SHOBDON, St. John (SO 401 628),
(Bedrock: Silurian Ludlow Series, Whitcliffe Formation.)
An extraordinary church in 'Strawberry Hill' Gothick style,
built on the site of an exceptionally fine Norman church,
demolished to make way for it.
This remarkable building (seen above from the northwest) replaced a no less exceptional and much older one that was wilfully and quite unnecessarily destroyed in 1752. That had been a twelfth century Norman building, very probably the equal of St. Mary & St. David's, Kilpeck, although the only features that survived this act of extreme vandalism upon which judgement can be based, are the chancel arch and two nave doorways, and only they because they were re-used to create a garden folly now known as the Shobdon Arches (seen below), four hundred yards away to the northwest, where they may still be seen at the end of an avenue of trees and where they have suffered horribly from the weather. The erosion seems to have occurred chiefly during the last one and a half centuries, for a plaster cast of the S. tympanum, made c. 1850 and now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, shows it was then still remarkably crisp. Other casts taken of the carvings at the time, were destroyed in the Crystal Palace fire in 1936, but fortunately, other evidence of these very unlucky structures is available in the form of an extensive series of drawings made of the carvings by G.R. Lewis in 1842, and although these have been shown not to be fully reliable, they do fill in a lot of detail that the wind and rain have otherwise since removed.
The following paragraph is based on Professor Malcolm Thurlby's definitive study of the so-called Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture (in the book of that name, Woonton, Logaston Press, 2013, pp. 133-150), and the interested visitor should consult his work, in which Lewis's drawings are reproduced in full and where the Shobdon Arches are described in exhaustive detail. As Thurlby makes clear, the first thing to recognize is that the five arches that present themselves to the viewer today are, in reality, only three, for the tympana above the original nave doorways were re-set separately, and thus the left arch and tympanum (seen below left) had previously together formed the N. doorway, the right arch and tympanum (illustrated below right) had hitherto formed the S. doorway, while the central arch had been the chancel arch and the gables, pinnacles and crockets on top were merely additions 'according to the fashion of the day' (i.e. 1752). The north tympanum portrays (or, rather, portrayed) the Harrowing of Hell and features Christ pulling Adam out of Hades, watched by two male and two female figures, and the south tympanum shows Christ seated in a roundel, held in place by four floating angels, perhaps intended to represent Christ in Majesty or, alternatively, the Ascension into Heaven, which would have provided the directly contrary scene to that on the N. tympanum. The shafts either side of the N. doorway are decorated with different types of interlace except for the inner left shaft, which is covered with superimposed male figures grappling with entwining stems; the capitals display serpents, foliage, and carved figures separated by formalized trees; and the arch has interlace decoration around the inner order, quadrupeds in various twisted poses on the middle order, and four serpents around the outer order. The side-shafts to the S. doorway are all decorated with interlace (some beaded, some not); the capitals depict figures, a dragon, two lions confronting one another, and more foliage; and the arch has birds and beasts set in beaded interlace displayed on the inner order, various beasts, fish and figures on the middle order (including an Agnus Dei, a couple of unicorns, a cow, two figures wrestling, and angel and a mermaid), and two ribbon-like snakes on the outer order. The chancel arch has purely geometric ornament around the arch itself (mostly chevron), but the most elaborate detail of figures, birds, beast and interlace on the three orders of columns, every one of which is different to the others. It will serve to illustrate the complexity of this by saying that on the tiny space of the abacus of the outer left shaft alone, there are eleven little figures, together with gaps where two more may once have been, in what is thought to have been intended as a portrayal of the Last Supper!
Shobdon's new church was erected above the original foundations in 1752-6, although the modest, pre-existing Early English tower was suffered to remain and merely modified in the lower of its two unbuttressed stages. The benefactor - if he can be so called - was the Honourable Richard Bateman of Shobdon Court, described by Pevsner as a 'friend of Horace Walpole' (The Buildings of England: Herefordshire, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1963, p. 288) but, perhaps, someone who also considered himself to be something of an artistic rival. Walpole had just embarked on the rebuilding of Strawberry Hill House, largely to the designs of the amateur architect, John Chute (1701-76), in fanciful Gothick style - a style the two men were doing much to invent as they went along. Bateman's architect and artistic advisor has always been assumed to be Henry Flitcroft (1697 - 1769), but Christopher Mowl and other recent commentators have suggested the more likely source of the designs was actually William Kent (1685 - 1748), Flitcroft's co-architect in a number of joint projects, who had recently died. In Mowl's words:
'The attribution to Kent may be circumstantial, but anyone with an interest in his elusive character should make a pilgrimage there [i.e. to Shobdon]. In the interior a visitor will experience a harmless haunting by Kent's irreverent ghost, together with the authentic scent of Anglican religiosity in the Age of Reason. Crisply carved ogee arches nod down from the plaster ceiling without any visible means of support. There is nothing remotely numinous about it, no savour of sin or repentance, only a cheerful, cosy order of village society gathered together in elegant comfort to admire the squire and his relations. Kent usually laughs at his own architectural sketches with their dancing rabbits and rude dogs. Here in Shobdon he seems to have been taking the Divinity equally lightly, creating a setting for an 'At Home' with the Almighty.' (William Kent, Architect, Designer, Opportunist, London, Pimlico, 2007, p. 200.)
St. John's interior (shown above, looking east towards the sanctuary) is the last word in eighteenth century, icing-sugar Gothick: everything is white with Wedgewood blue trimmings and appears to have been intended for the top of a wedding cake rather than to fit out a church; nothing possesses weight, either of the physical or the spiritual kind. The three-decker pulpit is a wonderful affair, with an intricately detailed tester above the upper tier, replete with brattishing, little pinnacles at the angles, and a large crown pinnacle on top (as seen below left), but no preacher could thunder hell and damnation from it. The walls have stucco panels between the ogee-pointed, two-light nave windows, the plaster ceiling is coved above a cornice decorated with peardrops, there are doorways in the E. walls of the shallow transepts, and the gallery over the westernmost nave bay is supported on two Corinthian columns and cuts across between two doorways leading to the lower and upper stages of the tower, of which the former serves as a porch. (See the interior view at the foot of the page, looking west.)
Perhaps surprisingly in view of its antecedence, the church contains only one monument of significance (shown above right), and that, not a very large one on the N. wall of the nave, albeit it is the work of the renowned and famously parsimonious Joseph Nollekens (1737 - 1823). It commemorates John Viscount Bateman (d. 1802) and comprises a diminutive tomb-chest supported on consoles, above which a winged putto leans impishly, with no pretext of respect on an oval portrait medallion.