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English Church Architecture -

London: City of Westminster


All Saints, Margaret Street (TQ 292 815)     (February 2011)


" [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 nor can that be used as a reason for its omission, for this was the "model church" of the Ecclesiological (formerly Cambridge Camden) Society, who for the decade prior to its erection in 1849-59 had been anxious to sponsor a building that would exemplify and promote everything they believed essential for devout Christian worship. The cramped site in Margaret Street was, on the face of it, the first of two strange choices the Society made, but this was then the site of the eighteenth century Margaret Chapel, a poor little building quite unsuited to its minister's and congregation's penchant for Anglo-Catholic ceremonial.  (See B.F.L. Clarke's Church Builders of the Nineteenth Century, pub. SPCK, 1938, pgs. 119 - 121, for an account of this and the new church's construction.)  The second curious choice was of William Butterfield (1814 - 1900) as architect,  for while he certainly met the Society's criterion 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, pg. 4), he was also a man of strong and very singular convictions, who was never going to bend readily to any opinion not his own.  As a result, its patron, Mr. Alexander Beresford-Hope M.P., had decidedly mixed views about the church when it was finished, although that was largely because what he got for his time and money was both original and striking, while what he appears to have had in mind was something much more conventionally "mediaeval".


Butterfield's idiomatic contribution to the Gothic Revivalist style of church architecture lay in what has become known as "structural polychromy" - that is, the employment of coloured materials (especially stone, bricks and tiles), to create a building where colour and pattern are inherent in the structure.  Thus All Saints was faced externally in pink and black brick, the former of which "was more expensive than stone"  (ibid, pg. 6).  Its soaring broach spire (at 227' or 69m., the second highest in London) - still visible above and between the shops at a few points along Oxford Street - is hung with slates but banded in cream ashlar.  (See the photograph above, which was taken from the courtyard, looking up at the southwest tower.)  The building stones used internally include 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.  (See Paul Thompson's book on Butterfield, pub. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971, pg. 236.)  Such a palette was actually rather cosmopolitan for Butterfield, who usually showed a preference for vernacular materials.  As this was a metropolitan church, however, this may have seemed a less relevant consideration, and since there was plenty of money available, he had no need to limit himself on purely financial grounds.


Butterfield made the best use he could of the limited space available (about 100' square - church guide) by placing his church along the back (where it would fortuitously be aligned east/west) and setting out a small courtyard to the fore, flanked by the vicarage on the right and a parish room on the left.  (See the photograph immediately above.)  The church thus positioned adjoined other buildings to the north and east so that the only windows able to be constructed here were in the N. side of the clerestory.  The plan of the building is formed of a three-bay nave and two-bay chancel running along the centre, adjoining:  (i) on the north side, from west to east, a three-bay aisle, short Lady Chapel and organ chamber, which terminate about half a bay short of the E. wall of the sanctuary;  and (ii), to the south, a two-bay aisle alongside the two eastern bays of the nave, leading into another chapel with vestry beyond to the east, and into a baptistery surmounted by the tower and spire to the west.  There is also a small S. porch.  The baptistery is divided by a solid wall from the westernmost bay of the nave, no doubt out of structural necessity, to support the weight of the tower above.


After this, a detailed description of the building would be excessively tedious for it would also inevitably be long.  Externally the most striking feature is obviously the tower, which has angle buttresses reaching up to the base of the bell-stage, very tall and narrow two-light geometric bell-openings per wall set together in recessed rectangles with denticulation in moulded brick above, and a needle spire which is unmistakably the product its author.  (Cf., for example, the spire at Baldersby St. James, North Yorkshire, which is not, however, of broach form.)  Patterns in the brickwork, here as elsewhere, consist chiefly of a profusion of horizontal bands, zigzag and lozenges.


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 waves 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, 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 depicting, amongst other tableaus, the Nativity, and which entirely cover the windowless N. wall of the N. aisle, are all part of Butterfield's original sumptuous scheme.


Alas, such riches were lost on Pevsner, writing in 1952 in the London except the Cities of London and Westminster volume of "The Buildings of England". (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 reredos (shown on the left in the third photograph down) is Sir Ninian Comper's copy, c. 1909, of the original by William Dyce (1806 - 64).  The reredos to the Lady Chapel, which Comper produced a couple of years later, is a less happy addition to the building, for although of itself very fine, it is marred by the ornate but heavy and ungainly square canopy above. The Minton floor-tile patterns throughout the church show the usual build-up in effect as one passes from west to east. (The third photograph down on the right shows the patterning in the chancel floor.)


As usual, 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 similarly stands 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'd anticipated, it was certainly one of the most distinctive and ornate Victorian churches in the country and one which it is possible to appreciate today in a way that Butterfield would probably have hoped and previous generations seemed often incapable.