Friday, August 24, 2012

Wholly innocent: Isabella and the angels of Highnam

When Thomas Gambier Parry's young wife Isabella died of tuberculosis, following closely on the deaths of three of their children from the same cause, he was a bit put out. As he was an extremely wealthy artist and art collector whose family had got rich in the East India Company, he had the means to honour his lost loves in the way he felt they deserved. These days most people are content to commemorate their loved ones by planting a tree or getting a little plaque put on a park bench. But the Victorians were of a different mindset and didn't do anything by halves; for the depth of Gambier Parry's loss, nothing less would do than a personal cathedral of grief.

 Thomas Gambier Parry

And so, in the grounds of his country estate at Highnam Court, three miles north of Gloucester, he set aside a square of land in a field and built Isabella an enormous temple of decorative neo-Gothic opulence and painted the inside of it himself; a decorated monument to melancholy, his stricken love etched in with every brush mark.

Gambier Parry worked swiftly. Having got permission from the bish, he got started on building the vast church in 1849, a year after Isabella's death, and had the whole thing complete and ready for consecration in less than two years. He could well afford to: he hired a good architect and spared no expense in building the church to the highest standards and fitting it out in the costliest opulence.

The church was built tall and thin, with a nave of towering proportions. He bought the finest brass candelabra to light it, set beautiful brass insets into the floor tiles with jewelled glass 'eyes', and warmed it with monumental decorative radiators in cast-iron filigree. He filled every window with stained glass, including one with a red cross set into a green background which blazes a fiery red cross of light onto the altar each evening at sunset.

And then once it was finished, he began painting.

Gambier Parry was clearly going for a medieval look in his new church. It was the custom in medieval times for church interiors to be painted all over – ostensibly to help a largely illiterate congregation to learn and remember bible stories, but I always think they actually did it just because they wanted to. (Well, why not?) Weather and puritanism took their toll on this heritage and not that many medieval wall painting survived as far as the 19th century, and those that did were almost routinely chipped off or scrubbed away during the Victorian era in a lamentable frenzy of so-called "restoration". There's something of an irony that while all these misguided chumps were cheerfully destroying centuries of irreplaceable wall-painting heritage, Thomas Gambier Parry was busy painting new ones.

Victorian it may be, but the style of Gambier Parry's church is 14th century Gothic, and the frescoes added to the medieval fantasy. All around the church he placed biblical quotes, often dwelling on themes of judgement and redemption. Vines and blossoms twirl up arches and columns, with fleurs de lys stamped in gold. Passionflowers unfurl across the end walls. A long frieze of biblical figures lines one of the aisles, and the chancel area is smothered with stars and angels. This is his tribute to Isabella.

Gambier Parry already knew a thing or two about loss. An only child, his parents had died when he was only five and he'd spent his childhood being passed around an assortment of relatives. The stability he had sought in Isabella and their six children was whittled away quickly, as three of the children died from TB aged seven years, seven months, and just a few hours respectively. And then just 11 days after the birth of their sixth child, Hubert, Isabella herself succumbed to TB. Thomas was left alone again, a widower at 32 with the three surviving children.

In honour of the lost children, he dedicated his church to the Holy Innocents. And in honour of Isabella, he built a special side chapel. Ostensibly a private family pew, situated beside the chancel and screened off from the rest of the church by a decorative grille and with its own private door to the outside, it amounts to a private shrine to the squire's young wife. On the eve of the church's consecration, when all was quiet and nobody else was around, he brought a bust of Isabella from the house and placed it in a specially prepared niche in the wall of the shrine. Thus, every time he attended the church he could sit in his private pew with Isabella there beside him.

Gambier Parry's private shrine to his wife Isabella. The bust is still in the spot where he placed it.

