Wednesday, 23 May 2018

'This is Merlin's Town' Carmarthen and Pembroke

Friday, the final full day of my holiday and we went into the west.  I exaggerate a little, as we only went as far as Pembroke, but there is something distinctive, almost other worldly, about west Wales.  Perhaps it is the quality of the light.
Our first point of call was Carmarthen, an ancient town, the oldest in Wales, high on a bluff above the river Towy at the point where it becomes tidal.  The Romans were there building a fortress and later a town - Moridunum, the civitas of the Demetae.  Remains of the amphitheatre are east of the town centre. Carmarthen is at the southern end of the longest branch of the 'Sarn Helen', the network of Roman roads in Wales, the construction of which is traditionally credited to 'Elen Luyddog' - 'Helen of the Hosts', daughter of Eudaf Hen and wife of  Macsen Wledig, the late Western Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus. That ancient legend, the 'Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig' or 'Dream of Macsen Wledig', forms part of the Mabinogion and appears too in different form in Geoffrey of Monomouth's 'Historia Regnum Britanniae'. But I digress. Carmarthen is however associated with another mythic cycle that of Arthur, for Carmarthen, Caerfyrddin, is Merlin's town.  (There is some scholarly discussion as to whether Caerfyrddin actually refers to Merlin or not; either way there are number of local monuments that are connected to him.)  Be that as it may Carmarthen was an important centre in the Kingdom of Deheubarth - seat of a bishop, three monasteries within the walls, that sort of thing. The centre of the town presents a mainly Georgian and Victorian face, the public spaces intimate, streets narrow, something that all old Welsh towns have in common I wonder? Coloured plaster predominates. The view from the south is dominated by the muscular County Hall building designed by Sir Percy Thomas architect of the Guildhall in Swansea.  It is, like the Guildhall, a building of impressive heft, with a nod in the direction of Richard Norman Shaw with its great chimneys and impressive graded slate roof. There is however, like the Guildhall, some that twentieth century froideur about it.  It is an austere, somewhat aloof, that sits squarely within the remains of the castle on the site of the gaol that John Nash built during his Welsh sojourn.  Its not helped by the fact it is now encircled by a puddle of parked cars.  I left wondering what Josef Plechnik would have made of the commission like that.  We had time to pop into St Peter's church.  Full of civic pomp, and a dash over restored, but worth a visit.  It contains the lavish tomb of Sir Rhys ap Thomas supporter of Henry Tudor in his rebellion against Richard III and reputed slayer of the king at Bosworth Field.

