Symondsbury Church stands in the centre of the village, and was probably built on the site of an earlier one.  The date of its construction is not known, but the first Rector of whom there is a record came in 1325. 

The Church was originally Gothic but the pillars are Perpendicular.

The Tower was the earliest part of the present building to be erected, and it is probable that it superseded an earlier Tower.  The whole of the Tower was erected during the latter half of the Fourteenth Century.  The walls of the lower stage are three feet thick, while those of the next stage are increased in thickness by an ingenious ‘corbelling’, and arches over these.

In the North and South Transept there are Hagioscopes or Squints – that is spyholes through which the congregation in the transepts could see the priest at the altar. It will be noticed that the view through the Squints does not now reach the Sanctuary – evidence that the Chancel has been lengthened.

The Transepts, Nave and Porch were certainly erected during the Fifteenth Century.  The roof over the Nave is a Fiftenth Century barrel roof.  It has seven bays each divided into four compartments with moulded purline ridges and transverse ribs and wall plates with shields and carved bosses.  The framework of wood was made at West Bay by the shipwrights there. The South Porch is Fifteenth Century, square and battlemented with gargoyles in the cornices, the outer doorway is pointed with three mouldings, the inner doorway is chamfered.  On the South Porch wall, there was, until recently, a famous old mass dial.  The whole of the ancient stone roof coverings have been removed, and large blue slates of uniform size substituted. 

The church register was started in 1558.

At one time there were galleries in the North Transept and at the west end of the Church which were removed during the restoration of the church in 1920.   At the beginning of this century the music was supplied by a harmonium in the west gallery and it was there that the choir sat.  The Church was full at every service.  The pews were high with tall hinged doors and elegant wooden candlesticks set in the middle of alternate pews – three oil lamps hung from the roof.  Those who sat in the Chancel sat with their backs to the altar, turning to face it when they stood for the Belief.   (The oak doors of the Chancel pews were used for panelling during the 1920s restoration programme).   Next to the Rector’s Desk was a tiny pew for the Church Clerk.  

During the restoration the floors of the building were pulled up with the exception of the paved aisles.  This revealed the position of the vaults below.  The whole of the North Transept below ground level consisted of a sub-divided vault in which 9 interments had taken place, including those of Gregory Syndercombe, Senior, Gregory Syndercombe, Junior, and Gregory Raymond.  A second large vault was found opposite the main doorway containing the remains of members of the Battiscombe family – in whose memory a tablet can be seen high up on the wall above.  The actual burying place of William Gulston, Bishop of Bristol, was not found, but it is understood he was buried in the Chancel aisle.  These vaults were completely filled in with soil removed from under the floor boarding.  Among the soil moved in the Chancel were found several pieces of Fourteenth Century tiles, which were later re-laid near the step of the Font.

The Heating apparatus was put in place during the 1920 restoration.  Mr. Ernest A. Hutchings, a member of the Choir, and an expert engineer, voluntarily carried out the actual installation, helped by the Rector and Messrs. R.G. Follett and P.G. Fry. 

The Choir Stalls are of special interest and value to Symondsbury people – the whole of the carvings, with the exception of four panels in the Clergy stalls were executed by amateurs within the Parish, namely Rev. C.F.L. Sweet, Mr. Sidney Cookson, and Mr. Ernest Hutchings and are therefore irreplaceable.  The four panels in the Clergy Stalls were the work of a lady friend of the Rev. & Mrs. C.F.L. Sweet.  The Stalls and Altar were made up by Messrs. Harry Hems & Sons of Exeter.

The Organ was given in memory of George Charles Waldron Sweet and Leonard Herbert Sweet, Captain 1st Hants Regiment.  Captain Sweet was killed in action June 26th 1916 aged 23 years and Rev. G. Sweet was drowned whilst punting at Oxford, August 7th, 1919, the day following his wedding, aged 29 years.  The Organ was built by Messrs. Griffin and Stroud of Bath.

The Font was formerly the property of the Bedfordbury Chapel in St. Martin’s Lane, London.

