Tuesday 1 November 2022


 In the latest issue of Literary Review – out today – I rave about a wonderful new book, Country Church Monuments by C.B. Newham. This is a subject that is, of course, right up my street. The review goes something like this (but do buy the magazine – it's the best of its kind and deserves more readers)... 

 This big, hefty book – two inches thick and weighing something over two kilograms – fills a big gap. It fills it handsomely, authoritatively, and on a grander scale than I would have thought possible in today’s publishing climate. Its subject is one of this country’s greatest, but least appreciated and most widely dispersed, treasures: the wealth of fine monumental sculpture that has survived in our parish churches, often in remote and out-of-the-way locations where none but the dedicated church crawler is likely to come across it.
Until now, this treasure has, for the most part, been rather sketchily documented, in Pevsner’s Buildings of England and in a few historical and thematic surveys, notably Mrs Esdaile’s pioneering English Church Monuments, 1510 to 1840 and Brian Kemp’s more recent English Church Monuments, neither of which focuses specifically on the monuments in our country churches. But now we have this compendious, lavishly illustrated volume devoted entirely to just those monuments. I have seldom felt such a thrill of pleasure at the arrival of a review copy.
 C.B. Newham was just the man to write this book. He has a prodigious wealth of knowledge about English and Welsh parish churches, is Director of the Parish Church Photographic Survey, and has an archive of more than half a million photographs to draw on, the product of visits to nearly nine thousand churches. More than 365 of these photographs – all full-page and in full colour, each a master class in how to photograph a monument – are included in this volume. They illustrate monuments in 365 churches, all of them in rural parishes or small towns (under 10,000 in population) and outside the orbit of the M25. The choice is, as Newham candidly acknowledges, ‘completely subjective’, though many of these monuments – for example the Montagu memorials at Warkdon, Nollekens’ monument to Maria Howard at Wetheral, Stone’s masterpiece (the monument to Elizabeth, Lady Carey) at Stowe-Nine-Churches – would be on anyone’s list. For myself, I’d have included, among others, the haunting monument to Sir Adrian Scrope at South Cockerington, Epiphanius Evesham’s Hawkins monument at Boughton-under-Blean, and the moving memorial to the Bray children at Great Barrington. But then, what would I have dropped? Beyond a certain point, these things are indeed subjective, and there is such a wealth to choose from.
 Happily, Newham writes fluently and readably, so his book is as enjoyable to read as it is to handle and look at. It begins with an introduction that includes a short history of the development of church monuments from medieval times to the modern era (a period sadly lacking in good monuments). On the current wave of iconoclasm – seeking to remove monuments to people who have offended against present-day norms – Newham writes: ‘We should not expect all monuments to have been set up to entirely morally admirable people, even if they stand in a place of Christian worship. If, on the basis of contemporary moral judgments, we deface monuments or cause them to be taken down, then the debate is stifled and the opportunity to learn from past mistakes is lost. Our future is nothing without our past.’ Indeed. He is not hopeful – who could be? – when he considers the future of our parish churches, but he is heartened by the fact that, in general, our monuments are in good condition, thanks to grants, money-raising campaigns and the efforts of special-interest groups, and some village churches are finding a new lease of life as venues for community activities or local services such as post offices or part-time shops.
 The body of the book is essentially a gazetteer, divided into eight English regions plus Wales, with a short description of each monument and biographical information on the person memorialised (something rarely supplied in Pevsner). The arrangement within each region is chronological, and each monument is numbered, rather pleasingly, in red. At the end of each regional section come the photographs illustrating its monuments, with those red numbers again. This arrangement, once you’ve got the hang of it, makes the book easy to navigate. After the photograph of monument number 365 – an interesting 20th-century ceramic memorial from St Mary, Tenby – comes a section containing short biographies of each sculptor whose work has won a place in the 365. Then the churches featured are listed by county – historical county, that is: hence Great Mitton, home to some remarkable Sherburne monuments, is listed under Yorkshire West Riding, not Lancashire.
 After a list of ‘Monument Storehouses’, churches with especially large numbers of monuments, Newham addresses an issue of pressing interest to all church crawlers and monument seekers: church access. We are all familiar with the frustration of finding churches locked, sometimes with a list of contacts or the name of a key holder, sometimes with no information at all. ‘When it comes to locking churches,’ Newham writes, ‘in most cases there is very little reason for doing so.’ As he points out, the company that insures most of the churches of England and Wales actually recommends that churches be left open during the day, as this makes them less, not more, vulnerable to theft and vandalism. As a way of facilitating access to churches, Newham has developed an app called Keyholder which allows users to record their visiting experiences, give tips on how to obtain access, and share photographs. This covers more than 15,000 churches and has access information for over 80 per cent of them.
But back to the book: with some notes on the care of monuments, a glossary and an index, this splendid volume ends. Or almost: there are also a couple of pages of acknowledgments, in the course of which Newham tells the encouraging story of how this book came about, after the author was contacted by a publisher at Penguin who had heard about his project of photographically recording every rural parish church in England, and wondered if there was a book in it. There certainly was, and a magnificent book it is – a tremendous achievement, a thing of beauty, and a volume that should have a place on every church lover’s shelves.

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