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English Church Architecture.


WHITWELL-ON-THE-HILL, St. John the Evangelist  (SE 724 659),


(Bedrock:  Middle Jurassic, Saltwick Formation.)


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.




St. John's, Whitwell-on-the-Hill, is an admirable church, completed to Street's designs in 1860, who does his reputation no harm here.  It was built at the expense of Lady Louisa Lechmere, shortly after her wedding and in memory of her late father, and consists of just a nave and chancel built as a single unit, and a southeast tower with a broach spire and semicircular stair turret against the W. wall, reaching up to the bell-stage.  The building is long, however, and the tower, tall (113 feet).  It presents a proud spectacle, standing on a spur above the Kirkham Gorge, beside the present-day A64.


Street chose for his style the late thirteenth century geometric, and he was true to it throughout.  The stonework externally is a greyish limestone in (one suspects) deliberately irregular, rectangular blocks, brought to courses at intervals, between which run regular courses of a pale orange sandstone.  The tower is not marked by string courses, but to add to the effect of height, Street cunningly reduces the width very slightly, just below the bell-stage.  The bell-openings consist of two trefoil-cusped lancet lights with a shaft between and much leaf carving on the capitals, and with smaller (i.e. both narrower and shorter) shafts at either side.  Above this pair of lights is a wheel with a central openwork quatrefoil, surrounded by small openwork trefoils and circles.  The broach spire has one tier of four lucarnes, each formed of two openings with a black alabaster column between.  Above are gables pierced by openwork trefoils.


Every window differs from its neighbours. Thus the sanctuary S. window is two-light, with plate tracery pierced by a circle containing three trefoils; the E. window is three-light, with two encircled double-cusped quatrefoils and an encircled double-cusped cinquefoil above; and the nave N. windows include one with an encircled double-cusped quatrefoil in the head (as illustrated, in that order, above).  The nave W. window is formed of four equal, trefoil-cusped lancets, beneath a wheel of four cinquefoils, set within in a single, deeply-splayed arch.



The church interior (seen above, looking west) maintains some measure of the exterior restraint but with a marked heightening of the effect as one moves from west to east.  The walls are tiled throughout up to the level of the dado, and the patterns both here and on the floor become richer as one moves up the nave, reaching a climax in the sanctuary.  Structural polychromy is confined chiefly to furnishings, notably and in ascending order, the font, the pulpit and the reredos, but these are so exquisitely treated as if studded with gems. The font and pulpit are made of Caen stone, but the font (shown left) rests on a central column of red Mansfield stone surrounded by four slightly slenderer columns of Derbyshire marble, and is inlaid with discs of alabasters, marbles and spars.  The pulpit is similarly but more richly inlaid, while the exceptional reredos is a tour de force of diapered alabasters and inlaid marbles on a ground of Mansfield stone.  Other  stones  used  include  Derbyshire  spars  and Devonshire red, Galway green and Rouge Royal marbles. They form a five-bay blank arcade, above which carved angels project from the spandrels, while a canopy of leaf carving projects above that.


Pevsner - admittedly writing at a rather different time (in the 'Yorkshire: The North Riding' volume of The Buildings of England, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966, p. 400): the North Riding of Yorkshire, - could never be satisfied with churches of this date.  He dismissed Pearson’s splendidly ornate church at Appleton-le-Moors as 'heavy and demonstrative', yet here at Whitwell-on-the-Hill, where Street has handled his commission with much restraint, especially externally, and confined his ornamentation to small areas, Pevsner wrote that 'neither exterior nor interior [are] meant to be attractive or endeavouring to make it easy for us' - whatever precisely that was intended to mean.  In fact this is another excellent building by Street, albeit perhaps intended to be a rather serious one, and it is a pleasure to find it open in this attractive little village.


[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, Robin Hood's Bay, Thixendale and West Lutton 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.]