All Glorious Within

An appreciation of St Cuthbert's Philbeach Gardens

by Donald Findlay
THE church of St. Cuthbert Philbeach Gardens was built in 1884-7 to designs by Hugh Roumieu Gough at a cost of £11,000. During the succeeding thirty years, until the First World War effectively brought an end to such work, it was greatly enriched and beautified so that it could later be described as ‘probably the most ornate church in London’.

The houses in Philbeach Gardens were planned in 1870; building began at the south end in 1876 and was completed about four years later, a gap being left for the site of the church. The houses were intended for the prosperous middle and upper classes, and it is significant that the trustees for the patronage of the living of the new church, some of whom also served on the building committee, were the Earl of Strathmore,
Lord Chief Justice Coleridge, Viscount Halifax, Canon Liddon and Canon the Hon. Anthony Thynne.

From the start the church was unambiguously High in its sympathies, as the composition of the trustees also indicates. Catholic symbolism is also intrinsic in the whole planning and decoration of the building. The avowed intention, as expressed by its churchwarden Mr. Bickersteth when he appeared before the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline in 1905, was not to attract people by novelty but by seemly worship of a ritualistic sort. ‘We have’, he said, ‘no “lantern” services, no “pudding” services, no “doll” services, nor chemical experiments in the pulpit, but rather solemn and dignified worship on catholic lines in conformity with the Prayer Book which may afford one way of reaching those who otherwise would never enter a church’.

Gough was therefore rather an unexpected man to choose as architect. Born in 1843, he was the son of Alexander Dick Gough, an architect who specialised in providing fascinating but ugly, and in some cases almost sinister, churches for the Bible Belt evangelical parish of Islington. His only church south of the river, Holy Saviour Herne Hill, now demolished, was dismissed by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘hearty, robust and revolting’, so his son had a lot to live down. He must in any case have renounced his father’s Low Churchiness, because by the time that St. Cuthbert’s was being built he was a founder Committee member of the St. Paul’s Ecclesiological Society, reformed from the ashes of the earlier Ecclesiological Society in 1879, together with such men as
Dr. Wickham Legg and later Cuthbert Atchley and Ninian Comper, who were devoted to the revival of English liturgy and ceremonial of a pre-Reformation splendour.

Gough received his architectural training in his father’s office and then travelled on the continent before entering the service of the War Office where he became in due course Chief Draughtsman at Woolwich Arsenal. He set up his own practice in 1870, but designed only a handful of new churches, several of which were quite unremarkable. While St. Cuthbert’s was at the planning stage Gough was also engaged upon the church of
St. Paul’s Hammersmith, not very far to the west, and it may be that the combination of his membership of the St. Paul’s Ecclesiological Society and his collaboration on that church with John Pollard Seddon, a more experienced ecclesiastical architect and restorer of such churches as Llandaff Cathedral and the parish church of Great Yarmouth, led to an improvement of his style. There are in fact several close similarities between the fabrics of these two London churches. Both have a high, steeply sloping roof running continuously over nave and chancel, with aisles also running through from end to end, an apsidal Lady Chapel at the south-east and polished marble pillars in the nave. Although the style of the Hammersmith church is slightly more severe, the grouping of the windows, the somewhat mechanical detailing and the rather frigid external effect are also similar.

The revival of the Church of England resulting from the evangelical resurgence at the end of the eighteenth century and the complementary regeneration of catholic teaching consequent upon the Oxford Movement in the mid-nineteenth century produced a demand for vast numbers of church buildings. Those erected between about 1820 and 1840 for the Commissioners for Building New Churches were simply Gothic boxes with short chancels, galleries and west towers, but as the nineteenth century progressed people began to turn to mediaeval examples, which were suitable for some purposes but tended to be inappropriate for urban areas. The Ecclesiological Society, which battled long and hard for proper Gothic buildings and seemly liturgical arrangements, found itself faced with the difficulty of providing prototypes which could be adapted for use as town churches.

