Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Salisbury tower explained

I've been meaning to check out the prominent Italianate tower that you can see from the Salisbury-Exeter train a few minutes out of Salisbury - I'd been speculating a Catholic priory or abbey - but it turns out to be the village of Wilton's extravagantly-designed Church of England parish church of St Mary and St Nicholas.

Wilton church, public domain image from Wikipedia
This view doesn't show how high the tower is.
A remarkable but incongruous piece of architecture in Romanesque style, it owes its existence to unilateral exercise of wealth and influence by local aristocracy. In 1845, the Dowager Countess of Pembroke and her son, Lord Herbert of Lea (whose family seat was at Wilton House), commissioned its design and building. While the architects, the London-based partnership Wyatt & Brandon, largely modelled it on a Lombardic basilica - see Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, Wilton - it contains Russian influences reflecting the Countess of Pembroke's origins, and various extravagant conceits such as marble columns lifted from a 2nd century B.C. Temple of Venus at Porto Venere, and 12th and 13th century stained glass from France. The bells and many memorials from the old church, St Mary's, were transferred to the new, and the old partly demolished in 1845; it remains as a partial run, though the chancel and one bay of the nave remain intact (see St Mary's Church, Wilton).

The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Volume 2, 1885, has a detailed explanation and critique of the overall design and contents: see On the Architecture and Mosaics of Wilton Church, James E Nightingale, Esq. (pages 109-117).

Initial commentary on the design was mixed ...
The Royal Academy
970. View of a Church to be erected at Wilton, Wilts. Wyatt and Brandon. —The tower which is the principal feature shewn in the drawing, is apparently old. The church has nothing remarkable but two ugly porches, such as were never seen in any ancient church, and forcibly contrasting with those very picturesque appendages which are usually attached to genuine ancient churches.
- The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 14, 1840, page 67

