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ARKESDEN, St. Mary  (TL 482 346),

ESSEX. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)

 

A large, heavily restored church, most interesting to day for its monuments,

and a late Stuart one by Edward Pearce (d. 1695) in particular.

 

 

This web-site is not much concerned with church monuments but an exception is made of some important late seventeenth to early nineteenth century examples that serve to illustrate wider trends in the art and architectural history of these years.  Although any attempt to divide a complex series of changes into discrete stages is susceptible to the charge of over-simplification, as a basic introduction to the subject, four principal phases in its evolution can be identified:

1.  the age of heraldry and ostentation, which is essentially the late Stuart period, c.1660 - c.1714, in which the aristocracy sought to depict their departed relations, bewigged and dressed in all their finery, with coats of arms to display their long pedigree, and 'symbols of mortality' (most notably skulls) to advertise their piety;

2.  the Age of Politeness, corresponding roughly to the period of the Whig Supremacy and the ascendancy of Palladian architecture, c. 1714-60 (that is, the reigns of the first two Georges), in which the new ruling class actively rejected the old Tory memes and mores and sought to present themselves as the new élite, and their deceased relatives dressed in the timeless apparel (usually Roman togas, suggesting they themselves were like Roman senators)  that eschewed vulgarity and ostentation (skulls again, heraldic devices - not least because their pedigree often offered little to shout about) in favour of the appearance of effortless superiority;

3. the period of the 'Gothick' style, which overlapped periods 2 & 4 but which was particularly prevalent around the third quarter of the eighteenth century and was in turn a reaction to the Age of Politeness in favour of something more theatrical and exciting, frequently characterised by monsters or Death personified as a skeleton, on the one hand, and a damsel in distress on the other or some other form of female imagery calculated to add some sexual frisson;

and 4. the Age of Sensibility, in which it suddenly became not only fashionable for gentlemen to show display their emotions, but de rigueur.

These themes between them, fashioned many of the monuments of these years to a greater or lesser degree, as will appear further on the page below.  

 

 

 

This is quite a large church but one so substantially restored and rebuilt that its architectural interest is now confined to a number of individual features.  The building consists of a chancel, an aisled nave with a S. porch, and a W. tower with a prominent semi-polygonal stair turret at the southeast angle, and externally, almost its only surviving mediaeval features appear to be two, possibly re-set, Decorated windows towards the east end of the N. aisle - a two-light one to the north and a three-light one to the east, the latter with ungainly tracery composed of a quatrefoil and two over-large mouchettes above trefoil-cusped ogee lights (illustrated below left).  The tower and nave clerestory were entirely rebuilt in 1855 (notes in the church) but the porch is essentially mediaeval and Perpendicular:  its outer doorway carries wave mouldings and hollows beneath an ogee-pointed dripstone and a stone panel carved with two shields and a cross, while the inner doorway carries two flat chamfers above two orders of semi-octagonal shafts.  The material in all parts of the building is flint and pebble rubble with dressings, according to Pevsner, of imported Caen stone (Nikolaus Pevsner & James Bettley, The Buildings of England: Essex, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 90).

 

 

Inside the church, the differing pier sections of the arcades presumably have some mediaeval basis (both arcades are double-flat-chamfered but the S. arcade is supported on round piers and the N. arcade on octagonal ones, as seen in the interior photograph looking east, above right) but it would be rash to assign a date to either as the capitals appear to have been retooled or renewed.  The chancel arch is unashamedly Victorian and formed of an arch of complex profile springing from semi-octagonal responds with deeply-cut leaf capitals.  The font (below left) is another uncertain masonry feature however, comprising a square cambered bowl resting on a base cut through on each side by a lancet opening surrounded by a roll moulding.  Pevsner suggested the bowl might be twelfth century work and the stand, thirteenth century, but if so, then both appear to have been scraped or tidied up in some way.  The chancel and nave roofs of hammerbeam construction are Victorian but in the nave, at least one of the original head corbels beneath the wall posts has been preserved.

 

 

That brings the visitor to the monuments, which are the most items here, beginning in age order with a fifteenth century tomb chest recessed in the N. wall of the chancel (as seen below), bearing a recumbent effigy bisected by a slab of masonry halfway along, like a stunt-woman at a circus about to be 'sawn in half'.  Commemorating John Croxby, who was vicar here from 1453-56 (or 1435-56 - the inscription beneath and the notes in the church are contradictory), it features crocketed gabled niches at the ends and mid-point that leave the effigy visible through two very depressed four-centred arches beneath an embattled cornice.  More striking than this, however, is the enormous painted Tudor tomb chest at the E. end of the S. aisle, with the recumbent effigies of Richard Cutte (d. 1592) and his wife laying on top, their hands clasped in prayer, beneath a heavy canopy supported on six balusters.  The couple's six children kneel around the chest but only the two girls have escaped decapitation. 

 

Finally, described, entirely fairly, by Pevsner as 'a first-class work', there is an archetypal late Stuart wall monument against the N. wall of the tower (the upper part of which is shown above right), commemorating John Withers (d. 1692) and his wife, featuring skulls and branches in bass relief on the tomb chest below, and on the upper part above the inscription, excellent busts of the couple dressed in their best clothes, he bewigged, and with drapes at the sides, a disembodied winged cherub hovering above, and in the open pediment at the top, a huge achievement reminding the  viewer of their distinguished genealogy.  This is the work of Edward Pearce, who Rupert Gunnis recorded as having had 'a high reputation among his contemporaries'  (Dictionary of British Sculptors, 1660-1851, London, The Abbey Library. 1951, p. 297).  Pearce was employed at various times in his career at St. Paul's Cathedral, Hampton Court and Whitehall, but this must have been one of his last commissions for he died in 1695.