A thatched church and Alfred Lord Tennyson

THE POET ALFRED TENNYSON made his home in the village of Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight (‘IOW’) from 1853 until his death. His presence there attracted many Victorian cultural figures to the village either as residents or as his visitors. In 1907, fifteen years after Tennyson died, the Bishop of Winchester visited Freshwater and decided that the village needed a better church than the rather primitive one being used at the time. The Reverend AJ Robertson, who was Rector of Freshwater in 1907, made a watercolour painting of the type of church he hoped would be built. It included a thatched roof. Such a church as he had envisaged was designed by the architect Isaac Jones of Herne Hill in London, and constructed on land donated by Tennyson’s eldest son Hallam, Lord Tennyson (1852-1928). It was Hallam’s wife Lady Emily (1853-1931; née Prinsep), who gifted the new church’s porch and suggested that the church be dedicated to St Agnes.

St Agnes is the only church on the IOW to have a thatched roof. Much of the building was built using stones from what had once been the home of the scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703). The use of old stones makes some people believe that the church is older than it really is. One of the old stones has the date 1694 inscribed on it, a reminder of the origin of the stonework. The interior of the building is well lit by natural light through its many windows. The timber framed ceiling is fine as is the beautifully carved chancel screen. The screen with delicate bas-relief carvings of plants was created by the Reverend Thomas Gardner Devitt, who was curate of St Agnes between 1942 and 1946.

In brief, this thatched church is charming. In appearance, it manages to combine a feeling of mediaeval antiquity with the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which was in its heyday when St Agnes was built. Seeing it was one of many delightful experiences we enjoyed whilst spending a week on the IOW.

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.

An uninteresting artist in a Hertfordshire church

SAWBRIDGEWORTH IS AN ATTRACTIVE small town with many picturesque old buildings and a parish church, St Mary’s, whose construction began in the 13th century. It is an unusual edifice, being about as wide as its length, rather than longer than its width as is the case for most English churches. It contains a fine selection of elaborate funerary sculptures.

The most impressive funerary monument is the memorial to John Leventhorpe and his wife Joan, who died in 1625 and 1627 respectively. Within a multi-coloured marble frame, both of the deceased are depicted reclining on their left sides with their heads propped up by their left hands. John holds a sword in his right hand and Joan a small book in hers, Beneath the two statues, the couple’s six sons (one of whom, Arthur, died as a baby) and eight daughters are depicted in bas-relief, all kneeling in prayer. Baby Arthur is also present on the memorial but has been sculpted much smaller than his brothers. The whole sculptural ensemble is magnificent, and if you had time to see only one thing in Sawbridgeworth, this should not be missed.

High on the wall facing the Leventhorpe memorial, there is a smaller one, commemorating Jeremiah Milles (died 1797) and his wife Rose, who died in 1835. It is typical of early 19th century memorial art. It shows a female mourner in Hellenic dress kneeling in front of a sarcophagus. It was sculpted by John Termouth (1795-1849) of Pimlico (London).

The sculptor of the Leventhorpe memorial has been forgotten, but Termouth, who sculpted the Milles memorial, has not been consigned to obscurity. A notice in St Mary’s revealed that Termouth was:

“… an uninteresting artist whose symbolism was always obvious, hackneyed, and uninspired.”

Little of this church remains today

WILTON IN WILTSHIRE was capital of Wessex between the 9th and 11th centuries (AD). Today, it is famous for its carpet manufacturing and the wonderful Wilton House, which has been home to the Earls of Pembroke since 1544, when King Henry VIII gave it to them after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The House, which contains a fabulous collection of paintings by the great masters, was built on the site of Wilton Abbey (established in 871 AD).

St Mary’s church in the centre of Wilton was originally the first Anglo-Saxon church in the town. It was first built in the 9th century, and then rebuilt in the 12th century. The newer church was further modified in the 15th century. However, by the 18th century it was becoming dilapidated. In 1751, the surving part of the church became used as a mortuary chapel for the Earls of Pembroke. This situation remained unchanged until 1848, when the construction of the large Italianate church of St Mary and St Nicholas was completed in nearby West Street. Then, the old St Mary’s was demolished except for the chancel and the first bay of the nave (than next to the chancel). This survivor is rarely used for services and is now cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust, which looks after historic churches of interest that have become redundant. Outside the preserved part of St Mary’s there are a few gothic arches, remains of the previously much larger church.

We have visited Wilton several times, to see both Wilton House and the Italianate church, as well as to partake of refreshments in the town’s cafés, but it was only today (7th of October 2022) that I first noticed the remains of St Mary’s. This only goes to show that revisiting a place often can be rewarding.

