What Shrine More Glorious?

 St Cuthbert's, Philbeach Gardens

by Ken Powell
 
 
SQUEEZED between the Cromwell Road, the railway, and the ungainly bulk of the Earl's Court exhibition building, St
Cuthbert's Church, Philbeach Gardens, might easily be dismissed as just another product of the church-building mania of the Victorian age. With harsh red brick mellowed by a century of London grime, it rises above the coarsely Italianate stuccoed houses so typical of West Kensington,
Sir John Betjeman pictured these residences in more spacious days, inhabited by "rich, ritualistic aunts", the backbone of the prosperous congregation which St Cuthbert's was built to serve.

Respectable the area might have been. But on Good Friday, 1898, its sombre calm was broken by the sounds of a near-riot. A group of Protestant demonstrators had interrupted a service and were hustled out of the church to cries from their leader, the fanatical
John Kensit, of "Murder - I die a martyr for the Protestant faith" and "Hallelujah, my wife, hallelujah, my hat!" Having existed for little more than a decade, St Cuthbert's was already one of London's leading "High" churches, its worship "as offensive to Protestant feelings as can be imagined". Kensit was taken to court and fined (though acquitted on appeal).


View along the North Aisle of St Cuthbert's.
"The church became a centre of the Arts and Crafts movement".



The religious passions of the 19th century have cooled, but St Cuthbert's survives as one of the most extraordinary Victorian churches in Britain and, above all, as a stunning repository of Victorian and Edwardian decorative art. Anglo-Catholics fought hard to secure sites for churches, often in the face of opposition from the bishops, and West Kensington was one of their battle-grounds. The first attempts of Westall, a curate at the nearby "ritualistic" church of St Matthias, Warwick Road, to found a new church were strongly opposed by the Bishop of London. But. early in 1883 a temporary iron church, known as "the dustbin", was opened in Philbeach Gardens and a permanent building soon succeeded it.

It was designed by
Hugh Roumieu Gough (1843-1904), who, in partnership with J. P. Seddon, had recently completed the grand Church of St Paul, Hammersmith. The new church was, at £11,000, relatively cheap but not without grandeur. Black Belgian marble in the arcades gave an opulent effect, but the material soon became unavailable and Torquay marble had to be substituted. The walls were finished in plain brick and the projected stone vaults had to be abandoned on grounds of cost. The building consecrated in November 1887 had little of the richness that it was subsequently to acquire in such abundance.

Father Westall, remembered by the actor 
Lewis Casson as "very dynamic, very masculine, not at all the 'pale young curate' ",
gathered together a large and eclectic congrega­tion. Many were attracted by the splendour of the services - eight or nine each Sunday­ which were accompanied by the fullest ceremonial and the best music. Most sig­nificantly, St Cuthbert's began to attract people of an artistic bent, so that it became a centre of the Arts and Crafts movement. .

Ruskinian influences certainly lay behind the formation of guilds, where parishioners were encouraged to learn and then to practise the arts of carving in stone and wood, working in metal and embroidering. Their most remarkable achievement, the gradual covering by the Guild of St Peter of all the internal walls in carved stone diapering, was complete by 1909. The chancel stalls were made by the Guild of St Joseph, while the Guild of St Margaret made vestments and frontals. "The
ladies," it was claimed, "strip themselves of their rings and jewellery to adorn the Chalices and Crucifixes."

The high quality of what was achieved by the guilds reflects the close involvement of some outstanding professional designers. A Lady Chapel altar was designed by the architect 
G. Fellowes Prynne but decorated with panels  painted by Miss Llewellyn, "a school teacher and district visitor". (Sadly, Miss Llewellyn died of diphtheria and the work had to be
completed by the senior curate.)

The major influences on the decorative work came from members of the congre­gation.
William Bainbridge Reynolds (1855-1935) was the arbiter of taste at St Cuth­bert's for half a century­ - "nothing could be done until he had consented".
Trained as an architect, he had turned to metalwork in the early 1880s and later established his own firm of craftsmen.

Gough's own fittings at St Cuthbert's - the font, sedilia and huge pulpit - are relative­ly dull. It is the work of Reynolds that makes the build­ ing memorable. His first and greatest contribution was the lectern (1895), one of the most original ecclesiastical designs of the period, created out of repousse copper and wrought iron in a daring Art Nouveau manner. The Old and New Testaments made for use with the lectern were worked by two leading metal-workers, 
Nelson Dawson and Clement Heaton.

Reynolds went on to add the clock at the west end of the nave (1898), royal arms (1904), altar rails (1905), High Altar front (1910), Paschal candlestick - a most eccentric design of 1905 - together with many screens and other items.

