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English Church Architecture -

London: City of Westminster


St. James the Less, Thorndike Street (TQ 295 786)     (February 2013)


The earliest of three churches in the City of Westminster designed by George Edmund Street (1824-81), St. James the Less must have made a very striking impression on its relatively open site immediately after construction, yet as early as 1864, Street was himself crowding it round with a school and other associated buildings, and today, with undistinguished twentieth century housing and office blocks jostling it about also, it is impossible to get an advantageous sight-line of the architecture anywhere.  (The view from the northeast, above left, is as good as it gets.)


The building was one of the early fruits of Street's Italian Gothic obsession.  After spending September 1851 travelling in northern Italy, he had published his recollections of his journey two years later (under the very prosaic title, Brick and Marble in the Middle Ages - Notes on a Tour in the North of Italy), and embarked on a series of Italianate polychromatic designs, beginning  with All Saints', Maidenhead in 1854-7 and going on to include, among other churches, the small but ornate St. John's, Howsham (North Yorkshire) of 1859-60.  Street's chosen material here at Pimlico was red and black brick, enlivened with bands and dressings of buff Morpeth stone (B.F.L. Clarke: Church Builders of the Nineteenth Century, SPCK, 1938).  The plan juxtaposed an aisled nave with an open-sided N. porch linking across to a slender and otherwise detached N. campanile, with a chancel and apse with N. and S. transept-cum-chapels replete with E. aisles.  The accompanying photographs render a tediously detailed external description of the building unnecessary but features that should be noticed, all of which Street commended in Brick and Marble, include an absence of buttresses or projecting mouldings around the campanile (save only for the protruding corbel table beneath the steeple), the adoption of stone shafts with capitals in place of mullions between window lights or - where tracery is used - of plate tracery instead of bar tracery, and the realization of decorative effects through the use either of constructional colour or inserted carved stone panels.  (See the photograph of the campanile, above right, taken from the east, and the N. side of the nave clerestory, below left, together with close-ups of two of the inlaid panels between the N. aisle trefoiled lancets, depicting Adam and Even being tempted by the serpent, below centre, and the Expulsion from Paradise, below right.)   The principal entrance to the church from the north, runs through an open passageway beneath the campanile and thence through the linking porch.  The polychromatic brickwork around the N. doorway into the aisle is especially impressive.   



Inside the church, the nave clerestory is formed of two pairs of three-light windows towards the west, with lights separated by shafts, and towards the east, a pair of three-light, plate-traceried windows with stepped lancet lights (the central light being lower) and a circular window above, formed of a central circle surrounded by six smaller circles - remarkably, a completely different arrangement from that seen outside where the lancets are equal and the tracery is formed of three encircled trefoils beneath projecting brick gables (as shown in the photograph above left).   Yet as curious as this is, it was not the first time Street had come up with the idea for he had also included it in his competition design for Lille Cathedral in 1855 (which was eventually placed second), where "the interval between the two planes of tracery was [to be] roofed between the buttresses, and [given] an external passage"  (A.E. Street, Memoir of George Edmund Street, John Murray, 1888, pgs. 31-2.)  The W. wall at St. James the Less is pierced by three tall, trefoil-cusped two-light windows, with openings in the heads composed of central circles each surrounded by four smaller circles.  A wheel window higher up in the gable is formed of a sexfoil surrounded by ungainly shapes vaguely resembling leaves.  The aisle windows are trefoil-cusped lancets set in deep brick splays, with shafts at the sides.


