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English Church Architecture -

Hertfordshire.

 

AYOT ST. LAWRENCE, St. Lawrence (TL 195 161)     (March 2015)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous Series, Upper Chalk)

 

 

 

 

This remarkable building - when you eventually find it, standing in parkland northeast of the village - was the work of the Grecophile, Nicholas Revett (1720 -1804), co-author with James "Athenian" Stuart of The Antiquities of Athens, which was published in four volumes from 1762.  Revett had travelled extensively in Europe in his '20s and '30s, and specifically in Greece from 1751-4, and being a man of private means, had no need to trouble himself with business unless that business truly interested him.  Such was obviously the case here, however, when Sir Lionel Lyde expressed a desire to raise a new church on a Grecian model, in an eye-catching position on his estate, rather than pay for the repair of the semi-derelict mediaeval church in the village.  This was a heaven-sent opportunity for Revett to design the purest Greek façade then to be found in England (in 1778), and he based the church's W. front (ecclesiastical west, for it actually faces southeast!) on the Temple of Apollo on Delos, whose four massive Doric columns he adapted, partly by confining their fluting to narrow bands at the top and bottom, and also by linking St. Lawrence's portico to small open pavilions, left and right, beneath which urns on pedestals would eventually allow the church to function also as a mortuary chapel to Sir Lionel and his wife.  (See the photograph above.)

 

 

The new church was erected quickly and consecrated with much pomp and festivity on 28th July 1779, as recorded in The Gentleman's Magazine, which noted the attendance "of many hundred persons of all denominations from different parts of the country".  (See The Georgian Parish Church: Monuments to Posterity by Terry Friedman, pub. Spire Books, 2004.)  Unfortunately, however, classical façades rely heavily for their effect, first, on the pristine cleanliness of their large areas of plain wall, which is compromised here by the greening effect of dirt and algae, and second, on the obstacles to their circumnavigation presented by adjoining buildings, which prevent the visitor from discovering the meanness of their structure behind.  Today, the circumnavigation of St. Lawrence's is positively encouraged by the positioning of the little car park behind, where the building is duly revealed to be constructed of plain brick, with no mitigating features of interest.  The church terminates at the (ecclesiastical) east end in a small brick apse, flanked by side rooms - a feature derived from Roman rather than Greek examples since there were no Christian temples in ancient Greece to provide a model.  The side colonnades and adjoining cenotaphic pavilions, viewed from behind (as illustrated above), now appear almost as flimsy as stage scenery, and from this unflattering direction it is easier to view the building as a garden folly than a church.

 

Fortunately, perceptions change again on entering the church, where the modest interior impresses by its severe classical lines and cool restraint.  The view to the east (above left) is inevitably centred on the apse and the altar, which is raised up by three steps, and the view to the west (above right), by two Ionic columns supporting a low gallery above an entablature over the vestibule.  The entablature continues around the sides of the church (ecclesiastical north and south) with their shallow, tunnel-vaulted transepts, supported by Tuscan pilasters.  The roofs are attractively coffered, with hexagonal and octagonal panels above the apse and transepts, and squares and trapeziums above the nave, the latter forming a central, circular design. (See the photograph below.) All these elements are simple enough, considered geometrically, yet combined in neo-Greek designs like this, they were to prove capable of changing the appearance of many of Britain's city centres over the course of more than half a century.