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HINTON ST. GEORGE, St. George  (ST 418 127),

SOMERSET. 

(Bedrock:  Lower Jurassic, Inferior Yeovil Sands.)

 

One of A.K. Wickham's so-called 'South Somerset' group of churches

with exceptional towers, dateable to the late fifteenth century.

 

 

During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Somerset was one of the wealthiest counties in England, growing rich on the wool trade, and this former prosperity is witnessed today in the quality of its churches, and of their towers in particular.  Rising nobly in Perpendicular style in almost every other village, they comprise between them one of the greatest corpora of mediaeval art to be found in western Europe, so it is hardly surprising they have attracted the attention of tourists and writers down the decades, and not only since Pevsner's whirlwind circuit of the county in the summer of 1957.  The more methodical of these visitors have naturally looked for connections between these buildings - for example, in date or style - and a few have attempted to categorize them.  Pevsner's system, however, which sought to classify towers by the arrangement of their windows, added very little to the understanding of their provenance or the sphere of influence of their rich and multifarious designs, and it is telling that after explaining his methodology at length in the introduction to the Somerset volumes of The Buildings of England (republished New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2003,pp. 34-43), he never referred to it again in either of the volumes.  However, a far more instructive, albeit more limited scheme, had earlier been set out in Dr. J.F. Allen's book The Great Church Towers of England (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1932), and this was subsequently refined by A.K. Wickham in The Churches of Somerset (London, David & Charles, 1965).  In this, Allen identified five groups of churches within the county (reduced from eight in Dr. Allen's work) which are sufficiently homogenous to suggest that while not necessarily built by the same master masons, they are at least the work of distinct schools of artisans in close artistic contact, and these he named 'the Cathedral Group', 'the West Mendip Group', 'the North Somerset Group', 'the South Somerset Group', and 'the Quantock Group', among which, the South Somerset Group considered here, comprises churches distinguished by stately bell-openings extending through the two upper stages of the tower, divided by heavy, ornamented transoms, and notable for their employment of contrasting  steely blue-grey Blue Lias and golden Ham Hill Stone, both from the Lower Jurassic Series, laid down approximately 201-198 Ma and 177-174 Ma respectively.

 

 

 

 

This excellent church (seen left from the east, and below from the southeast), situated in one of Somerset's finest villages, consists of a W. tower, a nave three and a half bays in length with a S. aisle, S. porch and N. transept, and a two-bay chancel with a one-bay S. chapel and an enclosed N. chapel and vestry.  The N. transept, N. chapel and vestry were added by the Poulett family in 1814 to accomodate monuments to their forebears and, in the first case, also to act as a family pew. This rest of the building can be dated approximately by the fact that the rector left 4 towards the erection of the tower in 1494, suggesting it was then still incomplete. Constructed entirely of honey-coloured Ham Hill stone, it provides an excellent example of  A.K. Wickham's 'South Somerset Group'.  It has a four-light W. window with outer lights subarcuated in pairs, a niche for a statuette in the S. wall, and openwork battlements (usually a sign of a late date - although not at St. John's, Yeovil, nine miles to the west),  and is supported by set-back buttresses terminating in crocketed pinnacles.  An octagonal stair turret at the southeast corner, rising higher than the tower itself, is surmounted by eight small, additional pinnacles. 

 

