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Oh Brother, where art thou?

Benjamin Franklin had this ambition for his body: that after his death it should be reissued ‘in a new and more beautiful edition, corrected and amended by the author’.

25 September 2010

12:00 AM

25 September 2010

12:00 AM

The Buildings of England: Hampshire (Winchester and the North) Michael Bullen, John Crook, Rodney Hubbock and Nikolaus Pevsner

Yale, pp.807, 35

Benjamin Franklin had this ambition for his body: that after his death it should be reissued ‘in a new and more beautiful edition, corrected and amended by the author’.

Benjamin Franklin had this ambition for his body: that after his death it should be reissued ‘in a new and more beautiful edition, corrected and amended by the author’. That is roughly what has happened with The Buildings of England guide to Hampshire. The guides used to fit into an overcoat pocket; now you’d need the glove compartment of a car. High praise is due to the authors of this volume for careful scholarship, an outstanding array of colour illustrations, and a literary style which is not drily academic, but relaxed and colloquial.

The Buildings of England series was inaugurated by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner in 1951. The feud between Pevsner and John Betjeman has been raked over. To the poet, Pevsner was a ‘Herr Professor Doktor’, a baldly categorising academic of Teutonic thoroughness. To Pevsner, Betjeman was a frivolous dilettante. Neither characterisation was fair, but there was a germ of truth in each.

It was said of Betjeman that, when looking at architecture, he was always ‘as interested in the shellfish as in the shell’. In other words, he cared about the people who had lived in, or been associated with, buildings, not just the fabric. By the title of their series, its editors are relieved of any such concern. Stones are their quarry in both senses.

If the series is to retain its convenient compactness, it is crying for the moon to yearn for ‘human interest stories’. Conceding that Jane Austen lived in ‘Jane Austen’s House at Chawton’ is about as far as the editors are prepared to go. But I yearn all the same. It is odd to find the village of Tichborne covered with not a smidgen about the Tichborne Claimant — the portly central figure of one of the great Victorian causes célèbres.

In the three pages devoted to St Michael’s Church in Basingstoke, there is nothing about Sir George Wheler, who was vicar from 1683 to 1694. He wrote A Journey into Greece (1682), with illustrations of inscriptions, coins, plants and buildings. He was a keen botanist: the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us that ‘he introduced to Britain some plants hitherto unknown, including St John’s wort’. So all the alternative medicine freaks who swear by St John’s wort owe it to Sir George of Basingstoke.

As a test of the guide, I took a train to Basingstoke, and went on one of the ‘perambulations’ of the town suggested by the authors (with a helpful map). Conveniently, it begins at the station (‘1903-4. Neo-Tudor in rich red brick’). Walking straight ahead from the station, I found myself in the shopping centre (1968-72 by Llewelyn-Davies, Weeks & Partners with Ian Fraser & Associates).

I have a soft spot for the architecture of Lord Llewelyn-Davies. He was the consultant for the building I first worked in, from 1963 — the Times building in Printing House Square, opposite Blackfriars station in London. It was modern and elegant and it functioned well. In front was a courtyard with the only Henry Moore sculpture I have ever liked, a massive bronze sundial. (We need the rest like a hole in the head.) Eight years ago the building was demolished; I saw it go up and I saw it come down. It was replaced by a ghastly monolithic block renamed ‘Times Square’, as if it were in New York. The Llewelyn-Davies building was part of my youth: I fell in love with it and in it.

But I have to agree with the authors’ estimate of the Basingstoke shopping centre. Unfriendly dark brick exterior, not as Pevsner hoped, in 1967, ‘something worth looking at’. The shopping centre’s relationship with the earlier buildings around it is one of indifference. Particularly ill-served is St Michael, and a few old houses within a hundred yards of it on Church Square.

I went into St Michael’s, but found — on a Friday afternoon — a wedding service in full swing, with a woman priest intoning ‘With my body I thee worship.’ I was wearing a grey suit, so could just about pass for a wedding guest; but after sitting politely till the happy couple were spliced, I crept over to the bookstand, took one of the pamphlets about the church, and left. The pamphlet told me something that neither The Buildings of England guide nor the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records: that Wheler built up a library of books, which is still mostly intact and is on permanent loan to the University of Southampton.

A little further on in the Basingstoke perambulation is a good sample of the authors’ relaxed and evocative descriptions:

Nos 81-83 Lower Church Street is a really enjoyable early 17th-century house — what one calls Artisan Mannerism. Plain brick to the street but its north façade has brick giant pilasters and brick Ionic capitals and a big moulded brick frieze. Raised brick window surrounds, and in the gable a very odd flat aedicule with broken pediment.

