(« back to home page)

English Church Architecture -



HITCHIN, Holy Saviour (TL 191 296)     (December 2014)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Lower Chalk)




Arriving just as a Christmas tree fayre is being set up in the nave does not provide the best conditions for a careful and systematic examination of a church building, which is a pity, for this is wholly the work of William Butterfield (1814 - 1900), executed  in 1863-5 in what might be described as that architect's more brutalist manner.  Faced externally in red brick with bands of stone and further bands and lozenge patterns in vitrified blue brick beneath steeply pitched slate roofs, its principal façade, which is to the west, is defined by three heavy buttresses, between which the two, two-light W. windows, one with an encircled quatrefoil and the other with an encircled trefoil in the head, seem to struggle for the light, and a slightly overhanging W. bell-cote above, with spaces for three bells.  The N. and S. windows in the independently-gabled aisles are all one-light, two-centred and cinquefoil-cusped.  Minus the modern accretions to the southeast, the building consists of a nave and chancel with aisles extending 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", 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 scraped away 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 a ground of red and lozenge patterns in white, grey and black and a line of the same colours, tracing the shape of the arch above a single course of red brick.  (See the photograph, 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), to offer only two examples.  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 his (see below) but the "thin iron screen with trefoil arched tops" (Pevsner's description) between the nave and the chancel is, perhaps, less certain.