Norfolk in Brief: Booton’s Archangel!

By Haydn Brown.

Above the north porch of St Michael’s church at Booton in Norfolk is the bronze statue of St Michael the Archangel himself, commissioned over 120 years ago by the Reverend Whitwell Elwin.

Reverend_Whitwell_Elwin_Evelyn Simak
Reverend Whitwell Elwin. Photo: (c) Evelyn Simak.

By being placed in front of a niche in the wall, this particular St Michael was intended to be seen both from the front – and from the sides. It is said that this figure was inspired by examples of the pre-Raphaelites, most notably the St George in Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s St George Slaying the Dragon, which was commissioned in 1866 by Miles Burket Foster for the dining room of his house at Witley, Surrey.

St George _Pinterest
Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s St George Slaying the Dragon. Photo: Pinterest.

The striking profile of Booton’s St Michael, with ruffled hair and a combination of plate armour worn over chainmail with sheet leggings, does follow Burne-Jones’s St George, with the strikingly textured wings attached to the rear of the breastplate. Here, the dreamlike action of the painting has been replaced by a more heroic stance as St Michael, with a cross hanging from his neck, places both hands on his large sword, looking out purposefully across the fields as he stamps down the dragon under foot.

The name of the sculptor was not recorded, but Ann Compton of the University of Glasgow, has underlined, what she thinks is, its amateur approach – as restated by the RACNS:

“the figure was modelled by someone who had not been trained in working for bronze or, possibly, was deliberately flouting current teaching. My point is that the composition goes against the accepted idea that works cast in bronze should show off the possibilities of the material by incorporating minute definition of draperies and adopting an expansive composition to reflect the self-supporting properties of the final material – whereas the composition here is very contained.”

jamesminns
James Minns

The Norfolk artist of the time, James Minns (1828-1904), responsible for the wooden angels in the roof, described himself variously as ‘sculptor’ and ‘wood carver’ and could possibly, as again stated by the RACNS, have provided the model for this St Michael.

It seems generally accepted, by many accounts of the Booton church, that the building is extraordinary – the product of one man’s eccentric imagination! The Reverend Whitwell Elwin (rector 1850-1900), said to have been a descendant of Pocahontas of Hiawatha fame, built the church at the end of the 19th century – without the help of an architect. Apparently, he borrowed details from other churches throughout the country, and thanks to the Churches Conservation Trust which investigated Elwin’s sources, it can be stated that the design of the nave windows is taken from those at Temple Balsall in Warwickshire, and the west window from St Stephen’s Chapel at Westminster. Then there is the west door design, which is that of Glastonbury Abbey, and the curious trefoil window above the chancel arch is from Lichfield Cathedral. It has been suggested that this may have been a homage to Elwin’s passion for Dr Johnson; this may strike some as far-fetched; but then, the whole building is, with its slender twin towers soaring over the wide Norfolk landscape and the central pinnacle looking almost like a minaret; everything seem to have sprung solely from Elwin’s imagination.

Booton Church_Simon Knott
St Michael’s Church, Booton. Photo: Simon Knott.

The dramatic wooden angels that hold up the roof are the work of James Minns, the well-known master-carver whose carving of a bull’s head is still the emblem on Colman’s Mustard; he also worked at Ketteringham. But the church’s great glory is its stained-glass windows, by Cox Sons and Buckley from the 1890s, a unique example of a unified scheme of saints, angels and musicians set against imaginative Gothic canopies moving in procession towards the high altar. The colour for the rich red robes and Venetian inspired brocades, which are woven across the windows, are also striking – worn by archetypal willowy pre-Raphaelite ladies. Edwin Lutyens, the distinguished architect who married the daughter of one of Elwin’s oldest friends, said the church was:

‘very naughty but built in the right spirit’.

People visiting Booton church may love it – or hate it, but no one would remain unmoved by such an exuberant oddity, well bedded down in the Norfolk Landscape – with St Michael standing over and protecting visitors.

THE END

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