English Church Architecture -
ARDLEIGH, St. Mary (TM 054 296) (June 2003)
(Bedrock: Eocene, London Clay)
This is a powerfully-built church constructed of pudding stone, knapped flint and stone rubble, in part the work of William Butterfield (1814 - 1900), who has designed the aisled nave and chancel here and added them to the pre-existing W. tower and S. porch. (Cf. the entries on Butterfield’s churches at Baldersby St. James, Dalton and Sessay in North Yorkshire, and, most especially, with All Saints, Margaret Street, London.)
The tower and porch are also of importance, especially the latter - a sixteenth century piece that has been sumptuously constructed. (See the photograph, left.) It stands higher than the aisle, displaying five tiers of flushwork arches on its S. front. The outer doorway has an arch of complex profile, a dripstone springing from two lion label stops, and carvings of St. Michael and the Dragon in the spandrels. Above, in deep relief, three canopied niches now contain modern statuary, while above again are battlements and two tall beasts surmounting the diagonal buttresses. The porch is lit from the sides by three-light windows with supermullioned drop tracery with stepped castellated supertransoms (of which that to the east is shown in the thumbnail below right). A lot of money has obviously been spent on all this, very possibly with the intention of rivalling the porch of St. George's church, Great Bromley, just three miles to the south. It is not clear which is earlier, however. The tower is constructed of pudding stone, with a flushwork basal frieze and more flushwork on the stepped battlements where flint is combined with brick. It rises in four stages supported by diagonal buttresses. The bell-openings and W. window have been restored but the tracery is supermullioned.
The rest of the church is in Second Pointed style. Butterfield's aisle windows have three broad lights and simple reticulated tracery, and interest focusses on the masonry. Butterfield was much more sensitive to the use of vernacular materials than many of his contemporaries (subject to considerations of expense and utility) and here he has combined knapped flint and pudding-stone most attractively. Internally, his three-bay arcades are formed of double-flat-chamfered arches springing from octagonal piers, there is none of Butterfield's structural polychromy, and the nave is dominated by the painting above the chancel arch of St. Mary and St. John standing below Christ on the cross. It is also paint and stencilling patterns that are used to create the build-up of effect from west to east in the chancel and the sanctuary. Unfortunately, Butterfield's intentions, which rely so much on colour seen in good light, have been cruelly undermined by heavy stained glass which casts the chancel into deep gloom, even on a hot June day. Even so, the stencil patterns on the arches from the chancel to the S. chapel and N. organ chamber, the decoration of the ceiled roof, and the tiled patterns on the floor that develop in four stages from the chancel arch to the altar, are still striking. The dado of the rood screen from the original church has been retained.
Finally, of furnishings and woodwork, the first thing to notice is Butterfield's font at the W. end of the nave, where a red sandstone bowl sits on marble columns: the lines are clean and simple, almost to the point of plainness, and it is the contrast of materials that makes the piece so satisfying. What is not clear is whether the nave, aisle and chancel roofs are also Butterfield’s, although one might assume they are, but if so, Hewett (Church Carpentry, pub. Phillimore, 1982) for one was not impressed, describing them as of “very poor quality”. In contrast, the S. door, believed to date from 1460, he considered “a good specimen and .... richly traceried”.