In the second half of the 19th Century, the parish churches of England underwent a great wave of restoration. It was a cultural revolution, a new wave of ideas and the reaction to them. To the great mass of ordinary people, the liturgical changes proposed by the Oxford Movement and the Camden Society were at first objectionable, and then merely controversial. But gradually they seeped into the mainstream, until by about 1860 they had become as natural as the air we breathe. There's no doubt that the principal drivers behind this revolution were the incumbents themselves. Galvanised by the ferment of ideas and the possibilities of the industrial age, these often still-young men convinced their rich patrons, transformed their buildings, and in so doing altered their parishes forever. It was not unusual for the more sleeves-rolled-up ministers themselves to direct the restorations they required from their architects, and so it is perhaps also not surprising that their families sometimes got involved. Here in Suffolk for example, where Lucy Rickards, the teenage daughter of Samuel Rickards, rector of Stowlangtoft, produced a remarkable scheme of painted glass based on Flemish roundels and decorative quarries along the south side of her father's church, and at Heveningham, where Ann Owen, the rector's wife, also designed some of the glass. But the best known of these energetic women is Mildred Holland, who over a period of several years transformed her husband William Holland's church at Huntingfield.
Huntingfield is a small village sitting in the shadow of Heveningham Hall, and many of the 19th Century parishioners must have been poor estate workers. William Holland was not only the rector of Huntingfield, he was also the patron, which pretty much allowed the Hollands to do as they liked at their own expense. The church is open daily, and so today you can step inside and see this remarkable achievement. Between 1859 and 1866, Mrs Mildred Holland planned, designed and executed the most elaborate redecoration of a church this county had seen since the Reformation. For seven years, she lay on her back at the top of scaffolding, first in the chancel and then in the nave. The chancel roof is boarded, and on each panel is an angel painted on a bold blue background punctuated by stars. Some hold Instruments of the Passion, the objects traditionally associated with the Crucifixion, among them a lance, a flail and a hammer and nails. Others hold scrolls with the words of the Benedictus, one of the church canticles: 'for he hath visited and redeemed his people... and hath raised up a mighty salvation for us'.
The painting of the nave was more ambitious, and had to be, for there was no panelling here. Instead, she painted directly on to the timbers of an arch-braced roof, the figures of the Apostles on the lower reaches and more angels in the areas above. And then, the pièce de résistance, the restored angels on the beam ends, some shown holding crowns and others proffering cloths once again depicting the Instruments of the Passion. It is easy to imagine the astonishment of those poor estate workers when they first saw it. William Holland kept a journal throughout this period, and there is no suggestion that his wife had any assistance beyond that of workmen to raise the scaffolding, and advice from the architect E. L. Blackburne, an enthusiastic medievalist. Another 19th Century architect, J. P. St Aubyn, was responsible for the structural restoration of this largely 15th Century building, and it was restrained and merciful.
The towering font cover and art nouveau lectern in the church today are Mildred Holland's memorials. She died young in the 1870s, predeceasing her husband by twenty years. They are buried side by side near to the gate. How fitting, that they should lie in the churchyard of the church they loved so much, and to which they gave so much of their time, energy and money. It's true to say that any English parish church is a palimpsest, a history written and rewritten over its skin as a sometimes fleeting record of the changing liturgical imperatives and the long generations of its parish. Across this canvas, the enthusiasms at Huntingfield in Mildred Holland's time are writ large and will last long.
To access Simon’s wonderful and richly illustrated website about the history and architecture of churches in East Anglia please visit: http://www.suffolkchurches.co.uk/churchlists.htm