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English Church Architecture -

North Yorkshire.


SKELTON-CUM-NEWBY, Christ the Consoler (SE 360 680)   (November 2013)

(Bedrock:  Triassic Sherwood Sandstone Group, Red Sandstone)


Since any attempt to describe this extraordinarily rich and elaborate High Victorian building in full, would be unacceptably long and tedious, this discussion will be confined to the most important features, leaving the photographs to fill in rather more of the details.  The church was erected in 1871-8 to the designs of William Burges (1827-81), at a cost of 25,000 (church guide), paid by Lady Mary Vyner of Newby Hall, in memory of her son, Frederick Grantham Vyner, who was "shot by brigands" (inscription inside the church, beneath the E. window) whilst travelling in Greece.  Burges used the largesse available to him here, together with that from a parallel commission at Studley Royal, nearby, from Vyner's brother-in-law, Lord Ripon, to fashion his response to mid-Victorian High Anglican  ritualism. His models were "ecclesiologically-proper", thirteenth century ones (albeit French rather than English), but such was the degree to which he extended and embellished the simple shapes and traceries of that style, it seems doubtful The Ecclesiologist would have given its approval had it not ceased publication just a  few years before  (in 1868).


Burgess's plan for the building consisted of a three-bay chancel attached to a four-bay aisled nave, with a tower built over the easternmost bay of the N. aisle and a porch adjoining the second bay of the S. aisle from the west.  The tower rises in four stages, to a spire lit by a tier of gabled lucarnes, low down on the cardinal sides.  Tall conical pinnacles occupy the diagonals  (as seen the photograph, right, taken from the northwest) and since it is the spire and pinnacles that are most prominent on approach (as illustrated in the photograph at the top of the page), the "jagged pyramidal silhouette" (church guide) they produce, plays a principal part in the building's effect, while the tower beneath, when one walks round the church to examine it, proves relatively plain.  This is hardly a scheme that reflects Ruskin's preference for mass over line, and although the aisled nave and chancel are solid, bulky structures, their walls are too broken up with windows to meet such priorities either, with the result that the interior, even with its display of stained glass by Saunders & Company (church guide), is surprisingly light and airy for a church of this date. The E. window to the chancel is especially large and ornate, composed of five trefoiled lancets with outer pairs subarcuated above octfoils and a massive wheel window in the centre, formed of an octfoil surrounded by nine quatrefoils.  The W. window to the nave is another huge wheel, composed of an octfoil surrounded by two concentric circles of trefoiled petals.  The nave clerestory consists of groups of three trefoiled lancets with quatrefoils above, separated by pairs of shafts in shaft-rings with narrow wall pieces between. Tracery in all parts of the building mixes plate and bar forms indiscriminately.  The buttresses between the chancel bays are decorated with shields on the set-offs, and the northeast and southeast angles are topped by massive square pinnacles in two tiers - the lower tier faced with gabled blank arches with side-shafts, and the upper, crowned by carved beasts.  The S. porch has a tall cinquefoil-cusped outer doorway with two orders of side-shafts with stiff leaf capitals, and a finely-cut sculpture in the gable (illustrated left) showing Christ the Good Shepherd flanked by two sheep and a ram.  Inside, it is covered by a quadripartite vault, and the two small trefoiled windows in the east and west walls, are backed by an inner skin of detached tracery, setting the pattern for the chancel.




The church interior presents an amazing display, presented in good light even on a November day (as illustrated above).  The visual emphasis is quite differently placed from what one might expect to find in a church by Street or Butterfield, for the principal vehicle of decoration is carved ornament, and the second, perhaps the delicate inner skin of tracery around the chancel windows (shown below left), where line triumphs over mass.  The chancel is covered by three narrow bays of quadripartite vaulting and both here and elsewhere, the dominant material is white stone (from Lord Ripon's quarries on the Studley Royal estate, according to the church guide), with coloured marbles largely confined to the side-shafts and, even here, with only black marble employed west of the chancel arch.  The chancel arch itself is particularly splendid, both for its carving and its coloured responds.  The former provides an elaborate portrayal of the Ascension, with the eleven faithful disciples (lower tier) looking heavenwards towards three winged angels unveiling scrolls (middle tier) and the Risen Christ (in a vesica at the top) holding His right hand up in blessing.  The arch responds brought Burgess as close as he came to structural polychromy at Skelton, with shafts of red and dark grey marble in shaft-rings, although orange marble also appears in the narrow shafts supporting the chancel window tracery to the east.  (See the photograph below right.)  Above the responds with their deeply-carved stiff leaf capitals in white stone, the complex profile of the chancel arch itself features keeled rolls, hollows, dog-tooth, and beneath the soffit, a column of seven carved angels on either side, rising from the springing to the apex.  

The nave arcades are composed of broad quatrefoil piers in shaft-rings, supporting arches of two orders bearing dog-tooth and two sunk quadrant mouldings, but most striking are the black marble shafts in shaft-rings running up the sides of the piers towards the nave, from floor to roof corbels.  Short black side-shafts decorate the rere-arches of the aisle windows, the pairs of blank arches between, the blank arches beneath the nave W. window, and the clerestory windows.


The easternmost bay of the N. aisle (or the bottom stage of the tower, which amounts to the same thing) is blocked up for the organ chamber.  The organ loft (above left) is corbelled out towards the nave above grotesque bird and animal carvings, while the organ itself is supported above on a pair of large angel corbels, of whom one holds a tambourine and the other, a pair of cymbals.  The organ chamber also gives access to the pulpit, along a raised passageway immediately to the west, but although this and the pulpit are faced in red and white marble, they are plain compared with some of the bejewelled examples by Street and Butterfield.  (See, for example, Baldersby St. James or Whitwell-on-the-Hill, both in this county.)  This was not a feature Burgess chose to make a focus of attention.  The font of Tennessee marble (church guide), inscribed "In memory of Mary Sarah Robinson, born 16th July 1857, died 3rd July 1858", is more ornate, although it is outdone by its tiered wooden cover (above right), featuring at the lower level, a traceried, gabled compartment, in which St. John the Baptist is seen anointing Christ.  The reredos (below left) has more fine carving, arranged in five roundels, with a Nativity scene in the middle, sandwiched between four of the prophets, who display scrolls foretelling His coming.  An unexpected feature that adds further lustre to the altar is the original and extremely well-preserved altar cloth (below right), with alpha and omega symbols surrounded by birds and butterflies.  The floor tiles provide another splendid display, not only in the sanctuary and down the central passageway of the chancel but also down the full length of the nave and the central passageways of both aisles.  They were manufactured by Godwin's of Lugwardine (Herefordshire) and provide proof that the products of this firm were every bit the equal of Minton's.