Windows west and south of the Tower have Ogee arches, the others are slightly pointed, above, a projecting string course divides it from the Belfry; the embattled parapet on the top of the Tower has gargoyles at the angles.  The Chancel may be part of the earlier Church as traces have been found of a lower and narrower arch with a doorway or window.

The Lethaby Window

William Richard Lethaby (1857-1931)

William Lethaby joined the London office of Norman Shaw in 1879 as the architect’s chief assistant, remaining there until 1889.  His comprehensive experience on, and impressive contribution to, grand country houses as well as the Alliance Insurance building, set him up for private practice and he took with him the doctrines and theories of, as well as Shaw himself, Morris and Ruskin.  Further, he had established himself in the London architectural circle of the day which included such luminaries as Blomfield, Sedding, Cockerell and Spiers. Lethaby built relatively little.  His country houses continued the theme of Webb’s and Shaw’s Domestic Revival, but his All Saints’ Church, Brockhampton (1902) is probably one of the most original churches of its date in the world.

At the end of the 19th century Lethaby turned to teaching.  His contribution was enormous.  As principal of the Central School of Art he was instrumental in the inclusion of teaching workshops for crafts and largely responsible for re-organizing London’s badly neglected craft, architectural and art education.  His appointment to the Technical Education Board of the London County Council was the beginning of a profound change in educational ideas.

In 1900 Lethaby became Professor of Ornament and Design at the Royal College of Art.  There he introduced an elementary course in basic design as fuel for his conviction that such training was the indispensable first step towards industrial design.  But as the RCA began to lean towards painting and sculpture, it was left to German manufacturers in particular to follow Lethaby’s lead and harness the Arts and Crafts movement in the service of industrial education and product design.

In later life, Lethaby concentrated on the care of old buildings.  His work on the fabric of Westminster Abbey – and his plea for conservation rather than restoration – established him as one of the greatest authorities on building conservation.

The Lethaby Window

One day in 1884, William Lethaby was attending a ceremony in the parish church of St. John the Baptist, Symondsbury : the marriage of his friend Prior to the daughter of the vicar.  This was probably the point of origin for an important commission, since it was in that year that the Udall family asked Lethaby and Prior to design a memorial window for the church.  Prior designed the four-light tracery and Lethaby the glass.  Prior based his stonework on the existing fifteenth-century windows; but there was no local precedent for the complex way in which Lethaby piled up the symbols of the Four Evangelists, one above the other, so that the earlier form is represented above the later one.  Its meaning can be read across or up and down and was explained in Lethaby’s laconic note scribbled on one of the cartoons :

Reading the window upwards we have these :

The Garden of Eden and its reference to the Fall

The Gospel

The Four Beasts around the Throne

The Cherubim

The Throne

Reading across – the Gospel History.

The scheme was taken from ‘The Four Evangelists’, a chapter in Mrs. Jameson’s Sacred and Legendary Art; it is encyclopaedic in the sense that Lethaby has fitted into it most of the ways described in that book of depicting the fathers of the church.  His note does not explain the significance of the four columns at the head of the window, but they must be a representation of the passage with which Mrs. Jameson opened the chapter : ‘On the Four Evangelists as witnesses and interpreters of a revealed religion the whole Christian church may be said to rest as upon four majestic pillars’. Lethaby’s iconographic scheme is in fact exactly foreshadowed in Mrs. Jameson’s summing up, in which she described in historical sequence exactly how the ways of representing the Evanglists had changed :

First we have the mere Fact – the four scrolls or four books…next the idea; the four rivers of salvation flowing from on high to fertize the whole earth. Thirdly the prophetic symbol; the winged cherub of four-fold aspect.  Next, the Christian symbol, the four ‘beasts’ in the Apocalypse, with or without angel wings…Then the human personages, each of venerable or inspired aspect as becomes the teacher and witness; and each attended by the scriptural emblem – no longer an emblem but an attribute – marking his individual vocation and character…and holding his gospel. 

