An account of a couple of days out in April – both during a week of glorious weather. First to Compton Verney which we had been meaning to get to for years. Compton Verney is an Adam House in south-east Warwickshire, near the Oxfordshire. The house itself is a gem as one would expect, or I would expect anyway for he is by far my favourite architect, and the gardens by Capability Brown also vastly pleasing. The house followed the usual trajectory of such places with the last Verney selling up in 1921. In 1997 however it was acquired by the Peter MooresFoundation who established a Compton Verney House Trust which set about remodelling the interior as an art gallery. There are various permanent collections (of Neapolitan Art from 1600-1800, German Art from 1450-1650, a small British portrait collection, Chinese pottery and bronze and a couple of British folk-art collections) and a large space for temporary exhibitions. It is worth saying that the whole thing is really excellently managed – from good sign-posting on the roads, to decent car parking, very good toilet facilities, a reasonable (if rather expensive) cafe and friendly staff ( and all these things matter!).
We spent our time concentrating on the temporary exhibition which had come from Dusseldorf and was entitled Fatal Attraction, Diana and Actaeon The Forbidden Gaze. Taking as its starting point Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (represented on a large printed curtain) the aim of the exhibition as stated in the guide was to look at the persistence of the naked body in the European fine art tradition from the Renaissance to the present day, coupling this to Laura Mulvey’s concept of the ‘gaze’ (from Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema 1975) – ‘the gaze belonging specifically to a male spectator who gains pleasure in transforming what he sees into a fantasy object or through a controlling, voyeuristic vision’ (quoting the guide). The application of this to the Titian and the entire Diana and Actaeon story is quite obvious but the connection was less clear with some of the exhibits particularly those towards the end (it was arranged in chronological order). It could not be argued either that all the exhibits were of the highest artistic quality – although this is admittedly of questionable relevance in a themed and schematic exhibition such as this; but it did appear that some items appeared mainly because of what one had to assume was availability. Of particular interest to me were two paintings concerned with the Candaules, Gyges and Nyssia myth, one by Eglon van der Neer the other by William Etty; neither was of great quality but the connections to Anthony Powell, where this myth and a supposed representation by Tiepolo on a Venetian ceiling form a notable centre-piece (and set piece) in Temporary Kings (the eleventh book in A Dance to The Music of Time), made them fascinating to any Powell aficionado (like me). The other pieces which I can now remember were some Picasso drawings, a George Grosz and a couple of extremely striking posed photographs (a form of which I am not usually appreciative). On the other hand I am afraid that much of the modern-art as usual passed me by completely – in particular a video installation of a supposed Balkan folk-dance which consisted of headless (because the camera only showed their lower halves) women throwing up their skirts while dancing over the grass. Nonetheless the exhibition was of considerable interest. We stopped briefly in the small British Portraits gallery which includes Canaletto’s views of Ranelagh and Vauxhall – smaller than I had imagined and were lucky enough to quite by chance catch a talk given by a member of staff on ‘their favourite exhibit’. Only four people had assembled for this and three by chance which was a little disappointing as the staff member gave a short but extremely well-informed talk on a portrait of Edward VIth, displaying both knowledge and enthusiasm. It was another aspect of just how well the place is run. By this time however we needed to give Nanci a walk and we are able to do do over some lovely meadows. The permanent exhibitions will have to wait for another visit which should not be in the too distant future.
We then headed on for a spot of church visiting based as usual on Simon Jenkins Thousand Best Churches. As we now also have Jenkins Thousand Best Houses it might be worthwhile making a couple of comments on Jenkins. Of course he is invaluable, particularly inrespect of churches, where one would not know where to start or look without him. But one does have to make allowance for his biases, particularly I think in respect of the houses. Crucially Jenkins is a great deal fonder of 19thC Gothic (or neo-Gothic) than I am. Now on the one hand there far more neo-Gothic churches than there are houses; indeed one would probably have great difficulty (impossibility is more likely) finding 1000 without them! But I can accept the neo-Gothic rather more in a church. I still don’t see any big conceptual difference between 19thC neo-Gothic and 20thCmock-Tudor however. They are bothfundamentally fake. Now there is absolutely nothing at all wrong with that. It is just I suspect many fans of neo-Gothic would not see this equivalence. But any architectural guide is bound to have its biases – all that matters is that one knows what they are. As far as church visiting in particular is concerned Jenkins book is truly essential. So we visited Hampton Lucy of which must the best side is its exterior – almost absurdly grandiose for a parish church; it was an obvious vanity project for the Lucy family of nearby Charlecote Park. The Perpendicular tower ‘rises like a cathedral across water meadows’ as Jenkins puts it. Wooton Wawen church is a very different kettle of fish – it is a complete hodge-podge full of additions from almost every age and many curiosities including a chained book-stand. Unfortunately there was a choir practice taking place which prevented our exploring it properly.
