Tag Archives: France

Abbeville, or, a musing on war

This is the next in the series of blogs about my trip to France last year, following in William Morris’s footsteps.

Morris started in Abbeville, and so our tour of churches started there, too. It was July when they set out – and for us too. If it was as hot for them as it was for us I pity them in their hot Victorian clothes … and Morris in his new boots! But the Abbeville they saw was not the one that we, in 2015, visited. The church was there, rising up over the rooftops of the town just as it does in this drawing by John Ruskin from 1868. And there was a fountain in the square. But nothing else was the same.

This is what Morris says about their arrival, ‘the town itself is very and full of exceedingly good houses; we were all three in ecstasies thereat’[i]. I wish I could have said the same. Morris was in ecstasies many times in his trip, and blessedly, most of things he exclaimed about still exist, but a 160 years can bring many, many changes.

98496154That 160 years brought two wars to European soil. Abbeville is on the River Somme… The town was hit twice, both in the First and Second World Wars. Poor St Wulfran’s suffered a hit in the Second World War. Accordingly to my ancient French Rough Guide (1997! So long ago!) it was then ‘under scaffolding since the war’ and ‘still closed to the public’[ii], but by the time we arrived in 2015 they had reopened the church. Ish. French churches, we were to discover, are not as open as their English counterparts, even in large towns. But we got in after the desperate expedient of having a pleasant coffee and read in the same square that we see in Ruskin’s image.This is what the Place des Jacobins looks like now. Actually, it is very pleasant. But… Not quite the same.

But I understand that St Wulfran’s is all about war. I’ve read somewhere that current building was built to celebrate the return of Abbeville into French hands in 1477. Can’t find the reference now, naturally, so it may not be true! But – Abbeville has long been on the border of a battlefield – throughout the Hundred Years War it passed back and forth between the English and the French. Crécy is just up the road. This war haunted our trip in the commemoration we saw of Joan of Arc … who we, the English, killed. In those days, we wanted to be part of Europe! In the sense of owning as much of it as possible, of course, but still, we understood ourselves to be inextricably part of Europe, and had done long before the Normans arrived…

p1030796St Wulfran’s as we see it now dates from a building campaign that began in 1488 and ended in 1539. The building dragged on past the end of the Gothic, and there was a hiatus, with the chancel being an unassuming 17th century take on Gothic, quiet and low compared to the soaring flamboyance of the architecture of the rest. Outside, the difference between the two parts is striking (though not as striking as Beauvais!) – this photograph taken from the chancel looking up at would I assume would have formed the crossing.

p1030795Its glory is the west front, of course. Compared to some we would see, it is restrained, but has an elegance, a simplicity in the way the plain spaces intermix with the coiling whirls of the rose window and the sculpture.

p1030799I love this sculpture of St Eustace crossing the river in the tympanum over this door on the north side.


And there is humour too, hidden in the arches around the doors!

The interior was cool and pleasing – and we discovered that the day before there had been an example of the entente cordiale with a wedding between a French woman and an Englishman – the ribbons were still on the chairs, orders of service still on the seats…


But what really struck me was this:


It’s a baroque intrusion into the Gothic of the church, and ordinarily I would pass it by as the baroque isn’t my favourite style, shall we say. I’m certain Morris, Burne Jones and Fulford barely noticed it. But this one is different. Unlike the rest if the interior, here the damage from the war has been left intact. I think it’s the Assumption of the Virgin – but I’m not sure as the figures are broken and stained in amid the swirling baroque clouds. It serves as a reminder that war came here and broke the world apart for the people who lived here. It reminds us that war is never far away, beneath the crumbling façade of tolerance and liberalism we built in the 20th century. Since our trip France has suffered at the hands of extremists of various sorts, Britain has cut itself off from the continent, the Far Right has risen higher than any of us who had that direct connection with WW2 in our parents and grandparents could have imagined could happen … war wages on and on in the Middle East – and over years and years of interference, part of the blame rests on western shoulders, and yet we continue to turn our backs… We need to see this sculpture with its charred clouds and dismembered women and see what war does to people … and not forget.

But what would Morris have said? I am sure he would have been horrified at the way war developed in the 20th century, and horrified too by the wanton destruction of heritage that has been brought by the use of aerial bombing and bombing on the ground. When he talks of violent revolution across the globe in his socialist writings he perhaps didn’t think through the suffering of the individuals involved nor the destruction to the physical world that would certainly have occurred. His first introduction to politics was an anti-war statement and a reaction against violence – in the Eastern Question, and the treatment of the Bulgarians by the Ottoman Empire in the 1870s. But he was also a member of the Artists Rifles in its earliest days in the 1860s (though he had a tendency to turn left when instructed to go right, with copious apologies), and his poems and novels are full of heroic violence. He was brave when confronted with violence – such as at the Bloody Sunday ‘riots’ of 1887 – and could be led by his famous temper, famously getting into trouble for allegedly bopping a policeman at an earlier protest. But he lived his life through a time when England wasn’t threatened directly either by war or by the kind of large scale terrorism we are getting used to now in the early 20th century. If he had lived through a war, either a medieval one, or one of the 20th century world wars, would his opinions have been different? Would he have recognised war for the horror it is? His vision of utopia is non-martial in the extreme, after the revolution – I’d like to believe that’s what he really wanted.


