English Church Architecture -
LITTLE GIDDING, St. John (TL 127 816) (December 2013)
(Bedrock: Upper Jurassic, Oxford Clay)
This is the chapel immortalized by T.S. Eliot in the last of his Four Quartets (1942). Constructed above the remnants of a small dilapidated mediaeval building, c. 1626, it was the conception of Nicholas Ferrar (1593 - 1637) and his mother, who proceeded to establish an austere religious community here, of some thirty to forty members, whose fame spread sufficiently to attract three visits from King Charles I, "the last time on his flight" (Pevsner). Criticised as popish under the Commonwealth, it nevertheless survived until 1657, after the death of Nicholas's brother, John.
St. John's chapel today is a confusing mix of the original seventeenth century work, a partial early eighteenth century reconstruction, and a more than usually scrupulous nineteenth century restoration. The exterior is generally considered to be dated by the numerals "17" and "14" carved on the obelisks above the corners of the W. front, but perhaps this was a rebuild: the Palladian style only really became popular in England in the 1720s, when it was promoted by Richard Boyle, third early of Burlington, and his architect Colen Campbell, and the Palladian E. window (illustrated above right) and the form of the west doorway (above left) at Little Gidding seem more indebted to the example of Inigo Jones (1573 - 1652), notably at The Queen's Chapel, St. James's Palace, erected 1623-7. The W. doorway at Little Gidding is topped by a cornice borne on large corbels, above the text "This is none other but the house of God, and [this is] the gate of heaven" (Genesis ch. 29, v. 17b). The W. front as a whole rises between angle pilasters to a gable enclosing a bell-cote with short rusticated pilasters and surmounted by a pediment pierced by three rectangles and crowned by a ball finial. It is constructed entirely of stone, although the other walls are of brick with Ketton stone dressings (britishlistedbuildings website). The N. & S. windows are plain rectangles with patently non-structural keystones in the centres. The vestry was probably added in 1853 by Henry Clutton (1819-93) (Pevsner): the Flemish-bonded brickwork is virtually indistinguishable from that around the rest of the building but the chimney is arguably the telling feature.
The interior of the chapel is more interesting than the exterior. (See the photographs showing the internal view looking east, above left, and west, above right.) The seating is arranged college-wise and the stalls and stall fronts in the nave, appear to be Victorian. The rest is more problematic. The impressive woodwork around the nave windows and pairs of blank bays in between, consists of a decorative cornice above a row of segmental arches supported on elegant, detached balusters, while the dado around the chancel adopts a simpler but related design, with panelling fronted by detached arches supported on slender tapering balusters (as illustrated in the photograph below). All this is ascribed to 1714 on the britishlistedbuildings web-site, but is that the case? Pevsner appeared to try to keep a foot in two camps by saying they "may well be of 1714" but adding "in imitation to a certain extent of the time of Nicholas Ferrar". The chancel arch is also panelled in wood, both down the responds and around the arch itself, which bears the inscription, " [O] Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" (Psalm 122, v. 6a). The reredos (illustrated at the foot of the page) is formed of a triptych framing brass panels inscribed with the Lord's Prayer (left), the Creed (right), and the Ten Commandments (centre). The panels, at least, are seventeenth century work.
So is the communion table, but it is difficult to know what to make of the attractive wagon roofs to the nave and chancel, the former framed in five cants and the latter, in four. They appear at least partially renewed but attributing their design seems precarious and both Pevsner and the britishlistedbuildings website were/are probably wise not to attempt it. They may be Victorian for the vestry roof is also ceiled in wood panelling, in somewhat similar fashion, but the roof at the Queen's Chapel provides an excellent, more elaborate model of the same form.
Doubtless, these are matters that an expert in ancient carpentry, given the opportunity to examine the woodwork closely, would have a better prospect of disentangling. For most visitors, however, it will be the setting and ambience of this building that is most memorable.