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English Church Architecture.


WANSFORD, St. Mary  (TA 062 566),


(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)


One of six churches designed by George Edmund Street (1824-81)

for the eccentric Sit Tatton Sykes II (1826-1913).

















Famous, above all today, for the Law Courts in The Strand, George Edmund Street was rivalled in his lifetime only by William Butterfield as the architect of choice by the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, and, indeed, in his personal attachment to High Church ritual, he surpassed his rival and was for many years churchwarden at Butterfield's 'model' church of All Saints', Margaret Street (Westminster), after Butterfield had left, opposed to the use of incense and lights, and to the Elevation of the Host.  Yet for all his ardent religionism, it would be entirely misleading to present Street as a humourless killjoy, for entirely to the contrary, his two major publications, Brick & Marble in the Middle Ages: Notes on a Tour of the North of Italy (London, John Murray, 1855) and Some Account of Gothic Architecture in Spain (in two volumes) (London, John Murray, 1865) are peppered with anecdotes about bad hotels and the sheer awfulness of other English tourists encountered on the way, much to the aggravation of The Ecclesiologist in its long review of the former in October 1855 (vol. XVI, issue CX, p. 299):  'We cannot but think that the ordinary reader of books of travel will be as much disturbed by Mr. Street's purely professional descriptions and speculations as the architectural student will be annoyed by the details of uncomfortable beds and ill-cooked dinners'.

Street's earnestness was sufficient for most men, however, and his patrons, almost to a man and woman, were wealthy and generous ones.  Street was also an inveterate traveller, and a close reading of Arthur Edmund Street's biography of his father (Memoir of George Edmund Street, 1824-1881, London, John Murray, 1888) reveals that between 1850 and 1874, he made no less than twenty-two separate visits to the Continent, including two such trips in 1872 and 1874 and only missing out on his working vocations in 1855. 1864, 1865 and 1870, during the last of which, however, he made a tour round Scotland.  It is hardly surprising, in consequence, that Street's architecture is the most eclectic among all his more important confrères, and this is particularly striking in some of his village churches, which in the most extreme cases, stand out from their settings as if they had landed from the moon.


This was the first of six churches built by George Edmund Street for Sir Tatton Sykes II, who would only spend money on church building and breeding race-horses.   Erected between 1866 and 1868, the present building is the least typical of these, as apparent outside, for example, from the incoherent way the string course beneath the windows steps indecisively up and down, whereas in Street's other churches for Sir Tatton Sykes, it steps up consistently towards the east, to give emphasis to the sanctuary.  Moreover, by any external criteria, St. Mary's, Wansford, is an inconsequential-looking building:  it is composed of just a nave and chancel with a N. vestry, shallow S. porch and small surmounting bell-cote;  it is lit, even by Street's standards, by a mishmash of different window forms - mostly in early Decorated style but including two untraceried square-headed ones reminiscent of Perpendicular;  and the diminutive bell-cote has a pinched, almost withered appearance, in consequence of changing to an octagonal section from an already modest square base, barely a few inches above the nave ridge.  The little bell-openings in the cardinal sides are separated by shafts with leaf volute capitals beneath quatrefoils in circles and a string course masquerading as a set of gables, and the lucarnes in the spire would not be out of scale in a doll's house.    The building material is everywhere an irregularly-coursed limey sandstone beneath roofs of red tile.  If the church is locked, can it be worthwhile telephoning for a key? 


