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English Church Architecture -

London: City of Westminster


St. Mary Magdalene, Rowington Close (TQ 265 820)     (January 2013)


This is a severe inner city church by George Edmund Street (1824-81), made memorable by its polygonal apse and tall southeast tower and spire (seen left, in the view of the church from the east).  The nave S. transept provides little more than a ceremonial entrance, and the crypt owes its present form, including that of its half-exposed windows, to Sir Ninian Comper (1864 - 1960).


There is much that might be termed "Ruskinian" here, though little that is not also prefigured in Street's own writings, most notably in Brick and Marble in the Middle Ages - Notes on a Tour in the North of Italy, published by John Murray in 1855.  Built originally on a very constricted site in what was then Woodchester Street, between 1868 and '78, before slum clearance in the 1960s swept the road away and made the church visible from angles Street had never intended it to be seen (as in the view from the northwest, below right), St. Mary Magdalene's is constructed of red brick with alternating stone bands, below slate roofs of the steepest pitch, and has now lost much of what must have been its early vibrancy beneath a century and a half of London grime (though a visit in January does little to help).  The tower's alien appearance is the result, most especially, of the spire not being set back from the bell-stage, but it is not uncharacteristic of its author (cf., for example, East Heslerton in North Yorkshire) or of the High Victorian period in general (see also Butterfield's All Saints', Margaret Street in this borough, the same architect's church at Baldersby St. James in North Yorkshire, and in the same county, Pearson's church at Appleton-le-Moors).  The stripy appearance of the bell-stage was presaged in a passage in Brick and Marble (page 273) in which Street praised the similar treatment of the walls of S. Fermo Maggiore in Verona, which the present building copies remarkably closely, albeit that the effect under an Italian sky and in an atmosphere that has allowed the brick to remain red, was something Street was never going to be able to recreate here.  Other features foreshadowed in Brick and Marble include the position of the tower itself, attached to the south side of the chancel (as discussed on page 34 in his description of churches in Switzerland), the form of the windows (which conform with the views he expresses on page 79, where he praises the simple traceries at Verona, composed of pairs of trefoiled lights with trefoils and circles above), the division of the clerestory lights by circular shafts rather than mullions ("a feature so lovely and so perfect in every respect, that one cannot but deeply lament that it was not more often adopted in the North" - page 261), and  the absence of external buttresses, around the apse in particular (as noted with approval at Venice, on page 135). Such opinions, stated so decidedly, may strike the modern reader not only as dogmatic but often downright curious, but perhaps they are easier to understood as a consequence of exotic foreign travel in an exhilarating climate after a hard year's work in Victorian London. 


Inside the church, the unavoidably cramped building plan is revealed in the way the S. aisle is opposed on the north side by the merest passageway, demarcated with a very different arcade (left) -  In fact, a double arcade, whose task is to support the nave's principal curtain wall. (See also the photograph above right.)  The piers are octagonal and the intermediate shafts, circular. The stone spandrels of the subsidiary arches house carved, inlaid roundels, depicting scenes leading up to the Crucifixion (that is to say, a less strict sequence than the Stations of the Cross).  The brick spandrels of the main arches, both here and to the S. arcade, contain larger-than-life statues of assorted figures, including St. Mary Magdalene and the four Evangelists, standing on brackets beneath crocketed canopies.  The S. arcade (below right) is constructed in six bays of arches of two orders bearing rolls, quadrant mouldings and dog-tooth, springing from piers composed of four major and four minor semicircular shafts.  A triple arcade runs transversely across the nave to the west, dividing off the church's expected principal entrance (through the N. door) in an arrangement seen on a much smaller scale at Wansford in the East Riding.  The arch from the aisle to the S. transept is formed of a single order, decorated on the respond with a stopped chamfer and an order of shafts with stiff leaf capitals, and around the arch, by stylised flowers resembling clematis. The chancel arch is supported on black corbel shafts, and the chancel itself consists of a choir and an apse, the former covered by a single bay of quadripartite ribbed vaulting and the latter, by a further bay with two additional ribs to the east, which frame the E. window.  The chancel was substantially re-ordered by Comper and the present steep ascent to the sanctuary is due to him.  The dado around the sanctuary walls is panelled in plain marble sheets below, and decorated above by an elaborate frieze of inlaid patterns in circles and half circles, interrupted at intervals by carved lozenges depicting the Seven Days  of Creation.  The triple sedilia recessed in the S. wall, is formed of trefoil-cusped arches supported on quatrefoil marble shafts. The stained glass in the windows around the apse and in the nave W. window is by Henry Holiday (1839 - 1927), a friend of John Ruskin, who succeeded Burne-Jones as designer at Powell's Glass Works off London's Fleet Street, in 1861. Holiday was also working with Street at about the same time, at Robin Hood's Bay (North Yorkshire). 


Other furnishings in the church include the very fine pulpit (below left), formed of an octagonal tub in mottled brown marble with inlaid patterns in panels, standing on eight short shafts with fillets.  The less interesting font (below right) is formed of a large but simple circular bowl supported on a similar cluster of shafts but decorated only with four drawn scenes from the life of Christ in trefoiled arches around the sides.  Finally, one is bound to observe the whole building would greatly benefit from a thorough cleaning, of the roof in particular.  It would not be a cheap business but it would be a worthy one for a national conservation society to undertake.