And the dragons of West Grinstead.
By PAUL HOLMAN.
I STEP INTO the porch of Saint George’s Church at West Grinstead under a niche for a statue, long vacant.
My first action after entering the nave is to make a circuit of the four stained-glass windows in which dragons are featured in various attitudes of combat, defeat or death: one of these is set into each wall of the building. After I have completed this preliminary inspection, I attempt to read the images as a series, beginning at the east (above), where the dragon ripples on the ground in front of the plunging white horse of the saint, its head thrown back to snap at the metal tip of the lance poised to strike it. In the background there may be seen a castle, its portcullis raised at the start of the path down which the knight has advanced: its grim appearance contrasts with a low breast-shaped hill to the south, a serpent’s holy treasury. A young woman looks on from the middle distance, awaiting the outcome of the battle: she is richly dressed in preparation for her sacrifice, a coronet borne upon her head.
Next, I walk through the chancel and along the north aisle to regard the dragon of the west window. Even while its body is crouched in a submissive posture beneath the armoured feet of its conqueror, its head is twisted up to snarl at him, its mouth incandescent with flame.
Its counterpart in the south lies slain, the coup de grâce administered by a sword held by the knight who stands with one foot on its neck, the other upon an outstretched wing. The sandstone battlements which rise behind him are those of West Grinstead Park, which would have been a mere phantom of a building by the time of this window’s dedication in 1969, having been demolished five years before: the local character of the setting is reinforced by the presence of the oak tree beneath which Pope was said to have written of elementals.
Finally, I cross back to the north, where the dragon lies contemptuously disregarded in defeat, its corpse sprawled on the grass behind its executioner. Both the flag he bears and a scroll miraculously suspended behind his uncovered head, doubly encircled by a garland of leaves and a halo, proclaim him to be Saint George, the patron of the church.
While it is no surprise to encounter dragons within his domain, I had not expected to meet with the hermit there. Yet here he is, stepping out from his chapel, the edge of his robe trailing in his wake. He advances with caution, probing the ground before him with a stick as he goes, a lantern elevated in his left hand. It is not the source of any discernible illumination, in contrast to his eyes, which emit a white blaze. Their gaze is fixed upon the colossal figure of Reprobus, who is travelling eastward towards the sanctuary, the infant Christ borne upon his shoulders. This sacred rider holds the globus cruciger, while the staff clutched by his mount intersects with a pattern of seven stars, an image of Cauda Draconis. Its tip rests between Thuban and Edasich; the Duo Lupi are positioned to the west of its shaft. Fish leap about the knees of the giant as he strides through a river, which flows past a pinnacled city. In the distance, a post mill stands in a field of grain: three birds fly low over the crop in a triangular formation.
This scene occurs in a framed watercolour hung upon the north wall of the church. Two fragments of the mural from which it was copied are still extant, although most of it is concealed under whitewash. The bestial head of Reprobus floats a metre above the picture: a section of landscape, dominated by a crocketed tower and the mill, remains visible to its west.
Opposite these traces of painting, on the wall of the south aisle, is the hatchment of Elizabeth, the widow of William Powlett. This would have been shown outside her residence during the period of mourning that followed her own death, before being conveyed here at her funeral, to be hung in what was then the private chapel of her family, the Wards of Champions. The fact that she had outlived her husband is denoted by the black background of the hatchment, in combination with the lozenge shape of the area occupied by the heraldic arms to which she was entitled by virtue of her ancestry and marriage. These insignia are presented side-by-side: the device of the Wards is a golden cross terminating in fleurs-de-lis, while Captain Powlett is betokened by three swords gathered in a tapering array, their hilts fanned apart, the tips of their blades making contact with each other. The latter emblem is derived from a play of words upon his surname, being a reference to a symbol of Saint Paul, at once the sword of the Holy Spirit and the instrument of the apostle’s decapitation.
