Iconography, Identity, and an Inkwell: Reflections on the English Parish Church

Kelly Pedigo, WPAMC ’24

Situated among hundreds of objects in Winterthur’s Shop Lane, surrounded by things for which I had no name until a curator introduced them to me (porringers and posset pots spring to mind), sits a perfect little English country church. This object has secrets too; with gentle coaxing its roof hinges open and it squeakily reveals itself to be an inkstand. But why is its form so legible and evocative that I can name it in a room full of anonymous things? How might British design history help me understand the social significance of the iconic English parish church?

The church inkstand in situ on the counter of Shop Lane. 1965.2133 A-D. Inkstand. 1825-1875. Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. Photo by author.
The church’s roof hinges open to reveal an inkpot and pounce shaker, a drawer can be pulled from its base, and the cupola on its tower can be removed to reveal a hollow inner structure.

In order to begin to address these questions, I investigated the church-shaped inkstand’s materiality and its historical and cultural contexts. One of my most useful avenues of exploration was through comparison. Due to my health, I did not travel to the UK with my fellow fellows. My stateside perspective placed front and center the evidence of British design on the American landscape and provided me with the opportunity to reflect more deeply on the transcontinental, transcultural messages that architecture transmits.

I propose that the iconic English parish church form with its reliance on classical and gothic elements was a product of identity reformation at a national scale after the Great Fire of London in 1666. In their stylistic choices, architects like Wren and later Pugin invoked the ancient and medieval, anchoring the church as a timeless entity in an era as marked by secularization as by revival. Though this specific type of church became a staple of the English skyline, the experience of picking out its steeple on the landscape was one that I shared with my friends in the UK. Below are two images; the first is an 18th century print of the city of Oxford and the second is a 21st century photo of my hometown, Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

2002.0023.014. A West Prospect of the City of Oxford by John Boydell, 1751. Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library.
Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

Churches similar to the ones that my little inkstand echoes can be identified in nearly any town in both England and the United States. Obvious, ever-present objects like these carry a certain veracity with them. They assert themselves in our minds as archetypal things – it’s shaped that way because that’s what a church is shaped like! But form always reflects values, and the form of the English parish church conveys potent cultural messaging through design wherever it is reproduced. That it is reproduced in this inkwell, itself a catalyst for written messages and a proxy for the church inside the home, is a subject for mulling over as the winter turns to spring here at Winterthur. 

The other fellows conveyed me across the landscape in paper doll form! 

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