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English Church Architecture.

 

EASTBURY, St. James the Greater  (SU 345 772),

WEST BERKSHIRE. 

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Lewes Nodular Chalk Formation.)

 

A church by one of the foremost Victorian ecclesiastical architects,

George Edmund Street (1824-81), albeit, notwithstanding the dedication,

one of his most humble.

 

 

 

Famous, above all today, for the Law Courts in The Strand, George Edmund Street was rivalled in his lifetime only by William Butterfield as the architect of choice by the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, and, indeed, in his personal attachment to High Church ritual, he surpassed his rival and was for many years churchwarden at Butterfield's 'model' church of All Saints', Margaret Street (Westminster), after Butterfield had left, opposed to the use of incense and lights, and to the Elevation of the Host.  Yet for all his ardent religionism, it would be entirely misleading to present Street as a humourless killjoy, for entirely to the contrary, his two major publications, Brick & Marble in the Middle Ages: Notes on a Tour of the North of Italy (London, John Murray, 1855) and Some Account of Gothic Architecture in Spain (in two volumes) (London, John Murray, 1865) are peppered with anecdotes about bad hotels and the sheer awfulness of other English tourists encountered on the way, much to the aggravation of The Ecclesiologist in its long review of the former in October 1855 (vol. XVI, issue CX, p. 299):  'We cannot but think that the ordinary reader of books of travel will be as much disturbed by Mr. Street's purely professional descriptions and speculations as the architectural student will be annoyed by the details of uncomfortable beds and ill-cooked dinners'.

 

Street's earnestness was sufficient for most men, however, and his patrons, almost to a man and woman, were wealthy and generous ones.  Street was also an inveterate traveller, and a close reading of Arthur Edmund Street's biography of his father (Memoir of George Edmund Street, 1824-1881, London, John Murray, 1888) reveals that between 1850 and 1874, he made no less than twenty-two separate visits to the Continent, including two such trips in 1872 and 1874 and only missing out on his working vocations in 1855. 1864, 1865 and 1870, during the last of which, however, he made a tour round Scotland.  It is hardly surprising, in consequence, that Street's architecture is the most eclectic among all his more important confrères, and this is particularly striking in some of his village churches, which in the most extreme cases, stand out from their settings as if they had landed from the moon.

 

 

 

This is a small, plain church constructed early in Street's career (in 1851-3), formed of a chancel, nave and N. aisle under a single catslide roof.  Its significance lies almost entirely in its vernacular design, based - as Geoffrey Tyak and Simon Bradley have pointed out in the 'Berkshire' volume of The Buildings of England (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2010, p. 278) on the mediaeval barns in the north and west of the county, and appropriately faced in knapped flint, off-set with stone dressings (as illustrated below right).   However, one obvious difficulty in attempting to create this allusion was the need to keep the N. windows as few and as small as possible (since the north side of the church presents the principle front):  there are just two tiny windows in the N. aisle and none at all in the N. wall of the chancel.    That made it essential that the east  and south windows should be more generous - the chancel E. window is formed of five-lights with three sexfoils in circles in the head and the S. windows consist of a cusped Y-traceried window with subsidiary tracery in the chancel and one four-light and one three-light untraceried window in the nave - yet even with these, the interior is still very dark.  The aisle has a small but attractive W. window, formed of three rounded openings in a circle, and there is an extremely tall lancet in the W. wall of the nave, but their contribution to the church's illumination is modest.

 

Inside the church, once the visitor's eyes have become accustomed to the gloom, the three-bay aisle arcade (seen above right, from the southwest) is composed of arches bearing a single flat chamfer springing from piers that are little more than chamfered wall pieces.  The chancel arch carries a sunk quadrant moulding on either side (i.e. to the east and west) which dies into the jambs, and almost the only feature in the chancel itself is the sedilia recessed in the sanctuary S. wall, formed of two cinquefoil-cusped arches separated by a tall round shaft.  It is all very simple and straightforward but the building is an effective demonstration of the fact that Street could produce a vernacular design when he had a mind to.  Moreover, this was also one of the rare occasions when he only had money for the bare essentials.  Nothing is wasted on fripperies here and Street has made a virtue of economy.

 

[Other churches by Street featured on this web-site are Fimber and Wansford in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Toddington in Gloucestershire, East Heslerton, Helperthorpe, Howsham, Robin Hood's Bay, Thixendale, West Lutton and Whitwell-on-the-Hill in North Yorkshire, Denstone in Staffordshire, Torquay in Torbay, Brightwalton in West Berkshire, and St. Mary Magdalene's Rowington Close and St. James's Thorndike Street in the City of Westminster.]