Friday, 9 September 2011

Article from recent SPAB Cornerstone magazine.

The electronic version of the magazine here...

And a review from the Guardian newspaper here..
St James Priory's fine Caryatid in Bristol.
Tower St James Priory Church
When John Cabot embarked from the citte of Bristol on his little ship, the Matthew, on the first of his voyages to the New World he would have headed out from the great medieval engineering achievement that is St Augustine’s reach. Setting off, probably in 1496, in search of the brazilwood tree and its valuable red dye. he would have caught the outgoing tide west down the Avon gorge. At the other end of the Harbour cut, any visitor arriving by boat would have observed the constant ebb and flow of folk passing under the gatehouses of the new city wall and the Norman Priory Church of St James.
For those heading south through the orchards that hugged the Gloucester Road - some with carts laden with local coal, others with livestock or fleeces from the Cotswold or Welsh uplands, destined for Bristol market - the first glimpse of journey's end, in the guise of the new tower of St James' would have lifted the spirits.
 In what was formerly open country, the Priory now had a new position squeezed between the line of the new city walls and the bustling Frome river. The rapidly disappearing remnants of the old city wall still existed around the southern perimeter of the monastic site, hence its curious name, The Priory Church of St James ‘Within Without’. Approaching from the northern countryside, St James would have gained a reputation as a two-faced church; the Perpendicular tower, with its plastered and limewashed east and west elevations, were economically constructed from red oxide coloured rubble and would have been easily viewed through the coal and wood smoke from a good distance away;  by contrast, the south and west elevations, which face the prevailing wind, presented a finer impression to the civilized world of cut ashlar block from Dundry Hill. The church authorities were perhaps aiming to attract visiting worshippers or benefactors from the Frome, busy with traders in their curious boats capable of navigating the murderous shoals of the River Severn.
This church held a longstanding tradition of presenting its best face to the harbour. When the biased southern aspect of the nave clerestory was built 350 or so years earlier it would have been possible to view the impressive blind arcading. This signature of local Romanesque architecture, where the springing point of the arch could be said to form one continual moulding, was much seen in Bristol and elsewhere in the West Country. As with the tower, this extra expensive detail does not exist on the austere north elevation, above the site of the cloisters. It is now largely obscured from view by the construction of the later south aisle (Photo below).

Bristol retains much architecture from the early middle ages. Barely a mile or so away from the cathedral’s gateways and its important chapter house, down one of the rivers that formed part of the vital trade and arterial traffic routes (now covered over with the dual carriageway of the A38), St James still stands. Built around 1139, it is the oldest and one of the most unregarded of the city’s religious buildings.

After two years of scaffolded and shrouded obscurity, the arcaded Romanesque finery of the west front can again be enjoyed. Its unique embryonic rose window (or oculus) can again look down and inspect the ants rushing to the new bus station with its clean, modern lines next door.
We were one of many contractors engaged with the HLF funded refurbishment of the church. We handled the specialist re-plastering of the external and internal walls as well as the nave and chancel ceilings, It was particularly nice to be conserving the ceiling with its riot of strapwork within the adjacent Church House. During our eighteen month stint here, we found that the church provided a glimpse through the keyhole to the lamp-lit world of pre-war Bristol.
One diary entry I came across relates the destruction of the area and adjacent church during the Blitz of 1940: "Christening of William Duncan at St James Presbyterian Church The Barton, Bristol. … Church completely burned out that night. … This evening a tremendous air raid began about 6pm – ended about midnight – Bristol was demolished in parts and fires started over a tremendously wide area. "Doris Ogilvie 24 November 1940

St James is an anonymous but miraculous Blitz survivor. Its ancient roof structure still bears much evidence of the terrible events that occurred between November 1940 and April 1941 when nearly 1300 citizens died and tens of thousands of Bristol’s old buildings were destroyed. Unrepaired areas of charred sarking board provided evidence that Incendiary bombs had burned on the roof; evidently hose wielding parishioners had somehow extinguished the flames.

Inside, the north and south arcades and clerestory are original work of the C12th, in the chancel and elsewhere there is much sympathetic Victorian fakery. The impressive timber wagon roof covering the Nave is early, but probably not Norman, as the faces of the timbers have the remains of nail holes for fixing laths it would previously have created a plastered tunnel vault. The plaster vault was taken down, and the nails removed probably in the 1860s. The replacement infill panels followed a new line between the rafters.

