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English Church Architecture.

 

LONDON, All Saints Margaret Street  (TQ 292 815),

CITY OF WESTMINSTER. 

 

 

The Ecclesiological Society's 'model church', designed  by William Butterfield,

and erected on a cramped site, 1849 -59. 

 

 

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 unsurprising they chose him to build their model church in Margaret Street, Westminster, 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 in later life to deliver what was wanted.  And there were also very strict limits to Butterfield's tolerance of Ritualism:  he would not attend his church at Margaret Street after it was completed (Paul Thompson, William Butterfield, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971, p. 33) because he objected to the incense, lights, and 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 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, as shown at Margaret Street, predated its advocacy in Ruskin's The Seven Lamps of Architecture, if not by very 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, such as the building considered here, survive in good heart however, and while Butterfield's churches illustrated on this web-site include a number of  minor buildings, they also feature  a few examples of his very best.

 

 

'[All Saints', Margaret Street] assuredly decides one question conclusively, that of our present capability of Gothic design.  It is the first piece of architecture I have seen, built in modern days, which is free from all signs of timidity or incapacity.  In general proportion of parts, in refinement and piquancy of mouldings, above all, in force, vitality, and grace of floral ornament, worked in a broad and masculine manner, it challenges fearless comparison with the noblest work of any time.  Having done this, we may do anything;  there need be no limits to our hope or our confidence; and I believe it to be possible for us, not only to equal, but far to surpass, in some respects, any Gothic yet seen in Northern countries.'

John Ruskin.  Quoted from the final chapter of The Stones of Venice, Book 2, published while the church was still under construction in 1853.

 

So much has been written about this church by so many that it is quite impossible here to add anything new.  However, its importance is such that that cannot be used as an excuse for its omission either, for this building was of prime importance in the evolution of the Gothic Revival as the Ecclesiological Society sought to promote its ideas by the erection of a building that would exemplify everything they believed essential for devout Christian worship.  That being the case, the cramped site in Margaret Street was, on the face of it, a curious initial choice by the Society, but this happened to be where the eighteenth century Margaret Chapel, stood, a poor little building entirely unsuited to its minister's and congregation's penchant for Anglo-Catholic ceremonial.  (See B.F.L. Clarke, Church Builders of the Nineteenth Century, London, SPCK, 1938, pp. 119 - 121.)  The decision to engage William Butterfield as architect for the new church was also a rather courageous one at this stage,  for while he certainly met the Society's requirement of 'a single, pious and laborious artist alone, pondering deeply over his duty to do his best for the service of God's Holy Religion' (quoted in the church guide, All Saints Margaret Street, Norwich, Jarrold Publishing, 2005, p. 4), he already had a reputation as a man of strong and singular convictions, who would not bend readily to opinions not his own.  As a result, its patron, Mr. Alexander Beresford-Hope M.P., had distinctly mixed views about the church when it was finished, for what he appears to have had in his mind was something more conventionally 'mediaeval', whereas what he got was both striking and original.

 

Butterfield is renowned today for his fondness for 'structural polychrome', employed to create buildings where colour and pattern are inherent in the structure. All Saints' is faced externally in pink and black brick, the former 'more expensive than stone' (All Saints Margaret Street, p. 6).  The tower is highly patterned with lines and zigzags, and the soaring broach spire above, clad in grey slates interrupted by bands of cream ashlar at intervals, rises to 227' (69m.) and is still visible over and between the shops at a number of points along Oxford Street.  The range of construction materials used internally is still greater and includes Aberdeen granite (for the columns), serpentine, veined alabaster, the so-called Derbyshire fossil 'marble' (which is actually a hard limestone capable of taking polish), and among the true marbles, red Languedoc, yellow Sienna and green Connemara.  (Paul Thompson, William Butterfield, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971, p. 236.)  Such a palette was exotic even for Butterfield, who usually privileged any materials he could obtain locally. As this was a metropolitan church, however, this may have seemed an irrelevant consideration, and since there was plenty of money available, he had no need to restrict himself on financial grounds.

