- Stunning setting, with a beautiful view from the village
- A fine, stately interior
- Charming floral benchends by Somerset artisans
- An astounding variety of very high quality wood carving by the Pinwill sisters
- The pulpit is one not to be missed
- The staggering altar back (reredos) leaves one breathless
- The stone altar tomb in the south chapel has ravishing late Renaissance decoration
- The windows have such marvellous spider webs of leading
- All in all, this church is surely one to savour, and to enjoy every beguiling detail
Approaching Ermington Church
Take this path from the village square and Ermington church just swaggers into magnificence, with a thirteenth century tower, fourteenth century spire (rebuilt in the nineteenth), and artful additions at various points thereafter. It is a breathtaking view, so Devon, and yet… go inside and there is so much more, wonderfully so…
Ermington church on the outside
But first this ravishment, the fourteenth century priest’s door into the chancel with a quality that shows the importance of the priest and the sacred space within.
The arch here is called a multi-cusped ogee arch; ‘multi-cusped’ referring to the many pointy bits going around the inside and ‘ogee’ referring to how the outside of the arch kind of swoops in a tad before continuing upwards.
A goodly touch here is the carved ring where the two sides of the arch meet at the top, as if holding them together and bringing attention to the burst at the top, probably a budding flower, or is it fire… ?
The main door
On the other hand the south doorway is a deal more muscly in a ‘just look at my jambs’ kind of way; it was most likely installed at about the same time as the two aisles in the fifteenth century. The actual porch, on the other hand, is about a hundred years earlier so the idea was to put some grand aisles in and renew the main entrance to match them.
Does the job for me even after all this time.
Entering Ermington Church
Inside is a beautiful calm space, flooded with light from the clear windows, a marvellous space at that. That lovely chequerboard floor surely helps with too, with its blacks and whites bouncing off each other.
Notice too, if you will, how the altar back (early twentieth century) showing the Nativity is perfectly framed by the seventeenth century screen door. Dead sharp, that.
Once we have savoured the airy interior, and it is well worth some generous basking time, we can notice the woodwork, and this is going to be a true enchantment in more ways than one.
For not only is there an ocean of nineteenth and early twentieth century carving, reaching back to medieval traditions, but also this church is ground zero for one of that era’s three best wood carving workshops in Devon.
And that is very high praise indeed.
The floral benchends
So the story starts with these peaches, by Trusk & Co of Somerset, more particularly by Giles the carver, possibly others too but his name we know.
The wood seems hardly able to contain the riot of foliage, promising to break out and tendril the church in its beauty. Passion flowers, blackberries and wheat, I reckon.
These were part of the great church restoration of 1885-18889, five years after the Rev Pinwill arrived with his seven children in 1880.
Monkeys and the Pinwill sisters
Three of the Rev Pinwill’s daughters, Mary, Ethel and Violet, learnt wood carving from Giles the carver, with full support from their parents; learning this skill was considered a goodly occupation for young ladies.
Though it must have been so much easier to learn from an artist who had the wit and humour to scatter these pretties around his carvings. A total delight.
But what happened next was unusual. Unique even. The three women went into the carving business for themselves, setting up a company and getting commissions from all over Devon and Cornwall and further afield. They were that good.
They had brilliant support from Edmund H Sedding, a London architect who oversaw the restoration of Ermington church on behalf of his uncle JH Sedding, and ended up staying down in the south west, but most mainly they had the genius that led to that support.
In time two of the sisters left the company, and the youngest carried on down here until she died in 1957. Brilliantly carried on. Her work is very, very good. Let us look at two examples of Pinwill work, if you will; in this church, as it happens…
The Pinwill sisters’ early commission
The pulpit. Take a moment. It is symphony in shapes and shadows, and like any symphony it takes few listens for its exuberances to sweep one away; gothic arches, an almost Art Nouveau frieze at the top, a splendidly dynamic interpretation of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (spot the hand of God at the top) front centre, graceful statuettes, and cherubs along the bottom.
It is busy, it crams in a lot, yet it works most excellently. For sure there is a bit of ‘let rip and show them everything we can do’ but with this level of talent… Jeepers creepers, it is crackerjack.
And just to remind ourselves, the ladies were 19, 18 and 15 when they did this.
Oh, and the cherubs, they are said to be portraits of the Pinwill family, the sisters especially, in the centre. Lovely little details.
But stay awhile, and check out the scenes on the pulpit. Here be limitations. The figures are, to some extent, wooden; some of those arms are a bit suspicious, that lady holding the child is a little off, the hands, hhhm.
But to some extent only, not surprisingly as this was the beginning of their careers and the dynamism of the composition makes up for a lot. I only point all this out because we are going to see some later work…
Violet Pinwill’s astounding creation
… like this. Big. Awesome. Extraordinary. Brilliant. Well, thank you, Captain Obvious, I had not noticed…
This altar back (reredos), which would not be amiss in a major London church, was created in 1911, when Violet (37 now) was operating the business on her own, and it shows her facility with stone carving too. The alabaster Nativity is said to be based on a Burne-Jones design, him being one of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite artists and all.
The frontal view
As one commenter said:
There is an etiolated bonelessness to that lower frieze that could well have been influenced by Burne-Jones, rather at odds with the more robust Low Countries renaissance set of panels above it, but sure makes for a cracking ensemble.
