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English Church Architecture.

 

PRESTON ST. MARY, St. Mary  (TL 946 503),

SUFFOLK. 

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group.)

 

A small village church, part-built by the 'Master of Stowlangtoft'

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.

 

 

This is an attractive church on the edge of a small, pleasant village.  A great spotted woodpecker was drumming on a tree behind whilst these notes were being taken.  The diagonally-buttressed W. tower was reconstructed in 1868 using some of the original materials but the rest of the church is old and consists of a chancel, a short aisled nave, and a N. porch (illustrated left), of which the last is the grandest piece of work and another in the series to be seen also at Bildeston, Felsham and Hitcham, notwithstanding the minor differences in the side windows and the fact that this is the only porch among the four with flint flushwork covering the sides as well as the front. However, the principal façade is almost identical  to those others, for it has the same stepped flushwork battlements, the same central niche with a lierne vault, and the same angle buttresses with flushwork sides and further niches on the leading edges, and likewise the outer doorway adopts a similarly close design with its carved spandrels, crocketed pinnacles at the sides, and carved fleurons set at intervals around an arch springing from castellated capitals on semicircular shafts with fillets.   All this can probably be dated to c. 1470 by association with circumstantial evidence at Felsham and Hitcham (see the relevant pages).  Yet so rich a display seems positively incongruous here, especially when it becomes apparent how much narrower was the original N. doorway, which is now off-centre inside.  The rest of the building is not without interest, however, for the Perpendicular aisle windows (admittedly mostly renewed) follow another local fashion, seen, in particular, at Stowlangtoft and Rattlesden.  (See the N. aisle E. window, right.)  This is sufficiently non-standard to suggest that all these windows are attributable to the same master mason and, if that is the case, then they can presumably be dated by the work at Stowlangtoft, known to have been executed around 1390.  The chancel is Decorated and has one original two-light S. window with curvilinear tracery to prove it, even though the others are now Victorian. 

 

Internally, the three-bay aisle arcades are formed of arches of two orders bearing a series of wave mouldings, rising from piers composed of four major and four very minor shafts, all with fillets but with capitals to the major shafts only  (see the N. arcade, left), and the question arises as to whether these could be the work of the 'Master of Stowlangtoft' too, since St. George's, Stowlangtoft is aisleless, and so comparison is not possible.  (In fact, those following these notes through, will discover they are almost certainly not by him.)   The two-light clerestory windows with supermullioned tracery are situated above the arch spandrels (i.e. there are four pairs - a pair at either end and a pair above each pier).  The chancel arch carries two flat chamfers above semi-octagonal responds, the easternmost S. window to the chancel has a low internal sill which acts as a sedilia, and east of this there is a trefoil-cusped, ogee-pointed piscina, with arches opening from it, north to the sanctuary and west to the window splay.

 

Finally a few furnishings must also to be mentioned, the oldest of which is the square Norman bowl of the font, now standing on modern supports, carved on its E. face with narrow intersecting round arches with scalloped capitals (illustrated right), and with a variety of designs on the other three.  Then in the N. aisle there hangs a royal arms to Elizabeth I (shown below), fancifully created by the antiquarian Robert Reyce (1555 - 1638), a devoted Elizabethan who appreciated the more tolerant religious climate that her reign brought. A second and similar board, of probably similar date, is inscribed with the Ten Commandments.   Lastly, the Victorianized chancel interior has been furnished with an attractive reredos in mosaic and tile, commemorating the Rev. William Heard Shelford (d. 1854), formerly rector of this parish, and his wife, Emily Frost (d. 1889. The artist is unknown.