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English Church Architecture -

London: Camden

 

St. Michael, Camden Road (TQ 290 840)     (April 2016)

 

Anyone familiar with Bodley and Garner's churches at places like Tue Brook, Liverpool, or Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire, will not be much impressed by this church of 1878-94, whose protracted period of construction provides forewarning of its severely pared down austerity.  "When new churches were started in the 1870s without the help of an individual rich donor, they often struggled" wrote Michael Hall in his richly illustrated biography of George Frederick Bodley (Yale University Press, 2014), and indeed, the money raised for this building, expressed in the usual nineteenth century manner of so much "per sitting", came to barely half what would later be spent on Bodley's happier church a few miles to the west of Holy Trinity, Prince Consort Road (Kensington & Chelsea).   Even so, many contemporary provincial architects would have regarded the figure here in Camden Road (which was about 22) as little short of a king's ransom, so we ought probably to look elsewhere for the underwhelming impression the building makes today.  It is, admittedly, not in good condition, but perhaps its chief shortcoming lies in the fact that the partners spent too much of the available money on the soaring nave arcades (shown left, in the internal view of the church from the west) at the expense of having any realistic hope that their northwest tower would ever get built, or even of the remaining funds sufficing for an adequate scheme of interior decoration.  Possibly the church's financial difficulties were exacerbated in the first phase of construction, when it was decided to dig out the ground to a depth of six steps from the road to increase the impression of the building's internal height still further.

 

In fact, seen from within, St. Michael's looks very much like an early fourteenth century church that has had its external walls partially rebuilt as, for example, after bomb damage.  Window traceries are vaguely Decorated in their overall style.  The nave arcades are formed of double-flat-chamfered arches supported on piers composed of eight semicircular shafts, each with a fillet running down it except for those directly facing the nave.  The nave aisles have two-centred, hollow-chamfered arches crossing between the bays, and the N. chapel is covered by a quadripartite vault (shown right) that is particularly deceptive in its apparent mediaevalism - so much so one wonders if some of the masonry blocks have formerly been used elsewhere.  However, this is essentially a church built of brown brick with white stone dressings, once entirely rendered inside with plaster, but where this has come away (which it has done extensively), now covered only in the poverty of paint.  The church plan anticipates Holy Trinity, Prince Consort Road, for the nave and chancel, although not as wide, are similarly structurally undivided and formed between them of eight bays, with aisles running alongside the westernmost seven, of which the first five constitute the nave aisles and the next two, a chapel north of the chancel and an organ chamber to the south, leaving the sanctuary to project one further bay beyond.  Moreover, also like Holy Trinity, this is another church where closely adjacent buildings have prevented any windows from being inserted to the south, throwing the major responsibility for lighting it on the three-light clerestory windows and the clear glass windows to the west.

 

The main features these enable the visitor to view within include the nave and chancel roof (illustrated left and in the thumbnail bottom right) which, although of unremarkable pitch, conjures up the effect of being vaulted due to the transverse stone arches thrown across between the bays.  Bands of narrow understated painted decoration either side of these arches, provide what is arguably the best clue to Bodley's authorship for he was a master at designing paintwork and stencilling in subdued colours and here we find shields representing St. Michael and St. Mary, alternating with each other and with floral and leaf patterns, all in greens, browns and pale sea blues.  Other carpentry includes the pulpit, which, however, even discounting the fact that it has been left unpainted, is by no means the equal of Bodley's pulpit at Prince Consort Road, still less his pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral. As for the tall font cover, this will appear a poor starved thing to anyone familiar with such magnificent mediaeval examples as that to be found in St. Mary's church, Ufford (Suffolk), but in any case, the font is overwhelmed today by an enormous modern mural behind, resembling a sheet of crumpled tinfoil, notwithstanding the admiration it has attracted from some quarters.

 

In conclusion then, it is difficult not to regard this church by Bodley and Garner as anything other than a serious disappointment.  It was no fault of theirs, of course, that there was not enough money in this rather poor part of London to erect one of the splendid Gothic Revival churches of which they were eminently capable when the budget allowed for a tower, a decent building stone, and a generous display of Bodley's fine paintwork, but they signally failed to show the talent that John Loughborough Pearson, for example, displayed so frequently, of being able to produce a satisfying building within a tight spending limit, coming up instead with one that looks like the result of poor forward planning, as if work had suddenly to be broken off when the coffers were discovered to be empty.