on their walls. These are his monument.

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