Swinbrook is a small village in Oxfordshire, close to Burford. One might be tempted to call it the quintessential Cotswold village, if it were not for the fact that almost every village in the region can be described thus: there is a small green crossed by a crystalline brook; a pub stands by the bridge that spans what passes in these parts for a mighty river; the houses and cottages, constructed from the local limestone, exude a luminous charm. It is nothing and it is everything. On the edge of Swinbrook stands its church. Not especially distinguished from the outside, inside there is something remarkable and almost certainly unique – at least, I have never seen anything quite like it anywhere else in Britain.
The church, dedicated to St. Mary, is small. Once inside, there is nothing in particular that catches the eye, until you head towards the chancel and there you will find a sextet of striking sculptures, belonging to several generations of the Fettiplace family, who owned the manor of Swinbrook between 1503 and 1743. The first three were ordered by Sir Edmund Fettiplace, who died in 1613, for himself, his father and grandfather. There is something especially charming about this trio – with very little to distinguish one from another, there is a naivete in the execution that if not medieval is perhaps provincial. The lack of sophistication shows that England at that time was some way behind the likes of Italy, which by then had embraced Renaissance humanism and had developed a profoundly artistic culture. The three men lie on their sides, resting their raised heads on their hands and elbows in attitudes of dreamy contemplation, as if caught at a moment of poetic inspiration.
Adjacent to the earlier trio are three later generations of the same family, this time in full Stuart armour. They commemorate another Sir Edmund Fettiplace, who died in 1686, and his uncle and father. Carved by William Bird of Oxford, everything about them is more vivid and robust, each a convincing portrait of the man in question. These three adopt a slightly different pose, far more alert, wakeful and businesslike – they appear to represent a country that has gained in confidence and power.
Ouside, in the churchyard are the graves of some of the Mitford family, known above all for the sibling girls that in their different ways were causes célèbres in the 20th century. One of them, now the Duchess of Devonshire, owns the local pub – all of which proves that in Swinbrook, family ties and village ties are closely interlinked.
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