St Paul’s Cathedral without a dome

IN FEBRUARY 1961, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip paid a visit to Kolkata (Calcutta). People lined the streets along which they drove. Every now and then their car stopped and the Queen shook hands with people in the crowds. A little girl stepped forward to shake Her Majesty’s hand. Thirty-three years later that little girl became my wife.

Apart from shaking hands with the future Mrs Yamey, the Queen visited Kolkata’s Anglican St Paul’s Cathedral. Unlike is namesake in London, it does not have a dome. It was built to replace the older St John’s Cathedral. St Paul’s foundation stone was laid in 1839 and the gothic revival edifice was completed by 1847. It was designed by Major General William Nairn Forbes og the Bengal Engineers. Since its completion, various disasters have necessitated repairs, but the edifice looks to be in good condition.

The Cathedral is full of interesting features, a few of which I will now mention. The stained glass window at the western end of the church was designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones. The mosaic panels that can be found on the east wall were the creations of Arthur Blomfield, who was involved in the design of many Victorisn churches in London. The walls of the nave have the crests of the Dioceses of the former Anglican Province of The Church of India. Prior to 1947, St Paul’s was the Mother Church of what are now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and Sri Lanka.

I noticed that the pews in the nave are divided into male a female sections, separated by the central corridor. A Church worker explained that the sexes are no longer separated during services and that the signs marking where men and women should sit have been left as historical curiosities.

The TocH Chapel was dedicated on Armistice Day 1927. It contains the impressive sculpted funerary memorial to Sir Charles Allen, Chairman of the Calcutta Corporation. It also contains the helmet of an Indian soldier who died while fighting in the 1971 Bangladesh War. Next to this is a crucifix made from charred timber from a war damaged house in Bangladesh. These monuments to those who fell in Bangladesh are remarkably moving.

I have mentioned a few things that interested me in St Paul’s. In addition to these, there are plenty of memorials to Britishers, who came to India for one reason or another, and died there. One example of these is George Ham from Bristol, who drowned in the River Hooghly in 1866, aged 33.

Photographs of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the cathedral are on display within it. When my wife saw these today, the 18th of January 2023, she remembered shaking the hand of royalty back in 1961, and told me about it.

Two similar churches, one in Kensington and the other in Wiltshire

ENNISMORE GARDENS MEWS IS about 380 yards west of Exhibition Road near South Kensington. It is the site of a church with an Italianate façade, now the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints. A tall bell tower stands to the right of the façade as you look at it from the street. Pevsner described the style of the façade as “Lombardic Romanesque”. He noted:

“The Early Christian/Italian-Romanesque style was a speciality of the 1840s…”

Russian Orthodox church in Kensington, London

Although many of the fittings in the church are typical of Russian Orthodox places of worship (e.g., iconostasis and icons), the interior is not typical of edifices built specifically for the Orthodox church. The coloured panels above the arches (supported by iron pillars) lining the nave are not typical of the kinds of images usually associated with the Orthodox Church. They have captions in both English and Latin, but not in Cyrillic. The church was designed as the Anglican Church of All Saints in 1848-1849 by Lewis Vulliamy (1791-1871). The tower was constructed in 1871. Most of the decoration within the building is in the late 19th century Arts and Crafts style.

The Anglican parish, which was based in the former All Saints, merged with another in 1955. Then the church was let to the Russian Orthodox faith and its name changed to its present one. In 1978, the Sourozh Diocese purchased the edifice. The Sourozh is under the control of the Patriarchate of Moscow. The church in Ennismore Gardens Mews has a multi-national Orthodox congregation.  I asked a bearded priest how the cathedral differed from the Russian church in Harvard Road, Chiswick. He replied:

“We are the Orthodox Church based in Moscow, but the other one in Chiswick is the Orthodox Church based outside Russia … it is very complicated.”

Wilton in Wiltshire is almost 80 miles southwest of the Russian church in Ennismore Gardens Mews. Famed for its fine carpet manufacturing, the town has a church, St Mary and St Nicholas, whose façade looks not too different from that of South Kensington’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The Wilton church has a similar bell tower, but it placed on the left side of the façade. The church was commissioned by Sidney Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Lea (1810-1861), a close ally and supporter of Florence Nightingale of Crimean War fame. Sidney was a son of George Herbert, 11th Earl of Pembroke and his Russian spouse Catherine (née Yekaterina Semyonovna Vorontsova). The church, completed in 1845, was designed by Thomas Henry Wyatt (1807-1880) and his assistant David Brandon (1813-1897).

With many features borrowed from Italian Romanesque architecture, and some from Byzantine designs, the edifice at Wilton, despite being an Anglican parish church, felt to me slightly more like an Orthodox church than the converted ex-Anglican, now Orthodox, church in Ennismore Gardens Mews. However, the interior fittings in the church in Wilton borrow from what can be found in traditional Italian churches rather than in typical eastern Orthodox churches. But, the mosaic covered cupola over the chancel in Wilton’s Anglican church, with its depiction of Christ with two saints resembling what is often found in Byzantine churches, contrasts with the undecorated cupola over the chancel in what has now become the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Kensington.

Placed side by side, many differences could be discerned between the church in south Kensington and that in Wilton. But it is the similarities between two churches designed by different architects that are remarkable.

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.