Glorious detail in a gothic revival church

I HAD PASSED it often, but never entered it until recently when I attended a concert within it. I am talking about a church on Holland Road in West London not far from Shepherds Bush, St John the Baptist. This Anglican church is an exceptional example of gothic revival style. Designed by James Brooks (1825-1901) with John Standen Adkins (an assistant of Brooks), it was constructed between 1872 and 1910.

Although the façade facing Holland Road is not exceptional, the church’s interior is highly breathtakingly decorative. Unlike mediaeval churches, which took centuries to complete, St John the Baptist was constructed in much less time. Yet, its decorative details, which imitate what is best in many older churches, rival those found within the old ones. The workmanship and fine details in St John’s remind one of the best productions of craftsmen, who flourished many centuries earlier. However, unlike the earlier churches, which inspired the designers of St John’s, the interior of the church on Holland Road looks too good to be true. Completed in a relatively short period, the variety that adds to the charm of gothic churches built in earlier times and more slowly is lacking in St John’s and other fine examples of late Victorian gothic revival buildings. What we see at St John’s is the realisation of the architects’ concept of an ideal ‘mediaeval’ church. What was achieved at St John’s is probably something like the results early creators of (mediaeval) churches hoped to create, but never lived long enough to see fully realised.

The attention to detail in the better gothic revival churches, such as St John’s, is marvellous. The result is an ensemble of decorative features rich in meticulously executed intricate details. While I was listening to the concert in St John’s, my eyes took in the details of the church, and I began thinking it was amazing that the elaborate attention to fiddly ornate minutiae was carried out only a few years before architectural trends turned through 180 degrees from excessively decorative to the greater simplicity of much 20th century architecture.

Art Deco in Victoria

I HAVE WALKED past London’s Victoria Coach Station many times without looking at it particularly carefully. Yesterday, the 28th of September 2022, I was early for a meeting at the Embassy of Albania, which is not far from Victoria Station. So, I walked slowly, stopping to look at the Coach Station. I had never noticed before that it is a fine example of Art Deco architecture.

The Coach Station, which opened for use in March 1932, was designed by Wallis, Gilbert, and Partners.

I suppose that my interest in Art Deco buildings was initiated by visits to Bombay (Mumbai), where there are many splendid examples of this style of architecture. Gradually, I am discovering that London also has a rich collection of Art Deco buildings. The Coach Station is a fine and well-maintained example.

Parasol in the palace: art and architecture

WHEN I SET off for Venice a couple of days ago, I doubted whether I would enjoy the Biennale as much as my wife and our daughter. How wrong I was. I have been enjoying exploring the artworks housed in a number of different places around the city. Some of the shows are in pavilions specially designed for Biennale exhibitions. Others are in places adapted, mostly temporarily, for use during the art festival. For example, the Nepalese and Armenian shows are in what look like disused shop premises. Others are in far grander edifices.

Today, we visited an exhibition housed in the courtyards and rooms of a huge palace, which is home to a music conservatoire (located close to Campo S Stefano). The exhibits (sculptures, paintings, and videos) were created by members of a group of artists within the fold of the Parasol Unit art foundation. The artists in the show are: Darren Almond, Oliver Beer, Rana Begum with Hyetal, Julian Charrière, David Claerbout, Bharti Kher, Arghavan Khosravi, Teresa Margolles, Si On, Martin Puryear, and Rayyane Tabet.

The show in the conservatoire is wonderful. The building itself is a fantastic architectural sculpture with a myriad of neo-classical decorative sculptural details. The works of art, which are in total contrast to the architecture, harmonise interestingly with the environments in which they have been placed. Photographs cannot do justice to this exhibition; it has to be experienced in person.

Although this show will be amongst my favourite exhibitions in the 2022 Venice Biennale, it is not alone in being magnificent. I am glad that we have come to Venice for this artistic bonanza.

Two empty pavilions at the Venice Biennale

THE BIENNALE IN Venice was first held in 1895. The original international bi-annual art exhibition was contained in public gardens at the Eastern end of the city of Venice in the Castello district.