An important contribution to the debate was a paper by
G.E. Street, an architect with pronounced High Church sympathies, which was published in the Ecclesiologist in December 1850. It makes interesting reading in the context of this church.

Street pointed to the error of taking country churches as models for town churches and urged the use of brick rather than rough stone for walling ‘on account of its superior smoothness and evenness of surface’. He regretted that shortage of money often meant that churches were built of Kentish ragstone instead of clean hewn ashlar and that internally they were faced with plaster instead of gorgeous fresco and glittering marble. He urged the use of a tall clearstorey, the most sensible place in a town church for the admission of light, and added that ‘height is of immense importance, and to be attained at all costs; height first of the arcades and next of the clearstorey’. To furnish examples he suggested the study of great continental churches, praising their length and loftiness, the lack of division between nave and chancel and their arched timber roofs, some enriched with painted decoration.

‘In the ritual arrangements’, Street continued, ‘of course we require the same thing in the town as in the country, but the chancels might well be larger where there are so many more opportunities for properly using them than there are in thinly populated places, and in the construction a greater amount of decoration ought always to be either introduced, or else provision made for its subsequent introduction. Were the masses of our people well disposed, hearty, enthusiastic churchmen, nothing in the way of adornment and enrichment would be impossible in these days. And we must keep that bright day, when men shall be so disposed, constantly before our eyes; we must deem that each stone that we polish and each ornament that we carve, each altar that we decorate and each shrine that we consecrate leads, though slowly, still most surely to that time . . . our work at present if we have but small means is at all events to build grand shells, the completion of which shall serve as an object to kindle the love of another generation’.

St Cuthbert's: showing the chancel, rood, reredos and pulpit.

Although the approach which Street advocated was carried through at some of the leading ecclesiological churches of the day—by
Butterfield at All Saints, Margaret Street in the 1850s, St. Albans, Holborn in the 1860s and St. Augustine, Queen’s Gate in the 1870s, as well as by Street himself at St. James the Less, Pimlico and St. Mary Magdalene, Paddington—it also resulted in a large number of Victorian churches which remain incomplete to this day. Almost all that he says was, however, borne out in the history of St. Cuthbert’s.

Even more interestingly, on 14 January 1886, when St. Cuthbert’s was under construction, Gough himself read a paper to the St. Paul’s Ecclesiological Society entitled ‘An Architect’s Views on Modern Church Building’ which illuminates our study of this building. He considered that while the principles of church design and planning should be based on the study of old churches they should not fall into slavish copying. He was perhaps thinking of a church like
St. Mary the Boltons when he said that there was no point in building a cruciform church if the transepts were to be used only for additional seating instead of, as in the Middle Ages, subsidiary altars. So at St. Cuthbert’s we see an essentially simple form, with nave and chancel under one long uniform roof and aisles under pent roofs, for gables would suggest that they too contained altars. The Lady Chapel on the south therefore has a gabled roof and an apse to make it clear that there is an altar within.

Gough regretted restrictions placed upon architects by those, especially amongst the clergy, who demanded copies of mediaeval buildings. He felt that it would be better to emulate the spirit of the old builders by using modern materials where appropriate; in this church the parapets are made of concrete using the gravel excavated from the site and the roofs are constructed of iron above the wooden vaults.

As to planning, he urged that ‘the first attention should be given to the sanctuary—this we cannot make too noble or too grand; the central act of worship is now happily becoming recognised as not the listening to a sermon once or twice on Sunday but the daily eucharist; let us therefore make our sanctuaries as beautiful as possible, giving special care to the holy altar and reredos and enriching the same with handsome screen and gates or rood loft’. Here the sanctuary indeed is spacious and well appointed. The windowless east wall perhaps derives from study of continental examples as Street had recommended, even though the present reredos arrived well after Gough’s death, and the absence of a screen allows a proper view of the celebrations of the eucharist to those sitting in the nave.