The windows in the main body of the church are an assortment.  In the S. aisle, the two most westerly are three-light with uncusped alternate tracery, and these are followed in turn by one with cusped alternate tracery filled with subreticulation, then one with four lights, subreticulation and subarcuation of the lights in pairs, and finally, in the E. wall of the aisle, by a five-light window (shown below left) with subarcuation of the outer lights in pairs and a latticed supertransom above a central light framed by strong mullions.  The last two of these windows (only) are four-centred, with ogee-pointed lights.  The chancel E. window is also five-light but seems almost modest by comparison, with outer lights subarcuated in pairs and a central light crossed by a plain supertransom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Internally, the S. arcade to the aisle is supported on piers of the almost standard, late Perpendicular south Somerset  form, composed of four shafts, each with its own capital, separated by casements (wide, shallow, hollow chamfers) that continue uninterrupted around the arches above.  The taller chancel arch also conforms to this design, but spanning the gap between it and the three-bay arcade, there is a narrower, fourth arch (seen in the photograph above) set askew and looking somewhat through into the continuation of the aisle as an undemarcated S. chapel (that is to say, a chapel undivided from the nave aisle by a transverse arch or parclose screen).  There must be a reason for this clumsy arrangement but it is not obvious what that might have been unless the church was incorrectly set out, which seems unlikely, or a belated decision was made to build the chancel narrower than first intended.  The arch from the chancel to the S. chapel (also visible in the photograph) displays the blank arcading on the soffits so common in this area (see also, for example, Long Sutton, Martock, Muchelney and Norton-sub-Hamdon), and similar carved panelling, rising in two tiers and cusped top and bottom, can also be found decorating the spaces between the transverse stone ribs of the porch barrel vault.  The N. transept, known as the Poulett pew, and the enclosed N. chapel, known as the Poulett chapel, are significant only for the monuments they hold.  The church contains a wealth of these, the more important of which require systematic description.

 

Beginning at the east end of the church, therefore, and passing west along the N. side of the building, towards the transept and nave, these are:

(i) against the chancel N. wall, a huge stone monument (illustrated right) commemorating Sir Anthony Poulett (d. 1600) and his wife (d. 1601), which shows the couple reclining on a tomb-chest, wearing prominent ruff collars and he distinguished by an especially long beard.  Along the front of the chest, their five daughters are depicted in shallow relief, while at the sides, two orders of Corinthian columns rise to support a massive architrave, carrying a concave-sided pediment bearing an achievement, set between obelisks. 

(ii) against the nave N. wall, east of the transept, a tomb-chest on which a mediaeval knight clad in armour lies straight-legged, with his feet resting on a lion.  Pevsner dated this to c. 1475 (The Buildings of England: South and West Somerset, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2003, p. 197).  Its dedicatee is unknown.

(iii) against the E. wall of the N. chapel, a monument to John, Baron Poulett (d. 1649), not open to inspection on this visit, which Pevsner considered 'in many ways the most remarkable monument in the church.  It is so unrestrainedly Baroque, it looks so much like the early eighteenth century North of the Alps, that it can only be accounted for by being regarded as the work of an itinerant foreigner'.  

(iv) against the E. wall of the transept, a monument to John, Earl Poulett (d. 1745) (illustrated below left), featuring a finely-carved bust by the great John Michael Rysbrack (1694 - 1770), whose work may be seen to good effect at Gosfield in Essex and Sherbourne in Gloucesteshire.  Rysbrack, in Gunnis's words, was 'the acknowledged head of his profession [who] reigned unchallenged until [Peter] Scheemakers carved his statue of Shakespeare for Westminster Abbey (in 1740) (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660 - 1851, London, The Abbey Library, 1951, p. 334).  His monument here at Hinton St. George is cited by Matthew Craske (The Silent Rhetoric of the Body, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2008, p. 44) as an illustration of the increasing desire of the landed gentry after c. 1720 to avoid the displays of ostentation in their funerary monuments increasingly becoming associated with the unrefined mercantile classes.

(v) against the W. wall of the transept, a monument commemorating children of Lord Poulett, c. 1857, by Edward James Physick (1829 - ?), who exhibited at the Great Exhibition, featuring a woman leaning on an obelisk and weeping.

(vi) to the west of the transept, against the N. wall of the nave, a monument to Rebecca Poulett (d. 1765), youngest daughter of the then earl, featuring a putto flying through the air on a cloud, trailing a medallion depicting the deceased in shallow relief.

(vii) on the same wall further west, a smaller monument featuring two female figures, with their hands resting on a central urn, above which a medallion shows a male figure in profile.  The inscription reads, 'Sacred to the memory of the Honorable Anne Poulett [sic], fourth son of the first Earl Poulett, Knight of the Garter' (d. 1785).

 

 

[Other Somerset churches in the 'South Somerset Group'  featured on this web-site are to be found at

Crewkerne, Curry Rivel, Norton-sub-Hamden and Shepton Beauchamp.]