Initially, there was a Central Pavilion, opened in 1894. Later, various participating countries built national pavilions, the first being Belgium in 1907. The latest is the Australian pavilion, built only a few years ago.

The national pavilions reflect both the politics and architectural styles prevailing at the time they were built. Therefore, they are at least as interesting as the artworks that take up temporary residence within them at each exhibition.

I will discuss two of the pavilions in this short essay, and hope to write about some of the others at a later date.

The Russian pavilion bears the date 1914 and several double-headed eagles. It was constructed before the 1917 Revolution, and has some traditional Russian architectural features.

Next to the Belgian pavilion, stands the Spanish one. First constructed in 1933, its facade was replaced by a modern brick one in 1952.

Both the Spanish and the Russian pavilions appear to be empty, but for quite different reasons. For the 2022 Biennale, the artist Ignasi Aballi (born 1958 in Barcelona) has left the pavilion empty but shifted its internal walls in an attempt to correct a discrepancy between its original architectural plan and what ended up being constructed. The result is an empty pavilion with a strange internal layout. It was at first disconcerting to discover a pavilion empty of artworks, but soon it became pleasurable to see the strange vistas and connections between neighbouring rooms.

The Russian pavilion, unlike the Spanish, is closed. But it is also devoid of exhibits. Russia was not invited to the Biennale this year. The reason for this was Mr Putin’s unwise decision to invade his neibour, Ukraine.

Remembering an old friend in London’s Marylebone

MY FRIEND MICHAEL Jacobs (1952-2014) studied history of art at A Level (university entrance examinations) and then later at university. Later, he became a prolific author. When we were in our late teens, we used to visit Hampstead’s second-hand bookshops together. A few days ago (early September 2022), I was walking along Marylebone’s New Cavendish Street when I spotted something that reminded me of one of our bookshop visits in the late 1960s.

There is a building on the northeast corner of New Cavendish Street and Wimpole Street, which caught my eye. As I passed it, I spotted a small plaque giving the architect’s details. It reads: “BANISTER FLETCHER & SONS ARCHITECTS AD 1912” Sir Banister Flight Fletcher (1866-1953) trained at London’s Kings College, University College, the Royal College of Art, the Architectural Association, and Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts. In 1889, he became a partner in the architectural firm founded by his father: Banister Fletcher & Sons. In addition to designing buildings, Banister Fletcher (and his father) wrote a book of great importance.

The book, “A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method”, which was first published in 1896, was republished several times during the 20th century. It was the standard reference work in English on the history of architecture.

Seeing the name Banister Fletcher on the building in Marylebone reminded me of an afternoon in Hampstead during the late 1960s. We were rummaging around the somewhat disorderly collection of books in Francis Norman’s bookshop in Perrins Lane when Michael discovered a copy of Banister Fletcher’s history of architecture, a book that was well-suited for the bookshelf of a student of the history of art. Michael bought it at an extremely reasonable price.

Until I spotted the building on New Cavendish, I had always associated the name Banister Fletcher with that afternoon with Michael in Hampstead. The building I saw is the first example of a structure that I have been able to associate with the author of the history purchased by my late friend.

Surprising Art Deco in a north London suburb

HAMPSTEAD GARDEN SUBURB (‘HGS’) in north London, where I spent my childhood and early adulthood, is a conservation area containing residential buildings designed in a wide variety of architectural styles. It first buildings were finished in about 1904/5. Despite this, many of the suburb’s houses and blocks of flats were designed to evoke traditional village architecture. Much of HGS contains buildings that do not reflect the modern trends being developed during the early 20th century, However, there are a few exceptions. These include some houses built in the ‘moderne’ form of the Art Deco style, which had its heyday between the two World Wars.