He made the High Altar tabernacle at the age of 78, and his firm was responsible for many memorial tablets around the building. His stylistic influences varied but his work gives a consistent quality to the interior of St Cuthbert's lacking, for example, in that other "cathedral of the Arts and Crafts", 
Holy Trinity, Sloane Street. Reynolds's influence is apparent in the charming enamelled tablet commemorating Lt. Leo Lemon (killed in action in 1917), made by Ernestine Mills.

Reynolds worked on occasions with another member of the congregation,
J. Harold Gibbons (1878-1958), a pupil of the great  Temple Moore and one of the most under­-estimated of English church architects. Gib­bons designed the present Lady Chapel reredos (1908) and many lesser items, but the charming mortuary chapel he designed for the north side
of the church was never undertaken. He was active until the time of his death, and supervised the repair of the church and clergy house after war damage.

The near-misses which destroyed neigh­bouring houses, and turned St Cuthbert's temporarily into a mortuary, blew out a good deal of stained glass. The best of what survives is by
C. E. Kempe, seen at his best in the baptistery windows. Kempe's Lady Chapel windows were destroyed and replaced by rather pallid glass by Hugh Easton. The east wall was, unusually, devoid of openings, and the intention was to erect a large reredos there. Designs were made by the Rev. Ernest Geldart
(1848-1929) as early as 1899,­ but funding could not be raised and the work was not carried .out until 1914.

Geldart had trained as an architect in the office of
Al­fred Waterhouse but he subsequently entered the ministry and was Rector of Little Braxted, Essex, 1881-1900. Poor health drove him back to the more leisurely pursuit of architecture. The
reredos he created for St Cuthbert's has no parallel in any other English church and is far removed from the dominant late English Gothic style of
G. F. Bodley and his followers. It is much closer to Spanish work.

Made by
Boulton of Cheltenham, it depicts the worship of the Incarnate God with incense and lights: Christ is shown in the central panel surrounded by a host of censing angels. The iconography of the reredos is a defence of the "ritualistic"
aspects of Anglo-Catholic religion. The vicar of St Cuthbert's had been solemnly ordered to desist from the use of the censer after a hearing at Lambeth Palace in 1900 - but its use had been quickly resumed.

Boulton was also respons­ible for the clergy stalls, while the bridge-like rood beam was designed by Gough and installed in 1893. It contains a small chapel, approached by a winding staircase, where the Blessed Sacrament was once reserved. (In 1906, St Cuthbert's was said to be one of only two churches in London with reservation, a practice condemned by the
Anglican bishops.)

Much of the atmosphere of the interior derives from the number and variety of more minor fittings - such as the Belgian-made Stations of the Cross, and the many Italianate pictures. These are mostly copies of works in the great galleries of Europe but look suitably authentic and add to the richly ultramontane atmosphere. Surprisingly absent, however, is
much evidence of the Baroque taste which derived from the Society of SS Peter and Paul (founded 1911) and became de rigeur in High Anglican circles between the wars.

Father Westall died in office, aged 86, in 1924 and it seemed that some of the life had passed from St Cuthbert's. Its place as
London's most fashionable "high" church had been usurped by
St Mary's, Graham Terrace (later Bourne Street). One consequence was that the interior of the building remained virtually unaltered, and unreformed - a monu­ment to late Victorian taste.

In recent years St Cuthbert's has been cautious in its approach to liturgical change. The rarish has had to come to terms with the social changes which have affected Earl's Court. (The "rich, ritualistic aunts" have gone and the district is no longer genteel.) It faces major problems too with the fabric of the church. J. Harold Gibbons's decision to re-roof in copper after the war is now seen as a mistake. The sheets have lifted, letting in water, and need major repairs, and much stonework needs replacing.

Despite the closure and demolition of
St Matthias's after war damage, the neighbour­hood is still over-supplied with churches, so that the diocese has seriously considered closing St Cuthbert's. It seems, happily, that the redundancy plan will not now proceed and a major appeal for restoration funds is to be launched by the recently formed Friends of St
Cuthbert's
.

Next year [written in 1986] will be the centenary of the consecration of the building and the 1300th anniversary of the death of its patron saint. The future of St Cuthbert's is a matter for hope but its past continues to fascinate. A parishioner
who came there in 1888 recalled many years later that every year a new section of diaper work was added to the walls in time for the dedication festival. A specially-composed hymn, recalling the glories of St Cuthbert's own great church at Durham, was sung as the long procession entered: "What shrine can be more glorious than where Cuthbert rests in
peace?'

Those great days have gone but St Cuthbert's, Philbeach Gardens, remains, a shrine as glorious as any of its age and a national treasure house to be cherished.