George Lewis’ illustrated book of Kilpeck church

Hereford, Dynedor and the Malvern Hills, from the Haywood Lodge, Harvest Scene, Afternoon 1815 by George Robert Lewis 1782-1871
Hereford, Dynedor Harvest Scene,  by George R Lewis

Some extracts from the book entitled Lewis’s Kilpeck Church published in 1842 by George Robert Lewis. He was an artist living in Herefordshire with, amongst others, a painting of ‘Harvesting in Dinedor’ which is part of the Tate Collection. He was a relative of the better known John Frederick Lewis, the orientialist painter and in late 1850s President of the Royal Academy.

This extraordinary book, published in 1842 by Lewis who had first visited the church in 1818, was paid for by public subscription by some 261 subscribers, many of them bishops. It was dedicated to Thomas Lord Bishop of Hereford. The first 18 pages of some 9000 words is entitled On Ecclesiastical Design and is very outspoken, with criticism, amongst other places of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Illustrations of Kilpeck Church by G R LewisThat is followed by another 38 pages of Explanation of the plates, (of which there are 28) which were drawn, probably on site, by Lewis. Many of them are faithfully drawn, but also reflect what clearly he thought ought to have been there. In particular views of the church from various angles are not true to life. A comparison with Lewis’ other images of the church is entertaining! Note ‘his’ cross at the west end where there actually was a belfry. The chancel appears to have neither door nor window!They are reproduced here.

This article reproduces some of his comments, and is only a small sample of his pronouncements; but they could be thought of as revealing how the carvings just might have been planned. The whole book is in the public domain.  Read on………………..


Lewis view from south west
Lewis view from south east

“That scriptural instruction should be the end which an ecclesiastical designer has in view no one will venture to doubt. The important point of scriptual edification they kept in view in the edifices they were building. But though this important point has been lost for the last four centuries, and the scriptures no longer referred to in ecclesiastical design, there can be no reason why it should not be called into activity again; and in these days as we see to our sorrow that in proportion as the respectful and Christian appearance of our churches has been neglected, so have indifference and impiety increased”.(piii)

“If we examine the churches that have been erected since that period (viz days of Henry VIII), we shall find not much scriptural information in their designs, and for this simple reason, ecclesiastical design has been sinking for at least a century previous to those irreligious day.  In such days of infidelity and immorality, nothing else but what we see, confusion, could be expected. For instance the cathedral of St Paul’s in London has been lauded for sublimity and beauty; and it IS a building of great beauty. But do not let us praise it for what it does not possess. It does not appeal to a religious mind as a House of God, and, if it were not for the statues of the Apostles that have been placed upon its ill-assorted upper parts, it would be passed by unheeded as a place of worship. (piv)  ……. There is such a total want of proper placing of these few portions of scriptural representation that we cannot believe Sir Christopher Wren must have been unacquainted with the true principles of design….., or he would have carried out the subject from beginning to the end in the same order as they are arranged in the Scriptures.  ……  A few other churches may here be mentioned to show the absurdities the architecture of classical heathenism has produced in them.” (pv)   Re St Martin’s church, he says ” consisting of a portico borrowed from a pagan temple. The imaginative absurdities and the want of common sense in the architectural arrangements of this ecclesiastical edifice….induce us to condemn the want of Christian character in its design.”

“The church of St Pancras has, in its beginnings with paganism, the caryatids supporting a large stone slab; the object of this appendage I Cannot at present discover. And even if it could be shown to convey useful information, there are so many features in eh Law and the Gospels that they ought to occupy the first place before such inconsistent means are resorted to. We require not the heathen mythology nor their gods and goddesses to remind us off the Holy Scriptures.”(pvi)

“At this game there is no quality of the human mind that requires more correction than conceit. Conceit is ever dangerous when accompanied with ignorance, and is even so when allied with certain talent. When our self-conceit is great, how very often do we bring imagination, sentiment and the fine arts generally to the level of our own limited tests and pronounce judgment accordingly. Let none of us be too hasty in our condemnations, for we must all err on some subjects, as a sound judgment on in all matters cannot be expected from one individual. I have often been laughed at and condemned for my visionary notions, as they have been termed.  …… If we could but keep this vain and unmanly quality in its proper place, we should all have our minds free, open and ready to examine every new subject that may be presented.”(pxii)

South West Kilpeck Church JRLewis-S“I beg to be understood that I consider its present disreputable appearance to have arisen from a far-gone times, when great ignorance and a n arrow-minded dislike for works of imagination and pure Christianity prevailed. Kilpeck church has suffered more from that neglect which the barbarous fanatical days of Cromwell entailed. It behoves every one of a refined mind to exert himself in eradicating these profane notions. These important matters must be taken in hand by the highly ducted, for to expect parishioners of an obscure village to be aware of beauties and intelligence that are in works of imagination is more than we have any reason to do as their  minds are wholly directed to their calling—agricultural pursuits. …..  Respect to the House of God is too seldom entertained. When the House of Prayer gets out of order, our conceit becomes active and decides, without the slightest hesitation, upon cheap repairs, whitewash and plaster keep dirt and defects form view, and beauties also, should there be any. ……. Kilpeck church has been but little seen and the great intelligence its design contains has remained dormant perhaps for centuries or it would have received that respect and care to which it is so justly entitled. I trust now that its deplorable and unsightly appearance will occupy the thoughts of every admirer, and that ere long some effectual means swill be adopted for its restoration. ……I often fancy the gem it must originally have been. It is made, by means of several alterations and unsightly coatings of white, buff and grey wash to be a church of no importance.