 

Butterfield made the best use he could of the limited space available (about 100' square - All Saints Margaret Street, p. 4) by placing his church along the back (where it was fortuitously aligned east to west) and setting a small courtyard to the fore, flanked by the vicarage on the right and a parish room on the left.  (See the photograph, right.)  The church butted up against pre-existing buildings north and east so that the only windows able to be constructed there were high up in the clerestory.  The building plan of the building is composed of a three-bay nave and two-bay chancel along the centre, with:  (i) in turn on the north side, from west to east, a three-bay aisle, a short Lady Chapel and organ chamber that terminates about half a bay short of the sanctuary;  and (ii), on the south side, by the tower, the lower stage of which serves as a baptistery,  a two-bay aisle, then another chapel, and finally a vestry to the east.  A small S. porch leads into the westernmost bay of the arcade and the baptistery is divided by from the aisle by a solid wall, from structural necessity, to support the weight of the tower above.

 

After this, a detailed description of the building would be excessively long and tedious.  Externally the most striking feature is obviously the tower, which has angle buttresses reaching up to the base of the bell-stage, and very tall and narrow two-light geometric bell-openings set together in recessed rectangles with denticulation in moulded brick above. 

 

Inside the building, the nave arcades are formed of clusters of four major and four minor shafts with deeply-cut stiff leaf capitals, supporting two centred arches bearing wave mouldings and rolls with fillets.  The spandrels are decorated with inlaid coloured stone and mastic, the clerestory consists of three lancet openings per bay, followed by a blank arch, all supported on circular shafts, and the nave roof is characterized above all by the way in which its painted arched braces simulate stone. The painted wall tiles depict the Nativity among other scenes.

 

Alas, such decorative schemes were lost on Pevsner, writing in 1952 in the 'London except the Cities of London and Westminster' volume of The Buildings of England (Harmonsdworth, Penguin). (St. Marylebone was at that time a separate London borough.)  Today his view seems astonishingly cramped and narrow-minded:  'The interior is indeed dazzling, though in an eminently High Victorian ostentatiousness or obtrusiveness.  It is by no means tasteful and was in fact called ugly, though forceful and powerful, by the very organ of the Cambridge Camden Society, the Ecclesiologist.  No part of the walls is left undecorated.  From everywhere the praise of the Lord is drummed into you.  The motifs are without exception big and graceless.'

 

The chancel arch rises from corbel shafts and half arches cross the aisles between the aisles and chapels. Butterfield vaulted the chancel in two quadripartite bays with the addition of a ridge rib, which, against his wishes, were painted and gilded shortly afterwards. The fine painted and gilded reredos is Sir Ninian Comper's reproduction, c. 1909, of the original by William Dyce (1806 - 64), but the reredos to the Lady Chapel, which Comper produced a couple of years later, is a less happy addition to the building, for it is marred by the ornate but heavy and ungainly square canopy above. The Minton floor-tile patterns throughout the church demonstrate Butterfield's usual practice of intensifying the effect as one passes from west to east.

 

Also as usual, however, Butterfield lavished particular attention on his font and pulpit.  The former (illustrated above left), though not necessarily better than his beautifully judged example at Baldersby St. James, which is similarly supported on eight coloured marble columns, has here a shaped and more elaborate bowl, with carved angels on the broaches and warm-coloured inset stones providing the patterning on the faces.  Perhaps the pulpit is a little heavy, yet the decoration is still more intense.  (See the photograph, right.)  The drum is supported on brown marble shafts with stiff leaf capitals and surrounded by narrower shafts of green, red and black marble, while every external surface is decorated with coloured inlay, like an intricate piece of jewellery.

 

Beresford-Hope spent seventy thousand pounds on the construction of this building - the equivalent of between four and five million today.  If the result was not entirely that which he had anticipated, he certainly got for his money one of the most distinctive and ornate Victorian churches in the country, and the Ecclesiologists obviously adjusted to Butterfield's conception, for they were usually kind to his subsequent work.

 

[Other churches by Butterfield featured on this web-site are Hitchin Holy Saviour in Hertfordshire, Etal in Northumberland, Baldersby St. James, Dalton, Sessay and Wykeham in North Yorkshire, and Babbacombe in Torbay.]