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A Country Chapel- Redland Parish Church

April 19, 2012

“A verdant walk and cooling zephyr bless
Th’ enchanting region of they sweet recess
The owner’s mansion on a gentle rise
Appears a palace to the admiring eyes”

This is how Somerset poet Thorne described Redland Court when newly completed in July 1735. It was built by London grocer John Cossins and his Bristol born wife for their retirement, and included mahogany doors, perhaps some of the earliest in the country. They soon began building a chapel to serve them and their neighbours in what was then miles from the nearest parish church at Westbury on Trym.

Many authors have been confused as to the architect, with John Wood attributing it to John Strahan, who often worked in Bath. His church at Babington [rd reid] another privately built rural chapel, is similar in style. After building the manor he was probably designing the church but he died, so the plans were drawn up and bills show the work was carried out by William Halfpenny.

Baroque was very short lived style in England, and is very rare in the West Country. Redland’s dome and setting is reminiscent of the pretty church at Wooley just north of Bath, designed by Wood. The style was popular in the early decades of the century, with many such examples in south London, but this was before the west began to attend to their churches, by which time Gothic was in fashion. Antiquarian and vicar Dr H J Wilkins described Redland as a miniature St Pauls where the Cossins were married and in whose shadow they spent much of their lives, but it is far less ornate, owing more to the spare lines of Burlington than the rich ornamentation of Wren. T he building cost a mere £850.

The foundation stone was laid on 1 July 1740 and Divine Service first held on 5 October 1743. Parish records show how isolated it was by the huge number of children baptised from November 1755, many of whom were described as ‘foreigners’, ie from outside the area. Bristol was a major destination for people either forced out of their homes by changes in agriculture or in search of better wages; the surrounding parishes had also seen large influxes of people at this time. After the mass baptisms, there was a lesser wave of women having ‘churchings’ ie services of thanksgiving for surviving giving birth.

Georgian Bristol always seemed to have a poet to record events, some of which is a useful aid to research, even if it can be toe-curlingly bad. It was inevitable that a fine new church on the outskirts of the city would inspire some rhyme. This is from an anonymous lady:
”the pious off’ring soars above the skies
So neat a fabrick – so well design’d
Makes all admire the worthy donor’s mind
Beauty and holiness so bright appear
God doubtless will vouchsafe t’ inhabit here”

Typical of the age, and of great irritation to modern researchers, the patron was worthy of mention but the architect was not. John Cossins was a man of great wealth, and like the local merchant prince Colston, he had been a governor of Christchurch Hospital in London and in his will left money to St Bartholomew’s, Bedlam and the Bristol Infirmary. But he seemed to avoid any involvement in parish government, preferring his role of lord of the manor that he spared no expense on building the church, and arranged money for its upkeep, an ongoing project for many years. What he was less thorough about was the legal side of the affair.

An Act of parliament was to be taken out to turn it into a parish church, ie to put it into the care of the Church of England. But it was not consecrated till 1790 having been closed from 1781 whilst the mater was debated. This again raises the question of how Christian were the Cossins, as they and several generations of their neighbours were not buried in consecrated ground.

Ison claims the chapel was built by Richard Williams house carpenter excluding the furnishings and interior finishing. The interiors were the work of Thomas Paty, his contributions extending over many years, so he must have impressed the Cousins. He furnished the chapel with ‘ornament’ and what he did is worth close inspection.

There is very little that can be actually called Christian in his designs. It feels more like a drawing room than a place of worship. But it was so well done that nobody seems to have noticed the complete absence of a cross, which has only recently been corrected. The chapel is based on the design of a pagan temple, and it is unusual in not having been named after a saint.

On the rear of the building are a pair of Moor’s heads of unknown significance. The painting of the eye of Osiris had lead some to suggest Cossins was a practicing mason, which might explain his strange choices. But it might just as easily have been the attitude of the wealthy at the time, as noted some years later by the traveller Hon John Byng that religion was useful to control the masses but of little relevance to the educated classes.

