There won’t be all that many posts on this blog devoted to individual buildings, but this one is so extraordinary that I have to make an exception. We first encountered Sir Thomas Lloyd (1820-1877) in connection with St Dogfael’s Church in Meline, featured in last week’s post on R.J. Withers. Though Gothic Revival, that is a rational, severe and indeed forward-looking piece of design, which is very difficult to reconcile with the temperament of someone who could put up an outlandish piece of escapist fantasy like the family seat of Bronwydd. For that was a building where the client’s and architect’s imaginations ran away with themselves and a cold-blooded critique of its functional and aesthetic distinctions is pointless – all that mattered was the emotional impact and power to conjure up a vision the Middle Ages (or more specifically, to evoke the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary), albeit one conditioned by High Romanticism.
But ‘rational’ and ‘severe’ are certainly not charges that could be levelled at the second church with which Lloyd was involved – St Cynllo’s at Llangynllo in Ceredigion. Nominally a village church, it serves a community in remote and beautiful countryside northeast of Newcastle Emlyn, thinly scattered over a wide area with several tiny population centres. It was also one where Welsh-speaking Nonconformism made substantial inroads – St Cynllo’s is still known locally as ‘The English Church’ – and in practice it was effectively the private chapel of two nearby big houses, Lloyd’s Bronwydd and the Tyler family’s Mount Gernos, there being no village centre as such in the vicinity. In the churchyard there are burial vaults for both families.
It seems likely that Captain Gwinnett Tyler of Mount Gernos was responsible for choosing John Middleton (1820-1885) as designer of St Cynllo’s. Born in York, Middleton trained with James Pritchett (1789-1868), a prolific and successful architect, who handled commissions for a diverse range of building types and worked in a wide variety of styles, as was typical for practitioners of the time. Pritchett designed the palatial classical railway station at Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, built in 1846-1850. On completing his training, Middleton set up in practice in Darlington, taking advantage of the rapid economic growth at the time of the North Riding and County Durham. His office handled commissions for warehouses, banks, workshops, railway stations, workers’ housing and churches. Then in 1859 he left and relocated to Cheltenham, where he began to pursue a very different line of business. Intending to enter the market for country house work, he cultivated links with the gentry, including the Dunraven family in the Forest of Dean. Middleton was initially engaged by the Dowager Countess to remodel the family home of Clearwell Castle. This led to a crop of subsequent commissions – for a new parish church, a village cross, a wellhouse, a cemetery chapel, a cottage hospital and extensions to the village school.
Tyler’s sister married into the Dunraven family and it was this that may have brought about a commission in c. 1869 to remodel Mount Gernos. Like Brownydd, the house proved ill-fated – it was abandoned in the 1920s, fell into dereliction, little now survives above ground and it is known only from written descriptions and a few dim photographs. But unlike Bronwydd, it was externally restrained, the elevations being handled in an austerely elegant astylar classical manner, to which Middleton adhered when he reorganised the elevations, creating a new entrance front and adding a number of two-storey bay windows and a conservatory. The display was confined to the interior, which abounded in wood carving and stone ornament, much of it figurative.
At the time of Middleton’s introduction to the Tylers, the reconstruction of the parish church was a more pressing matter. It was an ancient foundation, which by repute stood on the site of the cell of the late 5th/early 6th century saint to which it is dedicated. The building had been remodelled in the 1820s, but only four decades later was again in need of attention and in c. 1866 (some of the surviving drawings are dated March 1867) the decision was made to demolish everything apart from the tower and to rebuild. Work was not completed until 1870. It is not a large church, nor – despite Middleton’s addition of a spire – is it especially prominent in the landscape. The high-quality dressed masonry and thistly Decorated Gothic tracery intrigue, but enough churches of the period hint at riches within only to disappoint through their plainness. Not, here, though – as soon as one enters, one is immersed in an astonishing wealth of colour, decoration and ornament that makes St Cynllo’s truly exceptional and well worth seeking out.
The simple, two-cell plan is familiar enough from the far more modest churches by R.J. Withers featured in the previous post. Familiar too is the notion of a progression in richness from west to east, with a relatively plain area of congregational seating and all ornament and colour concentrated at the east end. But here, the nave is already a riot of colour, being faced internally with high quality red brick enlivened with stripes, bands and diaper work executed in black brick and Bath stone. The roof is supported on lush foliate corbels, by the main door a huge and lavishly carved font – commemorating a member of the Tyler family and gifted in 1869 – rests on a ‘a capital of tropical succulence’ (The Buildings of Wales).
