Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Wells Cathedral - the finest west front in England

The West Front of Wells Cathedral, Somerset.
Photo: David Iliff [5]

Recently I had the pleasure of collaborating on a Wikipedia article with an online associate, Rod, who is from Somerset and who shares my passion for this wonderful special building, Wells Cathedral.  Our article is to be featured as the main article on the Wikipedia front page on 7th June, 2014.  Rod was a great person to work with: he is very thorough in his research and referencing. Moreover, when I looked at the cathedral, from 10,000 miles away on Google maps, and suggested that he park by a certain stone wall and stand on his car to take a photo, he did. When I asked him to crawl around on the floor to photograph the bottoms of the seats of the choir-stalls, he did. He also took the most exquisite photograph of the cathedral across the pool in the Bishop's Garden that has been taken for the last 140 years, and not, satisfied with that, went out and bought a camera on a little helicopter thing, and zoomed in on the west front and the roof. 

On Wikipedia, one is only supposed to write what is referenced (that is the rule, particularly if you want to get a gold star sticker on your work). This means that I cannot publish my "Original Research" in the article.  So I am putting it here.  

Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden
photo: Rod W [6]


Wells Cathedral is a Church of England place of worship in Wells, Somerset dedicated to St Andrew the Apostle, and is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. As with other cathedrals, it is the mother church of the diocese and contains the bishop's throne (or "cathedra"). The present building dates from 1175 to 1490, an earlier church having been built on the site in 705. It is moderately sized among the medieval cathedrals of England, falling between those of massive proportion, such as Lincoln and York, and the much smaller cathedrals of Oxford and Carlisle. With its broad west front and large central tower, it is the dominant feature of its small cathedral city and a landmark in the Somerset countryside. Wells has been variously described as "unquestionably one of the most beautiful"[1] and as "the most poetic"[2] of English cathedrals.

The architecture of the cathedral presents a harmonious whole which is entirely Gothic and mostly in a single style, the Early English Gothic of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. In this Wells differs from most other English medieval cathedrals, which have parts in the earlier Romanesque architectural style introduced to Britain by the Normans in the 11th century. 

The interior of Wells Cathedral, looking east.
The scissor-shaped arches were inserted in the 14th century
to strengthen the tower. Photo: Joseph Renalais [7] 

Work on the cathedral commenced in about 1175 at the eastern end with the building of the choir. The historian John Harvey considers this to be the first truly Gothic structure in Europe, having broken from the last constraints of Romanesque. The stonework of its pointed arcades and fluted piers is enriched by the complexity of the pronounced mouldings and vitality of the carved capitals in a foliate style known as "stiff leaf". The exterior has an Early English façade displaying more than three hundred sculpted figures, and described by Harvey as "the supreme triumph of the combined plastic arts in England".[3] The eastern end retains much ancient stained glass, which is rare in England.

Unlike the many English cathedrals of monastic foundation, Wells has an exceptional number of surviving secular buildings associated with its chapter of secular canons, such as the Bishop's Palace and the Vicars' Close, a residential street which has remained intact from the 15th century. The cathedral is a scheduled monument and is designated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building. (end Wikipedia)
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Possibly Fairyland. View into the Lady Chapel from the Retrochoir
Photo: Mattana [8]

As indicated above, the interior of the cathedral is quite remarkable, setting a new standard for architectural design, that is "truly Gothic". No more stout columns; they are all transformed into clusters of slim vertical shafts. No more round arches; all the arches are pointed.  There is a wonderful elegance about the interior.  The vista from the Choir, through the Retro-Choir to the Lady Chapel has been described as "like Fairyland", but I wasn't allowed to include that quotation on Wikipedia because it was OTT.  

What I want to say here pertains to the West Front. 

The West Front 

The west front is 100 feet (30 m) high and 147 feet (45 m) wide,[91] and built of Inferior Oolite of the Middle Jurassic period, which came from the Doulting Stone Quarry, about 8 miles (13 km) to the east. According to the architectural historian Alec Clifton-Taylor, it is "one of the great sights of England".

West fronts in general take three distinct forms: those that follow the elevation of the nave and aisles, those that have paired towers at the end of each aisle, framing the nave, and those that screen the form of the building. The west front at Wells has the paired-tower form, unusual in that the towers do not indicate the location of the aisles, but extend well beyond them, screening the dimensions and profile of the building.