In Lytton Close

A few Art Deco houses can be found in Kingsley Close near the Market Place (see https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2022/02/07/art-deco-in-a-north-london-suburb/), and there is a larger number of them in the area through which the following roads run: Neville Drive, Spencer Drive, Carlyle Close, Holne Chase, Rowan Walk, and Lytton Close.  The part of HGS in which these roads run was developed from about 1927 onwards, mainly between 1935 and 1938. So, it is unsurprising that examples of what was then fashionable in architecture can be found in this part of the suburb. According to an informative document (www.hgstrust.org/documents/area-13-holne-chase-norrice-lea.pdf) about this part of HGS:

“… A relatively restricted group of established architects undertook much development such as M. De Metz, G. B. Drury and F. Reekie, Welch, Cachemaille-Day and Lander, and J. Oliphant. H. Meckhonik was a developer/builder and architects in his office may have designed houses attributed to him.”

Most of the Art Deco houses on Spencer Drive and Carlyle Close leading off from it are unexceptional buildings, whose principal Art Deco features are the metal framed windows (made by the Crittall company) with some curved panes of glass. Fitted with any other design of windows, these houses would lose their Art Deco appearances. Number 1, Neville Drive displays more features of the style than the houses in Spencer Drive and Carlyle Close. There is, however, one house on Spencer Drive that is unmistakably ‘moderne’: it is number 28 built in 1934 without reference to tradition. It is an adventurous design compared with the other buildings in the street.

Numbers 13 and 24 Rowan Walk, a pair of almost identical buildings which stand on either side of the northern end of the street, where it meets Linden Lea, stand out from the crowd. They have flat roofs and ‘moderne’ style Crittall Windows. Built in the 1930s, they are cubic in form: unusual rather than elegant.

I have saved the best for last: Lytton Close. This short cul-de-sac is a wonderful ensemble of Art Deco houses with balconies that resemble the deck railings of oceanic liners, flat roofs that serve as sun decks, curved Crittall windows, and glazed towers housing staircases. Built in 1935, they were designed by CG Winburne. I have to admit that although I lived for almost three decades in HGS, and used to walk around it a great deal, somehow I missed seeing Lytton Close (until August 2022) and what is surely one of London’s finer examples of modern domestic architecture constructed between the two world wars. Although most of the Art Deco buildings in HGS are not as spectacular as edifices made in this style in Lytton Close and further afield in, say, Bombay, the employment of this distinctive style injects a little modernity in an area populated with 20th century buildings that attempt to create a village atmosphere typical of earlier times. The architects, who adopted backward-looking styles, did this to create the illusion that dwellers in the HGS would not be living on the doorstep of a big city but instead far away in a rural arcadia.  

Built during a time of war

FROM THE OUTSIDE, the church of St Barnabas in Pitshanger Lane (Ealing) is not particularly attractive. Even though we visited it on a Sunday, it was locked up. However, we were fortunate to meet a lady, who had been in the church hall and happened to have the key to the church with her. Kindly, she unlocked the edifice, and we were able to enter. The church’s interior, unlike its exterior, is wonderful.

The church stands close to Brentham Garden Suburb, which was built largely between 1901 and 1915. I will write about the Suburb at a later date, but now I will concentrate on the church. Although the Suburb was built with a magnificent club house, there had been no plans to include a church. In 1907, a temporary church made from corrugated iron sheets, and dedicated to St Barnabas was constructed at the junction of Pitshanger Lane and Castlebar Park. Eventually, it was too small to accommodate its congregation in an area where plenty of housing was being constructed. For legal reasons, it was not possible to build a larger church on the site. So, in 1911 a larger plot was acquired at the corner of Pitshanger Lane and Denison Road (one of the streets within the Garden Suburb).

Ernest Shearman (1859-1939) was the architect chosen to build the larger St Barnabas Church, which can be seen today. After working in Buenos Aires and later at Sandringham, he moved to Winchester in 1907. From that year onwards, his work was mainly concerned with designing churches. According to a book by Hugh Mather about the centenary of the church of St Barnabas, all of Shearman’s churches:

“…are tall imposing buildings without spires, and their austere, simple architecture was designed so that elaborate furnishings and other adornments could be added subsequently …”

His churches represent “… almost the final flowering of the last phase of the Gothic Revival.”

