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English Church Architecture -

London: Kensington and Chelsea

 

Holy Trinity, Soane Street (TQ 280 788)     (February 2016)

 

It was thanks to the Victorian Society and, in particular, to one of its most famous founder members, the poet John Betjeman, that this Grade 1 listed building (shown left from the southwest) escaped demolition during the 1970s, when the size of the church was considered out of all proportion to the tiny congregation regularly worshipping here on a Sunday morning. Betjeman's contribution to the campaign included the following caustic little poem:

"Bishop, Archdeacon, Rector, Wardens, Mayor,

Guardian of these noble homes of prayer,

You who your churches deplore,

Should we not sell and give to the poor?’ 

 

"Recall, despite your practical suggestion

Which was the disciple who asked that question?"

 

Holy Trinity was constructed in 1889-91 to the designs of the art-architect, John Dando Sedding (1838-91).  A pupil of George Edmund Street in the early 1860s, he took a firm grasp of Street's eclectic style and carried it to the brink of the twentieth century, so that Betjeman's description of the church as "the cathedral of the Arts and Crafts movement" provides a rather poor intimation of its striking modernity.

 

Inevitably, as with many London churches, there is more to see here inside the building than out, for externally the church only be viewed properly from Sloane Street to the west, and thus it was designed with that very much in mind.  The stripy polychromatic W. façade is constructed of red brick and pale cream Bath stone from the Middle Jurassic Great Oolite formation and clearly derives its parentage from William Butterfield's magnificent Keble College Chapel, built of red, blue and white bricks in 1870 and for so many years afterwards, widely derided.  That Holy Trinity seems to have escaped the selfsame indignity may have been due to the fact it so obviously accords with the late nineteenth and early twentieth century houses and flats that were springing  up around it, which taken together, produce what might almost be described as an "urban vernacular", predominantly in "Queen Anne style" - a revived Baroque for the machine age, characterized by corner towers, broad porches, and picturesque massings.  Seddon's towers seek to recall a more specific image, however, namely John Wastell's west and east fronts of  King's College Chapel, Cambridge, as seen from Clare Bridge or beside Great St. Mary's in Market Hill.  Here at Holy Trinity, other features to notice before entering the church include the foundation stone to the left of the doorway,  (shown in the thumbnail below) recording the names of the patron, architect, rector and churchwardens, and the tympanum above (illustrated right), showing Christ in the centre, between Old and New Testament figures, including Moses on the immediate right, holding the stone tablets he has brought down from Mount Sinai.  An angel beneath holds a shield bearing the emblem of the Holy Trinity.

 

The interior of the building comes as something of a surprise and one's initial impression may well be how bare it is.  This is a result of the extraordinary width of the nave, which reputedly exceeds that at St. Paul's Cathedral by 9" (23cm.), although the four-bay nave aisles are actually rather narrow.  An outer aisle beyond the N. aisle forms a much more considerable Lady Chapel, and beyond again, a narrow passage-way runs west to east between the chapel and the N. wall.  The clean unembellished lines of the heavy nave arcades arise from almost round, double-flat-chamfered arches that die into broad octagonal piers without capitals or any additional mouldings save only for shafts that rise up from angel corbels about three-fifths of the way up, to meet the quadripartite ribbed vault over the nave, rebuilt after the destruction of the original in the Second World War.  The aisles are crossed by lancet-pointed transverse arches between each pair of adjacent bays.

 

The short chancel is flanked by a S. chapel and a N. organ chamber (shown below), enclosed within elaborate wooden screens in indeterminate classical dress. The S. chapel was re-ordered and refurbished in the 1920s by Frederick Charles eden (1864 - 1944), a former pupil of George Frederick Bodley, to create a memorial chapel to the fallen in the 1914-18 Great War.  The style of the work approaches the Byzantine, as seen most especially in the form of the entrance arch to the west.

 

 

As for the rest of the church, it is only when one examines the furnishings and fittings in some detail that one really becomes aware how rich in art it is.  The obvious place to begin is with the enormous twelve-light chancel E. window (illustrated at the foot of the page),  filled with forty-eight panels depicting saints, forty-seven of which were drawn by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) and just one by William Morris (1834-96) (the saint dressed in red in the eighth position from the left along the top row). The nave aisle windows to the south and north were designed by Christopher Whall (1849 - 1924) and William Blake Richmond (1842 - 1921) respectively. They will certainly not be to everyone's taste but they do provide an instructive comparison between two contemporary artists. The most interesting individual window, perhaps, is the easternmost in the S. aisle, by Whall, who chose for his perplexing subject, the depiction of the Holy Spirit.  The shapes, some of which are inevitably drawn as tongues of fire, twist in all possible directions, even breaking through the surrounding border, suggesting the inspiration for the work was taken from St. John's gospel, chapter 3, verse 8:  "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth:  so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.”

 

Turning next to sculpture, the most prominent piece in the church is probably the depiction of The Entombment on the reredos, which was carved by John Tweed (1869 - 1933), but this is disappointing at close range and not up to the standard of the majority of the other work, much of which is by Frederick William Pomeroy (1856 - 1924).  It was he who was responsible for the figures along the canopies of the organ chamber and S. chapel screens, already mentioned and illustrated above.  They comprise a series of ten Divines (five on each side) set beneath round arches, of which the least expected is surely John Keble (1792 - 1866), whose famous Assize Sermon of 1833 effectively launched the High Anglican, Oxford Movement.  Also by Pomeroy is the memorial panel (below) to John Dando Sedding and his wife on the N. wall of the sanctuary.

 

The altar to the Lady Chapel is set inside a tall and very striking baldacchino, supported on columns of polished red marble and described appropriately by the Rev. E. Hermitage Day in 1911 as "an exquisite thing in itself, but ill-at-ease in its Gothic surroundings".   It is scarcely more impressive or disjunct in its setting, however, than the towering pulpit in the southeast corner of the nave, supported on mottled brown marble columns with white marble Ionic capitals, inlaid patterns on the four sides of the essentially square drum, and a great wooden tester high above.  This suggested privileging of the Word over the Sacrament (especially when considered together with the short, un-Puginesque chancel) is a clear indication that the time had now passed when the ecclesiastical architect had to fear the censure of the Ecclesiologists.  Thirty years earlier they would have been equally disapproving of the inclusion of the W. gallery.  This church has a different vision from theirs, and if in some quarters it seems to be doing little more than providing opportunities for artists and craftsmen to display their talents (a project left incomplete to judge, for example, from the blank roundels in the spandrels of the aisle arcades which never received their intending bas-reliefs) it does nevertheless invoke the words for the Communion service from The Book of Common Prayer.

    "Priest:          'Lift up your hearts.'

    Answer|:       'We lift them up unto the Lord.' "