Another day was spent in north-east Herefordshire centred on Croft Castle. Croft Castle is a National Trust property withall that entails – another subject on which I should say a word. My experience of the National Trust’s presentation of its’ properties is that it tends towards the wholly uncritical; great attention is paid to the history, often uninspiring, of whichever family happened to have owned the property. If the family is still associated with the property a reverntial, almost sycophantic, tone is adopted and various photos of current Sloaney daughters and clean-cut sons left around. Of course this habit does not solely apply to National Trust houses – some privately owned houses, a notable example being Ragley Hall in Warwickshire, adopt the same strategy but where in a private owner it appears as an almost agreeable and certainly obvious egocentricity, in an institution it seems merely subservient. It is also deeply ahistorical. Croft is a good example of this. The Croft family actually sold the Castle in 1746 and it was the new owner, Richard Knight and his heirs, who poured their ‘new money’ (derived from the iron industry) into completely remodelling the interior in a Rococo-Gothic style (although some of this has been lost in subsequent redecoration). The Crofts bought their ancestral home back in 1923 and still live there (as is common in NT properties). This history however is pretty much erased now – for instance one room was reconstructed as the funeral room of Sir Richard Croft (1762-1818) who was famous for having been the doctor presiding over the still-born birth of Princess Charlotte’s son in 1817 whosubsequently shot himself. Now no doubt this man is of interest as a minor historical figure, but the fact is he would have no connection whatever to Croft in his life or at the time of his death. Indeed the entire Croft family history as given in some length at the back of the guidebook is generally notable only for its’ mediocrity – an unsuccessful Elizabethan courtier, a Royalist casualty in the English Revolution, a Restoration Bishop, a failed South Sea Bubble speculator, a vicar who attempted – very unsuccessfully – to revise Johnson’s Dictionary; it is the kind of history which might be amusingly used in a Michael Innes mystery but hardly sustains the historical importance assigned to it. Indeed much the most interesting figure connected with Croft is Thomas Johnes II(1748-1816) who was responsible for attempting to create an idealised Picturesque landscape on a vast scale at Hafod in Wales. Of course nothing is said about where the wealth needed for all the remodelling came from; what conditions were like in 18th century iron-works for instance. Having said all this what Croft does boast is a magnificent setting. We walked up to the vast Iron Age hill-fort at Croft Ambrey which has fabulous views (although it was a little hazy on the day we were there) and is a walk of vast charm through pasture, woodland and finally the imposing hill-fort itself (this walk was selected as part of one of Britain’s 20 best spring walks in The Times a couple of weeks later).
As far as Rococo-Gothic architecture is concerned however Cr0ft Castle is a very poor second best to the nearby Shobon Church (the architecture of Shobdon has also been called Strawberry Hill Gothic, Rococo and Georgian Gothic). It is perhaps a little surprising that 2 examples of this style, one of the very first order, should be found so close together when there are very few left anywhere in the UK – indeed in terms of church architecture Shobdon is unique in England. Some pictures may be found at http://www.shobdonchurch.org.uk/. But the whole place is fairly extraordinary. You drive up this wonderful tree-lined avenue in the middle of nowhere to be confronted by a somewhat scruffy small industrial estate, the church, a small tea shop, a another avenue of trees leading up to some arches on a hill and a large brick building which is all that remains of Shobdon House. The whole place is a complete historical curiosity. In the 18th century the Bateman family who owned Shobdon decided to completelyredesign the church; which was in fact a gem of English Romanesque filled with the work of the ‘Herefordshire School of Stone Carvers’ who flourished from about 1120-1170, but more of them later. So Richard Bateman who was a friend of Horace Walpole gave the unknown architect of Shobdon Church carte blanche. He proceeded to instal the extraordinary interior which has survived almost untouched until today. The sense of shock on entering Shobdon is immense to anyone who is accustomed to ‘usual’ English church interiors – the only comparable sensation is provided at Great Witley (where it is even more overwhelming admittedly). If the white is not quite a vivid as in the photographs, indeed it is in quite urgent need of a re-coat, there is still this profound impression of light and whiteness. Jenkins says that ‘some have seen it as a apstiche of the Countess’s boudoir in The Marriage of Figaro or even as a Los Angeles wedding parlour. The Shell Guide describes it as an inconceivable place to hold a funeral’ (it would certainly not be funereal but could suit certain kinds of modern funerals well, and is of course ideal for weddings – in fact one of the latter had just finished when we arrived). It is without doubt as Jenkins comments ‘a complete masterpiece’. Oddly enough though I have almost no sense of the Gothic – it is light, playful, enjoyable, pleasurable.
So what happened to the original interiors? Well the Bateman’s took some of the carvings and incorporated them into the Shobdon Arches to which I have previously referred. Much weather-beaten one can still vaguely discern the extraordinarily rich carvings of subjects such as Christ in Majesty and the Harrowing of Hell. The distance between these medieval carvings (which might be called true Gothic) and the 18th century church in every kind of sense – intellectual, emotional, physical – is utterly immense. All in all Shobdon is a true gem full of resonance and oddity and enjoyment.