English Church Architecture -
WHITWELL-ON-THE-HILL, St. John the Evangelist (SE 724 659)
(April 2013) (Bedrock: Middle Jurassic, Saltwick Formation)
This is an admirable church (seen above from the southwest), completed in 1860, to the designs of George Edmund Street (1824-81), who does his reputation no harm here. It was built at the expense of Lady Louisa Lechmere, shortly after her wedding and in memory of her late father, and consists of just a nave and chancel built as a single unit, and a southeast tower with a broach spire and semicircular stair turret against the W. wall, reaching up to the bell-stage. The building is long, however, and the tower, tall (113 feet). It presents a proud spectacle, standing on a spur above the Kirkham Gorge, beside the present-day A64.
Street chose for his style at Whitwell-on-the-Hill, the late thirteenth century geometric, and he is true to it throughout. The stonework externally is a greyish limestone in (one suspects) deliberately irregular, rectangular blocks, brought to courses at intervals, between which run regular courses of a pale orange sandstone. The tower is not marked by string courses, but to add to the effect of height, Street cunningly reduces the width very slightly, just below the bell-stage. The bell-openings consist of two trefoil-cusped lancet lights with a shaft between and much leaf carving on the capitals, and with smaller (i.e. both narrower and shorter) shafts at either side. Above this pair of lights is a wheel with a central openwork quatrefoil, surrounded by small openwork trefoils and circles. The broach spire has one tier of four lucarnes, each formed of two openings with a black alabaster column between. Above are gables pierced by openwork trefoils.
Every window differs from its neighbours. Thus the sanctuary S. window is two-light, with plate tracery pierced by a circle containing three trefoils; the E. window is three-light, with two encircled quatrefoils and an encircled cinquefoil above; and the nave N. windows include one with an encircled double-cusped quatrefoil in the head (as illustrated, in this order, above). The nave W. window consists of four equal, trefoil-cusped lancets, beneath a wheel of four cinquefoils, set in a single, deeply-splayed arch within.
The inside of the church (seen above, looking towards the west) maintains some measure of the exterior restraint but with a marked heightening of the effect as one moves from west to east. The walls are tiled throughout up to the level of the dado, and the patterns both here and on the floor become richer as one moves up the nave, reaching a climax in the chancel. Structural polychromy is limited chiefly to furnishings, notably and in ascending order, the font, the pulpit and the reredos, but these are so finely treated as if studded with gems. The font and pulpit are made of Caen stone, but the font (shown below left) rests on a central column of red Mansfield stone surrounded by four slightly slenderer columns of Derbyshire marble, and is inlaid with discs of alabasters, marbles and spars. The pulpit is similarly but more richly inlaid, while the exceptional reredos is a tour de force of diapered alabasters and inlaid marbles on a ground of Mansfield stone. Other stones used include Derbyshire spars and Devonshire red, Galway green and Rouge Royal marbles. They form a five-bay blank arcade, above which carved angels project from the spandrels, while a canopy of leaf carving projects above that.
Pevsner - admittedly writing at a rather different time - never seemed satisfied with churches of this date. He dismissed Pearson’s splendidly ornate church at Appleton-le-Moors as “heavy and demonstrative”, yet here at Whitwell-on-the-Hill, where Street has handled his commission with much restraint, especially externally, and confined his ornamentation to small areas, Pevsner wrote that “neither exterior nor interior [are] meant to be attractive or endeavour to make it easy for us” - whatever precisely that might mean. In fact this is another excellent building, albeit perhaps intended to be a rather serious one, and it is a pleasure to find it open in this attractive little village.