Nos. 1019 and 1055, two very forcible and clever perspective drawings, showing the interior and exterior of the church now erecting at Wilton near Salisbury, by Messrs. Wyatt and Brandon, are sufficiently conspicuous, and are remarkable, not only on account of the unusual style made choice of, but for the equally unusual liberality with which the design seems to be carried out, so very different from that of the "greatest accommodation at the minimum of cost" principle adopted of late years, and which has covered the country with cheap churches, which it would be complimentary to compare to barns, they being far more unsightly—crammed with pews and galleries, for the purpose of packing a congregation together within the smallest possible compass. In proportion to the space it occupies, the Wilton church affords comparatively very few sittings; and is, besides, so uniformly decked out, and that in a manner quite contrary to established regulations, that we cannot for a moment suppose the Church Commissioners or other authorities to have been concerned with it, or that there was any competition, and a programme from a committee on this occasion. Whether the style—which is a mixture of the early Italian or Lombardic with Norman—was suggested by or suggested to the architects, we know not, but they certainly appear to have had a carte blanche afforded them, and to have been not at all stinted; whereas stinting and stinginess usually manifest themselves most disagreeably in nearly all our recent ecclesiastical structures, for if they make any pretension to architectural design externally, they are chillingly naked and bare within, or vice ver»S; else are they equally insipid and mean throughout. There are no indications here of the design having been pared down, and we hope that such operation will not or has not taken place in the building itself. The design, indeed, is not so entirely satisfactory that it would not have borne any additional study; but scarcely ever does it happen that the afterthoughts adopted for a building during its progress are improvements or corrections—rather quite the reverse. The omission of those ornamental expletives which, whatever share they may have had in influencing the first choice, are, on maturer consideration, rejected as superfluous redundances, allowed to pass in the drawings, because nothing is easier than to omit them in the building itself." The lofty square campanile at the north-west angle, detached from the church itself, except as connected with it below by a short corridor forming an internal communication between them, is not only a very marked feature —one which gives variety as well as importance to the whole exterior —but being so placed, serves to extend the front very much; and we, therefore, think its position in the plan better than that of the Streatham church campanile, which is attached to the apsis end of the building. The front itself has a good deal of rich and characteristic detail: the decorated porch below, and the large wheel window above, tell well in the design; but we apprehend that the red tiling— especially that strip of it forming a penthouse covering to the projection of the lower part of the front, within which the entrance or porch is recessed—will produce a rather crude and disagreeable effect in execution, and have a too homely, if not a positively mean and vulgar, look.
- Architectural Drawings, Royal Academy, The Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal, July 1843, page 233
... but later on, assessments tended to be positive. A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (OUP, 2006) mentions that the prestigious Viennese journal Allgemeine Bauzeitung noted it as a major exercise in Rundbogenstil (round-arch style); and guidebooks were complimentary.
Wilton has received a great ornament by the erection in 1844, by the Right Hon. Sidney Herbert, of the New Church, at an expense of 20,000/. T. H. Wyatt and D. Brandon were the architects. The style, though novel in this country, is the ordinary Romanesque, or Lombard, of Italy; but for gorgeousness and beauty of detail Wilton church stands unrivalled. Elevated on a terrace, it presents its E. front to the road, the bell-tower rising on the S. side to a height of 108 ft. distinct from the church, after the fashion of the Italian campanile, but communicating with it by a cloister of elaborately worked columns in pairs. The E. front is approached by a flight of steps 100 ft. in width, and presents 3 deeply recessed circular porches, the central and principal entrance being ornamented with mouldings, exquisitely worked, and with pillars, the foremost of which are twisted and detached, resting on lions sculptured in stone from the Isle of Man. Crossing the threshold, the visitor will be astonished by the sudden splendour of marble and mosaic glittering in streams of coloured light. He will enter, through screens of twisted columns, the nave, its roof resting on circular piers, with elaborate and beautiful capitals, each of a different design; its W. end terminated by a gallery of Painswick stone, supported on marble columns with alabaster capitals, and bearing the motto, " All things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee." Below the gallery is the font, of variously coloured marble, resting on a polished black slab of the same material, and decorated with the fruit and leaves of the vine, in allusion to the parable of our Saviour: " I am the vine, ye are the branches." To the 1. will be observed the cloister door, enriched with pillars and pilasters inlaid with mosaic-work. The gorgeous windows on the same side are of ancient Flemish glass. Passing up the nave over a flooring of slate, the visitor will pause before the pulpit, a work constructed at Rome of Caen stone, painted, gilded, and decorated with variegated borders and twisted pillars of mosaic-work, and resting on 16 black marble twisted columns with alabaster capitals. Near the pulpit is the reading-desk, rich in carving representing the 4 Evangelists, executed in Belgium; and the lectern in the shape of an eagle, gilt, and supported on 3 black marble pillars. The chancel presents an equal amount of decoration and intricate detail. The floor is composed of tesserae manufactured by Singer of Vauxhall; the walls and ceilings are painted after the style of the middle ages; the communion-table enclosed by glittering columns of Sienna marble, supporting milk - white alabaster arches; and the whole illumined by the rich and shifting colours of a window of ancient glass. Arches supported on lofty pillars of black and gold marble, each of a solid block, separate the aisles of the chancel from those of the nave. The apse 1. of the communion-table contains a fine brass (1585), and an almschest of wrought-iron from Venice; the opposite apse the monuments of the Pembrokes removed from the former parish-church, one by Westmacott and another by Rossi. The windows in these recesses are particularly brilliant. Lastly, before the visitor leaves the building he should inspect the old carvings of Scripture subjects forming the panels of the doors.

- A handbook for travellers in Wiltshire, Dorsetshire, and Somersetshire, John Murray, 1859, pages 53-54
Nevertheless, you do find dissenting voices, as in the 1870 Remarks on Wilton Church by its then rector. He begins diffidently, then starts adding a critical note ...
The style which Mr. Herbert selected was no doubt one which he had learnt to admire during his frequent visits to Italy, though it rather defies exact definition.
... and proceeds to a dissection of its architecture as not being especially characteristic of its influences, and suggesting improvements.
On one account only I think may the eye of the artist be positively dissatisfied. It will look in vain for the scenic mosaic, so usual in every note worthy church of the style in Italy, and may be impatient perhaps of the far less enduring, and so less effective paint which is actually used. Now that Triqueti, Salviati, and others have made the acquisition of this ornamental completion of ceilings and walls both easy and inexpensive, it does seem a matter of regret that some true lover or lovers of the beauty of holiness should not take in hand the introduction of mosaic into at least the central apse of our Church : than which there can be none in the land, in which it would be more appropriate. I have thought that such a work might he gradually done ; that we might first get a finished design of the whole of the work, and carry it out by degrees — we should then I think have a perfect example of a Church, representing the earliest features in detail possessed by a Christian Church in Europe, and were this work accomplished, the County of Wilts, and its old County Town would possess a thorough distinction, and we might hope that the members of the Wiltshire Archaeological Society and all true lovers of ecclesiastical architecture and art, would pay us frequent visits, for our magnificent Church would then be a finished gem, complete in its decoration as well as in its proportions and architecture.
- Remarks on Wilton Church, by the  Rector, Rev. Dacres Olivier, M.A., Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Vol XIII, 1870, pages 93-103

Wilton Church, Wilts - Rock Brothers & Payne, 1860

- Ray

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