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English Church Architecture.


HOWSHAM, St. John  (SE 738 629),


(Bedrock:  Triassic Penarth Group, Mudstone.)


An attractive church by one of the foremost Victorian ecclesiastical architects,

George Edmund Street (1824-81).

















Famous, above all today, for the Law Courts in The Strand, George Edmund Street was rivalled in his lifetime only by William Butterfield as the architect of choice by the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, and, indeed, in his personal attachment to High Church ritual, he surpassed his rival and was for many years churchwarden at Butterfield's 'model' church of All Saints', Margaret Street (Westminster), after Butterfield had left, opposed to the use of incense and lights, and to the Elevation of the Host.  Yet for all his ardent religionism, it would be entirely misleading to present Street as a humourless killjoy, for entirely to the contrary, his two major publications, Brick & Marble in the Middle Ages: Notes on a Tour of the North of Italy (London, John Murray, 1855) and Some Account of Gothic Architecture in Spain (in two volumes) (London, John Murray, 1865) are peppered with anecdotes about bad hotels and the sheer awfulness of other English tourists encountered on the way, much to the aggravation of The Ecclesiologist in its long review of the former in October 1855 (vol. XVI, issue CX, p. 299):  'We cannot but think that the ordinary reader of books of travel will be as much disturbed by Mr. Street's purely professional descriptions and speculations as the architectural student will be annoyed by the details of uncomfortable beds and ill-cooked dinners'.

Street's earnestness was sufficient for most men, however, and his patrons, almost to a man and woman, were wealthy and generous ones.  Street was also an inveterate traveller, and a close reading of Arthur Edmund Street's biography of his father (Memoir of George Edmund Street, 1824-1881, London, John Murray, 1888) reveals that between 1850 and 1874, he made no less than twenty-two separate visits to the Continent, including two such trips in 1872 and 1874 and only missing out on his working vocations in 1855. 1864, 1865 and 1870, during the last of which, however, he made a tour round Scotland.  It is hardly surprising, in consequence, that Street's architecture is the most eclectic among all his more important confrères, and this is particularly striking in some of his village churches, which in the most extreme cases, stand out from their settings as if they had landed from the moon.


Together with St. John’s, Whitwell-on-the-Hill, on the opposite bank of the River Derwent, this was one of the first two churches built by Street in the North or East Riding, in 1858-60.  It consists of a chancel with an apse and what was probably intended as a N. organ chamber, and a nave with a northwest steeple and W. narthex - the latter, a feature Street would use again at East Heslerton almost twenty years later, although at Howsham the narthex is truncated by the tower. The building material inside and out is a beige sandstone with gently contrasting ochre bands, but small quantities of polished granite and marble are employed in the furnishings. The roofs are of red tile.  The church was paid for by Hannah Cholmley of Howsham Hall, in memory of her husband, Colonel George Cholmley.  (See the photographs of the church from the west, at the top of the page on the left, and from the east, at the top of the page on the right.)


The exterior displays two of Street’s fingerprints:  (i) a continuous string course beneath the windows which steps up in stages towards the east, eventually to reach a height of about 10' (3 m.) from the ground;  and (ii) a fenestration almost entirely comprising lancets, either in loose groups of two or three as around the nave and chancel (where encircled quatrefoils above are randomly set diagonally or vertically) or more formally in pairs within encompassing arches as around the apse. The steeple has a tall, square lower stage, perhaps 24' (≈ 7 m.) high, followed by a short transitional stage converting to an octagonal section, a shorter octagonal bell-stage with openings separated by shafts alternately of orange and white sandstone, and a little spire with a gabled lucarne in the secondary intercardinal directions (i.e. west-northwest, north-northwest, etc.).  The lean-to W. narthex abutting the steeple, is supported on three broad columns with very large Italian Gothic capitals, carved with figures and animals in the cardinal directions and leaf volutes in the ordinal directions.  The W. door in the wall behind is formed of a lancet-pointed arch carrying a roll and a flat chamfer, the latter supported on columns with leaf capitals.  A smaller door to the north leads directly into the steeple.


Inside the building, the masonry is enlivened with an ochre band running beneath the windows, a second about 15" (38 cms.) higher up, and a third at the springing level.  The most immediately striking individual feature is the large, ostentatiously cinquefoil-cusped chancel arch.  The chancel is approached up a single step but there are four more up to the altar.  The organ chamber (if that is what it once was - at the time of this visit, it was little more than an untidy glory-hole) opens through a wide double-flat-chamfered arch, and a two-bay sedilia recessed in the S. wall opposite, consists of trefoil-cusped arches supported by an intervening black stone column with a stiff-leaf capital. The chancel and sanctuary floors show the usual increasing elaboration of the tiling patterns from west to east, the nave and chancel have wagon roofs, and the apse has a splayed roof nicely painted in red, blue and green (as illustrated above). 



















Other furnishings include the font (shown above left) in the southwest corner of the nave, with flush marble patterns inlaid in the circular bowl and four coloured marble columns with leaf capitals surrounding the central stone support beneath:  it is attractive and well executed though lacking the exquisite bejewelled appearance of its companion piece at Whitwell-on-the-Hill.  However, the same 'marquetry' technique works to greater effect in the pulpit (above right), where the designs are closely spaced around the curved drum, and the beautiful reredos (below) is better still and the church’s finest individual item, formed of three carved stone circles with inlaid coloured marbles in the outer two.  Stained glass in the church is by Clayton & Bell and includes, around the apse, scenes from the life of Christ - in clockwise order, the Last Supper, the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion, the Deposition, Christ in Majesty, and what is possibly Christ with his disciples. 


[Other churches by Street featured on this web-site are Fimber and Wansford in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Toddington in Gloucestershire, East Heslerton, Helperthorpe, Robin Hood's Bay, Thixendale, West Lutton and Whitwell-on-the-Hill in North Yorkshire, Denstone in Staffordshire, Torquay in Torbay, Brightwalton and Eastbury in West Berkshire, and St. Mary Magdalene's Rowington Close and St. James's Thorndike Street in the City of Westminster.]