The West Front of Wells Cathedral, Somerset.
Photo: David Iliff [5]
The west front rises in three distinct stages, each clearly defined by a horizontal course. This horizontal emphasis is counteracted by six strongly projecting buttresses that define the cross-sectional divisions of nave, aisles and towers, and are highly decorated, each having canopied niches containing the largest statues on the façade.

At the lowest level of the façade is a plain base, contrasting with and stabilising the ornate arcades that rise above it. The base is penetrated by three doors, which are in stark contrast to the often imposing portals of French Gothic cathedrals. The outer two are of domestic proportion and the central door is ornamented only by a central post, quatrefoil and the fine mouldings of the arch. 

Above the basement rise two storeys, ornamented with quatrefoils and niches originally holding about four hundred statues, with three hundred surviving until the mid-20th century. Since then, some have been restored or replaced, including the ruined figure of Christ in the gable.

Architectural decoration and sculpture on a buttress of the West Front
Photo: Mattana [9]

The third stages of the flanking towers were both built in the Perpendicular style of the late 14th century, to the design of William Wynford; that on the north-west was not begun until about 1425. The design maintains the general proportions, and continues the strong projection of the buttresses. 

The finished product has been criticised for its lack of pinnacles, and it is probable that the towers were intended to carry spires which were never built. Despite its lack of spires or pinnacles, the architectural historian Banister Fletcher describes it as "the highest development in English Gothic of this type of facade".[4]  (End Wikipedia)

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Last year, I posted this on the discussion page of the Wikipedia article. I am presenting it here, slightly modified, as my own research. 

William Wynford undoubtedly had spires in mind, when he designed the towers. Actually the spires on the west front that I have recreated (see below) are of an earlier design, perhaps what Thomas Norrey would have visualised 150 years earlier. Either way, it didn't happen. Nikolaus Pevsner bemoans the fact that the towers were not built as Norreys would have intended. We don't know whether Norreys wanted spires or not. But it is absolutely clear from the form of the towers that William Wynford (late 1300s) planned them. I might draft some towers that have more of the early-mid 1200s style about them. (Tamsyn Taylor, 2 March 2013) 

Thomas Norreys' West Front,  completed by about 1260

The West Front that Thomas Norreys designed (1230-60) was plainly intended to have towers. The massive buttresses that are around three sides of each tower are a clear indication of that. The proportions of the various horizontal stages are increasingly taller. There was intended to be a taller storey on the early ones. That horizontal course that runs right around on the second level, below the stepped gable, is the visual foundation for the upper stage of the towers, eventually built to a design other than Norreys' in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. 

When William Wynford (or whoever it was) looked at the West Front a hundred years after Norreys, architecture had changed a good deal. I say "whoever it was" because on one hand the suggested date of 1365 is too early to be Wynford as he would have been a kid at the time, but on the other hand, the style looks like Wynford, and, Oh Boy, was he a competent designer! He is the person creditted with taking the old Norman nave at Winchester and literally carving a Pependicular nave out of the existent material.

William Wynford's south-west tower, completed about 1395

So Wynford looked at what Thomas Norreys had designed. He looked at the mathematics of the progression in height of the existent stages, and knew how high the next stage was to be. The proportions gained from this calculation informed him that the towers were not going to be high enough and would need a least one more stage, presumably spires rather than very tall towers

He looked at the buttresses and saw that one of the design problems was how to diminish the massive buttresses in the next stage, which he did, on a level with the uppermost horizontal of the stepped gable. (more about the buttresses to come)

Wynford looked at the architectonic decoration that was plastered all over every surface of the earlier work, including the buttresses, where it is not entirely expected. There were niches, quatrefoils, mini-gables, and dozens of fine marble shafts, attached to the stonework with little bangles. Not to mention half a zillion statues. But this was the 14th century, Man, and it was a New Era!.... 