One’s gaze is arrested before it reaches the east end: the striped chancel arch rests on polished shafts of green marble with huge capitals carved with leaves and flowers, and borne on corbels resting on the backs of hovering groups of angels, all depicted full height and in the round. The hood moulds on both sides of the chancel arch have corbel stops depicting the four Evangelists. Underneath the north respond is a richly carved pulpit with a central scene of ‘neurotically animated’ figures (The Buildings of Wales), in which St Paul is depicted preaching to the Gentiles . It was a gift of the Lloyd family to commemorate George Marteine Lloyd (1830-1849). To the south is a statue of a female figure under an intricate canopy with gablets and pinnacles, all richly crocketed – officially Ruth, but perhaps (anticipating charges of crypto-papism) a proxy for the Virgin Mary. It was presented by Sir Thomas Lloyd in 1871 in memory of his wife.
The chancel reaches an almost overwhelming degree of luxuriance. The walls are faced throughout in high quality ashlar masonry with banding of green and purple stone. Corbels with angels playing musical instruments and striking various attitude, supposedly based on prototypes drawn from the work of Fra Angelico, support the roof trusses and arch to the organ chamber (originally a vestry). The roof structure is ceiled with stencilled panels. Above the altar is a diapered altarpiece, gifted by Rosa Tyler shortly after the opening of the church. The east window, again with a banded arch and polished marble shafts, is filled with glass of 1878 by J.H. Powell of Hardman and Co. depicting Christ enthroned flanked by groups of assorted saints. There is a floor of richly coloured and patterned tiles by Minton. The clergy and choir seating is richly carved and fretted, the design incorporating different colour woods, and from it rise brass candelabra (now converted to electricity) sprouting and bristling with ornament. Lloyd and Tyler made a further gift of the church on its completion of a jewelled set of plate in a chest made out of an oak beam taken from the old church.
Among Middleton’s collaborators at Llangynllo, special mention must go to Richard Lockwood Boulton (c. 1832-1905), who executed the architectural sculpture that makes the interior so memorable. Born in Yorkshire, Boulton initially worked with his elder brother in London before setting up on his own in the latter half of the 1850s, initially working out of Birmingham, then relocating to Cheltenham in c. 1870. He worked for leading architects of the period, collaborating with E.W. Godwin (1833-1886), who later claimed to have trained him, on Northampton and Plymouth town halls and with Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) on the restorations of Lichfield, Worcester and Hereford cathedrals.
Middleton cornered the market for ecclesiastical work in his adopted town and surrounding area, carrying out extensive restorations of several medieval buildings and designing five new town churches. All are good, and all of them every bit as characteristic of him as St Cynllo’s, but none makes quite the same impact of what is widely regarding as his masterpiece, the church of All Saints, (1865-1868, with extensive later adornments and fittings, some by different hands). Intended from the outset as a setting for ritualistic worship, it abounds in colour and overflows with vigorous foliate and figure carving, for which Middleton again turned to Boulton. H.S. Goodhart-Rendel called the building ‘a splendid example of what Gilbert Scott was always aiming at but never achieved – complete Gothic self-assurance with Victorian punch’. The sculpture has a good deal to do with that, but what is surprising when one compares the two churches is the lack of concession made to the far smaller proportions of St Cynllo’s. Whereas at All Saints, Boulton’s work augments the grandness of the underlying architectural conception, at Llangynllo, the figures of angels, the corbels and the capitals all give the impression of having been scaled for a much larger building and the hypertrophied effect is overwhelming and almost surreal.
Middleton’s work for Lloyd and Tyler seems to have led to a crop of other commissions for church work in west Wales, where he restored several medieval buildings and rebuilt wholly or in part a handful of others. His designs are immediately recognisable as products of the period, but not especially memorable or individual. Unlike Withers, he seems to have been unable to make a virtue out of a necessity and to achieve original results on a low budget. St Christiolus in Eglwyswrw in the north of Pembrokeshire is a thorough recasting carried out in 1881-1883 of a church originally put up in 1829, done for the rock-bottom price of £650 (for comparison, St Cynllo’s cost in the region of £2,200). It is perfectly competent, but short on character, and the rose window is oddly derivative of St Dogfael’s in Meline, only a mile or so away to the west. Fair enough, one might say – there were contemporaries of Middleton who, conversely, struggled to change gear upwards. Faced with a commission from a deep-pocketed but perhaps also demanding and opinionated client, the imagination would flag and they would fall back on conventional and formulaic devices. Doing excess well requires a great deal more than an ability to indulge spendthrift inclinations.
It is a strange thing that the English are so repulsed by the High Baroque of Central Europe. For, despite the very different human, religious and topographical landscape, what St Cynllo’s displays is exactly the same aesthetic impulse, which has simply come out in a different way. But whereas the pilgrimage churches of Bavaria, say, represent an art which is extrovert and optimistic – ‘religion singing and dancing’, as Ian Nairn called it – this is introspective and melancholic, due in no small part to the dimness of the interior even on a sunny day. Slow decay would be rather in the spirit of the place, especially following the loss of the two houses that brought it into being: but in fact it is (at least for now, thanks to the efforts of a small number of highly dedicated people) well looked after and must be kept going as something too precious to be allowed to fall into desuetude, even if the world that produced it is already as distant and unfamiliar to the 21st century as that of Nineveh or Karnak.