Architecture is the name given to man-made structures (the built-environment) and has been classified in many ways. One can talk of ecclesiastical, of defensive or of domestic architecture. It may be described as Norman, Gothic, Renaissance, classical, Georgian, Victorian, modern or even post-modern. It can be created by trained designers or it can just be traditional without any known specialist exponent; this is usually known as vernacular architecture.
The A&T area contains a few quite remarkable buildings of various historical periods amongst those near the top of the scale is Christchurch Priory, an ecclesiastical edifice of quite exceptional merit revealing a range of medieval styles with Norman work (12th century) in the nave and parts of the transepts to gothic work (15th-16th centuries) largely in the eastern part. A good building for those wishing to understand medieval architecture to see such a wide range displayed in a single structure – one might describe it as a textbook in stone. And, nearby as a special treat, are the substantial ruins of a late Norman period house with sufficient remains to be fairly easily understood by the layman.
More specialist is Hurst Castle which is outstanding for showing military architecture of two main periods, namely the Tudor fort of the 1540s in the centre and the huge Victorian wings of the 1860s-70s to the east and west constructed largely of granite and revealing many defensive features of the period.
Churches and their monuments
Churches generally make up the best array of accessible historical buildings, most with a succession of modifications made over the centuries, but the New Forest is not really that well endowed with such examples. I often think of them as charming buildings rather than as exemplars of architectural styles. Take, for example, St Nicholas’s at Brockenhurst or All Saints’ at Minstead, or, with the same dedication, the church at Milford-on-Sea.
Perhaps the finest early Georgian period church is that on the high ground, overlooking the lovely meandering Avon, at Hale, in the north-west of the New Forest. A simple entry in the parish register succinctly tells us all “The Church was begun building, that is, the addition Mr. Archer builded” in the year 1717. So we should be celebrating its tercentenary this year. I would like to dwell upon it for a moment for not only is the setting a wonderful delight, but the interior contains an outstanding surprise. This is the fine monument to Thomas Archer (c.1668-1743), a practitioner in the band of renowned and nationally important architects of the early 18th century, and his two wives. It stands against the south wall of the south transept and is the finely executed in the classical style. Its centre has the reclining figure of Archer himself, to my eyes looking somewhat uncomfortable on a Roman-style sarcophagus, gazing towards the standing figure of his rather ‘dishy,’ if pensive, first wife contemplating a human skull cupped by her right hand extended at arm’s length— I suppose as a reminder of mortality. Rather puts one in mind of Hamlet—“Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest…” Eleanor, Archer’s first wife, tragically died of that 18th century recurrent scourge of smallpox, while carrying their child and before she had fulfilled a first year of marriage. Below, appears the long carved inscription (happily in Latin) on a large panel, which we are informed was penned by Archer himself but given a third person gloss; so I suppose it must be correct. After listing details of his academic studies, he waxes lyrically on his four years on the ‘grand tour’ to complete his education. “Having returned to England fully adorned with striking figure, handsome body and with noble limbs, he shone forth at Court, the most beautiful ornament and glory of youth”. It, therefore, seems surprising that the beautifully carved standing, figure of his second wife (Anne, née Chaplin), is depicted looking outwards and not directly at the ‘striking figure’ of her husband. And one must wonder what can that volume be that she holds surreptitiously in both hands directly away from Thomas?
But we mustn’t forget the church itself. Quite a small cruciform building (the two transepts are entirely Archer’s work) largely composed of irregular ashlar blocks of local brown iron stone, punctuated by Doric corner pilasters in contrasting white limestone. Not especially remarkable but singularly satisfactory in its delightful setting and just a stone’s throw from Hale House, which was rebuilt by Archer and later greatly modified by Henry Holland.
Opposite Hale, across the river and water meadows, lies the ancient village of Breamore with a building that Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83) described as being “by far the most important and interesting Anglo-Saxon monument in Hampshire.” (Buildings of England, Hampshire, 1967). I cannot begin to do this fascinating church justice here but I will draw my readers’ attention to the small 18th century stone plaque set in the external wall of the south transept which very baldly and unequivocally instructs its readers to “Avoyd fornication.”
The valley of the River Avon, defining more or less the western extent of New Forest has many interesting buildings. At Ibsley, for example, there is a brick built church dating to the year of the Reform Act and having John Peniston of Salisbury as its architect. It strikes me very much in the style of the early Victorian Commissioners’ Churches as exemplified, for example, by those of Sway (St Luke 1839) and East Boldre (St Paul by John Tulloch of Wimborne, also 1839). Ibsley, however contains (or contained for it became redundant a few years ago), a splendid if somewhat mysterious monument to Sir John Constable (died 1629) and his wife, who kneel together and bring forth from a vine growing between them their five children, their little carved heads arranged fanwise. Interesting that it should predate the church by two centuries: I presume it came from an earlier church? Then the next church downstream is Ellingham noted perhaps, especially, for the huge triangular coloured sundial that completely fills the pediment of the Georgian porch.