The renaissance of choral music meant that chancels were often filled with choir-stalls which Gough disliked—he would have preferrea to place the choir in the chancel aisles or in a west gallery. But here they are in the chancel, though their stalls are as low and unobtrusive as possible. He also deplored enormous organs of cathedral scale and volume which shook the very fabrics of parish churches, especially when architects were forced later to provide chambers for them and to endure criticism for not including adequate space in the first place. How ironic then that a decade after publishing his lecture Gough himself should have been obliged to add an organ chamber breaking the line of the north aisle roof to house an instrument which extends from crypt level to above the clearstorey and is far larger and noisier than is strictly necessary.

Under the chancel Gough provided a crypt to give accommodation for vestries, Sunday school purposes, guild meetings, parochial entertainments and social gatherings.

He felt that ‘more dignity and reverence ought to be paid to the sacrament of baptism—we too often see great importance attached to the altar and little or none to the font, the latter being relegated to a corner and little attention paid to it’. He therefore recommended the sort of baptistery built here (indeed the first part of the church to be erected) which, circular in form, gives the font proper dignity by placing it within pillars on the central axis of the church, yet is situated both near the principal entrance and far enough from the altar not to compete with it for attention.

Gough felt that churches ought to be well proportioned, pointing out that ‘it is to perfect proportion rather than elaborate detail that our splendid Cistercian abbeys owe their grace and beauty’, and the style and proportions of the nave at St. Cuthbert’s have indeed often been compared to those of the
Cistercian Abbey at Tintern.

The lecturn at St Cuthbert's by Bainbridge Reynolds.

(Photo: Nic Barlow)

In a passage particularly applicable to this church Gough showed his inclination towards the ethics of craftsmanship being put forward by the supporters of the rising Arts and Crafts Movement: the question should not be ‘how many seats can we get for how little money?’ but rather, as it was in the Middle Ages, ‘how beautifully can we build?’ That would encourage good honest work and artistic talent. In old buildings ‘we can see that the master mind has planned and proportioned the whole, but the working out of various details has been to a great extent left to individual skill and taste of the several workmen employed ... it is this which gives life to the buildings which we so much enjoy’. The architect, instead of living miles from his buildings and visiting the sites once a month, ought to be a master builder, supervising and directing the whole work and employing men whose skill and artistic talent he could depend upon. Then all would have one common object, namely to do their best.

Gough deplored the skimping of money on church fabrics ostensibly to pay for furnishings—especially when in most cases it was applied to a pulpit or stained glass windows bought by the yard or ‘the almost inevitable Brummagem eagle’. ‘I had occasion to make inquiry at a railway station respecting one of these wonderful birds’, he recalled, ‘ordered by a client of mine, and was nearly giving up my attempts to learn anything about it when one of the porters asked if I meant a thing like a goose on a pole. How much better would it be to show some originality in the matter of lecterns—we are surely by this time tired of the “carved goose”. Wrought iron seems to be an appropriate material, and I am thankful to say that we have some excellent masters in the craft in such men as Mr. Starkie Gardner, Mr. Singer of Frome and others’. ‘Much greater use could also be made of pictures, wallpaintings and mosaics and, both internally and externally, sculpture’.

When completed for the consecration on 18 November 1887 the building was a well-proportioned shell with few of the fittings which we see today. Some richness was imparted by the use of polished marble for the pillars of the arcades, but the furnishings were limited simply to the fulsome Caen stone pulpit (placed in continental fashion almost halfway down the nave, as though to distance it from the altar), the seven sacrament font in its baptistery and the sedilia and piscina in the south wall of the sanctuary, all designed by Gough and carved by Baron Felix de Sziemanowicz of Kennington. The Lady Chapel and baptistery had stained glass windows by Kempe and, although it was clear that there would be glories to come, the walls were still plain brick. Lighting was by means of metal gas fittings looking rather like open thuribles, which have sadly long since vanished. They were provided by the firm of J. Starkie Gardner, for whom they had been designed by William Bainbridge Reynolds.

