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English Church Architecture.


SESSAY, St. Cuthbert  (SE 465 747),


(Bedrock:  Triassic Mercia Mudstone Group, Bunter Keuper Marl.)


A small, early church by William Butterfield (1814-1900), erected in 1847-48. 




William Butterfield was precisely the kind of architect the Cambridge Camden Society (later Ecclesiological) Society liked.  A dogmatic if also unconventional High Churchman, committed to building churches that facilitated the 'proper' execution of the Christian rubrics, it was he that they chose to build their model church in Margaret Street, Westminster, in 1849, which they intended to be an exemplar for church architects everywhere.  They approved of ornament and they approved of display, in both of which Butterfield excelled, and Butterfield's profound interest in structural polychromy seemed one representation of this.


Butterfield was an abstemious bachelor, however, determined to plough his own furrow.  Self-contained and indifferent to criticism or the approbation of his peers, he could not always be relied upon to deliver what was wanted.  And there were also very strict limits to Butterfield's tolerance of Ritualism:  he would not attend his church of All Saints', Margaret Street, after it was completed, for example (Paul Thompson, William Butterfield, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971, p. 33), probably because he objected to the incense, lights, and/or elevation of the Host.  He had, after all, been brought up as a Nonconformist, some aspects of which he would never throw off.  Yet his mature professional style owed a greater debt to the High Church Pugin than it would ever do to the Evangelical Ruskin, and Butterfield's use of coloured materials predated its advocacy in Ruskin's The Seven Lamps of Architecture, albeit not by much.  He quickly became its supreme exponent too, for only Street proved a serious rival.  Mocked in later years for his 'streaky bacon' or 'holy zebra' style, it was his misfortune to have many of his buildings ruined by subsequent generations, sometimes by the insertion of heavy stained glass in the windows, which prevented his colourful interiors from being seen in good light, or, more usually in the twentieth century, by whitewashing over them by those who thought them garish, as at St. Mary's Hitchin (Hertfordshire).  Some survive in good heart however, and while Butterfield's churches illustrated on this web-site include a number of relatively minor buildings, they also feature  a few examples of his best.



This is a church entirely by William Butterfield, although it is one of his earliest buildings and among neither his most important nor characteristic.  Erected in 1847-8, just four years after his first church at Coalpit Heath in Gloucestershire, it displays little of the structural polychromy for which he would become famous or (depenmding on one's point of view) notorious later, but already his confident handling of masses is apparent, together with an ability to weigh the overall effect of his designs.  The wide but steeply pitched roofs, indeed, would become a regular feature.   Moreover, as happened sometimes with Butterfield’s commissions, the church was only the most important part of a larger commission, for at Sessay he was also responsible for the lych-gate and the school, of which the latter is still in use.


The walls of the church are constructed of a sandy limestone with dressings of magnesian limestone from Burton Leonard on the Permian outcrop, twelve miles to the southwest *.  (A detail of the masonry is shown above left.)  Limestone slates have been used for the roofs (as seen on the porch, above right) and wooden shingles for the broach spire.  The building consists of a W. tower with a spire, a nave with a S. aisle and a S. porch, and a chancel with a cross-gabled N. vestry.  The windows display a variety of pseudo-mediaeval designs, of which the circular E. window to the S. aisle (below left) and the chancel E. window (below right) are the most original.   









The interior of the building is strikingly wide and plain.  The four-bay aisle arcade is formed of arches of two orders bearing hollow chamfers that continue all the way round without capitals.  The tower arch bears two flat-chamfers which die into the jambs, and the chancel arch is similar but carries one flat chamfer and a sunk quadrant.


Church furnishings are simple, but a few features occur in embryo that will be greatly developed in Butterfield’s later churches.  One of these is the tiling patterns in the chancel floor (using Minton’s encaustic tiles from Stoke-upon-Trent) (illustrated above left):  a much more elaborate scheme can be seen a few miles away at Baldersby St. James, built nine years later and where much more money was available.  The painted panelling in the roof above the sanctuary also re-occurs there.   Finally, here at Sessay, the visitor should also notice the painted organ pipes, the painted frieze on the nave walls at the springing level of the window arches, and the odd, narrow-beamed nave roof, of king post construction but with ostentatiously curved struts and braces.  All in all there is much here that is prophetic of Butterfield's later work, but few of his churches would look as un-selfconsciously English again.

(* I am indebted to Janet Ratcliffe, local historian, for this information, who found it in a contemporary newspaper cutting.) 

[Other churches by Butterfield featured on this web-site are Hitchin Holy Saviour in Hertfordshire, Etal in Northumberland, Baldersby St. James, Dalton and Wykeham in North Yorkshire, Babbacombe in Torbay, and All Saints Margaret Street in the City of Westminster.]