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‘Arts & Crafts church’? The sincerely fake Welshness of St Eloi, Llandeloy

Author: Dr Alec Hamilton

Dr Alec Hamilton is an Arts & Crafts expert and former Trustee of the Friends of Friendless Churches. His book, Arts & Crafts Churches, was published in 2020.

In this blog, he explores the artistic inspiration behind St Eloi’s, Llandeloy, Pembrokeshire.

As an Arts & Crafts church fancier, you will have your work cut out in Wales.

The big, intimidating chapels which peppered 19th-century Wales had little truck with the fancy-pants foibles of the Artsy-Craftsy (though Hermon Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, Cymdu, Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, Powys, 1908, comes close – if you can find it). The strong-minded congregations who paid for these chapels, whether Baptist, Congregationalist, Wesleyan, Primitive or Calvinistic Methodist, demanded rectitude, seriousness, and a dominant street presence – all qualities the Arts & Crafts were indifferent to. On the whole, Welsh denominations appointed architects from among their own ranks – solid, reliable, worthy. Again, not really the metier of will-o-the-wisp Arts & Crafts architects.

But there was another sort of Welshness. A reaching back into the misty past – the Mabinogion, Twm Siôn Cati (the Welsh Robin Hood), bards and druids. A heady mixture of hwyl and hiraeth — and all the more strongly felt, it seems, if felt by an outsider. This Welshness has nothing to do with place or birth or heredity. It is a state of mind, and rooted dreamily in a mythic idyll.

In 1924, St Eloi, Llandeloy was more or less one wall and some fragments of other stone structures in a field. It had been a ruin since the 1840s. There had been efforts to rebuild it in the 1890s and again before the Great War. The final push seems to have come from the Archdeacon of St David’s – from 1920, David Lewis Prosser (1868-1950). St David’s is just seven miles from Llandeloy.

But why? The parish was poor. They seem to have managed without an Anglican church quite happily for nearly a century.

Prosser was a vigorous Anglo-Catholic. He believed the Anglican Church was the true church of Wales, and that ‘Roman clergy and Nonconformist ministers are intruders … There may be historical excuse for their being here, but we cannot recognise their right to be here.’ It was very likely through Prosser’s influence that John Coates Carter (1859-1927) – his friend, and also Anglo-Catholic – was appointed architect.

Coates Carter’s approach to rebuilding was, on the face of it, scholarly: ‘Mr Coates Carter says the original church would appear to be of an early date, perhaps even of the twelfth century.’ And he stated his intention to be meticulously SPAB-by, ‘care being taken to preserve every vestige of old work in its original position.’ He was aiming for the church ‘as what it most likely was at the beginning of the sixteenth century.’ Intriguingly, A Topographical Dictionary of Wales (S Lewis, 1833) reports the church ‘is not remarkable for any interesting architectural features.’

But there was something else going on too. The Anglican Church in Wales had been disestablished in 1920. In this context, Llandeloy can be seen, from the Archdeacon’s point of view, at least, as a sort of ecclesiological political statement: a pre-Reformation Welsh church – a proper church – boldly reconstructed in the teeth of disestablishment.

Thrillingly, there survived at Llandeloy a potently pre-Reformation rood stair, a squint, and the
foundations of a transept altar! All a long way from Welsh nonconformity.

But the rebuild was also nostalgic and romantic.

What Coates Carter built was a sort of Welsh rhapsody: a dream of low stone walls, rugged lonesomeness, dim light, mystery and glamour. It is a wonderfully theatrical experience (as a pre-Reformation church would have been) as one gently rises from west to east, penetrating a powerful rood screen (in memory of a Great War casualty, son of the parish, and echoing the great Welsh survivals at Llananno and Llangwm Uchaf) to an altar (stone, which an Anglican altar should not be), surmounted by a painted and gesso reredos of strikingly naïve directness, such as no church before about 1920 could possibly have sported. The doll-like figure of Christ was probably made and painted by Coates Carter himself, an act both devotional and true to Arts & Crafts ideas of the designer and maker as one.

Pembrokeshire boasts four similar reredoses by Coates Carter. At Angle, three children meet a benevolent gleaner in a field, a man with a scythe standing by, and a team of oxen ploughing. It is nothing much to do with historical precedent, but a lot to do with Carter’s personal dedication to the glory of Christ and an idyllic, bucolic, pre-industrial, even prelapsarian Wales.

Carter was not Welsh. He was from Suffolk. But, yes, he was born a farmer’s boy.