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Baroque Splendor in the Vale of the White Horse

S. Swithin, Compton Beauchamp, Oxfordshire

By Simon Cotton

The Vale of the White Horse is probably the finest scenery in Oxfordshire. It takes its name from the Uffington White Horse, a Bronze Age figure cut into a grass-covered hilltop that exposes the white chalk beneath. Compton Beauchamp is a very small settlement nearby, located beneath the Downs.

Near a moated manor, the church has a low tower that only just manages to peep over the nave roof, but the white chalk walls make it stand out from its surroundings. Unusually, it is largely constructed of the chalk known as clunch. There was a church here by the late 11th century, at the time of Domesday Book, but there is little suggestion of that. What you see appears to be from the 13th to 15th century, with the nave raised last of all. The chancel is 13th-century, with a reticulated east window of circa 1330.

You walk into the north porch, and there is one of those familiar notices: “Whosoever that entereth this church.” You have seen lots of them before, but not so many that end with the words “and forget not the Souls of the Dead in Christ.” Onward through the door, and you are pulled up short: an interior full of gilded baroque fittings is not what you expect to see in a small English country church.

The church captures a unique moment in Anglican history. To appreciate it, you have to go back to the inception of the Oxford Movement, paralleled by the Cambridge Camden Society, which promoted “the study of Gothic Architecture, and of Ecclesiastical Antiques.” This appreciation of medieval architecture and furnishings was greeted with suspicion by some Low Church clergymen. The Rev. F. Close of Cheltenham preached a sermon in 1844, arguing that “The restoration of churches is the restoration of popery: proved and illustrated from the authenticated publications of the ‘Cambridge Camden Society.’”

As the 19th century drew on, both architecture and ceremonial progressed, and many were drawn to the Gothic Revival by both means. Services were closely based on the Book of Common Prayer, but the attendant ceremonies and furnishings followed different trajectories.

Ninian Comper’s study of medieval precedent resulted in the first “English altar,” complete with riddel posts and curtains, in the Yorkshire church of Cantley in 1897. The design was widely adopted in “English use” churches, which sought to model their practice closely on the late medieval Sarum rite, turning back the clock to the very moment before the Reformation altered Anglican worship.

Another group looked to the living practice of the Western church, favoring Roman ceremonial, with fiddleback vestments, and sometimes drawing texts directly from the Roman Missal (though some combined the BCP with Roman ceremonial). In 1910, proponents of this school of thought formed the Society of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (SSPP). It was supported and financed by Samuel Gurney, and after World War I ran the Anglo-Catholic Congresses. SSPP and the Anglo-Catholic Congress Movement became for a few years the driving force for renewal in the Church of England.

Samuel Gurney (1885-1968) bought the Old Rectory at Compton Beauchamp around 1924 and immediately asked Martin Travers to undertake a refurnishing of the church. Howard Martin Otho Travers (1886-1948), always known as Martin, studied at Tonbridge School, then at the Royal College of Art (1904-08), followed by very short periods with the architects Beresford Pite and Ninian Comper, before he set up on his own in 1911. He was a most distinguished stained-glass artist, but also was a designer of church furnishings and vestments for the Society of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Travers had worked with SSPP members from 1911 onward, and was an obvious candidate to embellish the little church. A very versatile designer, he had a facility for creating furnishings in the baroque style. Although like his former master Ninian Comper he is associated with gilded furnishings, Travers toned down the gold, creating the impression that his 20th-century furnishings had graced the church for centuries.

Travers started with a rood group of Jesus flanked by Mary and John over the chancel arch (1927); the use of papier-maché is typical of many of Travers’s furnishings, as his patrons’ taste usually exceeded their means. The chancel already had striking vine murals by Lydia Lawrence, painted around 1900; Travers designed a characteristic Virgin and Child in the glass of the East window (1937); below the window is a gilded reredos and riddel-posted altar, with the tabernacle bearing a cross. There is a distinguished plaque attached to the south side of the chancel arch, depicting St. Swithin, the patron saint, holding a miniature of the church.

In memory of his mother, Lady Talbot de Malahide, Gurney commissioned from Travers a font canopy based on those at Great and Little Walsingham, Gurney’s home village in Norfolk (1933). One surprise is Travers’s placing of a Lady Altar in the very small space under the tower (1934), with a Virgin and Child altarpiece somewhat reminiscent of the one he designed for the Lady Chapel of St Augustine’s, Queen’s Gate, in South Kensington. Travers also provided ornate covers for the prayer books and hymn books, through the services strictly followed the BCP.

The attractions of Compton Beauchamp church do not end with Travers’ work. There are some fine 18th-century wall monuments, several imbued with Dr. Johnson’s belief that “in a lapidary inscription, no man is on oath,” not least that of Mary Cooper (1762), who was a housekeeper who “became strictly intitled to the Commendation of a truly good and faithfull Servant.” There is also a very understated tablet to Sam Gurney.

Go and see this joyful little church, where Sam Gurney lies among the daffodils in Compton Beauchamp churchyard.

Further reading

Richard Wheeler, Oxfordshire’s Best Churches, Eardisley, Fircone Books, 2013.
Jennifer Sherwood, A Guide to The Churches of Oxfordshire, Oxford, Robert Dugdale, 1989.
Michael Yelton, Outposts of the Faith, London, Canterbury Press, 2009, pp 82-103.
Rodney Warrener and Michael Yelton, Martin Travers, 1886-1948: An Appreciation, London, Unicorn Press, 2003.
Peter F. Anson, Fashions in Church Furnishings, 1840-1940, Faith Press, 1960 (second edition Studio Vista London 1965)


An essay at bit.ly/BacktoBaroque is a brilliantly illustrated account of Travers’ work at Compton Beauchamp church.

Dr. Simon Cotton is honorary senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. and a former churchwarden of St. Giles, Norwich, and St. Jude, Peterborough. He is a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.


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