North View Kilpeck Church JRLewis -SFortunately I was made acquainted with it when it had its original roof on the apsis(sic), and in the year 1818 I made several sketches of it. I intended the next year to go into Herefordshire for the purpose of drawing every part of it, but professional labours obliged me to visit the continent, and I only found in 1838  a good opportunity for making the drawings necessary to the attainment of that object. In 1811 I saw the remains of a good deal of fresco painting upon the walls and rhe sculptured forms, but I had no opportunity then either to make sketches or notes.  In the Gent. Mag. For May 1833 there is an interesting account and an engraved representation of the south-east view of Kilpeck Church given by Thomas L. Parker.”(pxviii)

illustrations by George R LewisA selection of Lewis’ further explanations on the meanings of the carvings.   Some he admits he cannot interpret, and others have been explained in the 175 years that have followed. Perhaps their interpretations will continue to be of interest and speculation. He pays great attention to scriptual numbers attributed in most places, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15 and more.  To give a sample of Lewis’ explanations, the main article deals just with the west window, and needs to be read in conjunction with his plate 4, here reproduced.

illustrations by George R Lewis“The west view of Kilpeck Church shows a perfect mastery of the first part of the subject (of Ecclesiastical design). The three buttresses below and thee the three sides of the triangle above give the six days of creation, and the light in the centre is the seventh.  The light is full of scriptural information. It has three divisions, each being the Trinity. The first contains in the bases of the columns representations of fish’s (sic) heads to designate the waters. The capitals of the columns are representations of human heads to signify the earth, and the circular part above to be considered the heavens. In the second division there are two interbinding cords of the columns and four of them in the circular form above, making six, and the light or glass makes the  number seven for the days of creation.
illustrations by George R LewisBy a little examination these interbinding cords will be found to differ because the works of the different days of creation differed. The third division is made up of the bases of the columns by two fish’s heads, two shafts, two human heads and four divisions above, making the number ten for the Commandments. In this arrangement we are reminded of our daily labours and Sabbath of rest. The four divisions in the circular from, or heavens, are to denote the first flour commandments which relate to theee Lord our God, and therefore were there placed. The six underneath relate to man, and are placed so accordingly. The human heads have bridles in their mouths to remind us that a bridled tongue shhdeweth wisdom.  The bridles are divided into three parts to show that the Sacred Trinity guides and keeps us in the Law.”

illustrations by George R LewisBelow this window is a collection of heads for which Lewis, assuming they are the twelve tribes of Israel, gives the following explanation. There has not, so far, ever been an explanation of them.

“In what masterly manner has the designer shewn the conceit and pride of this stiff-necked people.  Sin he places at the beginning, working its way into the very heart of them, contaminating every one of them until it arrived at the last, finishing its work with the Molten Calf, its gift of death. The names given to the supporters it appears to me should be thus:– (starting from the north end) 1. The serpent with his destructive jaws extended wide, and foul tongue ready to deceive. 2.  Reuben unstable as water;  3. Simeon, instrument of cruelty;  4. Zebulun shall be for a haven of ships;  5. Asher shall yield royal dainties;  6. Gad shall overcome at the last; 7.  Ischar crouching down between two burdens;  8. Serpent;  9. Judah is a lion’s whelp;  10. Benjamin shall raven as a wolf;  11. Dan an adder in the path; 12.   Napthali is a hind let loose; 13. Manasseh he also shall be great;  14. Ephraim shall be greater than he;  15. The Molten Calf, the serpent’s instrument of deception; 16. The serpent.   The expression of Reuben is unstable, of Simeon unintellectual and reckless. The sheep is given for Asher to denote his occupation as a shepherd. Gad has military appearance. The adder is for Dan, the hind for Napthali, and Ephraim has a more elevated appearance than Manasseh. After such powers of design, are we still to be told that this is a blank, and that it is nothing more than the accidental chissellings of the stone-cutters of that day, and that he who considers them to be intellectual productions is plagued with a disordered imagination ?”

Some other interpretations, many abbreviated here, of which some seem to have real value, others otherwise perhaps difficult to acknowledge!

illustrations by George R LewisThe corbels on the south side nave represent the garden of Eden,  showing Adam and Eve,  Adam and Eve clothed, the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden (the agnus dei) , followed by Cain and Abel and Seth. The corbels on the north side beginning from the east with Noah and his Wife, followed by the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. The south door contains groups of three, seven, ten, and sixteen. He admits that “Of the upper part of arches (i.e. the outer order) I have not yet ascertained their meaning.” On the right side the serpent is poisoning the fruit of the tree of which Adam (the green man) is in the act of partaking; out of his mouth the knowledge of good and evil is proceeding.  The dragon on the left, having been overcome, descends upon earth for mischief.

On the other side are sculptured two men in armour, the upper carrying a mace of a cross and the lower one a sword.  The cross beams are filled with crosses, each with four triangles symbolising the Evangelists. The left arm having nine crosses is to remind us of the in the hour, and the right arm having eight crosses for the eighth day on which our Saviour rose from the dead. Of the figures over the east end, we have the agnu/equus dei which he says is “the Cross carried by the Horse to denote the gospel carried into every part of the world.”

To the south side, starting from the first left hand figure on the apse, we have (in order) the doves for innocence, lust, insanity, friendship (dog and the hare), the beast corrupted (upside down deer),  idiocy, muzzled bear, rebelliousness and finally the sheelah na gig of which he says “represents a fool—the cut in his chest, the way to his heart, denotes it is always open and to all alike.”


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