January 31, 2012, by Gaby

Perambulations with Pevsner: the local art treasures of Wollaton

Gabriele Neher

Provisions needed for perambulations!What is a perambulation? Apparently, it’s a leisurely walk with the purpose of looking and seeing. It implies poking about, taking your time, and taking in things to see.  That is the OED definition, but in the hands of art historians, it takes on another meaning, too, and it becomes a recce, a sniffing about and a process of discovery. For art historians, too, just the word perambulation evokes the name of one practitioner,  and one only: the architectural historianh Nikolaus Pevsner, whose multi-volume series of The Buildings of England remains an unsurpassed reference guide to the most remarkable architectural structures in England. The  Buildings of England were first published between 1951 and 1974, and have since then run through multiple editions, have been revised, reprinted and updated. But, they remain the essential starting point for an exploration of architectural gems. In fact, one can easily distinguish the ‘serious’ art historian from the amateur impostor by the very fact that one will be clutching a copy of Pevsnser, while the other won’t. Maybe the best parallel to draw is one with the character of E.M. Forster’s Charlotte Bartlett, the Baedeker-clutching traveller  so memorably played by Dame Maggie Smith in Merchant Ivory’s 1985 production of ‘A Room with a View’. In the same way an Edwardian lady needs her Baedeker, an art historian needs a copy of Pevsner. Just carrying a copy of Pevsner imparts an immediate sense of gravitas, dignitas and authority.

But what about the perambulation? For Pevsner, a perambulation is a slow, measured walk where the gentle, pondering  pace of the walk is commensurate with the need for looking. Only at walking pace and by stopping often and preferably in front of something nice to look at, will the most important artefacts and objects be noted. After all, he famously dedicates his Buildings of England  ‘To the driver who gave satisfaction’, presumably not for driving fast, but for patiently travelling through country lanes and facilitating countless perambulations. Or so I for one like to think.

So, is there still time for a perambulation in our fast-paced 2012? Moreover, what can be gained from a perambulation that Pevsner hasn’t already noticed? Well, one January morning three intrepid scholars from the School of Humanities set out to find out for themselves. The walking party was made up of Katharina Lorenz, a classicist and art historian with a strong interest in iconology and iconography;  Gabriele Neher, a Renaissance art historian working on space, gender and power, and finally Jeremy Wood, the School of Humanities resident Rubens supremo and expert on seventeenth- century English art. A motley crew we grant, but with interlocking and complementing interests, ready and eager to bring their joint interests and expertise to bear on a rather fascinating local church, St. Leonard’s in Wollaton. The motley three set out clutching not one but TWO copies of Pevsner (extra gravitas!) , a book on the genealogy of the local Willoughby family, builders of the magnificent neighbouring  Wollaton Hall and, most important of all,  some chocolate.

From the outside, St. Leonard’s is not the most pre-possessing looking church; in fact, Pevsner is quite shirty, and dare I say dismissive in describing it as of the ‘familiar type of this neighbourhood, that is with battlements and a much slimmer spire without broaches’. According to Pevsner, St. Leonard’s glory rests in the exceptional number [of monuments] in a county not rich in monuments. Richard Willoughby (d. 1471) and wife, two brasses of good quality … Henry Willoughby (d. 1528) and his wives, between chancel and s chancel chapel and visible from both sides. The tomb-chest has openwork arches between which statuettes of mourners of unusally fine quality and behind which a cadaver. On the chest the effigy of Henry Willoughby, and to his l. and r. his four (!!!!!) wives, portrayed half his size to fit them in neatly.

N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Nottinghamshire (Penguin Books, first published 1951), pp. 273-4.

Sounds all very nice, but my word, how very  dull. I really can’t see the crowds flocking to St. Leonard’s clamouring for a view of their tomb monuments after that; tantalising descriptions of openwork arches and mourners of exceptionally fine quality don’t necessarily attract everybody.

But read between the lines, have a look for yourself and discover a true marvel. It is in fact quite remarkable how Pevsner can reduce some of the most intriguing, puzzling and exciting monuments within the church to prose that is so remarkably lacking in fizz. Ok, never mind the fizz, what is he actually describing? He is in fact looking at a little church that served as the family mausoleum of local gentry, most particularly, the eminent Willoughby family. The Willoughbys’ inexorable rise to the top of the Nottinghamshire gentry- tree followed quite well-established patterns: a series of advantageous marriages, accumulating a series of royal grants, and all this led to the need for expressing their elevated status through buildings to house their living bodies and monuments to commemorate their immortal souls.

Henry Willoughby’s tomb is exquisite, and even poorly used as the monument has been, this tomb still sings. The effigies on the tob of the tomb slab have, at first glance, lost their colour, but look, only take the time to look, and you can catch a glimpse of its former polychrome glory. Sir Henry’s brown hair contrast beautifully with the blues and reds of his tunic; his golden double-S collar still glints, and the spurs on his feet look as sharp  as ever. St. Leonard’s only gives up its treasures to those who are willing to look, and look at leisure.

And it holds one more ace up its sleeve: the commemorative epitaph for Robert Smythson (1536- 1614), the architect who built both Wollaton Hall and nearby Hardwick Hall, the Derbyshire home of the rather formidable Bess of Hardwick.

Nikolaus Pevsner may have stopped perambulating and might have gone back into his car; he may have been in a rush to go on to see the more obvious attraction of Wollaton Hall, but just for once, the master of the perambulation was clearly in a rush.

Smythson’s epitaph is a gloriously understated marvel of sophistication and elegance. Visually, his epitaph seems deceptively modest, but oh so erudite.

 Conceptually though, it is a world apart from the flashier and more accessible monuments of the Willoughbys. Where the local gentry seek to celebrate their true ‘magnificence’, in the Aristotelian sense of fulfilling their civic duties, Smythson draws attention to his achievements. He is the architect and surveyor of note, whose achievements have earned him a resting place next to his illustrious patrons. Truly, art, intellectual endeavour and the ambition to know has ennobled him.

Art matters. Quite an appealing message to a bunch of academics, really….

P.S.: The motley three have Strelley in their sights, and have been spotted consulting maps for a way to Bottesford. Watch this space…..

 Gabriele Neher






Posted in Humanities matters