The figures of both Elizabeth and William Powlett can be viewed, a few steps further to the west, fashioned in white marble by John Michael Rysbrack, who carved the seven Saxon deities at Stowe. In contrast to such images of gothic liberty, this wife and husband embody a notion of Roman virtue with which they, and the political establishment to which they belonged, would have identified. Their impersonation of the antique extends beyond their classical attire to their blank eyes, into which there have been incised no pupils: in spite of his care for detail, Rysbrack’s handiwork was to appear no better than a superficial exercise in mimicry to the generation of Flaxman, informed by the discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Powletts occupy a canopied space, each resting an elbow upon the oversized funerary urn that obtrudes between them. They hold a pose upon their own sarcophagus, while a dark pyramid, a token of eternity, rises in the background.
So I stand before this master of all the king’s horses, who has diminished over the centuries to become a transmission through a ghost box, a spook to prank kids. His face, beheld at last, is that of a patrician bully, smooth with the untroubled assumption of power: his plump chin rests upon one hand as he casts a possessive gaze upon his companion, as if to summon this survivor to the tomb. Her expression is melancholy: the angle of her head implies that her own eyes do not meet his, even while she raises her outer garment to her hip for his appreciation. He is not Foster. He is Forest. She is not Halima, but Halia, the mother of the snake-born: she had lain with a dragon in the sacred grove. Once he glided back from his sepulchre to dwell among the trees as a white serpent, but the hermit, ever restless and watchful, struck the undying head from his body. While that is buried deep inside a hill, guarded by adders, his spine and limbs, returned to their human form, patrol the woodland or roost within the Sun Oak.
Before I depart from St. George’s, I pause to inspect its visitors’ book, left open on top of a low shelf near the door. The gold design upon its burgundy cover has been painstakingly customised, and its front endpaper is inscribed with a memorial to the donor’s twin sister: a child’s scribble overlaps the border drawn about this in green ink, but does not encroach upon the text itself. The dedication is dated July 1982, with the first entries within the volume being made on the eighteenth of that month: at least a third of its pages remain blank. Hearts and vesicae piscis have been marked in the corners of the last of these, and a girl’s name written, apparently by the same hand, on the rear pastedown.
DRAGONS APEAR IN four of the six stained glass windows of St. George’s. These were the work of the Kempe Studios (1890 and 1892), Florence, Walter and Robert Camm (1922) and Carl Johannes Edwards (1969). Even though it would seem natural for the church’s patron saint to be featured in all of them, the dragon’s adversary is named as St. Michael in the window upon the west wall. His presence, which dominates its southern light, is balanced by that of St. Chamuel to the north: the latter stands amidst a swirl of bats, his right hand closed about the stem of a chalice. The two archangels flank a British officer of the First World War, who kneels before the crucified Christ, while the four horsemen of the apocalypse range in the sky above their heads.
Significant elements of this design are carried over, with only minor modifications, from that made by Florence Camm for a window in the Church of St. Laurence in Meriden, Warwickshire: a memorial to a captain killed by friendly fire in the course of the Battle of St. Julien, this was commissioned in 1920. The most notable difference between the two is that the victor over the dragon is identified as St. George in Meriden, and so lacks the angelic wings of his counterpart at West Grinstead. Although their absence diminishes the symmetry between Chamuel and the merely human saint who stands to his right, it benefits the overall composition by revealing the sinuous length of the dragon’s body, almost entirely obscured in the later window, writhing behind its opponent. Instead of being craned up towards him, its face projects forward, vomiting flames.
In The Golden Legend, Reprobus is a giant who serves first a great king, and then the devil. When he discovers that Satan is terrified by the symbol of Christ, he decides to go in search of this more powerful master. He is tutored by a hermit, who finds him unsuited to a life of mortification and prayer, but puts him to more socially useful work assisting travellers across a dangerous river. In the course of his duties, he carries Jesus, who has assumed the form of a small but agonisingly heavy child, across the water and so becomes the Christ-bearer, St. Christopher.
St. Christopher first appears on church walls in England in the thirteenth century: by the fifteenth, his cult had reached its zenith. It was common practice for his image to be painted directly opposite the main entrance, so that it could be viewed immediately by anybody stepping into the building, or even peering into it from outside. This prominence reflects a popular belief that a mere glance at the saint would protect the onlooker from fatigue, misadventure or sudden death for the rest of that day.