[i] Purkiss, J ‘Morris, Burne-Jones and French Gothic’ (1991), p. 8

[ii] Baillie, K and Salmon, T France: The Rough Guide (London, 1997), p. 197

Image credits:

  1. Image from mapio.net
  2. All the rest of the images are © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2015

The Nature of Gothic – travelling with William Morris

40Last year my husband, Anthony, and I went on holiday to France. Our aim – or at least mine – was to follow in the footsteps of William Morris and his friends Edward Burne Jones (EBJ) and William Fulford and their dash around the great gothic churches of Northern France in 1855. They were there for three weeks, we for two. They saw more than 14 churches from Abbeville to Avranches, and we saw 8 of their 14+ from Abbeville to Louviers, falling down before Rouen and scuttling to the coast for beachside R&R on our last few days. Over that time I took notes in each church, and Anthony wrote poems. Woven in among the blogs on this site will be a series that chart that journey and Morris’s parallel one 160 years before.

Why were they so keen to go? Morris was only 21, and full of all the uncertainties of that age.  He and EBJ and several of their other college friends had already thought to lock away the modern world by starting a religious community – a monastery. But it was on this trip that Morris and EBJ decided that they would put aside the church and dedicate their lives instead to a more fickle mistress, art. Neither man ever wavered from that new path. It must have been a powerful holiday.

Why did I want to do this? I had long wanted to see the northern gothic cathedrals. I studied art history at university, and one of the courses I did was ‘Monastery and Cathedral’, which looked at the Romanesque and early Gothic churches of France and Britain. I loved that course. I suppose I was attuned to many of the same tastes as Morris and his friends, and probably came to that in part through my early love of the Pre-Raphaelites, discovered aged 13 when seeing a ‘hippy picture’ at my father’s house … he was shocked I didn’t know that the artist was Burne Jones, and bought me the Thames and Hudson The Pre-Raphaelites book. I read it so much it fell apart. So began my own lifelong passion for art and architecture. As part of the degree, we had a short trip to Paris, in which I saw two of the churches on Morris’s route, Notre Dame in Paris and Chartres. But no others. So I longed to see the other greats – but I also wanted to get under Morris’s skin a bit more, and give myself a purpose, all these years later, for seeing the churches.

Why Gothic? Britain – and France – were deep in the throes of a gothic revival. New gothic buildings – including our Houses of Parliament – were springing up everywhere, and Morris and EBJ were in love with the middle ages. They had studied medieval manuscripts, read medieval romances, steeped themselves in King Arthur – and, critically, they had read the works of John Ruskin. Ruskin, an art critic, had recently published a book called The Stones of Venice, about Venetian art and architecture. In this mammoth tome one chapter would come to be deemed by Morris as ‘one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century’ when he published it many years later. From this chapter, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Morris would take what might be said to be the central tenant of his life – that work should be meaningful and pleasurable. But at this young age, instead, Morris was drunk on the architecture itself. Gothic architecture – and especially that of the 13th century – was the apogee of art for him at that time. Three weeks in the presence of that art, and among the ancient towns and cities and the gentle rolling countryside of France, so like his own southern Britain, but less tainted, it seemed, by the march of progress.

Gothic’s not my personal favourite of the medieval architectural styles. I’ve long been a fan of the Romanesque, that monumental style that owes its genesis to the architecture of Rome, but has a solid, raw power all of its own, and even of the scrips and scraps that remain of the Saxon architecture that preceded it here in England. But in the 19th century, Gothic was the favoured style, representing home-grown mastery, a simpler, better time, its soaring stone pillars and ribs took you into a time of romance and chivalry, its organic carvings and brilliant glass took you into a pre-industrial, religious time – a time that was starting to seem a distant dream in Britain’s rapidly industrialising cities, filling up as they were with factories, slums, smog, pollution and people, people, people. Gothic was a gasp of fresh air, ad for Morris – taking his lead from Ruskin – it was the simple Gothic of the 13th century that caught his imagination, that point when the new style, with its pointed arches, complex vaulting, huge deep-dyed windows and realistic statuary was at its most austere. At its most pure?

For Morris, looking back on his life, this holiday often seemed to him to mark a moment of clarity. In his lecture 1880s lecture The Aims of Art, he says, ‘Less than forty years ago – about thirty – I first saw the city of Rouen, then still in its outward aspect a piece of the Middle Ages: no words can tell you how its mingled beauty, history, and romance took hold on me; I can only say that, looking back on my past life, I find it was the greatest pleasure I have ever had.’[i] His greatest pleasure, looking at a building? Greater than the camaraderie of friends, the first flush of his marriage, greater than being a father, than all the work he had done? Perhaps. How to capture that rush of ecstasy he must have felt standing there? ‘Ecstatic’ is the word he uses most to describe his feelings on that holiday. The nature of gothic would haunt Morris throughout his life, playing over and over in his art, his writing, his politics, his very way of seeing the world.

But next words of the lecture bring us back down to earth and to the present: ‘and now it is a pleasure which no one can ever have again: it is lost to the world for ever.’ Morris was speaking about the march of progress of 30 years. How much more had 160 years wrought? For me, on that journey around France, a France twice wracked with war, was a very different place to that described then by Morris. The ecstasies of a 21 year old were not for me on this trip – indeed, I had a shock on the trip that reduced me to tears in one church, so great were the changes wrought in a place that had engendered the same pulsing uplift of ecstasy some 22 years before when I was 20 – instead, a more thoughtful approach had to be taken. I hope in these occasional blog posts I can try to bring together the buildings themselves, and the faceless men who built them, Morris and his friends with their aching feet, Anthony and I trundling about in our comfortable car (and our less comfortable campsites) and the modern world that we and those churches now inhabit.

[i] Taken from the excellent Marxists.org website, which has a pretty comprehensive set of Morris’s lectures: https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1888/signs/chapters/chapter5.htm


Entrance to the South Transept, Rouen Cathedral by John Ruskin. Photograph from a watercolor. Source: Works, facing XXXV, 371. Photograph (2010) Scanned image and text by George P. Landow. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/ruskin/wc/40.html