(In case anyone doesn’t know what an aedicule is, the book’s glossary tells us: Aedicule [lit. little building]: architectural surround, consisting usually of two columns of pilasters supporting a pediment.)

I happen to live in a Grade I- listed medieval almshouse, the Hospital of St Cross in Winchester, to which the book devotes 16 pages and six illustrations. I have lived there for ten years, so I made it my other sampling-flask. The Hospital was founded by William the Conqueror’s grandson, Henry de Blois, between 1129 and 1137; but the buildings in which we ‘Brothers’ (old guys, not monks) live were put up on the orders of Cardinal Beaufort in the early 1440s.

On the buildings, the book comes up trumps as usual, and the editors get an extra tick for reproducing the 1773 engraving of the place, after William Cave, which shows a wing that later had to be demolished. Also, they do refer obliquely to the Earl of Guilford’s embezzlements when Master in the 19th century, ‘satirised in Trollope’s Barchester novels’ — they might perhaps have referred the reader directly to Trollope’s The Warden, of which the opening page is a spit-and-image description of the entrance to ‘Hiram’s Hospital’ (i.e. St Cross).

Of the hospital’s distinctive chimneys, I think the authors might have noted how strikingly similar they are to those in Vicars’ Close in Wells, also of the 15th century. My pet theory is that they were by the same mason.

The authors have this to say of one of the furnishings of the St Cross church:

Oak Lectern. Subject of much folklore. Late 19th century, closely copied from a medieval one at Birtles church (Cheshire), and made in two parts like the exemplar. Its design, including the parrot-like eagle’s head, ultimately goes back to lectern exemplars in the Namur region.

About twice a month I take visitors on tours of the Hospital and its church. To learn the ropes, you first follow a senior Brother and listen to his spiel. There is ample scope for the accretion of Chinese whispers and the embroidery of legend. When I followed an old Brother round in my apprenticeship, this is what he had to say about the oak lectern:

Many lecterns have an eagle’s head; but this one has a parrot’s head, to teach you not to read the Bible parrot-fashion, but from the heart. (You will see that there is a heart carved on the parrot’s head. You will also see that, unlike an eagle or a parrot, the bird has webbed feet. Why? Because it is standing on the world, which has a lot of sea-water.)

When Oliver Cromwell and his men came to Winchester in the early 17th century, the Brothers were worried that the Puritans would think the lectern was Roman Catholic idolatry, and would destroy it.
So they cut it in half — you can see the saw-marks — and buried one piece in one patch of ground, the other in another. And when Charles II was restored to the throne, they dug the pieces up and joined them again — which is why one half is of a slightly different colour to the other.

I duly copied this stuff — parroted might be the mot juste — in my patter; but one day a Brother who had been a history teacher told me that the Cromwell myth had been exploded. In Selsey Church, in Sussex, he told me, there is an identical lectern with saw-marks in precisely the same place. His idea was that both might have been presented by Robert Sherborne, who had been Master of St Cross and became Bishop of Chichester. They must both have been made in two parts.

I made a pilgrimage to Selsey, to photograph their lectern; and, sure enough, it is a twin to ours. On the church wall is a notice about it. It says of the lectern:

This was once in Chichester Cathedral. It came to Selsey when the church was re-erected in 1866, at which time the cathedral was being restored after the collapse of the spire.

The notice adds that there is ‘a 90 per cent chance’ that the lectern is pre-Reformation, and gives a slightly different, charming version of the Cromwell story. In this, Cromwell’s commissioner orders a man to destroy the St Cross and Selsey lecterns, but the man thinks them so beautiful that he just makes one cut, then reports he has destroyed them. The Buildings of England authors do not mention the Selsey lectern.

I possess an Edwardian postcard of the St Cross lectern with the date ‘1509’ firmly printed on it. That date would tally with Sherborne’s episcopacy. It would take some effrontery to give such a precise date without authority, particularly if the thing had been made within living memory; was there some document supporting it? (One of our masters was accused of peculation and his wife, to protect him, burned several of the documents in the muniment room.)

The party to launch The Buildings of England Hampshire guide was held in the Brethren’s Hall of St Cross Hospital. At it, I nobbled one of the authors, the learned Dr John Crook, and asked him if he were sure that the lectern is late 19th-century. ‘Absolutely sure. My money would be on a man called J. T. Laverty [who was active from the 1890s to the 1920s and at one time ran a workshop in Winchester with the son of a Dean of Winchester].’

I am now in a bit of a tizzy about the lectern. What should I say about it on my tours in future?

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