Reynolds’ work demands careful attention, for his influence on the furnishings of this church was to extend from these early days over almost half a century right up to his death in 1935. He was born in 1855, the son of scholarly and artistic parents, and began his training as an architect in the office of George Edmund Street at the time when Street was designing the Law Courts in the Strand. He also spent some time in the office of J.P. Seddon, who later collaborated with Gough at St. Paul’s Hammersmith. In the 1880s, in his late twenties, he left architecture and joined John Starkie Gardner, an antiquarian scholar who had established his own metalworking business in 1883. In 1904 Reynolds moved to his own premises and set up a studio from which work went out to all parts of the British Isles, to France, to Bermuda, South Africa and Australia. As a High Churchman with a profound reverence for traditional symbolism and ceremonial he worked both for the Church of England and for Roman Catholics. Although he did some secular work (which included two silver baths for houses in Mayfair) the emphasis was on the ecclesiastical work, of which St. Cuthbert’s contains some of the finest specimens. His largest ecclesiastical commissions were for St. Paul’s Cathedral, York Minster and the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, but he also worked at Ely, Norwich, Durham, Exeter, Canterbury and Gloucester and in Westminster Abbey. His friend Charles Voysey remarked that ‘his personal charm was marked by gentleness, courtesy and manliness; he was intensely musical and much more thoughtful than talkative. One often wished he would say more because of his charming voice’. Another writer noted that ‘he had seen and assimilated all the great works of the Old Masters and his peculiar genius was that, with all his knowledge, he never imitated them, but with exquisite taste interpreted their achievements in his own perfectly individual and original way, thus making his work entirely suitable to modern times’. His artistic work in this church exemplifies this perfectly.

His first works in St. Cuthbert’s were the hanging lamps, now removed, and they were followed in 1897 by the lectern, his first major commission and undoubtedly the most original of his works here. It is made of wrought iron and copper and consists of a base carrying a central shaft which bears a two-sided revolving reading desk flanked by sinous candle-arms of immense scale. The design is said to follow one of Pugin’s but it is more likely to be a conflation of two facing pages of Pugin’s Desigr s for Metalwork, one of which shows a lectern and the other designs for candle brackets for walls. Apart from the swagger of the design, which John Betjeman rather unkindly categorised as ‘Noveau Viking’, the lectern is a classic piece of true craftsmanship because the form and decoration are both dictated by the material. The copper and iron are treated in many different ways—beaten, pierced, repousse, twisted, embossed and incised— which would have been impossible to achieve with wood. That is the failure of the mass-produced lecterns which Gough derided—the carved goose which nearly went astray at the railway station could as well have been made of brass, wood or, at a pinch, stone. This lectern simply would not stand up in any material other than metal.

Incorporated within it, as within all Reynolds’ work in the church, is a rich vein of subtly expressed symbolism of the sort which might be expected from so brilliant a mind. Between the turrets of the base are the shields of the English provincial sees of Canterbury and York. On one end of the desk is the Fall of Man, expressed by the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and at the other the Redemption of Man, shown in the Crucifixion with the Instruments of the Passion and the Crown of Thorns. Surmounting the desk is the figure of St. John the Baptist, the forerunner, and the sconces for candles which cast light on the Word are embellished with the attributes of the Lord foretold by Isaiah—‘Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace’. The Bible itself, now on display in the Treasury of St. Paul’s Cathedral, is in two volumes, with copper binding for the Old Testament and silver for the New Testament. The whole lectern is not just a pedestal for the book, but an embodiment of the theology surrounding the Book which it exists to carry.

