Completed British 20th C, except portraits, Yorkshire, The Humber and North East England: Artists and Subjects 38 Does anyone recognise this wooden church tower?

Topic: Subject or sitter

Who recognises this churchyard from the distinctive wooden church tower in this painting by David Muirhead? This Scottish artist trained in London, exhibited widely in provincial galleries and is well-represented within British collections.

Martin Hopkinson, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The subject of ‘The Churchyard’ was identified as the tower of St John the Evangelist, Wotton, Surrey. The title is likely to be the artist’s own, so the new information has been included as a short description on the artwork page.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Jacinto Regalado,

The top part or section of the tower appears to be wood, but the lower section and the rest of the visible building are surely not. Presumably the wooden part was a temporary structure meant to be replaced, as it may well have been, meaning it would no longer exist.

Jacinto Regalado,

Could this be a continental scene as opposed to a British one?

Christopher Cole,

Many ancient churches have wooden spires. They are covered with shingles made from oak or ash as they are much lighter than tiles.

Malcolm Fowles,

The top of the tower is a belfry/bellcote; the louvred windows are a common design to let the peal ring out to the surroundings.

Wooden belfries neither unusual nor temporary: see a single-roof example at The two-roof version ought to be easy but I can't find this one online.

The roof does look a bit French to me, but the overgrown churchyard and the gravestone are quintessentially English.

Do we know whether Muirhead had particular stamping grounds?

Martin Hopkinson,

Muirhead mainly painted in South East Yorkshire , Fenland , the Ouse valley in Huntingdonshire, Norfolk and Suffolk , the Medway valley around Rochester, Dorset and Chepstow
i do not think that this can be a French church

Kieran Owens,

Is everyone certain that this is a wooden belfry? The topmost openings are louvered but the walls look rendered rather than clad in timber slats.

The Westminster Gazette, Friday 4th June 1909, reported that, at an exhibition of the New English Art Club, Muirhead had exhibited a painting entitled "The Church in the Fens" as catalogue No. 157. Perhaps an examination of the back of the painting might reveal some useful labels or exhibition numbers that might help with the discussion.

Alison Golding,

Both church and churchyard were in a neglected state when this painting was made 90 or more years ago. It is quite possible that the church depicted is now ruined, or has had its tower restored into a different form.

Although not the one depicted, there are a couple of examples of double roofed church towers in Hampshire, next door to Dorset where Martin says Muirhead painted, at Breamore and Meonstoke.

Roberta Blick ,

That appears to be a very large cross on the roof. As the church appears to be unusual could it be a different denomination, not Church of England?

Louis Musgrove,

St Andrews Leighterton,Tetbury --although heavily restored -- has many similar features, but I cannot find a photo from the needed angle.

Osmund Bullock,

Louis, St Andrew's was apparently restored in 1877, when the artist of our mystery church was 10 years old. So even if St Andrew's looked more like ours pre-restoration - and it seems unlikely the exterior would have changed quite so radically - he must have painted it *after* those changes. As it stands now, I'm afraid it bears very little resemblance to the one we are trying to identify. See

Howard Jones,

The long grass and leaves on the tree (elm) suggest mid or late Summer. The figure in the background appears to be attired in a hat and coat, and perhaps a scarf, suggesting this is not a hot climate. The sky looks unusual with many highlights in the cloudy sky. Did Muirhead use similar techniques for his other paintings?

Could this have been painted during the First World War when many graveyards were less carefully tended? It is a very 'picturesque' setting so there should be other pictures showing the same Church.

Brenda Lambourne,

That particular kind of two stage recessed tower with a wooden belfry is commoner in the Severn valley than in the other "stamping grounds". A possible candidate is St. Mary's Church, Newtown, Powys: the church is now ruined, though carefully preserved because of the grave of Robert Owen in the churchyard.
The church was abandoned in 1856 and left to decay until the tower was restored in 1939, so it may well have been in the pictured state when painted. Is this near enough to the Chepstow area to be possible?

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Brenda Lambourne, shows that the David Muirhead painting entitled "The Church in the Fens" was sold in 1993 and therefore cannot be this one purchased by the Bradford museum in 1931. Unfortunately it is not illustrated, but the size is given as 50.8 x 76.2 (20 × 30 in) which again does not match the 51 x 61 given as the size of this picture.

