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English Church Architecture.

 

MODBURY, St. George  (SX 655 516),

DEVON. 

(Bedrock:  Lower Devonian, Meadfoot Group.)

 

An interesting church with a complicated building history notable chiefly for architectural missteps and work abandoned before completion. 

 

This is a curious and potentially confusing church but the architectural notes inside provide a very feasible explanation of its many complications.  The building is distinguished from a distance by its prominent angle-buttressed W. tower and broach spire while closer up one's attention is drawn to the fortress-like, two-storeyed S. porch, with its three-storeyed stair turret, and to the way in which the independently-gabled aisles and chapels widen and narrow, without obvious rhyme or reason, from west to east.  The building is pseudo-cruciform in plan (i.e. it has transepts but no true crossing) and constructed of rather dreary grey sandstone and siltstone in its earlier work, and of granite in the later.

 

This is another Devonshire church which is better examined inside first.  The three-bay nave arcades, even allowing for the fact that they have been repointed, seem more suggestive of the twentieth century modernism than of the late Early English period to which they actually belong.  (See the photographs, above left, showing an interior view of the church from the west, and above right, showing one of the individual nave piers.)  Their very pared down geometrical form may possibly be a response to the intractability of the building stone but it would be interesting to know where the design originated.   The wide arches, although exceptionally simple in being formed of a single unmoulded order, are not otherwise remarkable, but the piers are certainly unusual:  perhaps better described as square with chamfered corners than as irregular octagons, they rise only to imposts rather than true capitals, in an arrangement Pevsner described as 'bevelled... without necking' (Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Devon, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 570).  The shape and wide spacing of these piers, together with the predominance of clear glass in the aisle windows, create a large, open, well-lit space, with an emphasis firmly on functionalism.

 

The thirteenth century church, therefore, appears to have consisted of this unusual three-bay aisled nave, a pseudo-crossing without a central tower, N. & S. transepts, and a chancel, although the only remains of this to the east of the nave today are the arch from the N. aisle to the N. transept, the responds (only) of the corresponding S. arch, and the two-bay sedilia recessed in the sanctuary S. wall, since everything else was swept away in a fifteenth or early sixteenth century rebuilding in the usual late Perpendicular, Devonshire manner characterized by untraceried, uncusped windows and arches formed of piers of the ubiquitous four-shafts-separated-by-hollows section, capitals to the shafts only, and arches bearing waves. Arches of this design, all constructed in granite, form the arches from the 'crossing' to the transepts, the arches from the transepts to the chapels, and  the two-bay arcades from the chancel to the chapels.  (The photograph below, taken from the sanctuary, shows the N. chapel arcade and the arches to the N. transept from the chapel and 'crossing'.)

 

However, long before these chapels were built, the first major addition to the thirteenth century church appears to have been the tower, about fifty years later.  This may have been built as a detached structure initially, some distance to the west, in order to ensure no damage was done to the nave as it settled on its foundations.  Later, after a judicious period of time, the nave seems then to have been extended west of the aisles, to join it, and only after that was the decision taken to extend the aisles also, as a result of which building was begun on the south side only, creating what turned out to be the largely useless space at the west end of the aisle, since the project was halted before an arch could be opened between it and the nave. Nothing daunted, some time afterwards it appears to have been agreed to widen the existing aisles, and on this occasion, work was completed to the south, between the porch and the transept, which had the effect of partially enveloping the porch, reducing its external projection, but to the north, operations got no further than the widening of the easternmost bay (i.e. immediately west of the transept)!

 

So much for the infelicitous development of the church.  Going outside again, some further description is needed.  The tower is not attractive at close quarters:  the inserted W. window is of the uncusped, untraceried variety, the bell-openings consist of solitary, rather shapeless lights, and there are no battlements round the top of the tower and only one insignificant tier of lucarnes to light the spire. The porch with its octagonal stair turret is consequently more impressive, notwithstanding its low projection and almost complete lack of windows except for a two-light square-headed one in the S. wall of the upper storey.  At the east end of the church, the very tall sanctuary projects one bay east of the chapels, which is relatively unusual in Perpendicular work locally.  The small window beneath the chancel E window, actually lights an E. vestry, of which the only evidence in the chancel is a door east of the reredos.

 

Finally, few furnishings in the church require particularization.  Tomb canopies in the end walls of the transepts now contain an effigy of a knight in armour to the south but nothing more than the most peculiar collection of stumps elsewhere.  The pulpit has been reconstituted from bits and pieces of older work and the curious font (but not the one in use now) with a circular bowl and tall shafts at the sides, may be thirteenth century work, at least in part.