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COLESHILL, All Saints  (SU 236 938),

OXFORDSHIRE. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Jurassic, Osmington Oolite Series.)

 

A church notable chiefly for its outstanding monument by

John Michael Rysbrack (1694 - 1770).

 

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 èlite, 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 a proud little church, standing on an eminence a few hundred yards from the county border, and although it has undergone substantial restoration externally and its appearance is marred by the very low pitch of the nave, chancel and chapel roofs, there is nevertheless still much of interest here, the majority of it inside.  The building consists of a chancel, nave with N. aisle, and W. tower, with the addition of a steeply-pitched, two-storeyed and deeply projecting S. porch, adjoined to the east by the S. chapel.  The tower rises in three diagonally-buttressed stages to battlements and crocketed pinnacles at the corners and mid-points of the walls, and a semi-octagonal stair turret at the east end of the S. wall reaches two-thirds of the way up the second stage to terminate in a deep parapet.  Between the turret and the porch, a distance of about 12' (almost 4 m.), a shallow lean-to projection houses a gallery passage within, giving access to the upper storey of the porch (which, itself, also forms a gallery) - an arrangement which in its present form, appears to owe most to the building’s Victorian restoration.  Windows in all parts of the church, though disparate in style, seem largely to have been renewed, but the narrow, ogee-pointed lights in the porch, probably witness the second quarter of the fourteenth century, and the enormous, ugly quatrefoil lighting the chancel from the east is an eighteenth century, 'Gothick” inspiration, better suited to Strawberry Hill or other similar confections.  (Notes in the church date it to 1788.)  The tower bell-openings are two-light with straightened reticulation units in their heads, which in East Anglia at least, would usually indicate the late fourteenth century;  the W. doorway has a wave moulding around the arch, and the three-light W. window has supermullioned tracery with strong mullions.  The parapet of pierced quatrefoils above the N. aisle, is probably fifteenth century work. 

 

 

The outer arch to the porch, bearing only two flat chamfers dying into the jambs, might possibly suggest a thirteenth century date if one ignores the evidence provided by the windows.  The inner doorway is trefoil-cusped.  The N. arcade is Early English and formed of two and a half bays  composed of double-flat-chamfered, pointed arches springing from circular piers and capitals.  Presumably it originally consisted of three bays until truncated by the tower.  The two discrete arches to the S. chapel are Norman-Transitional for although the arches above the springing are similar to those opposite, the responds supporting them have capitals decorated with flat leaves (a kind of half-remembered waterleaf) characteristic of c. 1200.  Moreover, 'responds' (i.e. demi-piers) is indeed the correct word for them, for even the central one is only a half-pier facing north (illustrated left), attached to a wall piece to the  south.  (The E. respond consists of a quarter-pier and the west end of the arcade dies into a wall piece.)  The chancel arch is exceptionally crude and slight, and is formed of two inner rectangular orders and an outer flat-chamfered one, rising from corbels similar in size and shape to teacups. The tall tower arch has an outer order bearing a wave and an inner order which is flat-chamfered below the springing and slightly waved above, but of much greater interest are the remnants of a former vault in the corners of the tower, supported on head corbels immediately above the arch, though whether the vault was demolished or never completed in the first place, is difficult to tell.

 

Church furnishings include the cambered, circular font on a narrow stem, which may be contemporary with the N. arcade, and a not particularly distinguished collection of Georgian box pews that fill the chapel in is entirety. The church is more notable for monuments, however, reflecting its one-time status as the estate church of Coleshill House (destroyed by fire in 1952).  Of these, the oldest (right), set against the sanctuary S. wall, features two clumsy  effigies depicting Sir Henry Pratt (d. 1647) above, who leans uncomfortably on his left shoulder, and of his wife, below, lying still and very dead.  The N. wall of the sanctuary is filled from floor to ceiling by a massive, triple-arched structure (left and below right), supported on slender octagonal columns, which is as crisp today as when it was made.  This commemorates Mark Stewart Pleydell (d. 1768) and his wife, who predeceased him by twenty-one years.  All three arches are crocketed, cusped and ogee-pointed, with the much wider central arch being double-cusped (trefoil-cusping inside septfoil-cusping!), but the real interest of the piece lies unquestionably in its composition, as it is made of artificial Coade stone.  Even so, more important than either of these monuments is another, a little further west, against the S. wall of the chancel, for this is signed by the great Michael Rysbrack (1694 – 1770), some of whose characteristic mannerisms it displays.  (See the photograph below left.)  This commemorates Harriot Bouverie  here, who died in  childbirth in 1751 at the appallingly young age of twenty-six.  A cartouche at the top looks out over two chubby putti who hold a medallion carved with the faces of the deceased and her grieving husband in bas-relief, and the inscription below reads:

 
“In person, manner, disposition
And uncommon understanding, most amiable;
In gentleness, candour and humility,
In prudence, sincerity and beneficence,
In substantial and uniform piety,
Most exemplary;
The accomplished woman,
The universal friend,
The real Christian.
As a daughter she was obedient;
She was affectionate
As a parent (short, alas, her trial);
Tender, solicitous,
The ornament of her own family,
The admiration of that into which she married,
Loving and beloved with entire unvaried affection
An honour to the marriage state,
She blessed an husband who can never enough lament
The loss of so incomparable a wife.” 

 

Michael Craske, writing in The Silent Rhetoric of the Body (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 326-329) considers this monument to be the only sculpture of its period in which the female portrait overlaps the male, a symbol of the Bouverie family's unusual privileging (for the time) of the wife's place in marriage.  Two raised torches beneath the cartouche, united by a human heart, 'are held to symbolise mutual love.  A putto to one side shows how one of these flames has been put out: he extinguishes a torch on a skull.  A companion putto suggests the lovers' consolation by holding the emblem of eternity, a serpent biting its tail.'

 

For other churches on this web-site that discuss other important church monuments see Gosfield in Essex, Sherborne in Gloucestershire (in particular), Chevening in Kent,  and Condover in Shropshire.]