Thursday, 27 July 2017

Jonathan Harmer, potter and stonemason of Heathfield

I touched on godly matters in the last post. I might as well continue. This post is about gravestone decoration. And why not? Makes a change from shoes, handbags and lipstick.

I was returning from Hastings yesterday evening, after visiting my friend Alice. Wanting to take a different route back, I found myself travelling west towards Heathfield on the B2096. Passing through Punnett's Town, I remembered that at Cade Street a little further along was an unusual building, set back from the road and up a rise. It was a striking evangelical chapel, painted white on the front side, that looked sternly down on some old eighteenth and nineteenth century graves. Some of the gravestones were unusually decorated with terracotta ovals.

Well, here's the chapel. We'll contemplate it first.

It's rather stark, isn't it? I suppose you could also say it was plain and simple and honest, and very much to the point.

The sundial above the porch, above the oval window, and just under the roofline, gave 1809 as its installation date. The shadow on it indicated 6.30pm. That's 6.30pm Greenwich Mean Time. Tigerlily's camera recorded 7.36pm British Summer Time as the precise moment I took the shot.

Close up, this imposing building seemed less forbidding. This is what Nikolaus Pevsner said about it (I have my own copy of his Sussex):

1809. A nice homely box with a keyed-in oval window in the façade. Inside and in the churchyard half a dozen of the pretty and naïve terracotta relief plaques by Jonathan Harmer of Heathfield; dates of death 1806-25.

A 'nice homely box'? Hmm. It looked to me like a place where no-nonsense worship would take place in earnest. God-fearing indeed. My secular interest in in the architecture, the details on the gravestones, and the photographic possibilities of the chapel, would be frowned upon were an elder to appear and ask what my business was.

But there was nobody to challenge me, and indeed nothing that said 'Private. Keep out.' So I had a good look.

I wasn't sure which Christian sect used the chapel. Rural Sussex used to have many of them, some very local, such as the Society of Dependents aka the Cokelers, whom I mentioned in my post Mud, mud, mud, mud on 2nd February 2015. I think around Heathfield they were mostly Strict Baptists and offshoots of that. This particular chapel was still used several times a week, and by a congregation who might have mobile phones with them, because there was a notice inside reminding them to switch their phones off. (You could easily see inside through the windows) I pressed Tigerlily to a window and took this shot, which shows the main room, very neat and plain, but containing two organs. Evidently (and surprisingly) music played a big part in the services.

Only the front side of the chapel was painted white. The other sides were ordinary red brick. I walked up the hill to look at the larger graveyard at the rear. It had a fine view of the distant South Downs.

These were the more modern graves. That is, nineteenth century onwards. None of them had the terracotta plaques that Mr Pevsner mentioned. Come to that, not many of the older graves in front of the chapel had either. I noticed that most of the plaques were either very badly worn, or entirely missing. It was not quite this bad when I last looked around here in 2009, taking this shot:

How were they done? There is a website that tells the story of Jonathan Harmer (1799-1849) at For additional information, see also and He hailed from nearby Heathfield, where his father had been a stonemason. Jonathan was a potter as well as a stonemason, and would embellish gravestones with terracotta inserts, often but not always oval, mortared into a cavity cut into the stone. I've come across his work in several Sussex graveyards. Here is a fine example I saw in Mayfield churchyard in 1997:

And this is a terracotta vase on another gravestone (or tomb) there:

Incidentally, Mayfield churchyard had a vaguely amusing row of gravestones - the Three Teeth (Mary, Frances and William Tooth):

I've a hunch it might pay to go and look at the various locations while the terracottas are still in a half-decent state. It does appear that, after two hundred years, they are starting to weather badly. As for the missing ones, well, the suspicion has to be that unscrupulous persons are prising them out and stealing them. I suppose that getting them out might actually be quite easy, if frost has cracked and loosened the mortar attaching them to the gravestone. It's completely disrespectful of the grave, and must be a criminal act, but there are people around who would do things like this without conscience.

I wonder why Jonathan Harmer died so young. He was only fifty. Neither of the two Internet addresses given above stated how he died. Perhaps fifty was a good age in 1849, if you were an ordinary artisan living in the countryside, engaged in a trade where dust could get into your lungs.

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