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Two recent publications on Sussex and its churches

1. David Parsons: Sir Stephen Glynne’s Sussex Church Notes, Sussex Record Society volume 101, 2021

Most people probably have a generalised idea of an early Victorian 9th baronet as interested primarily in riding and perhaps hunting, as well as wishing to maintain his social and economic standing, as a member of the landed gentry, as most were.  Certainly, they would not think of such a person chiefly in terms of church architecture. Yet that was the case with Sir Stephen Glynne, 9th and last baronet of his line (1807-74).  He inherited the title at the age of seven and his interests were evident well before the completion of his education, which as befitted his position was at Eton and Oxford. 

His position made calls of a more conventional nature on him.  Thus he was an MP in Flintshire, North Wales where his estates were situated and was also Lord Lieutenant of the county.  However, these did not greatly interest him and after near bankruptcy, his estates at Hawarden, Flintshire were taken over by the wealthy Gladstone family, particularly his brother-in-law, W E Gladstone who lived there. Glynne, a life-long Tory, got on well with the Liberal prime minister. Glynne devoted himself to visiting and studying ancient churches, for he had little interest in the many new  churches built in his lifetime.  This was in spite of his high church sympathies which were demonstrated by his involvement during the middle years of his life in the Ecclesiological (formerly Cambridge Camden) Society.

Glynne is estimated to have visited around 5,500 churches in all and wrote them up in a series of notebooks.  This is all the more remarkable because until his middle years all his travels, extending over the whole country, would have at best used horse-based transport.  Even after the development of the railway system in the 1840s and 1850s he would have ridden or walked from one church to the next within a vicinity. However, the industry and enthusiasm he displayed in pursuit of his interest in churches was not matched by any zeal in publishing the results of his efforts and it has been left to later generations to disseminate his work.

The notebooks Glynne compiled were collected after his death and placed in what became the Gladstone Memorial Library at Hawarden, close to his residence.  Standards of publication for his records for many counties have varied enormously.  In the case of Sussex, Glynne visited it quite frequently and saw well over 200 churches, starting with an almost three-month sojourn during what seems to have been a period of deliberate truancy from Oxford in 1825-26 until late 1873, a few months before his death. The first attempt to publish these was by V J Torr who published the entries for 42 churches between 1963 and 1971 in instalments in the long defunct Sussex Notes and Queries (SNQ). This was only a fraction of the total, SNQ may not be easy to locate and not all Torr’s methods of work are ideal.

There are thus many good reasons for welcoming the publication of David Parsons’s edition for the Sussex Record Society.  This provides not only Glynne’s own text for every church but a commentary by Dr Parsons discussing the dating of the notes where this is in doubt, as well as covering significant changes and elucidating what would otherwise be obscurities.  There is also a more general introduction covering items such as Glynne’s itineraries , the evolution of his perception of mediaeval architecture and the terminology he uses.  Paradoxically, the development of his expertise and thus the precision of his descriptions which came from greater experience are often offset in his later years by the restoration of so many churches, after which it was impossible to record features that had been lost.

Life for everyone has been dominated of late by the pandemic and this has unavoidably led to a few slips and omissions, mostly resulting from the impossibility of proper checking, but they barely detract.  Perhaps the most interesting question today is the lasting value of Glynne’s work. After working through the book to effect what proved to be a considerable number of amendments to this website I am in no doubt that this is considerable.  There are of course areas of doubt and ambiguity.  Glynne wrote notes during his visits to the churches and then incorporated these in more considered entries in his notebooks.  Sometimes there is evidence of a prolonged gap before this happened and of what are obviously slips of memory or misinterpretation of the rough notes.  In a few cases of two visits to the same church he seems to have compiled a single composite record from two sets of rough notes without ensuring internal conformity – in the case of Ticehurst Glynne’s visits were in 1836 and 1863, before and after the main restoration.  A special advantage for the study of Sussex churches is the quantity of pictorial material, ranging from the Burrell Collection (S H Grimm and James Lambert) in the 1780s, through the Sharpe Collection (mostly Henry Petrie) to Adelaide Tracy, R H Nibbs to W T Quartermain who continued until about 1875.  All are stronger on exteriors so they complement Glynn’s written descriptions which are equally focused on interiors.

One could go on, but it will already be clear that this is one of the most important contributions specifically to the study of Sussex churches for many years.  It will in future be impossible to study the development of an ancient Sussex church without referring to it. This applies equally to Glynne’s account seen from the perspective of nearly 200 years in the case of the first churches he saw and to Dr Parsons’s commentaries that set Glynne’s accounts in the present.

2. Elizabeth Williamson and others: The Buildings of England: West Sussex, 2019

There can be little doubt that the publication of the revised edition on West Sussex in the Buildings of England series was the outstanding event in 2019 in the field of Sussex architectural studies (not just churches).

