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English Church Architecture.


BABBACOMBE, All Saints  (SX 925 654),


(Bedrock:  Lower Devonian, Meadfoot Group.)


An important church by one of the pioneers of the Gothic Revival and the

favourite architect of the Cambridge Camden (later Ecclesiological) Society,

William Butterfield (1814-1900). 




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.



In fact, changing attitudes to Butterfield's work are highlighted by the following two quotations, written less than decades apart, both commenting on St. Mary's, Babbacombe:

'Structurally quite simple, broad in proportions, the interior with a surface treatment both fascinating and repellent.'

Nikolaus Pevsner: in the 'Devon' volume of The Buildings of England, Harmondsworth. Penguin, 1952.

'The two finest church interiors of the later 1860s are at Penarth and Babbacombe...  The rather sombre tones [at Babbacombe] suddenly flare into brilliance with the marbles of the font and pulpit, rich yellow, black, dusty pink and gleaming white...  The whole sequence is of extraordinary beauty.'

Paul Thompson:  William Butterfield, 1971, compiled from pp. 328 & 243.


The subject of these conflicting opinions (seen through heavy rain, left, from the southeast)  consists of a chancel with a S. chapel and N. organ chamber, an aisled nave with a S. porch, and an unsettling W. tower and spire 'of uncertain pinnacles, parapet and lucarnes' (William Butterfield, p. 279).  The walls are constructed of grey Devonian limestone, banded and dressed with golden Ham Hill stone from Somerset, and the roofs are covered with local grey slates, banded in two tones on the pyramidal porch roof.  Windows are formed of cusped lights beneath geometric tracery, of which the best example is the five-light E. window to the chancel (illustrated below right), with its four outer lights subarcuated in pairs above encircled cinquefoils and a large encircled balanced on the central light.  The chancel E. wall above the springing line of this window, is adorned with an opulent display of incised quatrefoils in squares, set alternately  upright and diagonally, and similarly decorated areas of masonry can also be found on the sides and front of the porch, above the springing line of the outer doorway, and in two bands encircling the tower, the higher of which runs round above the springing level of the bell-openings.


Inside the church, the nave arcades consist of one narrow bay towards the west, formed of a double-flat-chamfered arch dying into the jambs, followed by short wall pieces and then four further bays with double-flat-chamfered arches supported on circular piers of polished marble in three colours.  (See the view along the S. aisle, below left, viewed from the east.)  The aisle and the nave walls above the arcades are constructed of a soft pink sandstone alternating with dark stone bands, together countermanded on the nave walls by narrow, diagonal stone ribs, and by the curved lines of irregular blank septfoils in the spandrels, where each pattern seems deliberately and methodically set at odds against the others.  (The wall above the N. arcade is shown below right.)  The very small clerestory windows composed of quatrefoils in splayed openings beneath segmental arches, were inserted later.



The chancel arch carries a roll moulding with a fillet on the outer order and a flat chamfer on the inner order.  A low wall with quatrefoil piercings separates the nave and chancel, and the chancel is separated from the S. chapel and N. organ chamber by a single large arch on either side, each divided into two cinquefoil-cusped subsidiary arches by a red marble shaft.  The chancel is vaulted in four narrow bays,  with the two over the choir taking quadripartite form and the two over the sanctuary, sexpartite form.  A pair of narrow marble shafts set against the N. and S. walls, divides the choir from the sanctuary at wall level.  The sanctuary floor is tiled with the usual elaborate patterns (as seen below left).  The sanctuary walls are striped in red mottled marbles of varying shades and intensities, and above, approximately 9' (3 m.) from the floor, two cusped vesicas to the north contain portraits of SS. Paul and Mark, while the equivalent positions to the south are occupied by windows.  The spandrels on both sides are filled with decorative roundels and there are vertical arrays of roundels at either end of the E. wall  (of which that to the right is illustrated below right).



Furnishings make a large contribution to the interest of the building.  The font (below left) is executed in brown and black marbles and features a double row of open arcades beneath the bowl, placed counter to one another to give the appearance - as it were - of a font inside a font, akin to a 1970s-style nest of coffee tables.  The very elaborate pulpit is supported on circular columns and constructed in white, brown, pink, grey-green and black Devonshire marble to form a highly elaborate composition described by Thompson as a 'pierced play of planes' (William Butterfield, p. 284) and best understood by reference to a photograph (below right).  Notice the cinquefoil-cusped arcading around the base, the little trefoil-cusped open arcade round the centre, and the open cinquefoil-cusped arch heads supporting the top rail.


Paul Thompson, discussing Babbacombe church and the admiration the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) had for it, recalls Hopkins's poem of praise to God entitled Pied Beauty, written shortly after Hopkins had visited the church.   Whether he had the building in mind. of course, is impossible to tell, but the second stanza is certainly appropriate:


'All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how)?
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.'
[Other churches by Butterfield featured on this web-site are Hitchin Holy Saviour in Hertfordshire, Etal in Northumberland, Baldersby St. James, Dalton, Sessay and Wykeham in North Yorkshire and All Saints Margaret Street in the City of Westminster. ]