Then on into Pembrokeshire and the mighty castle at Pembroke - no time really to look at the town.  This incredibly powerful Norman fortress, which stands at the point of a great tine of land, between two branches - south one silted up) of the Milford Haven ria.  While doing a research for this post I've been struck by the shear political and cultural dynamism of the Normans; R H C Davies in 'The Normans and their Myth' (London 1974) talks about the Dukes of Normandy forging 'a new aristocracy, a new church, a new monasticism and a new culture'. At the same time as the Normans were first conquering England, and then conquering and settling south Wales, Norman knights were conquering first the southern Italian peninsular, defeating the Lombards and the Eastern Roman Empire in the process, and then island of Sicily, before eventually launching the invasion and attempted conquest of North Africa. In the following century they would nearly conquer all of Ireland and settle peacefully, at the behest of the monarch, in Scotland, and wherever they went they brought that new culture with them - there are Norman churches, for instance, all over the British Isles (including areas such as the Shetlands (Kingdom of Norway) and Pre-Conquest Ireland, that politically were beyond  the Norman world). Castles too such as Pembroke.
Pembroke fell to the Normans in 1093, to put it in context that is twenty-nine years after the Norman Conquest of England and just two years after the Norman conquest of Sicily.  As at Abergavenny, Kidwelly and Brecon in addition to building a castle a monastery was founded. A pattern also followed here in south Lincolnshire at South Kyme, Castle Bytham/Grimsthorpe and more importantly for this post at Bourne under the aegis of Baldwin Fitzgilbert. In 1138, the same year that Baldwin was founding Bourne Abbey, his brother Gilbert was raised to the Earldom of Pembroke with Palatine powers. It was his son Richard de Clare 'Strongbow' that began the Norman invasion of Ireland.  In 1170 Henry II embarked for Ireland from Pembroke in an attempt to control that invasion, but being virtually impregnable Pembroke played little part in  British history again until, that is, the Wars of the Roses. By then Pembroke was in the hands of the Lancastrian Tudors, and it became a stage, as it were, for several key events in the rise to power of Henry VII - his birth in 1457, his dramatic escape from a Yorkist siege and flight to France and his return to claim the throne. For this blog the resonate event is his birth, for Henry's mother was the remarkable Lady Margaret Beaufort, wife of Edmund Tudor, descendant of Baldwin FitzGilbert.
Back to the architecture.  It is, it has to be said, not only very grand and imposing, but also rather workman-like, utilitarian.  Which is probably what you'd expect with a castle. Almost all lacking in detail and being constructed almost wholly of rubble masonry the castle has a very homogenous look.  It's hard to differentiate sometimes the work of different periods.  Thinking back it seems to be that though there are Early English details and some Geometric detailing in the residential block north of the keep there was nothing later in style.  No Curvilinear Decorated or Perp.  Nothing either of a Great Hall.  All that is left, and there is a lot of it, is the defensive. The most distinctive is the great circular keep - a massive cylinder of stone, 53 feet in diameter at the base and 80 feet high. It is thought to date from the time of William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke of the second creation, who was the husband of Isabel de Clare, daughter of 'Strongbow' and Aiofe McMurrough, daughter of the King of Leinster. The view from the top is exhilarating.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Own work: The Baptist Chapel, Bourne

Here is something I prepared earlier when I was in a very John Piper mood.  It's of the Baptist Chapel in west St Bourne, Lincolnshire.  I did it Wednesday and probably took about three hours - probably less.  Thankfully less than half that time was actually spend siting in the cold drawing. Mixed media - pen and ink, watercolour, gouache oil pastel over pencil underdrawing on Acid free, Archival, 300gsm watercolour paper.  The most Piperesque thing I've done to date.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Two Abbeys II

A quick trundle down the motorway took us to Margam Abbey (Cistercian, founded 1147 by Richard, Earl of Gloucester) to a happier scene.  There the abbey's position above the coastal strip helped ensure its continual use.  At the Dissolution the conventual buildings were, again, turned into a country house, while the nave passed in parochial use.  And it was to the church we first went. It sits in a small, bosky village above the motorway.  The churchyard is big with plenty of 19th memorials in the Welsh tradition. The exterior of the church dates from the early 19th century, though I suspect some of the features such as the west door are pretty faithful to the original.  The odd pinnacles are evidently not. Inside it is big boned; there is a satisfying solidity and strength to the austere Norman architecture. It is very Cistercian in that respect. Atmospheric too with the nave dark and mysterious, the aisles bight with spring sunshine. If there is one, only one, criticism it is the low, heavy ceiling. But that is a minor quibble for the church is filled with good things - in particular the the remarklable collections of funerary monuments in both aisles; Talbots to the North and Mansells to the south with a proper nestling of Jacobean alabaster tombs commemorating four generations of the family.  For me perhaps the most interesting monument is that to Theodore Talbot, based on the tomb of Archbishop Grey in York Minster. It is rather large, possibly over-scaled, but it adds a welcome element of spatial complexity to the Talbot chapel.