However, the uxorious squire was not one to show off his love and grief simply by throwing his money about. The wall paintings in the church are almost entirely his own work. While he allowed his assistants to do the lettering and some of the more routine patterns, all of the artwork was his personal labour of love. He ground and mixed his own pigments by hand. He drew dozens of angels and clothed them in every colour of the rainbow, using his own unique formula of "spirit-fresco" paint carefully blended from beeswax, turpentine, spike lavender oil and assorted organic resins. He crouched on scaffolding in the dimly lit building for week after week, month after month, etching his vision with painstaking detail on the virgin plaster. It took him more than 20 years to complete it.

There were good practical reasons for this monumental effort too. He was pioneering his own method of fresco painting which still had to be tested and proven. He'd been to Italy in his youth and studied traditional frescoes, but the Italian technique had proved to be a woeful failure in the UK as it wasn't compatible with the English climate. Gambier Parry resolved to overcome this by developing his own spirit-based paints with better permanence. Highnam church, along with Ely Cathedral, became test pieces for this new "English fresco" method which is still known today as the Gambier Parry process.

Within a short time of the church's consecration Gambier Parry had remarried, and his second wife Ethelinda features in the frieze on the north side along with one of their daughters. Swift remarriage was the done thing at that time for widowers with young children, but still, Isabella was the love of his life and nobody could really replace her. He could only fill the void with angels.

Clearly the church at Highnam was meant to be a lasting monument, an art treasure which would endure and be valued by subsequent generations. But as time passed it was consumed by darkness.

Gambier Parry had purposely made his church dark. Whether the sombre lighting was intended to inspire awe and sanctity or whether it was an expression of his loss, under natural lighting the church is exceptionally dark even in summer daytime. This is largely because all of the windows are glazed with stained glass, which lets through very little light. To compensate for this, Gambier Parry was generous in his provision of candles, and during his lifetime the church was entirely candlelit – which must have looked beautiful. In the early 20th century the candelabra were replaced with oil lamps, but again, it required an awful lot of them to light such a large building.

Unfortunately, what hadn't been taken into account is that both candles and oil lamps produce soot. Lots and lots of it. It penetrated every nook and gable, and slowly coated the walls with a thickening veneer of oily grime. As time passed, the condition of the wall paintings deteriorated drastically. The colours faded to a mute grey and the creamy plaster turned to sooty charcoal. By the time the church was converted to electric lighting the damage had already been done. Anybody visiting the church in the 1970s and 80s would have found it difficult even to imagine what Gambier Parry's frescoes were supposed to look like – they were blunted to near blackness.

It also didn't help that the church suffered from a lack of investment during the 20th century, and parts of it began to crumble. Rain came in through the worn out roof. The damage was bodged up on the cheap, which in the long term made it worse. Shoddy repairs gave way and let more rain in.

"dark, lofty, mystic, beautiful and sad ..."

It's a great credit to the parishioners of Highnam that they wouldn't allow the deterioration to continue, and the church's rescue between 1987 and 1994 was due in no small part to their fundraising efforts under the initiative of the late Tom Fenton, great-grandson of Thomas Gambier Parry, who inherited the Highnam estate in the 1970s. They managed to raise enough money to fix up the roof and then, once the leaks were stopped, they got the frescoes cleaned and restored. The result, it has to be said, is a stunning transformation.

Detail of the Judgement scene above the chancel arch, painted in 1859. Angels sound the last trumpet while Christ summons the saints, throned and crowned within a vesica piscis. If the haloes look 3D, they are. They were cast in plaster of Paris and then gilded, and they really shimmer.

The Judgement scene in context.

Detail of the angels on the lower right of the Judgement scene, chasing off "ye cursed" with flaming swords.

The ceiling inside the chancel, filled with stars. And along the cornice – more angels.

 It is quite overwhelming in its detail, and if you're not a fan of extravagant Victorian decoration then it may well give you a migraine. But it's a remarkable expression of one man's devotion and artistic vision, and the survival of the bright colours and crisp details after 160 years is a brilliant endorsement of Gambier Parry's fresco process – clearly he had his formula spot on! His other major work, in Ely Cathedral, has also survived beautifully.