Indeed, it would be a mistake not to do so, for in no other of Street's churches in the North and East Riding does the interior come as a greater surprise.  This is where the money has been spent, and every feature has been well crafted and thoughtfully considered.  The first surprise comes immediately on entering, for the westernmost bay of the nave (i.e. the bay beneath the belfry) is separated from the others by a transverse arcade formed of three double-flat-chamfered arches with the central arch stilted (as illustrated right, viewed from the east), the narrowness of all three of which serves only to increase the impression they give of height. Supported on two substantial circular piers with octagonal bases and annulets beneath the large circular capitals, they would be an example of structural 'over-kill' if their only function was to support the belfry, but in  fact, their more important task is announce the rich interior and, in particular, to herald the much more decorative stone screen between the nave and chancel, in Street's favourite Italian Gothic.  This is formed of five trefoil-cusped arches in different coloured marbles, set beneath crocketed gables topped by crosses and supported below on barley-sugar columns with leaf volute capitals.  The outer arches rise from a stone dado carved with flowers and leaves in squares, and enclose sections of a short iron screen above, while the central opening holds a pair of attractive wrought iron gates.  (See the photograph, left, taken from the nave.)  Perhaps the proximity of this screen with the arcade to the west, might have been expected to appear to shorten the nave, but by good fortune or judgement, it does not.


These features inevitably dominate the interior, but there is something of interest wherever one looks.  Street, like his contemporary William Butterfield, often took particular care over the design on his fonts and pulpits, frequently conceiving them as a matching pair.  That is not the case here, however, and the palm goes to the latter.  The font (shown right), situated to the west of the W. arcade, appears to be constructed of the same sandstone as the building itself:  it is formed of a hexagonally-lobed bowl with the lobes decorated with blank 'three-light windows' with trefoils in the heads, standing on a stem formed of six circular shafts with circular bases and capitals, and annulets about three-quarters of the way up.  The pulpit (below left) is constructed of white marble with red, yellow and green marble inlay inside the three trefoil-cusped blank arches round the drum.  The spandrels are carved with vine leaves within irregular pointed quatrefoils while cable moulding and dog-tooth decorate the cornice.  It is an excellent piece of workmanship, though somewhat in need of cleaning at the time of this visit.  The reredos, which was another church furnishing that was (understandably) often elaborately treated by Street, is here constructed of sandstone with marble inlay and attractively tiled side panels;  the central section features a cross within a trefoil-cusped arch set between crocketed pinnacles.  Other things to notice in the chancel include the double-flat-chamfered arch to the organ-chamber-cum-vestry, and further east on the south side of the chancel, the two-bay stepped sedilia with little piscina beyond, with uncupsed arches carrying a little roll moulding above an order of circular shafts.


Significant woodwork in the church is confined to the roofs.  The chancel roof is panelled and decorated with the Sacred Monogram on a patterned red and blue background, but the nave roof (shown right) is altogether more interesting, both for its admirable construction and for its paint scheme.  Arched to collars approximately halfway up the pitch, it also features octagonal collar posts rising to the ridge and, most strikingly, wind braces, both the 'right' and 'wrong' way up between the principal rafters. The paint-scheme is meticulous:  the common rafters and ridge beam are painted with a square floral motif and the wind braces with leaves, directly (as it appears) on to the natural wood;  the panelling between the common rafters and ashlar pieces is painted with a variety of forms of stylized flowers on an orange-red background;  and the principal rafters, collars and arched braces have their edges picked out in little white diamonds on a narrow red strip.  It is all extremely pernickety but also very effective, and it beautifully sets off this very fine interior.  Stained glass throughout the building is by Clayton & Bell (Nikolaus Pevsner & David Neave, The Buildings of England: York and the East Riding, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2005, p. 730):  the E. window depicts the Transfiguration in the left-hand light, the Crucifixion in the centre, and the risen Christ appearing to his disciples in the right-hand light, while  other windows show scenes from the life of Christ and an assortment of saints.


[Other churches by Street featured on this web-site are Fimber in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Toddington in Gloucestershire, East Heslerton, Helperthorpe, Howsham, Robin Hood's Bay, Thixendale, West Lutton and Whitwell-on-the-Hill in North Yorkshire, Denstone in Staffordshire,  Torquay in Torbay, Brightwalton and Eastbury in West Berkshire, and St. Mary Magdalene's Rowington Close and St. James's Thorndike Street in the City of Westminster.]