Book Review: Fifty English Steeples
The Finest Medieval Parish Church Towers and Spires in England
by Julian Flannery
Thames & Hudson, 2016
Julian Flannery, who’s reassuringly if somewhat pointedly referred to in his author bio-note as “a qualified architect,” opens his incredible magnum opus Fifty English Steeples with a bit of chronological place-setting worthy of Gibbon:
England was never more beautiful than in the two brief decades between the completion of [the spire of St. James’s Church in] Louth and the arrival of the English Reformation. The pre-industrial landscape was dominated by the steeples of 17 cathedrals, 900 monasteries and 9,000 churches. The spire of Lincoln Cathedral was the highest man-made structure the world had ever seen, and the construction of the great chapels of Westminster, Windsor and Cambridge had reached its magnificent conclusion. Within a generation the monasteries had been dissolved, church-building had ceased, Lincoln spire had fallen, and medieval England had passed into history.
And what follows in this opulently-produced oversized volume from Thames & Hudson is exactly what’s indicated by the book’s deceptively simple title: the biography, physiology, and sometimes eschatology of fifty great old steeples dotted throughout the country’s past. Flannery is the most self-effacing of guides to the wonders he’s sharing – the better to let the beauty, the craft, and the understated bravery of his subject speak clearly. In page after page of this glorious production, readers are treated to dozens of variations on a theme – the theme being the most beautiful and least practical of all architectural extravagances, a space where no one can live and almost no one can visit, a structure designed not to shelter but to point. “Architecture is the art of building,” as Flannery puts it, “and in the church steeple the artistic impulse is dramatically concentrated, for the brief is simple and the symbolic value is high.”
Flannery takes readers inside the smallest details of those church steeples, providing high-resolution black-and-white photos and architectural renderings of these lovely, spiky things, following their construction along the Great Limestone Belt that runs diagonally down the middle of the island and provided the working materials for skilled masons and architects to build these prayers of verticality.
The stress on architecture (over, say, aesthetics, as the occasional earlier book on the subject has done) can sometimes lead our qualified architect into passages of densely-packed shop talk, which was probably unavoidable. Passages like this one – humorous in their way even for the uninitiated – litter the book’s inviting landscape:
The bell tower at West Walton is of four stages finished by a later parapet and pinnacles. Three arcaded upper stages reduce in height and complexity as they rise. The base is of plain ashlar with pairs of low setback buttresses, decorated with empty niches and carved heads projecting from each corner. Broad arches penetrate through the centre of each elevation, adding great depth to the composition. The rich ornamentation of keeled rolls and dogtooth to the north and south arches contrasts with plain diagonal chamfers to east and west. These dissimilar elevations are tied together by the continuous upper moulding of the shaft capitals, which forms the cill to the niches.
But Flannery is kind enough to provide a glossary, and besides, the obvious main attraction here is the stunning visual presentation: this is a book to place flat on some sturdy surface (the thing is enormously heavy, meant to be studied rather than schlepped around) and revisit in a sense of leisurely awe, reminding yourself regularly that these breathtaking structures were all erected with 4000-year-old technology. Thames & Hudson has produced a mighty gift to architecture fans.