Monuments in Christchurch Priory Church
But let us move on down the valley to the splendid priory church in Christchurch for this contains two monuments that are, in totally different ways, intriguing. The more instructive of the two is that dedicated to Harriet Susan, Viscountess Fitzharris, the wife of James Edward, Viscount Fitzharris of Heron (later Hurn) Court (later 2nd Earl of Malmesbury). The inscription imparts the sad fact that she died in the “32nd year of her life” on Monday, 4th September 1815. The monument is a pedestal surmounted by a beautifully executed and rather touching seated figure of Harriet Susan cradling a child on her lap while her two small sons stand in front of her gazing into their mother’s face as she reads from a book resting on her knee, supported by her right hand. This little domestic ensemble was sensitively carved by John Flaxman (1755-1826), a leading exponent of neoclassicism. I find it intriguing to relate the figures to real life. The taller boy, James Howard Harris, in due course became the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury (1807-89) who served for a short period as foreign secretary and, later, Lord Privy Seal, and has left a quite entertaining two-volume account in the Memoirs of an Ex-Minister (1884). Harriet Susan’s epitaph is one of great empathy written by her bereaved husband, James Edward Harris (1771-1841). I would like to quote a little from its text:
“Gifted by Nature with uncommon beauty of person and countenance, possessing manners equally dignified and engaging, she never allowed herself to be influenced by the flatteries and allurements of the World, but enjoyed with rational cheerfulness those hours which she could spare from the performance of her domestic duties, the care and education of her children [who] were her darling objects, on them she bestowed the vigilant fondness of a mother, and the successful efforts of a well-cultivated mind…So fully prepared was she at all times for another World, that the sudden and unexpected approach of death could not disturb the sweet serenity of her mind, nor did one repining word escape her thro’ fourteen days of acute suffering, but awaiting her end with the utmost composure and resignation, she calmly gave her soul into the hands of her Creator, quitting all she loved with these words ‘I have had my full share of happiness in this World’.”
Interestingly, she is not interred at Christchurch but in the cathedral at Salisbury, but her husband considered a monument in Christchurch was fitting and appropriate as he was “persuaded that where she was best known there would her many virtues longest live in the recollections of her friends and neighbours.”
A great contrast is provided by the beautifully executed but rather curious monument set beneath of tower of the priory church. It is strange in several ways. It commemorates one of the finest of the English Romantic poets, the radical and atheist Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) who was drowned whilst sailing off the beach at Viareggio, in 1822. His body was washed ashore and cremated on the beach, though it is recorded that his heart was first removed and later given to his widow, which, after her death, ended up in his parents’ grave in St Peter’s churchyard in Bournemouth. His ashes are interred in the British Protestant Cemetery in Rome.
Henry Weekes (1807-77), an acclaimed Victorian sculptor, was engaged to carve his monument, completed in 1853-4. It depicts the bloodless corpse of a sea-saturated Shelley with realistic details including a frond of sea wrack wrapped around his arm. We are told that the monument was “the subject of contemporary critical acclaim” and was intended originally to adorn St Peter’s. But, I think, because of his atheism, was rejected for that church and finally found its resting place in Christchurch.
Highcliffe Castle: a romantic beginning and a tragic end
Moving eastwards along the coast we come to Highcliffe Castle we find the significant, partly restored remains of what once was a large and impressive mansion. I clearly remember as a child being taken on visits before the war and its impressive grandeur left an indelible and enduring mark upon my memory. Substantial accounts of this nationally important building have appeared regularly in the A&T over the years and particularly the vicissitudes it has undergone since the two devastating fires in 1967 and 68.
Violet Stuart Wortley in her autobiography (Life without Theory, 1946) draws a fascinating image of the very beginnings of the castle: “It was a day in summer that the erstwhile Prime Minister [John, Lord Bute, 1713-92] came to the New Forest in search for rare botanical specimens…He saw the English Channel from Christchurch Bay opposite the Needles. Sheer delight in the marvellous view took him to the edge of the cliff… the marvellous view rooted him to the spot. He camped there until he could get Robert Adam (1728-92) to come and plan a house that would ‘command the fairest outlook in England’… Lord Bute’s idea of a seaside residence was one demanding over thirty bedrooms, two libraries, morning room, drawing room, dining room, breakfast parlour and study, an elegant saloon forty-one feet long, an organ room and also a laboratory…a fossil room, a conservatory 250 feet long, a riding house, stabling for ten horses…” This impressive first mansion, by one of the leading architects of the day, was later pulled down and replaced with the building we know today.
After a short life the original castle was demolished in 1794 and Lord Stuart de Rothesay, became the new owner of the property. He engaged a fairly obscure architect, William Donthorn (1799-1859), to design and oversee the building of the great house whose surviving parts we see today. But the story is so well-known that I need not take up space to retell it here.
This article was written by the President of the LDHS Jude James. We are grateful to him for allowing us to use publish it on our website. It should be noted that this was first published in the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times on 28 Apr 2017.