English Church Architecture -
GREAT WITLEY, St. Michael (SO 769 650) (March 2014)
(Bedrock: Triassic Sherwood Sandstone Group, Bromsgrove Sandstone Formation)
This is an exceptionally ornate church in Baroque style (seen above from the northeast), constructed after the Baroque had gone distinctly out of fashion. Believed to be the work of the great James Gibbs (1682 - 1754), it was erected in 1732-5, a decade after his St. Martin's-in-the-Fields and fifteen years after Lord Burlington and Colen Campbell had begun to popularize the Palladian style. However, Gibbs was a Tory, and a Roman Catholic to boot. Standing outside the Whig establishment, he remained true to the old style, right up until his death.
St Michael's Church was built at the expense of the widow of the 1st Lord Foley (of the first creation), who died in 1733, and was later enriched by her son, the 2nd Lord, around 1747. The east end rests on the western foundations of Witley Court, the family's principal residence and one of the great houses of England before a fire in 1937 reduced it to the impressive ruin for which English Heritage have assumed responsibility today. Gibb's church consists of what is virtually a single cell, albeit with the western bay divided off internally to provide a lobby and two stairwells for the western galleries and organ loft. The E. end has just a very shallow rectangular projection for the sanctuary and small N. and S. transepts immediately in front, to widen the area before the communion rail and give the interior perspective additional grandeur. The building is entered through the W. door, beneath an open porch with a surmounting pediment supported on Tuscan columns. (See the photograph of the W. front, left.) The tower is formed of a square lower section with rusticated quoins and a clock face on each side, and a little octagonal lantern above, pierced by round-headed open arches and topped by a gilded dome. There are three round-headed windows with keystones above the porch and little segmental-arched windows either side. The church is lit from the north and south by five round-arched windows, of which the central three, lighting the nave, and the easternmost, lighting the sanctuary, are themselves set in blank round-headed arches, with keystones to each and dripstones over the blank arches, linked by string courses at the springing level. The composition is united by an openwork balustrade above. However, the present external appearance of the building is not entirely as Gibbs intended it since, according to Pevsner, it was originally constructed largely of exposed brick, with stone for the dressings only, and it was given its existing ashlar facing by Samuel Whitfield Daukes (1811-80), the architect of St. Saviour's, Tetbury (Gloucestershire).
It is, in any case, the interior that makes this building special. (See the photograph, right, looking west.) Pevsner described it as "the most Italian ecclesiastic space in the whole of England" and explained that the ceiling paintings and the window glass were brought here from Canons, the Duke of Chandos's mansion in London, when the estate was broken up in 1747, by the 2nd Lord Foley. Foley also had mouldings made of the stucco work, which Gibbs then recreated in papier-mâché and subsequently had covered in 24-carat gold leaf. The walls are entirely panelled with these decorations, and the coved ceiling with, as it were, cross-gabling above the windows, is still more elaborately adorned. Amongst all these riches, if there is anywhere at all for the eye to come to rest, it is surely on the admirable ceiling paintings by Antonio Bellucci (1654 -1726) (church guide), depicting the Ascension in the central panel (shown at the foot of the page, looking east), the Nativity to the west roundel, and the Deposition to the east, whilst medallions above the windows show cherubs holding the Instruments of the Passion. The window glass was manufactured by Joshua Price, c. 1721 (church guide), using designs of Francesco Sleter (1685 - 1775). Each window shows a story taken from the New Testament, together - somewhat paradoxically - with one from the book of Exodus, of the Israelites' worship of Aaron's golden calf.
All this produces an interior that is sumptuous indeed, but by no means its least impressive feature is the huge monument in the southeast transept (illustrated left) by John Michael Rysbrack (1694 - 1770), probably the greatest sculptor in England of his generation. It is reputedly the largest funerary monument erected in the country throughout the eighteenth century and includes no less than seven figures including an infant. Completed at a cost of £2,000 at a time when a butler could be employed for around six guineas a year, it commemorates the 1st Lord Foley and his wife, and the five of their seven children who predeceased them, aged between twenty-five years and as little as eight days. Lord Foley reclines on his left elbow and his wife looks sorrowfully down on him, as well she might. Astonishingly, Rupert Gunnis missed this monument in compiling his Dictionary of British Sculptors, 1660 - 1851 (pub. The Abbey Library, 1951), notwithstanding that it is signed in large letters on the right hand side of the base, but perhaps he was unaware even of the existence of this remote church, which was then in a state of considerable disrepair. The monument, admittedly, is not the best example of Rysbrack's work, even if it is the biggest: there is something disjointed about the arrangement of the figures and Rysbrack is not entirely successful in his carving of the children, who rather take on the appearance of small adults, out of scale with each other and their parents in the centre.
Finally, of other furnishings, most of the woodwork now in the church is the direct or indirect responsibility of Daukes. The pulpit was carved by William Forsyth (church guide), in a remarkably sympathetic recreation of the Baroque: the drum stands on a tall octagonal stem and displays deep and intricate relief carving on four panels, showing three scenes from the life of Christ and St. Augustine preaching to the Saxons on the fourth. The stone font was carved by James Forsyth (sic) and consists of a hemispherical bowl supported by three angels. The beautiful brass and wrought ironwork supporting the communion rail dates from c. 1860.