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Heywood Sumnerís Masterpiece Restored

St Mary’s Church, Llanfair Kilgeddin, in the beautiful countryside of north Monmouthshire near Abergavenny, was closed for worship in the early 1980s, the fabric of the building being considered unsafe. There was serious talk of possible demolition, but, after prolonged negotiation, the church was passed to the Friends of Friendless Churches in 1989, and since that date the building has been thoroughly restored. The final phase of the restoration was the cleaning and conservation of the magnificent series of sgraffito panels, unique in Wales, and executed by Heywood Sumner (1853-1940).

St Mary’s is a church of European importance. It was largely rebuilt in 1873–76 to the designs of John Dando Sedding, one of the most accomplished and innovative of the ‘Arts & Crafts’ architects, on the initiative of the newly installed rector, the Revd W J Coussmaker Lindsay. Sedding’s meticulous work for Lindsay, both inside and outside St Mary’s, remains almost untouched, as does his splendid churchyard cross.

Churchyard cross.
Churchyard Cross, c.1873–76, Church of St Mary, Llanfair Kilgeddin, designed by John Dando Sedding

Rector Lindsay was socially and artistically well connected. He was of the family of the Earl of Balcarres, and brother-in-law of his patron, Lord Tredegar. His second cousin was Sir Coutts Lindsay, the founder of the Grosvenor Gallery, the meeting-place of late Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts artists of the calibre of Burne-Jones, Sedding and Heywood Sumner. So when his wife died prematurely in 1885, it was natural that, with Sedding, he should turn to Sumner for an appropriate memorial. The result was the series of sgraffito panels, all but filling the church, on the theme of the morning canticle the Benedicite (Apocrypha, Song of the Three Holy Children, vv.35–66a). The canticle was a favourite with Arts & Crafts artists, giving as it does rich scope for images taken from nature, and here in Llanfair Sumner has taken his inspiration from the local landscape, with references to the valley of the Usk, the Sugarloaf Mountain, and the neighbouring church of Llanfihangel Gobion. The result is one of the great Biblically-inspired artworks of Wales.

With generous help from the Pilgrim Trust the sgraffito panels were entirely restored in 2006–07, and on Sunday 29th April 2007 the church was re-opened with a service of thanksgiving, conducted by Canon Jeremy Winston, the vicar of Abergavenny. A crowded congregation was able to see the work for the first time in company with Dame Jennifer Jenkins, in the memory of whose husband the Lord Jenkins of Hillhead the conservation has been carried out. (A prominent political figure, Roy Jenkins had been born and brought up in the neighbourhood at Abersychan and Pontypool.) The congregation was also able to hear the newly-restored organ, unique in Wales as a work of Telford of Dublin, which was Rector Lindsay’s native city.

John Newman has called Llanfair Kilgeddin ‘a place of pilgrimage for disciples of the Arts & Crafts movement’ and the church ‘an expression of Victorian wealth, taste and piety unique in the county’. It must have been an enriching experience in the late 1880s for the people of Llanfair to sing or recite the Benedicite here, surrounded by the glowing and inspiring imaging of their words by Heywood Sumner.

John Morgan-Guy
May 2007

Friends of Friendless Churches

Scraffito panel with a scene from the Benedicite.Sgraffito panels by Heywood Sumner, Church of St Mary, Llanfair Kilgeddin, c.1885

Scraffito panel with a scene from the Benedicite.