St Cuthbert's: the clock, by Bainbridge Reynolds

(Photo: Nic Barlow)

In 1898 Reynolds provided the clock beside the baptistery, a more light-hearted work which is a modern interpretation of the mechanical clocks with chimes in the cathedrals of Wells, Durham and Exeter. The works are concealed and a single hand points to the hours, inscribed in Art Nouveau arabic numerals on blue enamel discs. (With Protestant agitators in mind, it was presumably intentional that the use of Roman numerals should be avoided in a church such as this.) Above are little bells on which the hours are struck, but the original six have been reduced to two because the full chimes were found to be disturbing to preachers.

Nearby are iron screens round the baptistery, made by Reynolds in 1905 to carry out Gough’s intentions but not completed until the year after the architect’s death. They are quite simple, and the lettering of the inscription is so neatly reduced to abstract forms that it is scarcely legible and looks more like neatly folded ribbon.

The Royal Arms near the middle of the nave was erected, with the windows above showing the four patron saints of the British Isles, as a memorial to Queen Victoria in 1904. The achievement of arms is treated like a great signboard just as painters of inn-signs were often employed to produce Royal Arms for country churches a century or two earlier. The shield of arms itself is simply rendered, but Reynolds’ complete mastery of his material shows in the naturalistic treatment of the roses with thin curling petals, the exaggerated size of the great thiitles done flat with incised lines and the nervous tautness of the lion and unicorn supporters. The lion crest at the top is stretched to quite unnatural form and the mantling flies up at each side in a way which almost belies the fact that it is metal at all and suggests that the Arms has just been let down from behind the arch like scenery from the flies of a theatre.

The same sureness of hand applies to Reynolds’ work at the east end of the church. His screens round the Lady Chapel, of wrought iron and copper, are original work based on mediaeval English examples of such subtle design that not only are they transparent but they are also very practical, being almost impossible to climb. The communion rails within the chapel are copied from a screen in St. Anselm’s Chapel, Canterbury.

On the other side the organ screen has grilles of close-set vertical rods on which the only decoration is a series of twists, against which 
are set paintings on gilded gesso grounds of St. Gregory, St. Ambrose and King David in metal decorated with rather Art Noveau cusped circles.

The screen on the west side of the organ, facing the aisle, was erected in memory of the Revd. William Teale and therefore has against the uprights numerous little teals, his crest. The way in which each bird forms a circle is rather Celtic in feeling, and although there are thirty-six of the same design no two are identical.

Detail of part of the screen round the Lady Chapel by Bainbridge Reynolds; and the statue of St Ann and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

(Photo: Nic Barlow)

The paschal candlestick of 1905 rivals in size and scale those found in the ancient basilicas of Rome, but it is an entirely contemporary design set on three arching feet, the enormous candle stock rising from a crown and embellished with the Lamb of God in a glory. At each side, hanging on scrolly brackets, are shields with the sacred monogram embossed upon them.

In the sanctuary itself Reynolds’ communion rails are of classic Italianate design as though lifted from a painting by Botticelli or Crivelli, with baluster-shaped uprights, naturalistic leaves and flowers, and entwined wreaths. In 1910 Reynolds made the repousse copper-gilt panels in the front of the high altar and his last work, carried out in 1933 within eighteen months of his death, was the tabernacle door upon the altar.

At the same time as Reynolds was providing these metal furnishings the interior of the church was being gradually enriched by other artistic endeavours. While larger items like the statues over the nave pillars were provided by professional firms, the Revd. Henry Westall, the first incumbent, who had the reputation for remorselessly bullying and cajoling his congregation, formed them into guilds of craftsmen to enrich the interior with their own hands. These were not quite the humble artisans envisaged by Street in his essay, but rather, as the Revue Benedictine put it in 1900, ‘mostly people in easy circumstances whose whole pride consists in devoting their time, their money and their work to the ornamentation of their beloved church. A guild of gentlemen practises the art of carving stone and wood, the ladies are occupied in painting on glass or on panels, they embroider the vestments, the banners and the hangings; others are excellent workers in metal; others have charge of the flowers in the church. In the monthly paper which the clergy publish they have only to say what they want and they get it in abundance, and more than is asked for; some ladies strip themselves of their rings and jewellery to adorn the chalices and crucifixes ... all are united to emulate in piety and generosity’.