The nave arcades are constructed in three bays, and there are two-bay arcades with narrower arches, (a) between the chancel and the chapels, and (b) running transversely across the chapels, to create narrow E. aisles.  All six of these arcades are constructed of coloured brick, in two shallow orders edged with nailhead and arrowhead, springing from polished marble columns in shaft rings, standing on heavy square bases.  (See the N. arcade between the nave and N. aisle, below left.)  The capitals to the nave piers and responds are, again, prefigured in Brick and Marble, being square in section and elaborately carved with foliage at the angles and - in the cardinal directions - intricate biblical scenes replete with helpful inscriptions lest their iconography should be unclear.  These include, in the N. arcade,  the miracle of the water made wine (John 2, 1-11:  W. pier W. face), Christ receiving the little children (Mark 10, 13-16:  W. pier S. face), the ten lepers cleansed (Luke 17, 11-19:  W. pier E. face), the paralytic raised from his bed (Matthew 9, 2-8:  E. pier W. face) (illustrated below right), and Jarius's daughter raised to life (Mark 5, 22-24 & 35-43:  E. pier S. face).  The S. arcade includes the parable of the sower (Luke 8, 5-15:  W. pier W. face), the Kingdom of Heaven likened to a treasure hidden in a field which a man sells everything he has in order to buy (Matthew 13, 44:  W. pier S. face), and the landowner seeking fruit from his fig tree (Luke 13, 6-9:  E. pier E. face).   The chancel arch is supported on marble corbel shafts.















The chancel is covered by a sexpartite ribbed vault of coloured brick above the choir (seen below left, from the west), and by a quadripartite vault with two extra ribs enclosing the E. window, above the apse/sanctuary.  Two steps lead up to the choir from the nave and three more from the choir to the sanctuary.  The sanctuary is surrounded by a patterned marble dado, some ten feet in height (3 m.) (as illustrated in the view looking northeast, below right), with recesses for a double aumbry to the north (shown) and a double sedilia to the south, the latter composed of two trefoil-cusped arches beneath gables.  The three-light windows round the apse copy the form of the eastern pair of nave clerestory windows as seen from within (an appearance they retain outside), and are separated by marble shafts in shaft-rings which rise to support the vault.














Church furnishings will not be described in any detail here but the visitor will certainly notice the circular marble font, which is remarkable for being covered by an elaborate metalwork canopy, supported on four brass columns and surmounted by a wrought iron pinnacle.  (See the photograph below left.)  The pulpit (below right) is ornately carved but has suffered some damage and cannot be ranked among the best examples in Street's churches.  Stained glass throughout the building, by Street's favoured firm of Clayton and Bell, seems very heavy on a winter's day, even when the sun is shining.  The fresco above the chancel arch is by the renowned George Frederick Watts (1817 - 1904), but unfortunately, as John Hutchinson has observed, writing in George Edmund Street in East Yorkshire (University of Hull, 1981), it "fails to integrate, so that it is not surprising that Street never again attempted to incorporate a large work by a prominent artist into his own highly individual decorative schemes".


Finally, it is interesting to turn to Charles Eastlake's almost contemporary review of this church, published in 1872 in A History of the Gothic Revival (Longmans), while the Gothic Revival was still in full swing.  In a discussion about the tendency during the previous decade towards Continental eclecticism he observed that "in no instance was this revolt from national style more marked than in the Church of St. James the Less...  Here the whole character of the building, whether we regard its plan, its distinctive features, its external or internal decoration, is distinctly un-English.  Even the materials used in its construction and the mode by which it is lighted were novelties.  The detached tower with its picturesquely modelled spire, its belfry stage rich in ornamental brick-work and marble bosses. the semicircular apse and quasi-transepts, the plate tracery, the dormers inserted in the clerestory, the quaint treatment of the nave arcade[s], the bold vigour of the carving, the chromatic decoration of the roof  [alas, barely discernable today] - all bear evidence of a thirst for change which Mr. Street [still alive at this date] could satisfy without danger, but which betrayed many of his contemporaries into intemperance.  Even here there is something to regret in the restless notching of edges, the dazzling distribution of stripes, the multiplicity of pattern forms, and exuberance of sculpture detail.  But it is all so clever and so facile, so evidently the invention of a man who enjoys his work - and who, full of rich fancies and quaint conceits, is incapable of insipidity, but at any moment if he so chooses can rein himself back from extravagance - that it is impossible but to regard it with pleasure."