I have found several examples of very similar towers with wooden belfries in various parts of the UK, but not this particular one as yet.

Martin Hopkinson,

This discussion has remained dormant for a while, but as Brenda Lambourne' s contribution suggests it may be because the church has been abandoned , or could it have been destroyed by war, urban , road or airport developments? St Mary's , Newtown, Powys is certainly a possiblity. Do Muirhead's exhibits suggest that he ventured to Mid Wales?
It was acquired in 1931 - he had died in 1930. So one should examine the catalogue of his 1928 exhibition at P. & D. Colnaghi in particular , as well the catalogues of the annual exhibitions close to that date, such as the New English Art Club
Catalogues of group exhibitions held by Colnaghi, Chenil Gallery and Goupil might throw something up
The painting may date from the last half dozen years of Muirhead's life

Osmund Bullock,

I'm afraid I think St Mary's, Newtown is impossible. Leaving aside the major fenestration differences in the tower and belfry (it's just possible they're the result of the 1938/9 rebuilding), the main body of the church was already far more decrepit than this by 1900. In that year the little pitched-roof mausoleum (see and was built for the Pryce family in what had been the nave, which would have been inconceivable if there was still a roof over it; and in fact the roof apparently blew off in a storm in 1863 (see Moreover the detailed OS 25 inch map (revised in 1901) clearly shows the building as a roofless ruin, and the north wall of the nave (i.e. the one in our painting, were it St Mary's) already missing - see attached.

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Martin Hopkinson,

Indeed, Osmund, you are right, but the type of tower should be investigated as it may be more common in certain regions.

Brenda Lambourne,

I come back to the search for this tower from time to time - there are plenty of similar ones still around on village churches in some of the "stamping grounds", but no exact match for that combination of windows in the tower, louvres in the belfry and height of the various components of the tower. Perhaps, as Martin Hopkinson says, the church has either been demolished or extensively rebuilt. It doesn't help that most pictures of churches online are shown from the entrance side, not the view in the picture.

Louis Musgrove,

In one biography,it says David's favorite areas for sketching were the Estuaries of Suffolk and Essex. In Essex there are 47 churches with wooden belfrys. The best match is St Margaret ,Bowers Gifford. The extension we see is, I think ,new. I have not been able to find an old image. Possible? Gifford&no=0106&ty=e&maximg=008&imgno=008

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Brenda Lambourne,

There are a number of church towers like Bowers Gifford, with what I believe is called a broach spire above a weatherboarded belfry. The church in the picture is unusual because there is no spire: just a low pyramidal roof with a very tall cross.

East Anglia and the Fens do seem the likeliest hunting ground.

Osmund Bullock,

Very helpful indeed, Marion! And although one has to search for a view of the side we're interested in, I think the church of St John the Evangelist, Wotton (in the Surrey hills - John Evelyn was born and buried there) looks very promising. See attached comparison.

There are certainly differences in detail and proportion, though some of the former may be the result of changes since Muirhead's day; but the basic architectural features of the tower and belfry, including fenestration, are the same.

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Jacinto Regalado,

Well done, Osmund. I think the match is quite convincing.

Marcie Doran,

Yes, that is certainly an impressive find, Osmund!

Osmund Bullock,

There are many further pictures of the church here, several of which help understand the geography (though none replicates the view we want): One can see the that the fairly young yew bush/tree in the painting's centre foreground is still there today, but grown very much larger. Looking at the photograph/painting composite posted above, the artist's viewpoint was well to the right of the memorial urn - in the left edge of the painting you can see the corner of its railings, through which the door into the church can just be made out. Other details in the painting, such as the prominent gravestone with ogee[?] top, can also be seen in the photo - it's just visible against the sky, peeping out from behind the left-hand side of the urn's supporting plinth.

I now feel more confident this is right. Is there any record of Muirhead painting thereabouts, or of any friends in the area? Abinger, Shere, Holmbury, Leith Hill and of course Dorking are some of the names to look out for. And though clearly not a regular haunt, the Surrey Hills were readily accessible for someone living in Chelsea even a hundred years ago.

