The Protestant country house chapel explored
By The Art Newspaper. Books, Issue 191, May 2008
Published online: 01 May 2008
Of the great rooms that make up the country house, the one that has probably attracted least attention is the chapel. This very welcome book shows us what we have been missing. From the extravagant splendour of Chatsworth to the tucked away chapel at Slaugham Place, the 200 or so country house chapels considered in Annabel Ricketts’s book prove to be fascinating, often beautiful, and richly complex spaces.
The story is a complicated one, for it deals with the period of intense religious and political upheaval immediately after the Reformation, a period also marked by considerable change in architectural fashion. As speculation about religious and political loyalties was almost constant, patrons and architects had to find an appropriate language of form and decoration for this most sensitive of spaces. How might the demands of pomp and display be combined with an appropriate decorum that was securely Protestant? Over the 150 years of chapel building surveyed here, numerous answers were found to these questions. This diversity (amply and beautifully illustrated in plans and photographs, many of which are in colour) is compelling evidence of the long search for an appropriate visual language for the Church of England.
From often elusive and contradictory evidence of plans, descriptions of destroyed or extensively altered extant houses, Dr Ricketts securely delineates four main chapel plan types: the two-centred chapel, in which an area to the west was used for prayers and preaching and the east end reserved for communion; the assembly form, open on at least one side to secular spaces, a median position between the use of a secular room for prayers and a segregated chapel; the narthex chapel, with a screen towards the west end, which may have provided an area for junior members of the household to gather, and finally the single-cell plan, with no interior division of space. It is the second and the fourth type that are particularly remarkable, although for different reasons. Dr Ricketts has identified, for the first time, the assembly chapel. It was an innovation of the Elizabethan period and the solution chosen at Holdenby and Hardwick, for example. Openwork or partially glazed screens on one or more sides opened the chapel interior up to the secular spaces of landings, passages and stairs, allowing them to operate as outer chapels during service times. Significantly, this represents a quite different attitude to the space of the chapel, from that which had existed in pre-Reformation times, and which would re-emerge in the early 17th century, as emphasis was again placed on marking out, by seclusion, a special space for the holding of services. This was a shift that can be registered not just among “high-church” households but also at Steane Park, for example, the home of the Puritan Sir Thomas Crewe (Dr Ricketts is thus right to caution us not to read too much into architecture about a patron’s religious beliefs).
The story of experiment and development that Dr Ricketts explores reaches its conclusion in the single-cell chapels built after the Restoration. With little architectural emphasis of the east end, these rectangular spaces, often with college seating (Cornbury Park is perhaps the best-known and most influential example), emerged from the strict symmetry demanded by contemporary architectural taste and the influence of college models. Despite the lack of architectural accent, the east end was given a strong focus internally by woodwork and sometimes painted or textile ornament. In one of these spaces, the chapel at Chatsworth (1691), Dr Ricketts argues: “Protestant decoration in private country house chapels found an independent voice.” In a careful analysis of the chapel’s interior, Dr Ricketts demonstrates that the iconography is entirely Protestant, focusing as it does on scenes from Christ’s life that emphasise faith. It is almost certainly a carefully orchestrated response to James II’s recently completed Roman Catholic chapel at Whitehall (1686-88). For example, Laguerre’s Christ in Glory, which ornaments the ceiling at Chatsworth is very likely a riposte to the Whitehall ceiling, which showed the Assumption of the Virgin. While this is a compelling argument, does it not remain impossible to conceive of the scheme without the Catholic imagination, training and traditions that Laguerre and Verrio brought to the project? Nevertheless, Chatsworth is rightly distinguished here as expressing a new, consciously Protestant, confidence through its use
This book is remarkable in one last respect. Annabel Ricketts died after she had submitted the PhD dissertation on which it is based, and it was left to her widower and friends to make a book from it. Most scholarly books are a labour of love, and this one testifies not just to Dr Ricketts’s love for her subject, but to the love of others for her, who have striven to do justice to her scholarship. This book will stimulate debate and it is a great regret that Dr Ricketts will not be able to participate in it.
The University of Edinburgh
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