And he is correct, there is well-thought tension between the styles which helps brings the whole alive, along with a fine consideration of its positioning and depth of carving.
The size of the whole blocks the East Window and runs the risk of the details disappearing into shadow, but the window to the right is clear and big, and lets in wealth of light. The deep carving, I venture, is designed to catch this light whatever the weather, and display the figures and scenes to their greatest effect.
The Descent from the Cross
So, compare this carvings with that on the pulpit shown previously. The difference is phenomenal. Here we have real bodies, with muscles both tense and loose, clothes that drape just so, and a dynamism that the square frame hardly contains. It is a real work of glorious art.
And that is not to start on the faces of the two carrying the body of Jesus, gazing tenderly at their dead teacher, a tenderness only matched by the way they carry his body as if embracing him with such a deep love. These are folk who know a rough life and have the bodies to prove it, and yet… and yet… love and gentleness, as Christ taught…
Violet is so good, so very good.
A gorgeous old piscina
Next to the altar is this fourteenth century piscina, a niche and drain for rinsing out the Communion vessels. It is a delicate survivor and is the same style as the priest’s door shown earlier, multi-cusped and ogee-headed with that ring on top and the delicate budding plant; life from stone, creation from nothingness, the Divine in all.
There are a few other medieval piscinas dotted around, to serve other altars, because after all who in their right mind has a glorious church and only puts one altar in it… ? Early Protestants, that is who… though to be fair they did have their reasons, as arguable as they might have been.
Dead neutral I am, in case you have not noticed.
Floral poppy heads
And before we leave the chancel, the choir stall poppyheads are sweethearts, all Art Nouveau-ish as they are. The different shapes turn the dial up from charming to entrancing, I am thinking.
These are probably Giles the Carver’s contribution, and my, does he have a gift. Mind you, I bet he was so very proud of his Pinwill pupils too.
The Rev Pinwill’s hard fought renovation
And the woodwork, taken as a whole… glorious.
In truth, The Rev Pinwill had a bit of a battle to renovate this church even though it was in such bad condition. Some of the parishioners were not happy with him placing a cross on the altar, there was even the odd cry of ‘Pope’ directed at him; some apples too, it has been said, and not in a goodly way.
Mind you, it could well have just have been the usual suspects with a drink or three inside them, and the Rev did end up staying for 44 years, so high-five to him.
But this whole design is a very nice homage to past simplicity and present beauty. It is most subtle and the loveliness is in the details, not bouncing off the walls.
Apart from the altar back of course. For all its delights, subtle does not really turn up to that party. Hey ho.
The Late-Renaissance tomb
Which is kind of appropriate because subtle was not invited to this knees-up either.
In the south chapel lies this seemingly repurposed altar tomb. The slab on the chest has 5 crosses, in the centre and at each corner, as were traditionally carved into altar surfaces to symbolise the five Wounds of Christ from which all the Holy Sacraments flow (including, importantly, the Eucharist which was celebrated here).
But then, around 1570, Christopher Chudleigh’s father-in-law did it up as a memorial, either adding the canopy or recarving it. The dragons on top are definitely an addition from Dead Chris’s time.
The structural style is late Medieval, quite old-fashioned for its day though Devon has not usually been one to leap on a fashion bandwagon. It does not even have an inscription, which were becoming much more common at that time.
But it does have all those coats of arms making clear the family and the connections of Dead Chris, clearly repainted but the vibrancy might be closer to the original idea than faded, peeling colouring.
And it does have the added carving. Oh does it so very much.
Elegant Mannerist carving
My heart, that is fun with a capital F; all twirly and curly and full of delicious creatures. It is a form of carving called Mannerist; elongated figures, spirals and sinuous shapes all check the Mannerist boxes; born in Italy from the High Renaissance whose top celebs are so well-known (Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo) it lingered long in Northern Europe, and likely longer still in Deep Devon.
Mind you, it really needs to be seen in the big art, like paintings and sculpture, rather than this little old piece; even here though we can get a sense that those who see it as a somewhat of a bridge between the High Renaissance and the Baroque might have a point.
But mainly it is such a delight here, and sharp as the day it was carved. Brilliant.
The spider web leading and light
The window glass installed in the nineteenth century renovation is another pleasure. Spider web, or cobweb, leading it is called for obvious reasons – the leading refers to the fact that all those little bards are made from lead, so it is pronounced ‘ledding’.
It makes for great shadows and reflections as the sun moves around, as we can see, and on cloudy days the lead patterns break up the huge windows…
Trumpeting the talent of Violet Pinwill
And yet the very last word surely has to go to Violet Pinwill and this angel. There are two of them on the altar back, and when I first saw them I thought they might be eighteenth century, which often used the style, but looking closely I suspect they are by Violet herself.
The fluidity of the posture is one clue, and the way the the angel is standing naturally balancing the weight of the wings with the trumpet. Then there is the folds of the robes, very naturalistic, similar to the other carvings on the piece.
It is corker alright, and though it is probably trumpeting the praises of the risen Christ, who is also hanging in this hood, I would like to think it is really here for somebody else; sent by Mr Big Bang himself to give Violet the honour that she deserves.
Because she does, you know, she does oh so very extremely so.