Sunday, 29 September 2013

Wilton, Wiltshire

On my way home on Sunday I visited Salisbury Cathedral and on my way passed St Peter and stopped on the off chance - locked no keyholder. Having Googled St Peter I realise that I should have visited SS Mary & Nicholas - which looks fascinating - rather than St Peter but the cathedral more than compensated.

St Peter (1)

Wilton. Once the capital of Wiltshire and of Wessex, it has lost that high distinction, and today, an hour’s walk from Salisbury, although it still has the carpet industry that has made its name famous, it is a quiet place with three things for the traveller to see. There is one of the very greatest treasure-houses in England, Wilton House, the home of the Pembrokes for many generations; there is the chancel of the old church, off the marketplace, which has been brightened and given a new lease of life after being long neglected and forlorn; and there is a modern church not like any other we have seen, a Byzantine structure a little over-splendid, a gorgeous example of the architecture of the Victorian Era, built regardless of cost.

For nearly seven centuries Wilton was the seat of one of the four most important nunneries in England - the other three were Barking, Shaftesbury, and Winchester - whose abbesses were peeresses of the realm though being women they had no seat in the House of Lords. It stood on the site of Wilton House but the only visible remains are to be found in some outbuildings nearby.

The old church has been restored and hallowed as a place of rest in memory of Robert Bingham, the American ambassador, and his ancestor Robert de Bingham, second Bishop of New Sarum, who was consecrated here 700 years ago.

The remarkable new church is raised above the street on steps 100 feet wide, with a tower 100 feet high linked with it by a cloister. Its west front (which is not really west, for the church is one of the very few not laid out east-to-west) has three deeply recessed round arches, the central one with four orders of moulding and pillars resting on lions. Inside everything is remarkably rich. There is much mosaic, rich carving on capitals, fine marble monuments, mosaic chancel steps, a sanctuary floor of agate and marble, an enamel chalice covered with scenes and figures by a 12th century craftsman, two massive monoliths brought from Italy, and two twisted marble pillars which were part of a shrine in Rome in the 13th century and in the 18th century in the collection of Horace Walpole.

The monuments, an interesting group, have often the high quality of genius. There is a lovely white figure of Lord Herbert on a black marble tomb sculptured with scenes from his life, and near him is a lovely sleeping figure of his mother. There are sculptures by Rossi and Westmacott, one of the Countess of Pembroke with a mourning woman over an urn, the other a big wall sculpture to George Augustus Herbert, showing a beggar with his dog, a woman with her child, and a man leaning on his staff, a symbol of charity and good works. Over the cloister door is a Jacobean monument of William Sharp kneeling with his wife, their three children below in tiny recesses. There is a marble bust of the ninth Earl of Pembroke and a brass of John Goffer three years older than the Spanish Armada.

Among much ancient glass the most extraordinary piece is a panel brought from Wilton House with the arms of Philip and Mary, a piece of heraldry rarely met with in a church window. In the same window is a portrait of the Earl of Pembroke and his countess with their two sons and a daughter kneeling. The east window has some pieces of glass among the oldest in England, 12th or 13th century; the picture of Stephen is supposed to be 1200. In this window is St Nicholas, the Flight into Egypt, the wedding feast at Cana, the driving-out from the Temple, and Gethsemane. Other glass is from St Chapelle in Paris. The east windows of both chancel aisles have also rich old glass, much of it 13th century, and many of the figures are quaint and charming. There is an old Venetian chest, a wheel window showing the Flight of Time, and a reading desk with old Flemish carving.

Over the gateway of Wilton House sits Marcus Aurelius on his horse, a copy of the famous bronze statue on the Capitol in Rome. The full tide of English history has flowed past this stately house and through these lovely gardens, leaving behind it noble works of art and glorious memorials. Here stood the nunnery in Alfred’s time, here the Confessor’s wife was educated, and when their habitation like themselves had passed away a new life was conferred on Wilton by the Earls of Pembroke, the first of whom received the site as a gift from Henry the Eighth, part of his ill-gotten gains from the destruction of the monasteries. Others of the line enriched it with every gift of architecture and art, and not least with the art of gardening, and the noble home they created has been the casket of noble memories. Statesmen and soldiers, men of chivalrous hearts, poets, painters, thinkers, left their footprints in these gardens, or found a home within these walls.

Sir Philip Sidney sat in the avenue bearing his name to write the first part of Arcadia, which he dedicated to his sister, the Countess of Pembroke, of whom Spenser, another visitor here, wrote:

The gentlest sheperdesse that lives this day
And most resembling both in shape and spright
Her brother deare.

Here, according to tradition, Shakespeare himself with his troupe played As You Like It for the first time, before James the First in the great hall, and here certainly was born William Herbert, son of the immortalised countess, to whom (with his brother) the Shakespeare Folio was dedicated. He was a great patron of arts and letters, and many think he is the mysterious W. H. of Shakespeare.

If Inigo Jones studied in Italy at his expense that supreme architect well repaid the debt, for the Wilton House that we see was refashioned from his designs. It is said that Holbein also had a hand in

Pembroke’s princely dome, where mimic Art
Decks with a dazzling hand the magic powers.

The Holbein Garden House, once part of the mansion, is named as a tribute to his association. But it is the boldness, sureness, and grace of the hand of Inigo Jones that gives Wilton House its beauty, though the garden front was enlarged by another hand, and the southern front was rebuilt by John Webb (his nephew by marriage) after his designs.

The gardens were laid out by Isaac de Caux, a nephew of the re-builder of the southern front, and they have a beauty no less renowned than that of the house. To them Nature gave a setting which Art could hardly fail to adorn. The river Wylye bounds the park, the Nadder flows through the pleasure gardens and is spanned by a fine Palladian covered bridge. There are 70 acres of lawn with stone-edged flower beds, stretching from the river to set out the stateliness of the southern front. There are Italian gardens with fountains, statues, terraces, and the rich foliage of the trees sets off the riot of colour in the flower beds. There is a noble group of ancient cedars of Lebanon, probably the earliest of these cedars planted in England, older even than the monarchs of Goodwood and Warwick. There are copper beeches, a noble ilex that Philip Sidney may have seen, a walk of lofty yews, and fine vistas everywhere. One of them commands at its end the spire of Salisbury cathedral, a view which Constable (we may be sure) would see.

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