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English Church Architecture.


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


(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk.)


A remarkable Greek Revival building designed by Nicholas Revett (1720-1804).





This remarkable building - when you eventually manage  to find it, standing in parkland northeast of the village - was the work of the Grecophile, Nicholas Revett, 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, to the far left and right, beneath which Sir Lionel intended that his wife and he would eventually be buried.  (More pithily, he is reputed to have remarked that what the Church had joined together in life, the church was bloody well going to separate in death!)



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 Terry Friedman, The Georgian Parish Church: Monuments to Posterity, Reading, Spire Books, 2004, pp. 123-132.)  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 other three sides of the building are 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 (seen above left) is naturally centred on the apse and altar, which are raised up by three steps, and the view to the west (above right) is defined by two Ionic columns supporting a low gallery over the vestibule, supported by an entablature.  The entablature continues all the way round the church interior, including the 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 (as shown below).  These elements are simple enough, considered geometrically, yet combined in neo-Greek designs like this, they were to change the appearance of many of Britain's city centres over the next five or six decades.