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English Church Architecture.


TORQUAY, St. John  (SX 919 637),


(Bedrock:  Middle & Upper Devonian, Torquay Limestone Formation.)


An important town church by George Edmund Street (1824-81),

heavily influenced by Street's foreign travel.



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 another of Street's town churches erected in a tightly constricted position - in this case, on a site cut out of the hillside behind and above one of the main streets facing the seafront in Torquay.  The building in consequence has no churchyard, no N. windows, and very little space between the east end of the chancel and neighbouring St. John's House, thereby delegating all the responsibility for its visual impact on the S. front and southwest tower (seen left, from the southeast, and below, up an alleyway from the south).  The tower rises in three stages and is topped by a helm roof, like those Street observed in Switzerland. on his way to Italy in 1853 and subsequently described in Brick and Marble.  Its striking appearance ensures it stands out above the close-packed houses and shops below and perhaps excuses its alien appearance in this Victorian seaside town.


St. John's was built in 1861-73 and comprises an aisled nave and chancel with a tower at the W. end of the S. aisle, that also serves as a porch. A modest amount of structural colour can be seen outside in the contrast between the golden Ham Hill dressings around the windows and doors and the grey  stone comprising the majority of the main walling, which is the very stone hacked out of the hill round the back.  Windows show Street's usual privileging of First Pointed lancet forms:  the aisle windows consist of pairs of lancets set in encompassing arches, with encircled quatrefoils in circles above;  the clerestory windows are formed of groups of four stepped lancets;  the nave W. window is five-light with outer lancet lights subarcuated above encircled sexfoils and with an octfoil in the head; and the chancel E. window is similar except that the outer lights are subarcuated over quatrefoils and the wheel in the apex is formed of eight lobes set round a circle.  It is all fairly imposing in its rather grim way but it does little to prepare the visitor for the rich display within.


This is particularly evident in the lavish use of materials.  The aisle walls and the nave walls above the arcades are faced with irregular pieces of stone in varying shades of brown and grey, given a 'crazy paving' effect by thick bands of mortar between.  (See he general interior view from the west, below left, and the view along the S. aisle, below right.)  The four-bay aisle arcades are composed of arches of three orders bearing two flat chamfers separated by a roll, springing from piers formed of clusters of eight shafts constructed of grey marble with black bands.  The positions in the N. aisle wall corresponding to the S. aisle windows, are filled with mosaics illustrating the life of St. John, commissioned by Street from the studio of Antonio Salviati of Murano, Venice (anon, Parish Church of St. John the Apostle, Torquay, undated, p. 7), to provide an exceptionally literal Italianate element to the building, even by Street's standards.  The clerestory windows are separated by black marble shafts in shaft-rings and the nave roof (seen at the foot of the page, on the left) takes the form of a wooden barrel vault divided into rectangles by bands inset with black pointed quatrefoils.



The  chancel arch is  supported on tall marble corbel shafts with figure carving on the corbels and leaves deeply cut in the capitals, while the arch itself carries a series of hollows of which the outer one is continuous down the jambs.  A two-light central window above the arch and a single light on each side (seen above left), look through into the space above the chancel vault.  The two-bay arcades between the chancel and chapels are composed of double-flat-chamfered arches with stones of alternating colours forming the outer order, and a hood-mould with dog-tooth moulding, supported on central piers composed of eight marble shafts.  (The photograph below left shows the S. chapel arcade.)  The chancel vault consists of a sexpartite bay over the choir and a quadripartite vault over the shallower sanctuary (as illustrated below right).  However, here again it is the constructional colour that is especially telling, with the golden Ham Hill stone from Somerset now contrasted with darker Caen stone from France (Parish Church of St. John the Apostle, p. 6), an example of Street's preparedness to bring building stone from anywhere in Europe if it suited his purpose, as he was happy to confess in Brick and Marble (pp. 283-284):

'It must never be forgotten by us that our forefathers had very limited means of obtaining materials from one locality and transporting them to another; and were moreover, to a great extent, unacquainted with the materials which might, if necessary, be obtained.  We have not this excuse:  we not only know what materials we may obtain, but we have at the same time marvellous facilities for their conveyance between all parts of the country, and we also know how much has been done of old in other countries by using them in the proper way.'


The chancel clerestory is formed of two pairs of windows, each composed of two lancets with a cinquefoil above.  Seating around the sanctuary walls is not confined to the three-bay sedilia with trefoil-cusped arches supported on marble columns to the south, for there is an identical arrangement to the north and thereafter, shallow blank arches of similar size return along the E. wall to butt up against the reredos.  This has a cinquefoil-cusped central section depicting Christ on the Cross, with an unbiblical group of six figures looking on, including, besides SS. Mary, John and Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Clopas, Salome and Joseph of Arimathaea.  The scene is placed between sections of decorative panelling featuring pinched quatrefoils above blank arcading.  The E. window above has three orders of marble shafts at the sides.


Furnishings in the church include the octagonal font in coloured marbles, with blank arches beneath a zigzag moulding and tiny inlaid patterns above, standing on a marble octagonal base.  (See the photograph below right.)  The pulpit is a comparatively simple affair for Street, consisting of a drum with inlaid marble patterns on the west and northwest faces only, standing on a wide stone base with marble shafts inset in the angles.  A fine and particularly elaborate iron parclose screen (seen in the photograph above left), also designed by Street, fills the arches between the chancel and S. chapel, with each of its two sections being made up of three divisions.  There is a low brass screen between the nave and chancel which suddenly steps up to form an arch over the centre and to support a brass cross.


















[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, West Lutton and Whitwell-on-the-Hill in North Yorkshire, Denstone in Staffordshire, Brightwalton and Eastbury in West Berkshire, and St. Mary Magdalene's Rowington Close and St. James's Thorndike Street in the City of Westminster.]