Thursday 20 June 2013

All Saints, Margaret Street

Just behind Oxford Street, an architectural masterpiece and peaceful retreat from the commercial bustle stands in a small courtyard, alongside a vicarage and former choir school. The limited space available didn't stop its architect William Butterfield from producing one of the great Gothic Revival churches, All Saints, Margaret Street

While some people imagine the nineteenth century as a time of greater religious certainties, the reality was very different. Atheism and religious doubt, non-conformism, and Catholic and Jewish emancipation were just some of the prominent issues of the period. Within the established church, one controversial force was the Oxford Movement which sought a return to catholic doctrines; members of its close counterpart in Cambridge University, the Cambridge Camden Society, referred to themselves as 'Ecclesiologists'. They turned their focus onto church architecture; like Roman Catholic convert AWN Pugin, they agreed that Anglican churches should be Gothic in style and richly decorated. The focus should be upon the altar rather than the pulpit, and other features should have symbolic or ritual importance.

Although this Anglo-Catholic movement was thrown into turmoil by the conversion of one of its leaders, John Henry Newman, to Roman Catholicism in 1845, it remained strong and indeed would grow in influence in the second half of the century. Just five years after the 1845 crisis, All Saints was designed as a model church for the Ecclesiological Society (as the Cambridge Camden Society renamed itself).

While the spire was the highest in London when it was built, the exterior is otherwise somewhat constrained by its location. Nonetheless, exuberant use of polychromatic brickwork makes it visually arresting - a deliberate choice, not an economic one, since the brick was apparently more expensive than stone. However, it is the interior which is really extraordinary with its elaborate decoration. The geometric designs were advocated by Ruskin in The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

Perhaps most striking are the tiles along the north wall of the church, which make up five panels on Biblical themes. They were added in 1873, fourteen years after the church was completed, but were also by Butterfield. Originally the walls had geometric patterns but the panels were added as a memorial to the church's first vicar, William Upton Richards. 

Pevsner was not a fan: he found the interior "dazzling, though in an eminently High Victorian ostentatiousness or obtrusiveness.  It is by no means tasteful ...  The motifs are without exception big and graceless." I prefer Betjeman's more enthusiastic assessment: "For the smallness and confined nature of the site, the effect of space, richness, mystery and size is amazing."



Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I love hidden gems such as this church. Thanks!

HughB said...

It's certainly very ornately decorated. I rather like it, though - that Pevsner cove sounds a real snob. Good old Betjeman!