All except one of his churches demonstrate Shearman’s fascination with rose windows and elaborate tracery. St Barnabas is a fine example of this.

The construction of the church began just before the start of WW1, in June 1914. It was completed in the middle of the war by June 1916, when it was consecrated.

The church has a spacious nave, which has a lovely timber ceiling. Although it was designed to reflect the heritage of the gothic era, the inside of the church feels almost contemporary. There is an enormous organ at the west end of the church. Made in 1851, it was made by the company of William Hill and  originally housed in St Jude’s Church in Southsea. It was moved to St Barnabas in 2011. Some of the pipes on the south side of the central tall organ pipes do not make sounds. They were added to the organ for purely aesthetic reasons. The current organ replaced an older, less reliable instrument, which was removed in 2010.

The apse is adorned by a large painting by James Clark (1857-1943), who was living in Bedford Park not far from the church when he created it. He was one of many artists residing in Bedford Park, which was an ancestor of the Garden Suburb movement. His painting in the apse depicts the three hierarchies of angels praising and adoring the Holy Trinity. It is a magnificent addition to the church.

As we did not want to delay the lady who opened the church for us, we did not have sufficient time to examine its interior in great detail, but it did demonstrate how wrong it was to, to rephrase a well-known saying, to judge a church by its cover.

Perspective in a Tudor house in Barking

NOT FAR FROM the busy A13 road that links London with Tilbury and places further east, and surrounded by a sea of unremarkable dwelling houses in the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham, stands an unexpected historical Tudor architectural treasure: Eastbury Manor.

Part of a wall painting in Eastbury Manor

This beautiful Tudor mansion, built between 1560 and 1573 for Clement Sisley (or Sysley) and his family, stands on land that had been owned by Barking Abbey until its dissolution in 1539.  He was a wealthy businessman connected with high-status families. Married thrice, each of his wives’ dowries added to his prosperity. The manor house remained connected with his extended family until it was sold in 1628. After that, the house and its associated extensive land had a series of owners and tenants until sometime in the 19th century when the building began to deteriorate. The various inhabitants made use of the place’s formerly large grounds for agricultural purposes: principally, grazing. The National Trust (‘NT’) bought the house in 1918, and this purchase is responsible for its survival. Owned by the NT, it was Barking’s local museum between 1935 and 1941. Now, still the property of the NT, it is maintained by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

According to an article written by Hazel Stainer (https://hazelstainer.wordpress.com/2019/05/17/eastbury-manor-house/), Eastbury Manor was noted by the author Daniel Defoe during his travels in 1724:

“A little beyond the town, on the road to Dagenham, stood a great house, ancient, and now almost fallen down, where tradition says the Gunpowder Treason Plot was first contriv’d …”

I checked my copy of Defoe’s book and discovered that the editor of my edition (Pat Rogers) had doubts about this connection with Guy Fawkes et al. Rogers noted that the conspiracy was largely planned in Northamptonshire.

The house, which stands on land rich in clay, is built of bricks made locally, on-site. It is built to an H-shaped plan: two parallel wings are linked by a central portion perpendicular to near their northern ends. The central part and the two wings enclose a charmingly intimate courtyard, whose fourth (southern) side is bounded by a wall connecting the two wings. Although a modern staircase and lift have been added, the house’s original timber spiral staircases were housed in octagonal towers that encroach onto the northwest and northeast corners of the courtyard: they are classed as ‘external staircases’.

The house and its garden have many fascinating features typical of Tudor architecture. For example, in the Great Hall on the ground floor, there is a huge fireplace. It is large enough for several adults to stand within it. Our informative guide directed us to look up into the large chimney. There, we could see platforms that were built to allow workmen to climb into the chimney to clean it in the era long before there were chimneysweeps with special equipment. The Tudor brick wall surrounding one of the gardens has 17 small niches. These were designed as bee boles, in which skeps, baskets where bees lived, were placed.  Interesting as these and many other things are, the most amazing feature is to be seen in the so-called Painted Chamber on the first floor, which we reached using the original timber staircase.