A second tower was added 1425-35, maintaining Wynford's design

So he is very selective. He takes the tall blind arches between Norreys' buttresses and makes them his main motive for the wall surface of the tower. But he has taken on board the significance of the niches in the buttresses at the lower level and uses the same division in the upper window. Then, cunningly, he runs a shaft right down the centre of each of his wide arcades, passing visually through the slits in middle section and linking with the verticals of the windows at lowest.
He has omitted the marble shafts and their bangles, but he has made up for this by rotating the various attached mouldings so that they form knife-edges which cast sharp shadows in a similar way to the marble shafts, and on a dull day, they still catch the light, stressing the multitude of verticals, while minimising the amount of time/cost/skill that it took to achieve the effect. 

Details of the changing cross-section of the tower as it rises.  [12]

When we look at the Wynford's buttresses, we see that he has given them all little corner pillasters and pinnacles, which again have been rotated in relation to the main surface. This is important, because it is introducing something major. 

At the same height as Norreys' main facade gable, Wynford has given each buttress its own little gable, framed by two pinnacles. These terminal details are the sign that the buttress is about to take a major step back. This lessens the weight, both in actuality and visually. 

But at this point we become aware that something odd has happened. As hinted by the angled pinnacles, the buttresses themselves have become angled. Each corner of the tower is effectively rotated so that the outer surface of the tower no longer has four planes. It now has eight.

There is only one possible reason for the architect to do this. He is creating a structural and visual merge between a square tower and an octagonal spire.

For any architect who designed a tower that was intended to take a spire (particularly a stone spire) this was the ultimate challenge- how to build a tower on square plan that subtly merged into an octagonal plan. 

The basic solution is purely structural- build some squinches inside the tower and stand the spire on them. If the chapter or the bishop says it looks clumsy, then you add broaches to the tower or pinnacles at the corners. If they still complain you add battlements round the edges and tall poppies above the belfry windows.

But not William Wynford. What he was attempting here is something very much more subtle: a tower of square plan that gently becomes an octagon as it rises through the third stage. 
Hypothetical reconstruction of Wynford's plan for completion of the West Front

On the evidence that I have, I am sure that Wynford planned another stage to the tower, before the actual springing of the spire. At this stage, the octagonal form would have become clearly apparent. He would have thought of a method of drawing in the corners while narrowing and emphasising the four cardinal surfaces of the tower. My thought is that he may have planned a single wide opening with a central shaft. 
Above this stage, the spires would have raised themselves effortlessly to Heaven.

(NOTE: I have manipulated various bits of the existent architecture in order to produce the intermediate stage to something like the effect that Wynford must have had in mind.  This additional stage is shown in the image.)

While Nikolaus Pevsner bemoans the fact that the original scheme was not completed, I regret that Wynford's solution was not taken to another stage. There are only a few Gothic spires that do this really well. (Tamsyn Taylor, 3rd March 2013) 

This is perhaps what William Wynford had in mind when he built the south-
west tower (right) between 1360 and 1403. [10]

References and acknowledgements

1. Robin Oggins, "Cathedrals", Stirling Publishing Company (1996)
2. Alec Clifton-Taylor, "Cathedrals of England", Thames & Hudson, (1967) 
3. John Harvey, "English Cathedrals", Batsford, (1961) 
4. Banister Fletcher, ''The History of Architecture on the Comparative Method" (1961 edition) 
5. Photo of the West Front of Wells Cathedral: David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA  3.0. High resolution image at Wikimedia Commons 
6.  Photo of Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden: Rod W.  License: CC-BY-SA  3.0. High resolution image at Wikimedia Commons  
7. Photo of the interior of Wells Cathedral: Joseph Renalais.  License: CC-BY-SA  3.0. High resolution image at Wikimedia Commons 
8. Photo of the Retrochoir of Wells Cathedral: Mattana (2008) License: Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons 
9. Photo of sculpture and details of the West Front: Mattana (2008) License: Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons 
10. Cut'n'paste of two images sourced at Wikimedia Commons. If anyone can identify the spires, please leave a message.  
11. Photo of the misericords by Rod W. License: CC-BY-SA  3.0 
12. Black and white image adapted from photo by David Iliff, No. 5, above. 
13. Wikipedia: Wells Cathedral

I am sure that you wanted to know what was lurking beneath
the seats of the choir stalls. Two people sharing a drink and
a chap for whom it was the wrong moment to be disturbed.
Photos: Rod W. [11]

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