Very convincing, even if the circumstances remain elusive. It looks as though his real interest was more the trees and light on the (wind-blown?) yew bush, with the church as context.
Anyone even moderately educated of his generation would also have had Gray's 'Elegy' in mind:

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

Martin Hopkinson,

well done Osmund and Marion - a good example of how a result comes by continually plugging away = an approximate date might be established from an exhibiton catalogue of the 1920s

Brenda Lambourne,

So we were looking in the wrong "stamping grounds" all along! Well done.

Osmund Bullock,

To be honest, more good fortune than perseverance. I certainly hadn't been looking for churches in Surrey (was anyone?), and when I first glanced at Marion's key website find it was the Suffolk, Wealden and possibly Romney March ones I assumed might bear fruit. It was just a fluke of the website's arrangement that offered me North Downs & Surrey Hills en route to places further east - and since there weren't very many (and the photos nicely and simply presented), it took only a minute to skim through them.

We were very lucky, too, that Wotton was there at all - as yet only a small percentage of potential churches have been covered by the author Bob Chantler, even I suspect among those with Saxon/ Norman origins. Many thanks, anyway, to him: in an age when the internet often seems to do more evil than good, a delightful and very useful gem like his website is a joy to find.

The only thing I will take any credit for is searching out images of the tower's north side (with its elusive twin windows)...and for not taking too literally Mr Chantler's firm statement about "the absence of Yew trees (poisonous to livestock) in this churchyard ..."! I think what he probably meant was that there are no ancient Yews, this being thought to support the idea that the curious elongated low holes in the churchyard wall were to allow grazing sheep access.

Just to add that the picture matches nothing in Muirhead's RA record. As a recently deceased ARA, he had good representation in its 1933 show of 'late members', most being loans from major patrons and only a few from public collections (inc Birmingham and the Tate). Since Bradford bought this one in 1931, 'studio sale' or other commemorative exhibition (perhaps linked with that) might have been their source.

Osmund Bullock,

On my way back from Sussex yesterday I dropped by St John the Evangelist, Wotton, in order to try and get some more exact comparison shots. Unfortunately the Yew has grown so much that looking from the right spot the tower is now all but obscured.
I took a couple of snaps anyway, one of the view from roughly the right place, and another of the tower, etc, from closer in (composite attached).

The two big elms are gone, of course, and the artist clearly tweaked a few things; but as well as the tower, belfry and body of the church, many other details are right (e.g. the path leading up to a stile in the distance). There's no doubt whatever in my mind it's the place.

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Brenda Lambourne,

This turns out to be a church I have visited in the past - I well remember the drifts of wild daffodils in the churchyard - which probably accounts for the nagging sense of familiarity which kept me looking online in what turned out to be the wrong places! The old Francis Frith postcard below shows the church as it was in 1919: covered in the ivy which is a feature of the tower in the painting.
This area is prime walking country easily accessible from London, and the Church is on several walking routes from well known beauty spots such as Leith Hill, Friday Street and Polesden Lacey.

A classic case of a well-intentioned planting of a memorial yew turning into a complete menace by nearly a century later as it heaves up and shadows everything round it, but well-solved Osmund none the less.

Sounds like a spot that is well worth the detour but can this discussion now formally 'wrap'?

With thanks to all who have contributed to this discussion, the church tower has been conclusively identified as that of St John the Evangelist at Wotton in the Surrey Hills. We are particularly grateful to Osmund for his sharp-sighted perseverance and, moreover, for his confirmatory site visit.

David Muirhead favoured generic titles for his many landscapes, even when a specific, identifiable feature was included. The existing title of the Bradford picture, ‘The Churchyard’, is thus likely to be his own and should be retained, while the new identification is added to the record. A very simple way of combining the two would be in the form ‘The Churchyard (of St John the Evangelist, Wotton, Surrey’). However the collection might prefer to incorporate the new information in separate descriptive text on the artwork page along the lines of ‘The tower of St John the Evangelist, Wotton, Surrey, glimpsed from the churchyard’, leaving ‘The Churchyard’ as the main title. I recommend closure of the discussion on this basis.