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English Church Architecture.


ROBIN HOOD'S BAY, St. Stephen New Church  (NZ 948 053),


(Bedrock:  Lower Jurassic, Lower Lias Group.)


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.




This is one of ten churches in the North and East Riding constructed anew by George Edmund Street, among which this is probably the most earnest.  A large, dignified building erected in 1868-70 at a cost of £6,000 (notes in the church), its external appearance is dominated by the tall S. tower rising in four stages and the unrelieved red-brown sandstone beneath roofs of uniform orange-red tile.  Pace Pevsner, who seems to have become seriously disorientated on his whirlwind visit in 1966 (The Buildings of England: Yorkshire - the North Riding, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966, p. 308), its rather complicated plan is formed:  (i) of a nave with a S. aisle, with a southwest porch and southeast tower beyond (i.e. attached to the south side of the S. aisle);  and (ii) of a chancel and apse with a N. organ chamber, a lean-to S. chapel, and an independently-gabled S. vestry beyond, adjoining the tower to the east.  (Pevsner placed the aisle to the north and the tower to the northwest!) The clumsy saddleback roof to the tower copies a feature Street had used  ten years earlier, with no greater success, at Castle Rising (Norfolk).  The fenestration is largely composed of rather severe trefoiled lancets, haphazardly arranged - some in pairs, some in stepped groups of three, some in and some not in encompassing arches.   However, a feeling of unity is imposed on the church nonetheless, not only by the unvarying masonry but also by the building’s height, which soars up in all parts in a manner far more French than English, though a good and reasonably local mediaeval precedent may also be claimed for it, fifteen miles away across the Moors at Lastingham, where the highly impressive church dates from the late eleventh century.  The principal common element there and here is the short but very tall chancel and apse with windows resting on a string course some 16-20'  (4.7 - 6.1 m.) from the ground.  In the present case, Street’s juxtaposition of a high apse with the chancel S. chapel, independently-gabled S. vestry, and S. tower, provide an impressive grouping of masses when the building is viewed from the southeast (as in the photograph above left), notwithstanding the unfortunate, very close proximity of a modern bungalow, which has the effect of diminishing it.  Conversely, the church's N. façade (below left), whether viewed from the churchyard or the parallel road to the north, is altogether less satisfactory and does not appear to have received adequate consideration.  (The photograph below right, shows the church from the west.)













Neither does one find, on entering the church, the kind of riches found, for example, in the bejewelled font and pulpit at St. John’s, Whitwell-on-the-Hill, or the wonderful painted roofs of St. Peter's, Helperthorpe, for the remit at St. Stephen’s appears to have been, above all, to impress the visitor with its seriousness.  This is the function of the ribbed vault over the apse and chancel in particular, formed of an irregular sexpartite vault above the former and a single quadripartite bay above the latter.  The junction between the bays is marked by triple shafts attached to the chancel walls, but the ribs elsewhere are supported on corbel shafts.  The chancel arch is triple-flat-chamfered.


The four-bay nave arcade is formed of arches bearing a flat chamfer and a roll with a fillet, supported on octagonal piers with slightly concave sides and deeply-cut vine leaf capitals.  (The photographs below show the S. arcade from the northwest, and a close-up of the capital to the westernmost pier.)  Half arches springing across to the arcade from the aisle S. wall, demarcate the first three bays, while the fourth is divided from the third by a complete arch, and another, much taller arch, leads south from this bay into the tower, which is entered down two steps.  The S. aisle also communicates with the S. chapel, eastwards via another arch.














Unfortunately, Street’s furnishings at St. Stephen’s are frankly disappointing:  the floor tiling shows a modest increase in elaboration towards the east, as one might expect;  the two-bay sedilia in the chancel S. wall consists of two simple trefoiled-arches separated by a circular column;  and the font at the W. end of the S. aisle is composed of a square bowl with chamfered corners, decorated on its faces by three-bay blank arcading and by little columns of blank quatrefoils on the chamfers.


However, a feature that does deserve close attention is the building’s stained glass, designed 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 (www.visitcumbria.com).  Working clockwise from north to south, the five two-light windows around the apse depict SS. John and Mary, SS. Peter and Cecilia (below left), SS. Stephen and Paul, SS. Catherine and James, and SS. Lucy and Andrew (below right).




















[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, Howsham, 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.]