A church with maps in Venice

SANTA MARIA DEL GIGLIO, or ‘Santa Maria Zobenigo’ as it is commonly named in Venice, is a baroque church with a magnificent façade. It was built between 1678 and 1681. The edifice was constructed by Giuseppe Sardi for Admiral Antonio Barbaro, who died in 1679. Amongst his many achievements he was Provveditore Generale (Governor General) of Venetian Dalmatia and Venetian Albania in 1670-71.

During my many visits to Venice, most of which were made annually with my parents during the 1960s, I have passed the church and noted an interesting feature of its façade. The base of this is decorated with six carved stone bas-relief maps. These have always fascinated me, but it was only after our recent trip to Venice in September 2022 that I finally got around to investigating them.

The maps are of Spalato (Split in Croatia); Corfu; Roma (Rome); Padoa (Padua); Candia (Haraklion in Crete); and Zara (Zadar in Croatia). Except for Rome, these are all places that were once governed by Venice. The maps depict places where Antonio Barbaro served in one capacity or another.

Wnen James (later Jan) Morris wrote “Venice” (published 1960), which is I believe the best book written about Venice, he/she noted of the façade of Santa Maria Zobenigo that:

“… it is notorious because not one item of its convoluted design has any religious significance whatsoever.”

Morris also pointed out something I have never noticed on that façade. Namely, that it bears a crest with a double-headed eagle, the crest of the Barbaro family. As this symbol interests me, I checked it out. The Barbaro family might have used it because of their connection to the Vlasto family, who were prominent in Rome by the end of 2nd century AD (see; www.christopherlong.co.uk/per/vlasto.byzantium.html). By the end of the 11th century, the Vlasto family was members of important families including the Barbaro’s. The Vlasto family crest includes the double-headed eagle, which amongst other things, was a Byzantine symbol. Interestingly, the Vlasto’s had already begun using it in the early 1st century AD, while the Byzantines only began using it in the 12th – 13th centuries. Maybe I never noticed the double-headed eagle because whenever I have passed the church, my eyes have been drawn to the maps on its fine façade. They fascinated me so much that I never bothered to look upwards.

The place where the artist Tiepolo was born in Venice

GIOVANNI BATTISTA TIEPOLO (1696-1770) is one of my favourite artists. I have been familiar with his works ever since my childhood, when we visited Venice annually from the late 1950s or early 1960s onwards. My parents took me from church to church to see the great master’s paintings, which I prefer to the somewhat more photograph-like paintings of Canaletto.

We used to stay in a pensione on the Fondamente Zattere, a waterfront facing across a wide canal to the Giudecca island. The Gesuati church was a few yards from where we resided in Venice. It contains ceiling panels and a wall painting, all created by Tiepolo. Often, we passed the church and almost always entered it to gaze up at Tiepolo’s ceiling. I cannot remember it, but my sibling recalls that almost every morning, early, my father used to stand quietly and alone in the church for a few minutes.

I became so keen on Tiepolo that I broke my train journey between Ostend and Vienna to spend a night in Würzburg in order to see Tiepolo’s paintings in the city’s Residenz (a palace).

This September (2022), I was walking along a narrow passageway (Calle S Domenico) when I spotted a commemorative plaque above an archway leading into a long narrow courtyard surrounded by tall residential buildings. The plaque recorded that in the courtyard there was the house in which Tiepolo was born on March 1696. Exactly in part the courtyard, the Corte S Domenico, the artist was born, I could not determine. However, I had never seen this place before and was thrilled to have stumbled across the place where one of my favourite artists was born.

Greek in north London’s Golders Green

IN THE EARLY 1960s, the first proper self-service supermarket opened on the corner of Golders Green Road and a small service road called Broadwalk Lane. I cannot recall the name of this store, but it was soon taken over by the Macfisheries company. Later, it became a supermarket where many imported foods, especially products from Israel, were sold. Now, it has become a Tesco Express.

Facing the supermarket (across Golders Green Road) is a gothic revival style church. It has been used by a Greek Orthodox (Christian) congregation since 1968. Now, the The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Michael, it was constructed as the Church of England’s ‘St Michael’s Church’ in 1914 to the design of JT Lee. A clock tower, surmounted by a delicate cupola supported by thin columns, was added to the church in 1960. On one of its walls, there is a bas-relief of St Michael with one foot on a serpent. On the northeast corner of the church, there is a plaque listing people who died in WW1. Near this, there is a crucifix standing in the garden next to the church. Its design, typical of C of E crucifixes, predates the arrival of the Greek congregation.

Although the interior of the church maintains some of its original Cof E fittings, such as stained-glass windows, the font designed in a mock mediaeval style, and some wall mounted memorials in English, a great deal of effort has been made to create the atmosphere of a Greek Orthodox place of worship. The walls of the side aisles have been painted with religious scenes. There is a decorated iconostasis and several framed icons. Elaborate chandeliers hang above the nave. Despite the additions to convert the church for Greek Orthodox worship, the original gothic revival features of the building’s interior are evident, but harmonise well with the later additions.