Right: Applying new lath and coats of haired plaster in the apex of the nave roof structure prior to plastering. Internal temperatures here dropped to as low as -11 so additional heating had to be maintained to allow the programme to move on and the plaster to achieve a set.

Outside, the upper gabled tier of the west front is built of Oolitic Dundry stone, sourced from below the lonely tower of the ancient Merchant Venturers’ Guild church that sits atop the tor-like hill of the same name a few miles out side of the city walls.

The intersecting blind arcading here and to the back of the Chancel is the other example of one of the two motifs mentioned earlier of a local Romanesque style.

The lower section of the West front was of red sandstone rubble construction extracted from Brandon Hill a few streets distant. This rubble was formerly rendered but removed in the 1860s and the decision was taken to reinstate this covering with a trowelled hydraulic lime render of the same colour as the remaining render fragments.

Compared to what was going on at that time in the rest of Europe, developments in provincial Bristol were rather low key. I am sure that the austere St Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote in 1125 about the new craze of sculptured adornment as this “ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness” would have approved of its lack of embellishment. Ironically Bernard in his enthusiasm for the 2nd crusade indirectly assisted in introducing Islamic architectural forms to Northern Europe.
Provincial or not, the sea-borne traffic to the great port would have exposed local thinkers to the influence not only of Rome but also of distant Islam in the form of these abstract architectural remnants, this influence may also be seen in a more developed sense in the scalloped opening of the famous nearby C14th North porch of St Mary Redcliffe which Pevsner felt may have been the first case of orientalisme in western architecture.

Over the centuries St James’s position by the wharf and the famous annual fair ensured that it would have continued to attract visitors and congregants. Indeed the fifteen-day long fair became so well known that that merchant ships sailing in the Bristol channel were often attacked by Turkish pirates. Attractions recorded in the C18th included a shaved monkey exhibited as a genuine fairy. I haven’t even seen one of those at Glastonbury. The area developed rapidly in the C18th and St James continued to attract souls from around the known world. One such arrival, which had returned recently from the American colonies, was John Wesley.

Prior to John Wesley building his first Methodist Chapel in 1739 (the nearby New Room), St James was Wesley's Parish church and I am sure he would have known the west elevation well as it also served as the parish church of his Horsefair Community to which in the early days of his time in Bristol he brought his members for Holy Communion. Prayer meetings were held in the Jacobean splendor of the Church house next door. The children of his Brother, Charles were baptised here and five of them lie buried in the churchyard.

Church houses survive all over the country as they played an important economic role as breweries for church Ales and other celebrations. Many evolved into pubs and as they funded the construction of many medieval churches, they often have older origins than their crenellated neighbour.

Inside, we had been working on a particularly fine panelled room where Colin Day, Christina and Nell have repaired the sagging coffered Jacobean, pomegranate-laden strapwork ceiling.

Jacobean strapwork plaster ceiling conservation.
In the corner of the room, is a fireplace and overmantel consisting of Doric entablature beneath a central cartouche with helm and rocaille. The uniform and camouflaging modern brown painted finish meant that I had hardly noticed the overmantle was balanced on either side by a limestone caryatid. Paint conservation work that was carried out by Peter Martindale to remove the nasty modern brown paint has revealed them to be a lush pair of rouged, cornucopia clutching C17th over-painted ladies, one of whom was bare chested. Peter’s work has also exposed the lengths that past incumbents went to protect their modesty.
Prayer meetings were and still are held in the room, and the uncovered lady must have proved quite a distraction, as not only was her exposed bosom later decorated with a rather low-cut piece of underwear a specially whittled lead cuirass was affixed to her and had sat there for many years unnoticed. May Wesley have had a hand in covering her up?

Thanks to the efforts of Sue Jotcham’s team, English Heritage and the architects Acanthus Ferguson Mann, St James has now been saved and I think all involved are proud that the St James Priory Project now has a secure future and will continue to offer support to people dealing with the problems of homelessness as well as drug and alcohol dependency. It was good to be working again with main contractors CS Williams of Taunton and some old friends at Nimbus Conservation who carried out the package of stone repairs at St James.