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English Church Architecture.

 

BRETTENHAM, St. Mary  (TL 967 542),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group.)

 

A modest little church, showing evidence of the work of the 'Master of Stowlangtoft', executed during the reign of Richard II (1377-1399).

 

 

The question of whether or not it is pertinent to talk about 'the mediaeval mason' is a subject that has fiercely divided architectural historians in recent decades, with many taking the view that the very concept of 'authorship', defined as the consideration of a work of art as an expression of an individual's creative skill and personality, had no currency before the Tudor period.  This supposition has coincided with the passing from fashion of connoisseurship as an approach to art history more generally, whereby the identity of individual artists was previously sought by stylistic analysis, in favour of such modern obsessions as  understanding art as an expression of ethnicity, colonialism, gender, 'the male gaze', or similar issues, and since some academics have built their reputations on the basis of these new studies, they naturally seek to defend them vigorously.

This shift in the focus of art history has not gone completely unchallenged however, albeit that some of the greatest champions of 'the old school' have since passed away too.  One such was Dr. John Harvey (1911-97), whose biographical dictionary English Medieval Architects (Gloucester, Alan Sutton, 1987) identified some 1,700 men of varying importance, who appear to have been responsible for buildings or part-buildings in England before 1550, and who argued that the only reason the men who designed mediaeval buildings are so little known is that no-one makes the effort to discover them.  This theme was subsequently taken up at a local level in Suffolk by the late Birkin Haward (1912-2002), who tried to group Suffolk's mediaeval churches on the basis of their aisle arcades (Suffolk Mediaeval Church Arcades, Hitcham, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 1993) and who, in particular, went on to pick out on stylistic grounds, a dozen churches in mid Suffolk that appear to have been part-built by the same master mason, referred to by name in a building estimate for work at Wingfield church as 'Hawe[s], mason of Ocolte' (Master Mason Hawes of Occold, Ipswich, Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 2000).  This led the writer to attempt to apply a similar methodology to another group of Suffolk churches with striking similarities to one another and to the church of St. George, Stowlangtoft, in particular, and by good fortune, it subsequently proved possible to provide a degree of support for the findings through  documentary evidence.  Readers wishing to understand how this was done and the conclusions reached - as well, of course, to judge for themselves the validity of the exercise - should first read the page for Stowlangtoft, then (in any order) the pages for Brettenham, Holton St. Mary, Norton, Preston St. Mary, Rattlesden, Rickinghall Superior and Thrandeston, and then finally, in this precise order, the pages for Sproughton, Fressingfield, Wortham, Wingfield, Parham and Brundish.

 

 

St. Mary's, Brettenham, consists of a nave, chancel and early fourteenth century S. porch tower, which is an unusual feature for its date, even though it is of no especial architectural merit.  It is embattled and diagonally buttressed and has two-light bell-openings with reticulated tracery, as also does the nave and the basic fabric of the chancel.  The outer doorway carries a sunk flat chamfer and a wave, and has one order of semicircular shafts attached to the jambs.  The two-light, two-centred, nave S. windows (of which an  example is illustrated below left) and the three-light W. window to the nave (shown below centre), have curvilinear tracery, while on the N. side, one window is similar to the S. windows, a second has two lights and reticulated tracery, and a third has three lights and tracery formed of mouchettes set beneath a segmental arch, which together seem to make an unnecessary mishmash of the church's appearance.  Presumably they differ at least in age and authorship. Moreover, the chancel windows are different again, albeit possibly a little more interesting, for while they are now all Victorian to the south and the east, to the north they adopt the local form seen at Stowlangtoft,  Preston St. Mary,  Rattlesden and elsewhere, in which the lights are linked by small subarcuations (as indicated in the photograph below right) and there are quatrefoils in the apices beneath segmental-pointed arches.  If these can be dated by reference to Stowlangtoft, we can ascribe them to the last two decades of the fourteenth century.

 

The church interior is not very rewarding but there are a few features to notice.  They include the Decorated font, with trefoil-cusped, ogee arch-heads carved on the faces, and the contemporary trefoil-cusped, ogee-arched piscina in the chancel S. wall, which is open both to the sanctuary and the window splay.  The best piece of woodwork is the communion rail, which looks like eighteenth century work, though D.P. Mortlock says 'late C17' (The Guide to Suffolk Churches, Cambridge, The Lutterworth Press, 2009, p. 76).  Finally there are attractively painted panels on the chancel E. wall in Arts & Crafts style.  The artist, unfortunately, appears to be unknown.