A church near Madame Tussauds

I HAVE PASSED IT OFTEN while travelling along London’s busy Marylebone Road and admired its elegant neoclassical portico supported by six columns with Corinthian capitals, but never entered it until today (the 7th of September 2022). I am referring to the Church of St Marylebone, consecrated in 1817. One of its predecessors, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary was erected nearby in about 1400. It stood near the River Tyburn. The name Marylebone seems to be derived from a conjunction of the words Mary and ‘burn’ (from Tyburn, which began to have a bad reputation because of the much-used gallows close to its banks). This early church was replaced by another, constructed in 1740. It survived until it was demolished in 1949.  Nearby, the present larger church, which we see today, was constructed in 1817 on what was then the New Road, a by-pass on the northern edge London, and is now Marylebone Road. Its grand portico faces north, and the high altar and the colourfully decorated apse are in the south end of the building. The church, a typical example of a Regency interior with first-floor galleries, is tall and spacious.

Charles Dicken’s son was baptised in the church. The poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) married a fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861) in the church in 1846. And the composer John Stainer (1840-1901) composed his oratorio “The Crucifixion” specially for this church in 1887 when he was already a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, which is across the main road facing the church.

The Methodist Charles Wesley (1707-1788), who lived nearby, asked to be buried in what was the churchyard of the older (1740) church. Where this edifice stood is now a peaceful open space, the Garden of Rest, next to Marylebone Lane (a few feet south of Marylebone Gardens). In this small space, there is a stone obelisk mounted on a pedestal. This commemorates the life of Charles Wesley and several members of his family.

Close to Madame Tussauds and the Royal Academy of Music and neighbouring one of London’s more enjoyable shopping areas – Marylebone High Street, stands the lovely church of St Marylebone, which as I discovered today, merits a visit.

Americans in Mayfair

MY UNCLE SVEN Rindl (1921-2007) was a structural engineer. He was involved in the construction of the building on the west side of Mayfair’s Grosvenor Square, which used to house the Embassy of the USA until recently. About yards south of the former embassy building, there is another place associated with the USA on South Audley Street. Far older than the embassy, this is the Grosvenor Chapel, whose foundation stone was laid in 1730 by Sir Richard Grosvenor (1689-1732), the local landowner. The relatively simple brick and stone church with some neo-classical features was ready for use in 1731. When the church’s 99-year lease ran out in 1829, it became adopted as a chapel-of-ease (i.e., a chapel or church within a parish, other than the parish church) to St George’s Hanover Square.

Until very recently, I had often passed the Grosvenor Chapel when going to and from The Nehru Centre, also on South Audley Street, but had never entered it. Yesterday (26th of August 2022), the doors were open and, being early for a dance performance at the Nehru Centre, I looked inside the chapel. Its interior is simply decorated. The wide nave lies below a barrel-vaulted, plastered ceiling. Galleries supported by columns with Ionic capitals flank the north and south sides of the nave. The chancel is separated from the nave by a screen with openings, each of which is flanked by pairs of Ionic columns. The screen was added by the architect John Ninian Comper (1864-1960) when he remodelled the church’s interior in 1912.Ionic columns with their bases on the gallery support the ceiling of the nave. Windows (with plain glass panes) on two levels, both below and above the galleries, give the chapel good natural illumination. In summary, the simple, white-painted chapel, though not large, feels spacious. Its simplicity is a complete contrast to its neighbour, the flamboyant Gothic Revival style Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception.

An inscribed stone plaque on the west front of the chapel records its American connection. The words on it are:

“In this chapel the Armed Forces of the United States of America held Divine Service during the Great War of 1939 to 1945 and gave thanks to God for the Victory of the Allies”

The American General Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) was amongst those who worshipped there during WW2. Many years before that, another person connected with the USA, John Wilkes (1725-1797) was buried in the chapel. Wilkes, a radical journalist and politician, was a supporter of the American rebels during the American War of Independence.

America (i.e., the USA) has been associated with Mayfair since it gained independence from the British. Its first embassy was in a house in Mayfair belonging to John Adams (1735-1786), who was the first US Minister to the Court of St James (between 1785 and 1788). The embassy’s Chancery moved several times before 1938, when it was housed in 1 Grosvenor Square, now the home of the Canadian High Commission. Thus, during WW2, it was close to the Grosvenor Chapel. The embassy building, in whose construction my uncle was involved, was designed by the architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), and completed in 1960. By January 2018, the embassy had shifted from Grosvenor Square to a newly constructed edifice across the Thames at Nine Elms.

Returning to the small chapel, a small note about its name. The place’s website (www.grosvenorchapel.org.uk) explained:

“It retains its title of Chapel because it is not, and never has been a parish church, and its continuing existence is entirely dependent upon the generosity of those who worship here regularly or visit from time to time.”