St Cuthbert's: the communion rails by Bainbridge Reynolds

However exaggerated the terms of that account may seem, the evidence remains before us. Gifts to the church included a number of jewelled pieces of plate for the altars as well as such items as the Spanish ivory crucifix on a tortoiseshell ground in the Lady Chapel, and the enormous high altar cross, five and a half feet tall and 1761b in weight given in 1898 and made of copper, brass, crystal and white metal to accommodate an ancient bronze figure of the crucified Christ, as well as relics of St. Cuthbert in the form of fragments of his coffin, his chasuble and stole, recovered when his grave was opened in 1827.

The Guild of St. Peter gradually covered every inch of the walls with diaper patterns copied from great mediaeval abbeys and executed mosaics in the spandrels of the arches on each side of the chancel, in the Lady Chapel and round the font. Meanwhile the Guild of St. Margaret stitched numerous fine vestments and frontals and the Guild of St. Joseph carved wooden furnishings such as the choirstalls, misericords and stools. The ceilings of the baptistery and the Lady Chapel apse were painted by ladies of the congregation. The lower parts of the aisle walls were progressively clad with a dado of Devon marble and the sanctuary floor was laid with paving of Tenos and Connemara marble in 1905. Eventually every part of the fabric was embellished, and furnishings were provided for every purpose down to a copper desk and inkwell for the baptism register beside the font. In all, Mr. Churchwarden Bickersteth calculated that in the first 23 years from 1882 to 1905 the money raised by the congregation for the building and maintenance of the church and its services, excluding the gifts in kind and the stone and wood carving and needlework, amounted to £79,000.

There is unfortunately no space to mention the stained glass or the paintings in detail, but it is worth noting that the latter, more numerous perhaps than in any other Anglican parish church, bear out the claim made for the generosity of the congregation.

The woodwork is perhaps the least satisfying part of the church’s furnishing, with the outstanding exception of the great reredos. The bridge-like rood loft was designed by Gough and erected by
Jones and Willis in 1893 with a figure of Christ copied from one in the Capilla Real at Granada Cathedral. It is a painfully angular piece of work, and not satisfactorily related to the building. Its significance is to liturgical rather than architectural history because it was provided with a small altar at the south end upon which the sacrament was reserved after the Bishop of London insisted that it should be removed from the Lady Chapel, one of the first two examples of public reservation in London.

Below the rood loft are the priests’ stalls, also rather angular and also provided by Jones and Willis. The stalls all have misericords carved by the Guild of St. Joseph with grotesque heads of truly mediaeval character, that under the incumbent’s stall being in the likeness of
John Kensit, the Protestant agitator, with the addition of asses’ ears. Another wooden furnishing added later is the pulpit tester, erected in 1907 to designs by Harold Gibbons who, like Reynolds, often worshipped in the church and was a formative influence on its embellishment.

But there still remained against the east wall a temporary dossal of plain material. In November and December 1896 the Building News published several drawings of the interior of the church showing a ridiculously grandiose scheme for erecting a vast triptych against the east wall; setting an organ in a gallery high on the north wall of the chancel housed in a case of giddy description with pipes set back behind arches, gathered into towers surmounted by kiosks and arranged in fans; placing a shimmering iron screen below the rood loft and, most ambitious of all, adding another storey to the nave to give windows above the existing clearstorey and crowning the whole assemblage with a vastly elaborate lierne vault painted with fussy gothic tracery culminating in a choir of angels over the rood.