* * *

And so what brought me to Highnam church on a showery August morning? I was following the trail of one of its former rectors, Anthony Duncan, whose book The Christ, Psychotherapy and Magic I've recently been editing for a re-issue. Tony Duncan was a family friend and a remarkable person, not by any means a run-of-the-mill Anglican priest. In particular he was sensitive to presences and resonances from the past, such as those expressed in this poem (Tony was rector of Highnam from 1969-1973, so the poem dates from the time when the church was suffering from disrepair):

[Church of the Holy Innocents]

The plaster cracks and drops, the frescoes fade;
the builder’s cheats let water in, let fall
the ill-plugged pinnacles. A sinking floor
makes crazy the great candlesticks. Great books
of Cranmer’s, bound in brass, now lie
dust-gathering, his Church has passed them by.

These holy innocents were carried off;
their Herod was tubercular, their mother’s too.
This holy shrine is God’s and theirs,
cemented by the Squire’s cruel tears;
dark, lofty, mystic, beautiful and sad,
and crumbling, maturing, changing down the years.

The brick-box multitudes attend here now,
all brash and cheerful; their liturgy profound
but language vulgar, angular and new.
God’s Holy Mother occupies the pew
where Squire glared and counted through the grille.
But I have seen, have seen! Unbound
and unbereaved, and out of time, and how
that older, gentler family attends here still. 

– Anthony Duncan

I arrive at Highnam just as a sunny morning is giving way to black cloud, and the vast bulk of the church looks spectacular in the storm light. What immediately strikes me is that stepping into its grounds is like walking straight into a medieval vision. A somewhat Victorianised, constructed vision, but nonetheless one which feels authentic and true to its source. The churchyard is delineated by a low stone wall perched on a ha-ha which rises from the surrounding field. A row of tidy Irish yews forms a genteel avenue down one side with tall monkey-puzzle trees screening the perimeter (Thomas Gambier Parry, among his many interests and skills, had a thing about conifers and planted them liberally all round his estate). On the opposite side, a wide grassy dell sweeps down to a very romantic little gate-in-the-wall with a path curving away beyond.

The other immediate impression is the sheer size. In fact for a rural parish church it's absolutely enormous. Money was no object to Gambier Parry, but you have to wonder at the burden now placed on a small community having to care for such a large building at a time when everything is so expensive. They bear their responsibility with good grace though, because everything here is lovingly and immaculately maintained.

The square churchyard delineates a medieval vision. It's carved from the landscape where the fading undulations of medieval ridge-and-furrow farming seem less real than the colourful fairy-tale within the perimeter wall, its intensity giving it a permanence. Thomas is a medieval knight, and with his long cloak hitched up on his horse behind him, stands by the wicket gate and gazes out along the scrubby pathway towards the house hidden behind distant trees. The vista is empty but he knows she is there, and so his longing is eased by the swaddling comfort of certainty. He paces out the perimeter, under the intense evergreen and down the sunlit dell, but always he returns to the wicket gate. Isabella parades between the sculpted yews, courted by birds passing over, feeling the drag of her dress over the sunlit grass. Confined to the path, she is both in this place and out of it. But the path leads to the wicket-gate.

The medieval dream reaches to outlying posts. Gambier Parry built a number of companion pieces for his church, including a generous vicarage (now a private residence), a beautiful little schoolhouse with a teacher's cottage attached (also no longer used for its original purpose) and a Gothic lodge which combines ecclesiastical style with medieval fantasy, complete with a round turret.

 The lodge at Highnam, just north of the church.

As the storm clouds move in and obscure the scene, I arrive at the church door just as a lady with a key is locking up and leaving. But she very kindly offers to re-open it so that I can have a look at the inside and take photographs. The inside has an intense atmosphere – intense darkness under the glow of its own windows and intense colour when the electric lights go on. The melancholy hangs like a pall among the rafters, but it's a beautiful sadness. As I walk up the tiled nave I get a flash of something else suspended in the air above, a bluish, translucent thing. A risen Christ, or an angel. It hovers there in semi-permanence, made from shards of light.