This window not only deserves attention as a remarkable work of art; it also illustrates the stage Lethaby had reached at that time (1884) in his theory and practice.  A decade later he would have regarded putting a modern window into an ancient building as an act of vandalism; but there is no evidence that the commission at this time occasioned him any moral conflict.  He did not produce, as Prior had done, a ‘Neo-Gothic’ solution, for he already thought the style a dead duck.  Instead, in what seems to have been a study of Burges’s way, he turned for inspiration to contemporary literature and act (particularly Burne-Jones’s painting ‘The Days of Creation’), and for execution to Worrel, Burges’s own stained-glass maker.  Nor does the window conflict with his interest at that period in classicism.  The design he evolved for the Four Evangelists was the curious outcome of an essentially rational and, for the 1880s, modern approach, combined with a wilful striving to be original. 

Lethaby by Godfrey Rubens, 1986

The Barnes Tapestry

The Barnes Tapestry was created in 2001-2 in memory of Ethel and Frederick Barnes. It was commissioned from Bridport Artist in Textiles (BATS: main designer and co-ordinator for the project, Suzanne Finch) specifically for its site in the new Baptistry, and mirrors the William Lethaby window above to create a unified design for the south wall. It draws on traditions of embroidery that were in their infancy when Lethaby was teaching and translating the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The mural uses several media - dyed and painted textiles, machine and hand embroidery, soft sculpture and quilting. Much of the work in the central flower panel contains about a hundred stitches per square centimetre. (1/2” x1/2”) For this panel we drew on traditions of depicting flowers in textiles that range from the Medieval ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries through the Arts and Crafts movement (via one of the most popular books written at the time for art students and industrial designers, Midgely and Ure’s ‘Plant Form and Design’) to the needlepoint created by thousands of unknown women for church embroideries all over Britain.

The flowers and the dove panel were all worked in wools and silks on a canvas base, a modern reinterpretation of the Medieval method of working on loose open weave material and completely covering the ground (generally in economical split stitch, which you can see here used for the iris leaves). We worked from photographs taken in and around Symondsbury in the year the Tapestry was made, from which Suzanne Finch drew the designs onto canvas. Many of these plants are portraits of individual specimens, notably the central foxglove, a magnificent beast more than three metres high, which was growing by the road on the way to Gore Cross. Almost all the plants are wayside and waste ground flowers.

2001 was a year of foot and mouth which meant that the fields were out of bounds to us - though we do show some of the Symondsbury wild daffodils , and orchids from Ruth Wrixton’s fields. This is a work of celebration of beauty and species diversity, but also of lament: it is not sentimental. We were much aware whilst making it of the fragility of both the human farming community and the ecology of our farmed landscape. Native field and wayside plants are very fragile to intensive farming methods. Even had we been able to work with plants from meadows, the fields themselves have in recent years lost much of their diversity and wealth of species to increasingly intensive inorganic practices. Though many plants have vanished in ‘local extinctions’, recent signs of less intensive practices are hopefully not too late for the eventual return of the balance of species in our grasslands.

The embroiderers’ method is to work a small panel from a line drawing on the canvas and a set of photographs. This means that there is freedom to interpret, and that a good half of the design process is contributed by individual embroiderers. We have evolved this way of working over the past decade, and find that it gives scope for much individual creativity, and creates a lively vibrancy rather than dull uniformity. As a group of friends working co-operatively together, we find that we can harmonise styles easily. Our principal embroiderer-designers were Joan Harlow (who created the dove), Wendy Smith, Sheila Sanford, Suzanne Finch and Dorothy Maxwell. Other contributors were Ann Castle, Anne Escott, Sue Lipscombe, Marjorie Graham, Caryl Jenkins, Marie Phelan, Hazel Robinson, and Sheila Saddington. Suzanne Finch had the job of unifying and sewing all the embroidered pieces together.

The Angels were a very special creation as they were made by over 150 people! The material for their feathers was background painted and dyed by children from Symondsbury School, and then every child in the school painted a feather. Children began making the cords for the angels’ hair, work completed by villagers during the Colmer Festival when more than a hundred feathers were made by local people. The huge task of finishing, lining and machine embroidering all the 300 or so feathers was undertaken by Ruth Wrixton and the Barnes family, helped by Wendy Smith. The angels’ haunting soft sculpture faces, hands and feet were designed and made by local artist Sheila Sanford.

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