The cherub heads on the wall panelling are interesting in that they actually look like children, with large foreheads, and have an individuality that suggests some if not all were drawn from life. This style of showing cherubs with wings beneath them was how souls were depicted in heaven; the essence of angel nature suited the Georgian revulsion at dealing with messy bodily functions. But it is rare for them to so dominate a church.

The wood carving in the chancel is also by Thomas, a thoroughly secular piece of work, shows still life of birds, grapes, wheat, leaves and flowers. It is claimed by many to be the equal of the master carver Grinling Gibbons who was chief ornamental carver on St Pauls and other post fire London churches, so his work must have been known to the Cossins. Pevsner, not usually a fan of the Patys, notes it “need not be afraid of comparison with the best in London churches” But Gibbons had died several decades earlier, so this was by then a very old fashioned style.

In October 1755 the tiny ornate font was delivered. “It was designed and made by Mr Thomas Pty of Bristol who is generally esteemed one of the best carvers in England either in wood or stone by whom all the rest of the ornaments in the chapel was designed and carved.” So Paty’s reputation was high from the moment he arrived in the area. In June 1757 Paty delivered an “eagle on a pedestal for supporting a common prayerbook” This is now the base of the communion table.

In 1759 Paty showed his diversity when “All the carved work of the chapel was thoroughly cleaned and repaired under the direction of Mr Thomas Paty.” Later that year the picture over the communion table was cleaned by local painter John Simmons with whom Paty often worked. There is no record of who erected the gallery, but in 1759 the seats in the gallery were erected, indicating the popularity of the church. In March 1761 “The eagle over the font in the chapel” by Thomas was delivered.

But later that year near disaster struck. Lightning strikes are today a rare event, but local papers often reported people and animals being killed or flung great distances by the force, church spires being shattered to pieces, lead and other metals melting from the heat. In June the chapel was greatly damaged and Thomas Paty, this time acting with Robert Comfort the mason, and a carpenter and plumber were called on to repair the damage. The lead alone cost £18/15 and the woodwork was strengthened.

As well as being rich, Cossins was man or culture; his and his wife’s portraits were painted by John Vanderbank who also painted the copy of the embalming of Christ by Annibale Caracci which hangs above the communion table.
John Cossins died on 19 April 1759 aged 77; Martha followed him on 11 February 1762. Their busts, wearing French style informal clothes were carved in 1734 by Dutchman Michael Rysbrack one of the finest sculptors of his age.

The busts were kept in Redland Court for their remaining years. This is a rare instance of memorial sculpture being put on domestic display, or perhaps the other way round. Thomas Paty carved the memorial tablet which was erected over the door of the vestry several weeks later.

The Cossinses also provided revenue for the chapel. On 4 march 1758 “a close of ground called Old Orchard was this day measured and planned out by Mr James Bridges of Bristol Architect for building two houses with offices etc as a further augmentation of the income of the chapel.”

The agreement included the names of the 2 carpenters and as with Paty at Redland Court, this may have been Mr Bridges’ first commission in the city, before designing several churches, the bridge and Arnos Manor estate, reminding us of the role Cossins played as patrons of the arts in the city. Ison claimed this to have been Redland Hill House, one of which survives as the Steiner School. But a paper by Evans disputes this. Redland Hill House was built in 1767/8, long after Bridges had left the city. The houses were on Redland Pde which were tented out for a substantial £40 per annum for many years but demolished in the late 19th century to the north of Parsonage, at 157 Redland Rd

Most grand houses with adjoining church were built as a base for future generations of the family. But since the Cossins had no children, the chapel is something else entirely. It is the sole memorial the Cossins left in the hope of being remembered by future generations., harking back to the medieval chantries where money was left for prayers to be said for the departed, often in a purpose built chapel. The choice of The Embalming of Christ seems a thoroughly mournful choice to hang in such a well lit, fashionable church, and the numerous depictions of souls further adds to the impression of this being a chapel of mourning. When it opened there were no statues, no stained glass, the walls plain whitewash Not so much a church, a grand family mausoleum.

 

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