The drawings were signed by Cyril E. Power, a little-known architect, who incurred Gough’s wrath expressed in an indignant and rather unpleasantly sarcastic letter published on New Year’s Day 1897. Power’s explanation was that he knew that Gough was the architect for the church, and supervising its continuing embellishment, but that he had been asked to prepare his drawings by one of the assistant clergy with the full knowledge of the vicar. That explanation rings true—Power’s drawings could never have taken concrete form but they must have made a wonderful dream for an aesthetic curate with a vivid imagination.

The Reredos.

(Photo: Nic Barlow)

What did result in the way of a reredos was, however, as we can see, hardly less fantastical. Indeed the reredos is probably, with the lectern, the lasting impression which St. Cuthbert’s leaves with all its visitors. It is difficult to know what part Gough played in its design, for though long dead by 1913-14 when it was erected he was still alive when the Revd. Ernest Geldart put himself forward and prepared designs in 1899.

Geldart’s architectural training had been with
Alfred Waterhouse, but in 1873 he had been ordained and after serving three curacies he was appointed to Little Braxted in Essex, a living which he held from 1881 until 1900, when ill health forced his retirement and he returned again to architecture. Like others concerned with St. Cuthbert’s Geldart was a man of scholarly bent, publishing books on ceremonial and church decoration and two musical settings, the Missa de Sanctis and Missa Dominica, in addition to designing many furnishings and vestments for the advanced churches of the day. His style is usually a rather over-intricate Gothic but, when given a free hand as he was in his own church at Braxted, he could produce a thoroughly devotional High Anglican interior.

The reredos at Philbeach Gardens is undoubtedly his largest and finest work. In spite of its Hispanic appearance and fervent Counter-Reformation spirit, it was intended to justify the biblical precedent for elaborate ceremonial. The subject is The Worship of the Incarnate Son of God with Incense and Lights. The great central panel shows St. John’s vision of the Lord enthroned, flanked by the Four Living Creatures which represent the Evangelists, and surrounded by angels with censers. Seven candlesticks used to stand in front of the rainbow, but these have been removed. Immediately below are three relevant scenes from the Gospels—the Wise Men who brought incense; the Presentation of the Holy Child to Simeon who held him forth as a light to lighten the Gentiles; and the Women at the Tomb who brought spices. The outer panels show six examples from the Old and New Testaments of events involving incense on the one hand and lights on the other.

The massive shafts, supported on steel girders in the crypt below, are encrusted with niches housing figures which depict the four major prophets and the Four Latin Doctors together with thirty-two statues of saints. High aloft, fifty feet from the floor, is the figure of the Holy Child in his mother’s arms surrounded by an aureole of glory and receiving offerings of incense from two angels. There is nothing like it in any other Anglican parish church, and the nearest thing is the red sandstone reredos erected behind the high altar of Liverpool Cathedral a decade later. With the installation of the reredos on the eve of the First World War the church as we now see it was effectively complete.

What are we to make of it today? Comparison with another major church of the same tradition and date is instructive.
Holy Trinity Sloane Street was built two years later by an architect of much the same age as Gough, and similarly furnished over a period of years extending until after the death of its architect. But John Dando Sedding’s church is a vastly spacious building of immense width in a highly personal style which combines features of many periods, both Gothic and Renaissance, into an unique new style very different from Gough’s slightly mechanical attempt to revive the Early English style at St. Cuthbert’s. Holy Trinity, moreover, is more orderly. Although the furnishings came from many different hands, Sedding took Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ advice and worked out a coherent plan before the work began. This is in marked contrast to St. Cuthbert’s where, for example, the spires had to be removed from the clergy stalls within two years of their erection in order to make way for the rood loft. Both are examples of the growing influence of the Arts and Crafts movement which sought to avoid commercialism and rather to encourage the individual response of the artist to his work. While Sedding seems to have assimilated the basic precepts of the movement so that his church and its furnishings form a coherent unity, at St. Cuthbert’s Gough gives the impression of working towards a new teaching which he does not fully understand. In spite of a windowless east wall, a baptistery set apart at the west end and a pulpit placed halfway down the nave, these innovations are grafted onto an essentially old-fashioned design based on mediaeval precedent. Taken as a whole, the church lingers shivering on the brink of a new age but fears to launch away.

