( back to home page)


English Church Architecture.


HITCHIN, Holy Saviour (TL 191 296),


(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Lower Chalk.)


A church by William Butterfield (1914-1900).





William Butterfield was precisely the kind of architect the Cambridge Camden Society (later Ecclesiological) Society liked.  A dogmatic if also unconventional High Churchman, committed to building churches that facilitated the 'proper' execution of the Christian rubrics, it was he that they chose to build their model church in Margaret Street, Westminster, in 1849, which they intended to be an exemplar for church architects everywhere.  They approved of ornament and they approved of display, in both of which Butterfield excelled, and Butterfield's profound interest in structural polychromy seemed one representation of this.


Butterfield was an abstemious bachelor, however, determined to plough his own furrow.  Self-contained and indifferent to criticism or the approbation of his peers, he could not always be relied upon to deliver what was wanted.  And there were also very strict limits to Butterfield's tolerance of Ritualism:  he would not attend his church of All Saints', Margaret Street, after it was completed, for example (Paul Thompson, William Butterfield, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971, p. 33), probably because he objected to the incense, lights, and/or elevation of the Host.  He had, after all, been brought up as a Nonconformist, some aspects of which he would never throw off.  Yet his mature professional style owed a greater debt to the High  Church Pugin than it would ever do to the Evangelical Ruskin, and Butterfield's use of coloured materials predated its advocacy in Ruskin's The Seven Lamps of Architecture, albeit not by much.  He quickly became its supreme exponent too, for only Street proved a serious rival.  Mocked in later years for his 'streaky bacon' or 'holy zebra' style, it was his misfortune to have many of his buildings ruined by subsequent generations, sometimes by the insertion of heavy stained glass in the windows, which prevented his colourful interiors from being seen in good light, or, more usually in the twentieth century, by whitewashing over them by those who thought them garish, as at St. Mary's Hitchin (Hertfordshire).  Some survive in good heart however, and while Butterfield's churches illustrated on this web-site include a number of relatively minor buildings, they also feature  a few examples of his best.




A visit in mid December, just as a Christmas tree fayre is being set up, does not provide the best conditions for a careful and systematic examination of a church building, which is a pity, for this is the work of William Butterfield, erected  in 1863-5 in what might be described as that architect's more brutalist manner.  Faced externally in red brick decorated with bands of pale cream stone and further bands and lozenge patterns in vitrified blue brick headers beneath steeply pitched slate roofs, its west front is pierced by two, tall, two-light W. windows, which struggle for the light between and beneath three exaggeratedly heavy buttresses and an overhanging bell-cote with spaces for three bells.  The N. and S. windows (not visible from the road) in the independently-gabled aisles are one-light, two-centred and cinquefoil-cusped.  Minus the modern accretions to the southeast, the building consists of a nave and chancel with wide, independently-gabled aisles that extend to form short, one-bay chapels alongside the chancel, and a little cross-gabled extension to the southwest, in which is located the principal door.  (See the two views of the church above, the first from the southwest, and the second from due west, across the street.)



Holy Saviour was never one of Butterfield's most important churches, but in viewing it today, two things should be borne in mind.   First, its internal structural colour was meant to be seen in good light.  The heavy glass inserted by Hardman in the 1880s and described by Pevsner as 'excellent' (The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1977, p. 200), is a very unfortunate addition and a curious illustration of how, while no-one would think of adding extra features to another artist's painting, everyone seems to imagine they have carte blanche to do precisely that to a building.  However, even greater damage than that done by Hardman, was inflicted in the 1930s when the church furnisher, Martin Travers (1886 - 1948), whitewashed the whole of the chancel interior in an act of artistic vandalism that should have been carefully and systematically removed by now, but has not.  Butterfield's church interiors invariably build up in colour and complexity from west to east, to reach their apogee in the sanctuary, and that this effect has been lost, totally undermines the animus of the design.






What remains of Butterfield's scheme, therefore, is the coloured brick walls of the nave above the five-bay arcades supported on square piers with slightly chamfered corners raised alternately in stone and six courses of red brick, the floor tiles, especially in the chancel, and some (perhaps still the majority) of the furnishings.   The nave walls are faced with lozenge patterns in white, grey and black over a ground of red, and a line of the same colours, tracing the shape of the arches above a single course of red brick (as illustrated above left).  The floor tiles become increasingly elaborate as one approaches the altar (as shown above right) but neither in their colours nor their patterns are they the equal of those at Baldersby St. James (North Yorkshire) or Babbacombe (Torbay) for example.  As for furnishings, it is often not easy in Victorian churches today, to be sure which items were part of the architect's original conception, but the font is so similar to Butterfield's font at Braishfield, Hampshire, or even those at Godmersham (Kent) and Netherhampton (Wiltshire) - in which the bevelled base of the octagonal bowl intersects with the bevelled upper section of the square base below - as to leave no doubt about that.  The reredos must also be Butterfield's (see below) but the 'thin iron screen with trefoil arched tops' (Pevsner's description) seems doubtful. 





[Other churches by Butterfield featured on this web-site are Etal in Northumberland, Baldersby St. James, Dalton, Sessay and Wykeham in North Yorkshire, Babbacombe in Torbay, and All Saints Margaret Street in the City of Westminster.]