The inside of the church really is magnificent, tall and slender with angels coloured like a tube of Smarties. Did Gambier Parry do all of this just for Isabella and the lost innocents? It's hard to tell. He was a follower of the Oxford Movement and so he had ideological reasons for wanting to build a church, and practical reasons for wanting to test his fresco colours on it. Throughout his life he was a generous benefactor who wanted to use his money to make the world a better place, and giving this church and its accompanying school to the local community was part of that impulse. But Isabella infuses the fabric of the building like a veneer on the walls.

And then as I walk through the chancel I look to the right and catch sight of the side chapel built to Isabella's memory, and it's got such a presence about it that my stomach does a somersault. Its doorway is guarded by corbels of carved angels among swirling golden vines and stylised blossoms. Although it's now used as a Lady Chapel, it clearly belongs to Isabella. Her presence is felt all over the church but this is where it's focused.

The lady-with-the-key gives me a fascinating guided tour. She shows me the one window of old stained glass, whose colours are richly saturated and far more beautiful than the colours in the Victorian windows. Mr Gambier Parry brought it back from his travels in Italy, she explains. It depicts Herod's men snatching a small child from a distraught mother. "And he put it right next to the font!" I can't help but admire the font, which has an immense chain-winched cover of intricately carved wood like a miniature spire, all pinnacles and crockets, hollows and sinews. My guide seems marginally less enamoured with it. "They had maids to do the dusting for them in those days," she observes drily, which is a fair point.

At the other end of the church is the pipework of the organ, not currently functional but exquisitely decorated in shades of purple and gold. It was on this organ that Isabella's last child Hubert, born just a few days before her death, used to practice his keyboard skills as he was growing up in Highnam. Hubert Parry, later Sir Hubert Parry, ended up pursuing a life in music as a scholar and composer. At first I thought I hadn't heard of him, but then it dawned on me with a clang like being hit on the head with a frying pan that he had composed the famous hymn Jerusalem. That most beloved of hymns which is becoming England's de facto national anthem, although William Blake's words carry much deeper resonances than most casual singers of it realise, as 'Jerusalem' was the name he gave in his mythology to the female 'emanation' of the giant Albion. Or in other words, the inspirational, imaginative, feminine aspect of the archetypal group soul of England.

As I'm about to leave Holy Innocents church, the brewing clouds have dumped their load and it's absolutely pelting down. So I sit in the porch and wait for the sun to come back out. The place seems to sit half in and half out of the passage of time, as fresh as the day it was built and yet a relic of something from a past era. The grass outside is a vivid green and the background noise is constant, a drumming of rain on the porch roof overpowered by a constant whooshing of traffic on the nearby A40.

Thomas Gambier Parry died in 1888, and is commemorated in Gloucester Cathedral, where more of his painting survives. In addition to all the things he built at Highnam and the spectacular gardens he created here, and the various church paintings (which were always done gratis), he left behind a string of philanthropic projects including an orphanage (he was of course an orphan himself), a children's hospital and a college of science and art. A few years later Sir Hubert Parry inherited Highnam, being by then the only surviving child of Isabella. He added a parish hall to his father's portfolio of beneficence, and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral after his death in 1918.

The ups and downs of the last century have seen many changes, but what doesn't change is the medieval dreamworld imprinted with such permanence on the place, and given physical form in the church and its founder's imaginative vision. Just the kind of vision that Blake meant when he spoke of Jerusalem.

A Guide to the Church of the Holy Innocents, Highnam, Gloucestershire (guidebook from the church)
And I'm very grateful to the lady who generously gave up her time to give me such an interesting tour of the church interior.

* * *

Should you decide to visit Highnam church, you may find it useful to know that it has a generous car park, accessed through the Community Centre entrance. However, neither church nor car park are visible from the road, and it's only when you go into the Community Centre driveway that you see a signpost for the church car park – so it's very easily missed (especially if you've got some prat in a 4x4 driving up your backside).

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