The mural in West Grinstead is thought to date from the early sixteenth century. Its placement upon the north wall of the nave, where these images are most often to be found, has been taken as evidence that a southern doorway would have been in general use at the time. In her thesis on St. Christopher wall paintings, Eleanor Pridgeon casts doubt upon this assumption, on the basis that the mural is later work than the church’s ornate porch, which stands just to its west: this implies that public access to St. George’s would have been from the north then, as it still is today. If her argument is correct, this mural would be one of three surviving examples that were primarily intended for the eyes of the departing congregation.
The figure of Reprobus emerged from long concealment in 1890, in the course of E. P. Warren’s restoration of the church, but had been reduced to a disembodied head by 1892, when J. Lewis André’s account of the discoveries at West Grinstead was published. In a paper read to the Society of Antiquaries of London on 15 December 1921, H. H. Brindley reported that the mural “was not washed over again until it had nearly vanished, and that the portion left exposed is now only just discernable”: his source for this information was the contemporary rector of St. George’s. It is evident that Brindley himself merely had the opportunity to view the watercolour, or the photograph of it which is reproduced with the printed text of his address, and did not manage to inspect what is left of the original.
Born into a family of artists in Antwerp, John Michael Rysbrack (1694–1770) moved to London in the autumn of 1720, and remained based in that city until his death: he was perceived as one of the leading sculptors in England through the entire course of his career, although his reputation did not persist long into the nineteenth century. He had settled into the circle around Lord Burlington within a few years of his arrival in England, and was still seen as a relevant figure at the end of his working life, when Robert Adam, who had newly established his own practice in London, made use of his abilities. Horace Walpole, who was himself a significant patron of Rysbrack, noted: “business crowded upon him, and for many years all great works were committed to him”.
His reputation as a funerary sculptor was established by three works, all designed by William Kent: the monuments to Sir Isaac Newton and General Lord Stanhope in Westminster Abbey, which are showpieces for Rysbrack’s characteristic style, and the rather more baroque memorial to the first Duke of Marlborough in the chapel at Blenheim Palace. Rysbrack alone was responsible for both the plan and execution of subsequent commissions, which inevitably become exercises in the fresh arrangement of stock elements. His authorship of the monument at West Grinstead is evident in the classical styling of the figures, the attitude in which that of Powlett himself is posed, the severely restrained colour scheme of the types of marble used, and the placement and scale of the pyramid: the last of these effectively constitutes a signature in itself.
In spite of its reputed price tag of £2,000, the Powlett memorial is by no means an outstanding example of Rysbrack’s practice. Its lacklustre quality is more likely to be a reflection upon his customary working methods than his skill: he would have executed the carving in his studio at Vere Street, and then had it packed and sent by wagon to West Grinstead, where it would be assembled by a local mason. These remote controlled operations did not always go as intended: one of the sculptor’s proxies struck a blow on behalf of every artist’s technician by signing a monument to Edward Colston in All Saints, Bristol, with his own name; and there is a considerable discrepancy between the complex and graceful design made to commemorate Thomas, 1st Baron Foley, at St. Michael’s, Great Witley, and the rather haphazard arrangement of its final installation.
The Powletts appear to better advantage in an unsigned drawing of the monument from the topographical collection of George III, provisionally dated to the 1780s. This imbues their figures with a lively air, and creates an impression of affectionate interplay between them, which is absent in the sculpture itself. If this engaging sketch was indeed made on site, its artist has taken the liberty to improve upon another aspect of the original: the three swords of Captain Powlett are shown upon the cartouche on the pyramid, which remains blank to this day.
Paul Holman is the author of The Memory of the Drift (new edition, Shearsman 2020) and Tara Morgana (Scarlet Imprint, 2014): please visit taramorgana.com for more information about his writing. The text published here is drawn from an ongoing book project for Scarlet Imprint: other sections can be read in SNOW lit rev, issues 7, 9 and 10 (forthcoming).