Discovered beneath layers of paint after a fire during the 19th century, are the sizeable fragments of two exceptional wall paintings. It is believed that these were commissioned by the London Alderman Sir John Moore who died in 1603. His coat of arms is depicted on one of the pictures. Moore, who took an interest in international trade and the then proposed East India Company, used the house as his country home.

The paintings depict trompe-l’oeil walls with columns, classical figures, and archways. The latter frame depictions of countryside and nautical scenes. Apart from their great age and skilful execution, these frescos are remarkable for their use of perspective.  The lady who was showing us around the Manor mentioned that these wall paintings are some of the earliest surviving examples of  pictures in England displaying the kind of perspective that is now commonly used in Western European art. So-called ‘true geometric perspective’ was developed by Italian painters during the 14th and 15th centuries. Its use spread to other parts of Europe and would have been known in England by the time of Moore’s occupancy of Eastbury Manor. The surviving wall paintings were executed before his death in 1603, but by whom we might never know. It is quite possible that the artist had either been abroad or had come from overseas. Whoever painted these lovely images had a good grasp of what was then regarded as the latest way of portraying the illusion of depth and distance. Whether there are earlier examples of surviving paintings created in England (using tru perspective) than those at Eastbury Manor, I do not know. So, until I am wiser on the subject, I will accept what we were told. I have seen older surviving wall paintings in English churches, but none of them display even the slightest hint of true geometric perspective.

All in all, it is well worth venturing into the rather dull suburbs of Dagenham and Barking to visit Eastbury Manor. It might not be as glorious as other surviving Tudor edifices, such as Hatfield House, but it is no less a wonderful reminder of an era long-since passed.

The Black Chapel in the park

EVERY SUMMER SINCE 2000 except for the year 2020, the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has hosted a special event. On each of these years between June and October, a temporary pavilion has been erected near to the original Serpentine Gallery (now known as Serpentine South). No two pavilions have looked the same. However, what they have in common is that each one of them is the first ever completed structure erected in England by the pavilion’s designer/architect.  

This year (2022), the pavilion, called “Black Chapel”, was designed by the American artist Theaster Gates (born in Chicago in 1973). In the past, we have seen exhibitions of his works hosted in the White Cube Galleries at both Masons Yard and in Bermondsey. Many of his exciting artworks have impressed us greatly. So, it was with high expectations that we went to see his pavilion.

At first sight, we were disappointed by the Black Chapel. It is a huge black cylinder with three apertures. Two of them are entrances and the third is a circular orifice in the centre of the tall structure’s circular, domed ceiling. A segment of the cylinder is walled off and serves as a café servery. Benches line the lower parts of the wall of the rest of the building. Seven large, flat rectangular, metallic paintings (or plates) are attached to a part of the internal wall, and there is a large bell just outside one of the pavilion’s two entrances.

Today, many people like to have art explained to them. For me, it is my visceral reaction to an artwork that is more important than its intended meaning or the artist’s intentions. The ‘meaning’ of a work of art is, for me, secondary to the way I am affected by it. For those, who seek meaning in art, this is what the Serpentine’s website has to say about the pavilion:

“The structure, realised with the support of Adjaye Associates, references the bottle kilns of Stoke-on-Trent, the beehive kilns of the Western United States, San Pietro and the Roman tempiettos, and traditional African structures, such as the Musgum mud huts of Cameroon, and the Kasubi Tombs of Kampala, Uganda. The Pavilion’s circularity and volume echo the sacred forms of Hungarian round churches and the ring shouts, voodoo circles and roda de capoeira witnessed in the sacred practices of the African diaspora.”

Interesting as this might be, it neither increases nor diminishes my appreciation of the Black Chapel. Theaster Gates’s Black Chapel is less exciting visually than some of the past pavilions. Although our initial impressions of this seemingly simple structure were not particularly favourable, after spending a little time in it, the place grew on us and now we hope to visit it again.

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.