A Victorian gem of a church

MANY YEARS AGO, I read “The Gothic Revival” by the art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-1983). If I recall correctly, he wrote that it was likely that in Britain, the gothic style never truly died out before it came back into fashion in the 18th century. What we call ‘revival’ was merely the flaring up of the embers of the use of gothic designs, which had persisted despite the flowering of newer forms of architecture, such as neo-classicism. By the 19th century, the use of gothic motifs and structural features had fully revived, especially in the construction of churches and many other buildings, such as London’s St Pancras Station and the Prudential Building (near Chancery Lane).

Today, the 22nd of February 2022, I revisited a slightly concealed church, All Saints, in Margaret Street, which runs north of Oxford Street and parallel to it. You can see its tall, tiled spire from afar, but the church itself is set back from the street in a courtyard. Externally, with its multi-coloured patterned brickwork it is eye-catching but inside it is fantastic.

The church was established by the Ecclesiological Society, which was founded in 1839 as ‘The Cambridge Camden Society”. The group’s aim was:

“…reviving historically authentic Anglican worship through architecture.” (https://asms.uk/about/history/)

In 1841, the society:

“… announced a plan to build a ‘Model Church on a large and splendid scale’ which would embody important tenets of the Society: It must be in the Gothic style of the late 13th and early 14th centuries; It must be honestly built of solid materials; Its ornament should decorate its construction; Its artist should be ‘a single, pious and laborious artist alone, pondering deeply over his duty to do his best for the service of God’s Holy Religion’ Above all the church must be built so that the ‘Rubricks and Canons of the Church of England may be consistently observed, and the Sacraments rubrically and decently administered’.”

The architect chosen was William Butterfield (1814-1900), who specialised in the ‘gothic revival’ style. The church was built on the site of a former chapel, and within the confined space available, it was accompanied by a choir school and a clergy house. The church’s spire, 227 feet high, is taller than the towers of Westminster Abbey.

The Victorian writer and art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) was full of praise for Butterfield’s edifice in Margaret Street. He wrote about it in his “The Stones of Venice, Volume III” (published 1853), observing that it:

“…assuredly decides one question conclusively, that of our present capability of Gothic design. It is the first piece of architecture I have seen, built in modern days, which is free from all signs of timidity or incapacity. In general proportion of parts, in refinement and piquancy of mouldings, above all, in force, vitality, and grace of floral ornament, worked in a broad and masculine manner, it challenges fearless comparison with the noblest work of any time. Having done this, we may do anything; there need be no limits to our hope or our confidence; and I believe it to be possible for us, not only to equal, but far to surpass, in some respects, any Gothic yet seen in Northern countries.”

That was praise indeed.

The interior of All Saints is a riot of colour. This results from the use of stones of differing hues – some inlaid to create bold patterns and others to form images of biblical scenes, glorious stained glass, gilt work, and elaborate ironwork. This feast for the eyes must be seen to be believed. And this gem of Victorian architecture, a peaceful have and a joy to see, is merely a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of Oxford Circus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s