16 May 2022

Did Christopher Wren
design the Shell House
in Stony Stratford?

Queen Anne House, or Shell House, at 48 High Street, Stony Stratford, was once the Dower House for Wolverton Manor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

One of the most elegant and most intriguing houses in Stony Stratford is almost directly opposite me on the High Street.

Queen Anne House, also known as Shell House, is at 48 High Street. This was once the Dower House for nearby Wolverton Manor, which was demolished in 1728.

The Shell House has many distinct sections, spanning from the 1520s to the early 1700s, with a rare number of original features still intact. The front portion is believed locally to have been underwritten in some way by Sir Christopher Wren or – more likely – his colleague Nicholas Hawksmoor ca 1700-1703.

At dates that would appear to concur with this, Wren and Hawksmoor were sourcing building materials from Stony Stratford while they were working on other estates nearby.

Wren was busy remodelling Winslow Hall to the south in 1700. At the same time, Hawksmoor was working on Easton Neston to the north, which he completed in 1702.

Both men were known personally to the early 18th century owner of Queen Anne House, Dr John Radcliffe, who gives his name to the Radcliffe Camera and the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and who owned vast estates around Wolverton and Stony Stratford.

Wren, Hawksmoor and Radcliffe all belonged to the same masonic circle. Radcliffe, who was Queen Anne’s physician, became the owner of the Shell House in 1713 when he acqured the Wolverton estate.

The scallop shell recesses are a notable feature of the Shell House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Architecturally, all three properties share features that bear more than a passing resemblance. The drawing room at Queen Anne House has scallop shell recesses that are notably similar to stairwell features at Easton Neston.

Interestingly, the hallway is dominated by a grand oak staircase that has carved inverted pentagrams. Hawksmoor was well known for appropriating symbols like this in his designs to ward off evil. He was sometimes referred to as ‘The Devil’s Architect.’

Despite compelling circumstantial evidence, given the passage of time it is unlikely that direct evidence will be uncovered linking Wren or Hawksmoor to Queen Anne House.

This house on the north-east side of High Street, Stony Stratford is a two-storey ashlar sandstone house with a steep pitched, partly-tiled roof with flat stone coping on the gables, and plain kneelers supported by moulded consoles.

The house has one early and one late brick chimney stack, and two pedimented dormers.

There is a small plinth, with a band at the first floor level, chamfered quoins and a heavy modillion eaves cornice. There are four windows on the first floor, of which the third from the left is blind, three windows on the ground floor, and an entrance under the blind window.

The windows are sash in wooden cases and have narrow wooden architraves. There are plain cills, with a plain lintel on the first floor windows, while heads of the ground floor windows have light carving and keystones.

The entrance is approached by two carved consoles. There is narrow wooden doorcase, panelled reveals and soffit, and panelled door with rectangular light above it. The front room on the ground floor has a door-head with a segmental pediment and a shell niche inside. There are railings in front of the covered area.

I understand that inside the house is panelled throughout on the ground and first floors. Sometimes, when I try to catch a glimpse as I walk by, I can see the fine staircase with applied carved strings, three balusters to a step, exaggerated ramps, and quarter landings.

This elegant house is considerably higher than the two-storey houses south of it, and in relation to No 50, a three-storey house, is almost as high to the eaves and the ridge is higher.

Sometimes I catch a glimpse of the fine staircase (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying with the Psalms in Easter:
16 May 2022 (Psalm 82)

‘God has taken his stand in the council of heaven’ (Psalm 82: 1) … Christ enthroned in majesty in a stained glass window in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections in this season of Easter, including my morning reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 82:

Psalm 82 is found in Book 3 in the Book of Psalms, which includes Psalms 73 to 89. In the slightly different numbering scheme in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is psalm is numbered as Psalm 81.

This is the eleventh of the ‘Psalms of Asaph.’ These are the 12 psalms numbered 50 and 73 to 83 in the Masoretic text and 49 and 72-82 in the Septuagint. Each psalm has a separate meaning, and these psalms cannot be summarised easily as a whole.

But throughout these 12 psalms is the shared theme of the judgment of God and how the people must follow God’s law.

The superscription of this psalm reads: ‘A Psalm of Asaph.’ The attribution of a psalm to Asaph could mean that it was part of a collection from the Asaphites, identified as Temple singers, or that the psalm was performed in a style associated with Asaph, who was said to be the author or transcriber of these psalms.

Asaph who is identified with these psalms was a Levite, the son of Berechiah and descendant of Gershon, and he was the ancestor of the Asaphites, one the guilds of musicians in the first Temple in Jerusalem.

Asaph served both David and Solomon, and performed at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple (see II Chronicles 5: 12). His complaint against corruption among the rich and influential, recorded in Psalm 73, for example, might have been directed against some of court officials. The words used to describe the wicked come from words used by officials of the cult or sacrificial system.

Several of the Psalms of Asaph are categorised as communal laments because they are concerned for the well-being of the whole community. Many of these psalms forecast destruction or devastation in the future, but are balanced with God’s mercy and saving power for the people.

Psalm 82 has been described as ‘a plea for justice’ and as ‘a vision of God as the Judge of judges.’

This psalm places its emphasis on judgment both from human judges and from God and declares the strong bonds between moral and physical order. It comments on the act of God rebuking the kings and unjust human judges of Israel for not treating the poor with respect.

In a vision, the psalmist sees God as a member of the council of gods. God accuses these other ‘gods’ of favouring the wicked over the weak and the needy. They are ignorant of the ways of the one true God and walk in darkness.

Their failure to be just rocks the foundations of the world. They may be seen as ‘gods,’ but they are not and they will die.

In verse 1, ‘God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgement.’ The ‘divine council’ or the ‘congregation of the mighty’ may also be read as the assembly of God,’ or God’s own assembly, an assembly summoned and presided over by God in his capacity as the almighty ruler.

Psalm 82 ends with a prayer for justice. In verse 8, which may have been sung in the Temple by the congregation in response, acclaims God as the only true, universal ruler of the earth. In this final verse, God is spoken of in the future tense, ‘inheriting the nations.’ In other places in the psalms, however, ‘the Son’ inherits the nations (Psalm 2), and the believing community inherits the nations (Psalm 25, Psalm 37). God already possesses the nations but in some sense inherits them as well.

‘Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute’ (Psalm 82: 3) … ‘Christ the Beggar’, a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz on the steps of Santo Spirito Hospital near the Vatican (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 82 (NRSVA):

A Psalm of Asaph.

1 God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgement:
2 ‘How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’

5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

6 I say, ‘You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.’

8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Advocacy in Brazil.’

The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (16 May 2022, International Day of Living Together in Peace) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for peace. May we seek to resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner and co-exist in harmony.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org