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The pious equivalent of an indoor swimming pool

22 April 2008

Julian Litten admires an architectural book that carries authority

Paintings by Verrio and Laguerre, alabaster by Cibber: the Devonshires’ chapel at Chatsworth, in Derbyshire (from the book)

Paintings by Verrio and Laguerre, alabaster by Cibber: the Devonshires’ chapel at Chatsworth, in Derbyshire (from the book)

The English Country House Chapel: Building a Protestant tradition
Annabel Ricketts

WRITING of Low Ham Church, Somerset, in 1839, the antiquary Sir Stephen Glynne said: “This was formerly a domestic chapel appended to the mansion built by Sir Edward Hext, Knight of the Shire, 1 James I. This chapel was also erected by him (who died 1624) and though the work of that period is of much better architecture than could be possibly expected being wholly in the Gothic style though with some indication of debasement. It is a kind of miniature church, consisting of a nave with aisles, a clerestory, a small tower and a chancel on a small scale.”

Had Glynne been in possession of Annabel Ricketts’s The English Country House Chapel, then his understanding of Low Ham would have been greatly enhanced, as she has much more to say on this fascinating building. Her unique study outlines in meticulous detail how and why the aristocracy and gentry of the 17th-century provided their houses with places of worship after the upheavals of the Reformation.

The question precisely why such chapels were considered necessary had been posed by W. Gibson in 1997, who said that “chaplains, like libraries and chapels . . . were part of the mental landscape of the landowning élite.” Thus they were more architectural adjuncts to a great house than a necessity, in the same way as today’s fashion is for indoor swimming pools.

Some patrons, such as the Shirleys at Staunton Harold, Leicestershire, and the Dyneleys at Bramhope Hall, Yorkshire, were more magnanimous, so that their detached chapels also served, according to Ricketts, “for the use of his household and probably his tenants and local people as well”.

Another reason for the detached chapel is that they could be used as a mausoleum; for, while a few house-chapels have funerary monuments, none, to my knowledge, has a burial vault, except Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, which started life as the detached parish church.

The six chapters of the book cover the reason for having a private chapel, the regulations and control over their buildings and consecration, and extended essays on Early Tudor, Elizabethan, Early Stuart, and Post-Restoration chapels. The book graphically describes how the Protestant house-chapel evolved tortuously over 150 years after the Reformation, undergoing numerous transformations as patrons sought to achieve a definitively Protestant design.

Ricketts reminds the reader that “Time has a tendency to tidy away extreme and idiosyncratic examples of architectural experimentation, and private chapels, with the added pressure of changes in patrons’ religious affiliations, were more susceptible to alteration or destruction than any other area of the house.”

This excellent and well-illustrated work is seminal as far as the subject itself is concerned. Its scholarship cannot be bettered, and it will remain the standard work of reference for many decades. It is a volume that no student or devotee of ecclesiastical architecture can afford to be without.

The latter part of the book is a gazetteer of those 313 private chapels of the period 1485-1700 which she considered when preparing her thesis. Admittedly, it does not cover all private chapels in existence during the period, as the emphasis is on English country-house Protestant chapels. Nevertheless, the list is highly impressive: beside it, Pevsner pales into insignificance. It will make one’s visiting of great houses all the more enjoyable.

Annabel Ricketts was the doyenne of scholars of the English country-house chapel, and this posthumous work — she died prematurely in 2003 — is drawn from her Ph.D. thesis and copious notes on the subject. There could be no finer memorial to her.

Dr Julian Litten is Chairman of the Church Maintenance Trust.

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