The old church at Woolsthorpe was blown up in the Civil War

The old church at Woolsthorpe was blown up in the Civil War

Dr L has contacted me from Stanstead Mountfichet to ask whether the church at Fornham Genevieve was ruined by the time the great Capability Brown got there.

A very ripe question, and I hardly know where one might begin to answer it. Brown could accommodate ruined churches (St Luke’s Thorndon and Woolsthorpe old church at Belvoir, Roche Abbey for example). Was the Thorndon church taken down at the same time as the Old Hall, next door? And how much of the church and old hall were left after Paine’s New Hall was finished?  Brown is said to have started work in 1766 and James Paine’s New Hall to have been begun in 1763.

But why were churches so questionable in a landscape? You can divide up the responses pretty clearly. William Hanbury admired them at a distance as ‘the most pleasing object to set off a prospect, whether it exhibits a stately tower, or a steeple like an obelisk’.  Richard Wilson’s painting of Moor Park put the distant parish church in the middle of the picture, Repton could suggest adding a steeple at Stoke Edith, following similar proposals made a generation earlier, at Harewood House and Belvoir. Even sham churches might have their place – at Wentworth Castle in about 1768 – Barwick had another, and Mad Jack Fuller threw up another at Brightling.

On the other hand, Thomas Whately was unsure about a church ‘unwelcome … when it breaks into the design of a park or a garden’, and at Stowe, Hagley, Langley Norfolk, and dozens of other places, churches were concealed. Could it have been that they were present heralds of mortality, potent prompts to morality, political statements, or just too barn-like as the poet – and Reverend – William Mason thought?

Then, to return to your question, Dr L, if churches are a bit of a headache, then ruinated ones are a thumping migraine. So, why should one retain a church as a ruin? – the ruins of mortality and morality, an anti-Catholic statement as Shenstone thought?

I leave you with Uvedale Price’s commendation: ‘The building which gives most consequence to a village, and distinguishes it from a mere hamlet, is the church. That forms its most conspicuous feature at a distance, and often in the near view a central point, round which the houses are irregularly disposed. Indeed, the church, together with the church-yard, is, on various accounts, an interesting object to the villages of every age and disposition: to the old and serious, as a spot consecrated to the purposes of religion, where the living Christian performs his devotions, and where, after death his body is deposited near those of his ancestors, and departed friends and relations: to the young and thoughtless, as a place, where, on the day of rest from labour, they meet each other in their holyday clothes; and also (what forms a singular contrast with tombs and gravestones,) as the place which at their wakes, is the chief scene of their gayety and rural sports.’

Alas the picturesque is a slippery philosophy. We should always deconstruct its pronouncements: if Price favoured churches as playgrounds, you may be sure that others did not.