Every reviser of a Buildings of England volume would no doubt maintain that their county presented particular difficulties, but it is hard to imagine that most of these would be on the same level as Sussex, particularly the West. The reasons for this centre on the circumstances in which the original single volume was written. At around the mid-point of his great project Nikolaus Pevsner understandably began to have doubts about his capacity to complete the series unaided. After all, the author of the Dehio series for Germany which was the model for the English series, had accepted help from quite an early stage and the level of detail to which Pevsner aspired from the beginning was greater. He therefore decided to farm out several counties, in whole or in part, and for reasons that are unclear, even from Susie Harries’s monumental biography, chose mostly counties close to London, though he lived there and one might have thought he would have found adjacent areas easier to access.

The first county to be treated in this way was Surrey, published in 1962, of which Pevsner wrote barely a third. The rest he entrusted to Ian Nairn, who though still in his thirties had acquired a high reputation as an architectural journalist and writer with a polemical approach. His particular strengths, apart from a good turn of phrase, included an unrivalled skill in evoking the atmosphere of a place and it was above all this that Pevsner admired. On the down side, Nairn had no art historical training and a lower boredom threshold. The latter inevitably affected his detailed studies of individual buildings which was Pevsner’s strength.

For Nairn Surrey was perhaps the ideal county for it is relatively small and has few major masterpieces (such as an ancient cathedral) requiring minute examination; in any case Pevsner seems to have taken on those that did exist as part of his contribution. The collaboration was deemed a success, so Pevsner decided to hand over the entire county of Sussex to Nairn, who in his turn accepted the commission. The particular difficulties he faced soon became apparent though we do not know in what order he went about his work and thus whether his more jaundiced comments came towards the end. His perambulations of towns remained exemplary but many of his assessments of individual buildings either concentrated to excess on atmosphere or were unhelpfully brusque in a work intended to have an inventory function, allowing a reader to find out what there was in a particular place and then to form a personal conclusion on its value. This has made brief dismissals such as ‘a nasty fussy job’ (Milland new church) or ‘There are very few Sussex churches for which nothing can be said. Alas, this is one of them’ (Hunston church) unhelpful. It is true that neither church is among the major ecclesiastical monuments of the county, but each does have something to offer. Milland in particular has some fine stained glass by Christopher Whall which Nairn apparently failed to notice. Indeed, stained glass as a whole was a particular blind-spot for Nairn; to take only the example of Whall, he is entirely missing from the index. It is true that East Sussex fares no better but in the case of Whall his finest work in the county is in the West.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Nairn had undertaken a project that brought out his weaknesses and under-played his strengths. He himself became increasingly unhappy and although he finished West Sussex he withdrew from the East, which fell to Pevsner by default. Nairn went on to other things that allowed him to show his approach to best advantage; his Nairn’s London is still in print after more than 50 years and despite parts being outdated, it reads very well. Pevsner’s taking over of East Sussex has a slight bearing on the new West Sussex since after boundary changes, some places then in East Sussex that were written up by him are now in the West.

The task that faced Elizabeth Williamson and her team of revisers of West Sussex was therefore daunting; almost fifty years later I can confess that it was the shortcomings of many of Nairn’s descriptions of churches that first impelled me to see if I could do better, leading ultimately to this website. However, even then I admired his ability to sum up a place in a single phrase and to draw attention to the unexpected. I have not said much here about the way individual churches have been treated in the new volume since, as with that on East Sussex, the revisers have acknowledged the use they made of this website, often following in outline at least my assessment of a church and I commented on many entries on churches in draft. Unsurprisingly, we are far from unanimous; many users have sent in comments and additions since 1965 that I was unaware of and the revisers naturally have their own views. All the same, I still marvel at their insistence that some rather good glass of 1932 at Billingshurst is by W T Morris of Westminster and not Morris and Co, given the convincing evidence in favour of the latter that Robert Eberhard has uncovered. But that is a tiny point of detail in a most impressive achievement and anyone who wants my or Robert Eberhard’s take on a church can fall back on this or his website.

One of the strengths of the new work is the extent to which the revisers have sought to accommodate Nairn’s texts within their greatly expanded one, many of them cited directly. They do not blindly follow what he wrote; both Hunston and Milland churches are now adequately covered, especially the latter. Many omissions and errors he made are silently corrected and the entries read as a seamless whole, incorporating the best of Nairn with much that is new. For this they should be congratulated.

By comparison, my own doings may seem of no great account, but there have been considerable changes, for the better I hope, since my final retirement last year, which allows me to devote a good five days a week to researching churches. Though I have continued to visit Sussex churches and to add new information and update this website, the prime focus of my interests has moved to the preparation of a further website which is in effect an England-wide version of my Architects and Artists section. This is the part of this website which has proved to be of the widest interest to users, many outside Sussex. I reckon there is at least ten years work ahead of me before anything appears, but I have made a good start and after nearly a year have compiled basic alphabetical lists covering almost half the counties of England. The present Coronavirus situation, though tiresome in almost every way, has at least allowed me to work on the lists with little interruption and I have begun discussions over the eventual form of the new website since that has a bearing on the way I go about my researches. Until there is somewhere more appropriate to report progress, I will continue to give updates here.

On a different but related point, I have been asked sometimes why I do not expand to social media; the answer is purely pragmatic since I cannot expect an unlimited length of time to complete my new project and do not want to be diverted.

John Allen

April 2020