The opposite is of course true of Bainbridge Reynolds’ metalwork, especially in the eclectic nature of his use of source material and his effortless combination of ancient and contemporary motifs, into a new style, but these are only isolated pieces amongst the total effect. Some individual artists were employed here, and a great deal of amateur effort was involved through the work of the Guilds, but there is too much work by commercial firms in this building to satisfy the forward looking aesthetes of the 1890s.

A few years later Ninian Comper at
St. Cyprian’s Clarence Gate would go even further than Sedding, and design every smallest detail himself, even though the furnishings were installed gradually over the course of three decades after the completion of the building, because he would not trust any other designer to get it right. The result is a church of immaculate purity and beauty, but it could well be argued that St. Cuthbert’s, by involving large numbers of people both professional and amateur, was following more nearly the mediaeval precedent.

The Baptistery, the first part of the permanent church to be completed. 

(Photo: Nic Barlow)
St. Cuthbert’s also shares with the churches of Street and Butterfield in the previous generation a quality of hardness as a result of the colour and texture of its materials which is absent from the churches of Sedding or Comper which were to follow, and in this sense too it is old-fashioned rather than forward-looking. The shiny polished marble glints unflinchingly from the pillars of the nave arcades, and it is perhaps a mercy that the supply of Belgian marble ceased early in the work otherwise the pillars would all have been almost black like those at the west end. The unusual predominance of metal—many churches would have had a wooden lectern, wooden screen and wooden candlesticks—makes a combination of wrought iron, copper and brass set against crisply incised stonework and polished marble which gives a hard edge to the whole interior. Nor is such woodwork as there is painted in colour, as it would have been in a contemporary church by Bodley or George Gilbert Scott Junior; even the towering reredos is left its natural rather dull colour, and the creamy Caen stone pulpit was later toned down to harmonise with the rest of the building.

But all this, even if true, is manifestly unfair, for it is to judge the building by twentieth-century ideals, and with hindsight. We like our churches bright and airy. St. Cuthbert’s ought to be judged by the standards of its own time, and it was intended to be crepuscular. Anything garish would have been regarded as vulgar and not conducive to the right spirit of devotion. The drawing rooms of St. Cuthbert’s cultured congregation, many of them the ‘rich ritualistic aunts’ remembered by Sir John Betjeman, would have been crowded, as Peter Anson pointed out, with spidery furniture, art embroidery, fringed table cloths, round gilt-framed mirrors, screens, wicker chairs, heavy velvet portieres and peacock feathers. The more advanced houses perhaps had wallpapers by William Morris and Company on which were hung blue and white china and other Japanese knick-knacks.

The furnishings and decoration of St. Cuthbert’s show the same effect in an ecclesiastical context; while the old fashioned drawing room furnishings of heavy mahogany are matched by Gough’s pulpit, rood loft, font and sedilia, the new taste for aesthetic Morris wallpapers and Japanese art is reflected in Bainbridge Reynolds’ progressive metalwork and Kempe’s pretty stained glass. If the pious members of the congregation were to compete in generosity to give their best to God, that to them meant decorating every surface as richly as possible, and with decoration which more often than not has intrinsic symbolism so that the purpose of the building was expressed not only in the style of worship but in the very bones of the fabric.

The incense and lights of course were not limited to the static carving on the reredos but moved in dramatic processions round and through the building, and reached their consummation in a concentration of glory with the carefully ordered ceremonial of celebrations of the Eucharist at the High Altar. Whether the effect was entirely convincing is rather difficult for us to tell in these liturgically austere days, but it brought in great numbers of people, and that is why St. Cuthbert’s is ‘all glorious within’.

[Text from the Victorian Society Annual 1991]