An informed and erudite journey through 1500 years of church buildings says, Janet Gough.
Parish Church Treasures: The Nation’s Greatest Art collection
It is been fun dipping into the weekly column and photo of parish church treasures in Country Life over the past few years. And now John Goodall has taken the logical step and put these 178 treasures into context in a beautiful book.
John Goodall gives us new and informed insights into familiar but nonetheless extraordinary works of art in our churches and introduces the reader to many more. I am particularly keen to visit the complete 14th century window in St Mary's Snelling in Kent. The five light east end window is an incredible survival of a grisaille design with jewel-like coloured panels in each light. Equally I'm looking forward to seeing for myself Norman Adams’ 1969 canvases depicting the Pilgrim’s Progress at St Anselm, Kennington.
John’s elucidation of the history of church buildings and their decoration and treasures over the last 1500 years is informed and stimulating. He summarises the history of churches around five critical turning points: the switch from wood to stone about the time of the Norman Conquest, late mediaeval enlargement to accommodate formalised liturgy, the stripping of churches as a result of the Reformation, the reorderings in the 19th century and the enormous changes going on today mostly to make churches fit for purpose for wider community use.
The author combines a love of visiting churches with enormous erudition. His introductions to each chapter could become the standard text on the of history church buildings. I admire his use of contemporary sources to illustrate popular use of church buildings, for example the miraculous story of two-year-old Roger who was brought back from the dead in 1303.
In many ways John Goodall picks up the baton from Simon Jenkins England’s 1000 Best Churches (1999) to describe England's other great national museum which, unlike other national museums, receives no direct finding either from the State or the central churches. The good news is that churches have probably never been in such good shape in modern times mostly, as John Goodall points out, thanks to the dedication and hard work of local volunteers.
What is also encouraging is that many of these priceless objects are now being properly and scientifically assessed and where necessary conserved. For example a magnificent pair of carved angels attributed to Grinling Gibbons from the great baroque altarpiece commissioned by James II for his Catholic wife’s chapel in Whitehall Palace ended up at St Andrew’s Burnham on Sea, Somerset. Until ten years ago the angels were crammed into the base of the church tower along with chairs and other church paraphernalia. They have now been conserved and brought forward into the nave where they are displayed on specially-made plinths. The parish raised money from various sources including a ChurchCare grant and ChurchCare helped advise on their conservation and redisplay. ChurchCare has long awarded grants for the conservation of church treasures. It is now being more proactive and has identified 100 significant church treasures in need of greater attention, is fundraising for each of these and gradually helping to return them to their former glory.
John Goodall enthuses about the pleasures of visiting English churches and I hope this book encourages just that. ChurchDays website, launched in 2015, gives grid references to all the Church of England’s 15,700 church buildings, has featured churches and, created with Sustrans the national cycling charity, Towers and Spires’s cycle tours from cathedrals to churches.
This is a celebratory book, but as the recent Church of England church buildings consultation report illustrates, we cannot be too complacent and more help is needed both locally and at national level if we are to conserve these wonderful treasures and the parish churches in which they sit for future generations.
Janet Gough, Director of ChurchCare and author of Cathedrals of the Church of England,
Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers Ltd, 2015
ChurchCare, the Cathedrals and Church Buildings Division of the Archbishops' Council.