Waltham Abbey

Waltham Abbey's main interest is its substantial Norman and medieval architecture, but it appears on these pages because of the 19th Century work by William Burges, E. J. Poynter and glass by Burne-Jones. As usual, we divert to note earlier sculptural work, and also an interesting painting of c. 1500.

The surviving building was started in the 1100s, with much surviving in the way of rounded Norman arches, doorways etc, then some early medieval parts, a cutting down to 1/3 its size when the abbeys were destroyed, a tower of 1558, and a reworking in the 19th Century. The nave is most impressively high, with the best of the 19th Century work being the excellent painted ceiling, designed by Burges and with panels painted by E. J. Poynter. The best ones are near the altar - you have to wander around to find the best viewing positions - showing the Zodiac - see expecially Taurus, Aries, and Gemini. To either side are allegorical robed figures representing the months, very Burne-Jonesish, more so than usual for Poynter, and very harmonious.

The East Windows above the altar are by Burne-Jones himself, with smaller figures than usual, and not immediately obviously by Burne-Jones until one thinks of his woodcut designs for Chaucer, looking at the flowers and foliage, and considers some of the figures, noticeably the excellent Adam and Eve in the left panel. Above, the rose window consists of 7 roundels around a larger central light, and the stained glass in the two lowermost are best, showing a moonscape and trees. All the decor around is by William Burges. Going downwards, fine medievalised spandrel goat and lion in stone, then good stone frieze with central lamb, and fox and crane to both right and left, among much decorative foliage. Painted frieze below of New Testament scenes is over prettified, as is common for such things.

The Lady Chapel on the right hand side of the Abbey as we face the altar dates from c. 1345, and was much restored, especially the window tracery, by Burges in 1875. The glass from around 1930 is conventional. Also in the Lady Chapel is a rather excellent and rare wall painting of c. 1500. It is a Last Judgement, with startling thin white figures, active and lively. More subdued, to the left are the gates of Heaven, and to the right the warthog-like aspect representing the gate of Hell. Central deity in judgement with trumpeting angels. To rear, souls to be judged enter en masse top left.

Apparently there is a Henry Holiday painting in the Abbey, but I could not find it.

Also from the 19th Century is the monument to Thomas Leverton (d.1824), an architect who was responsible for Bedford Square in Bloomsbury. It consists of a panel with a mourning angel above leaning on an urn - note the nice curves, particularly of knee and wings. The monument, but perhaps not the angel, is by the funerary sculptor Josephus Kendrick of London (who also has work of similar date in St Paul's Cathedral). The panel notes that the monument 'was raised not from ostentation, but as an incitement to the youth of this his [Leverton's] native parish to pursue the path by which he rose to honour, wealth and comfort.'

On the exterior of the building is a 19th Century statue of King Harold (reputedly buried just behind the surviving building) of no great merit.

Of earlier monuments within the Abbey building, chief is the painted one to Sir Edward Denny (d.1599) and his wife Margaret, lords of the manor of Waltham. The two painted effigies are shown recumbent, leaning on elbows in typical insensitive fashion, with, also typical, rows of reduced-size children kneeling below. Adjacent is mutilated and presumably once-painted figure of Elizabeth Grey, of similar or slightly earlier date.

We may also mention the bust of Francis Wallaston (d.1684, of smallpox), which has somehow become detached from a cherubic panel in the Tower, to become placed fortuitously at eye level. It is interesting as a good, well-modelled bust of this age, but lacking the individuality of a 19th Century portrait.

Around the Abbey church are the ruined walls of the rest of the Abbey, of some considerable extent, the slightly disappointing remains of a 14th Century bridge, and a better ruined gatetower. The village has several good houses from 16th-18th Century. Two of these have been knocked together to form the small and very local museum, which has various Victorian knick-knackery, but only a single substantive painting, a Death of Harold by H P Bone. We must also mention the 16th Century wall panelling in the museum's collection.

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