Through the small door in the south aisle and into another world: Margam Park. (I don't think we should really have done that but got back into the car and driven round to the official carpark.) Perhaps an unexpected one at that, for who nowadays associates industrial south Wales with landscaped country parks.  However Margam is not alone, just outside Neath, only a few miles up the M4 from Margam, stands the Gnoll estate.  And like Margam, Gnoll is owned by the local council. Anyway the door opens to where once were the cloisters stood and is now a woodland garden with beautiful specimen trees.  To the left the remains of the east range of the cloisters - a kind of gothic skeleton, all the walls having been removed just leaving the piers and the vaults, and looking like an illustration in an 18th century Gothic novel.  Also surviving is the polygonal chapter house, alas without its vault.  Polygonal chapter houses are a bit of a British speciality; Margam is the only one in Wales, but there are three in Scotland and seventeen in England not counting the Norman circular one at Worcester, where the idea probably originated.  Ahead is the site of the great house built by the Mansells and incorporating parts of the abbatial buildings. However in 1782 the house was demolished and a spectacular orangery constructed (1787) in its place.  It is the longest in Britain, and is the work of Anthony Keck (1726-1797). One part of the original Elizabethan/Jacobean house however was reused as a garden feature.  Oddly it wasn't until the 1830s that a new house, 'Margam Castle', was erected to the designs of Edward Hopper (1776-1856) further up the hill and linked to the church and orangery by a majestic staircase, a thoroughly Baroque concept that wouldn't be out of place in Sixtine Rome.  A nineteenth century equivalent, if you will, to the great cascade at Chatsworth.  The house has the most wilful detailing and is a sort of compendium of early Tudor houses such as Hengrave Hall and Melbury in Dorset.  Eccentric, ostentatious and oddly endearing. The family lived there until 1942.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Own work: the Rustiche of Sebastiano Selio XXII

An stage towards the completion of the Rustiche series with this Arch, number XXII, and a sudden change of style from the last Arch (XX) to something even more controlled than my normal style.  I put it down to a current interest in the Brotherhood of Ruralists.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Two Abbeys I

After a dismal, wet day on Tuesday the sun shone bright Wednesday.  We went exploring a couple of monastic remains in the vast industrial landscape that sprawls and jostles in the limited space between the sea and the hills east of Swansea.
Neath first.  Hidden away in an industrial park  - an area that has been industrialized for nearly three centuries.  An unexpected place, then.  John Leland said that it was the fairest abbey in all Wales. (Cistercian, founded 1130 by Sir Richard de Granville) High praise indeed - but better than Tintern?  Who knows now, because the intervening years have been cruel.  Though possibly not a completely false comparison:  the plans of both abbey churches are remarkably similar, almost identical, though Neath is a touch smaller and the nave is one bay longer than Tintern, which is the slightly older structure. What does remain of the Abbey church however does suggest something fine. And looking online there are a number of engravings of the abbey remains that show some good architecture. The 16th century Welsh writer Lewis Morganwg wrote of the abbey in heavenly terms.  As often was the case at the Dissolution part of the abbey was converted into a country house, in this case by the Herberts.  That house forms now the most easily understandable, and attractive, part of the ruins. (Unfortunately closed for repairs!) By the 1720/1730s however house and abbey had been turned into a copper smelting works. Then it was iron smelting. The abbey though continued to draw artists and antiquaries.  It was depicted in the Buck brother's monumental print series 'A Collection of Engravings of Castles , Abbeys and Towns in England and Wales' looking very pastoral, the abbey church looking very much as it does today which sort wrecks my theory that the fine stonework (limestone) was robbed out during the industrial revolution for the production of lime. Whatever happened the loss of the detailing has left the abbey remains looking a bit amorphous, sometimes forbidding. When Gilpin visited more of the remained than now; he writes obscurely of a 'double tower', but one suspects his visit was fleeting and not too close.  What he actually saw and thought were towers are the two pinnacles of stonework left from the west front of the abbey.   The abbey church again was depicted, from a distance, in that rare and obscure 1835 guide book 'A Guide to the Beauties of Glyn Neath' by William Young. In the 19th century John Borrow describes the surroundings of the abbey as hell on earth, but the abbey, partly abandoned now, as at a one remove from the desolation. By the beginning of twentieth century the remains were buried in up to 17ft of industrial waste, and it wasn't until the 1920s that the ruins were cleared of up to 4,000 tons of rubbish by the Neath Abbey Research Party under the aegis of Glen Arthur Taylor. In 1942 John Piper, accompanied by the poet Geoffrey Grigson travelled to Glyn Neath in search of waterfalls (there are quite a number at the top of the valley) guided by Young's book.  Perhaps they came here, but after a quick internet trawl I haven't found anything to suggest they did. The site is now under the care of Cadw.  A slightly strange, haunting place in all.