More black crosses to seek out on pages 145 and 146 of my little A to Z. I expected the churches to be good. These pages mark out Chelsea and Pimlico taking in Sloane Square to boot. Chelsea then and Chelsea now encompass water, road, wharf, house, little streets and relatively modest parish churches. It was once a village on the outskirts of London. It now has the feel of total exclusivity. Like an outdoor gentleman’s club. A church’s decoration could not let down the high standard of the surrounding residential buildings, so it is hardly surprising that I found some delightful parish churches, still with a village feel about them. And I was looking too for various houses that Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti had lived in. There is Cheyne Walk with large, grand, formidable houses, while behind a thread of little streets with little Georgian and early Victorian houses in neat rows, with what looks like a pub for each. And then there is Thomas and Jane Carlyle’s house in Cheyne Row, he of sturdy scholarly status, the author of volumes, rather than books and she, the indomitable letter writer conjuring wit and satire and pith with all that she wrote.
Christchurch, Chelsea– Another Victorian church combining the models of concocted, concerted style making – Byzantium and Gothic with a hotchpotch of mouldings, shapes, turrets, window formations, angles and gables.
The interior is sharp cut, bleached, white and light and airy. A balcony gallery, empty, and silent. All around a sense of symmetry and a view of slightly pointed arches. At the altar a screen like a medieval design of the saints in their own separate niches. See here St. James, with his walking staff and narrow lipped vessel of liquid to help him on his journey. Is it Holy or secular? It is hard to know, but is carved with two lattice shapes to make a cross – like pastry lattice shapes. He is staring dreamily out to the congregation. He seems to be saying, come with me or not. I am the wanderer. I will go whether you wander with me or not. And his excitable drapery cascades to the ground, showing his sandals, the walking sandals of the long, travelling, suffering saint. Knobbly toes, dirt engrained toe nails. Not only does he have the Halo for his sanctity, but also a hat with his badge – the scallop shell, which is still used by pilgrims on their way to see his shrine at Santiago da Compostela.
A painting of Mary, also with heavy drapery – by a painter called Norah Grace Macnair – who died aged 63 in 1958. The painting is also a memorial to her and her art. Mary sits surrounded by her complex, heavily folded robes, all sky blue and green headdress set against a mountainous backdrop. Christ as baby is harder to see in white cloths. With devotional images or statues of the Virgin and Child, an habitual way of foretelling the future image of the Pieta, an image where Christ as an adult is slumped across his mother’s body after he has died and has been removed the rest of the grieving group. Mary’s finger tips are touching – assuming that grace even with her fingers that we associate with Mary. It is rare to see her with aggressive gestures or poses. And the rocks of the background become the foreground too as Christ is laid out on a big boulder. The artist is not afraid to try and capture Palestine.
I love the children’s pew bags hanging from the shelf– see the picture.
Note the lovely stonework around the edge of the school on door and window that belongs to the church. It says on the plaque – Christchurch infant school, erected 1850. The church was consecrated in 1839. There were many artisan or workers’ cottages in this area and the church is thought to have served the working class residents. I understand that this is an example of a so-called Church school. The tradition continues. I see the school children walking along the road to the playground nearby. They are diligently suffering the line.
Then there is Chelsea Old church – probably the most famous church in this area. But to my dismay it is not open. And will I return? But a surprising thing was to see beforehand a plaque to Thomas More on the wall of what was his house where he was lead to his trial and imprisonment. Round the corner, a beautiful looking red brick house – no idea what it is, but it could have been another family More house. Part of it looks like it was once part of a church. Does anyone know?
I walked a bit further towards Pimlico – having seen two more black crosses not far from where I was. What a riot of colour like illuminated manuscripts, gold, iridescent light, honeyed warm walls, a feast of materials and inimitable glorious warmth hit me as I entered the two churches. One St. Mary, Bourne Street, the other St. Barnabas Church, Pimlico. They are also both good examples of church architecture and design inspired by the Gothic Movement revival, sometimes known as High Victorian Gothic, or churches associated with the Oxford Movement.
St. Barnabas (meaning son of Encouragement) was consecrated on 1850 and according to the church leaflet was met with some controversy as bringing Popery to Pimlico. It has a gentle demeanour and was designed by Thomas Cundy from c. 1847. In particular, the mosaics caused a storm, according to the vicar who was seated at a table at the entrance beside a table laid for tea (as that is the sort of activity churches are engaging in these days). It is thought that they were done by a family of Italian mosaic artists living in London in the 19th century. Of particular note, is the mosaic of the Last Supper. We see Judas on the other side of Christ who is standing up and blessing with his right hand, hovering over a gold plate and goblet. His left hand holds a rather large wafer that looks like a rice cake. Judas is seated, but looking in the direction of the viewer, his head leaning on his hand, his left hand greedily clasping the money bag. Look closer and you will see a sinister expression, detectable despite the full red beard and hair. But the look is one of boredom as well – as if to say to Christ, ‘just get on with the blessing. You know who I am.‘ In this version by a Florentine Renaissance artist called Andrea del Castagno – Castagno, Last Supper painted for a closed order of nuns in their church called St. Apollonia, we see Judas in profile, his hands hovering close to Christ’s to echo the words when he says that the one who is going to betray him is the one whose hand is on the same table as his (Luke 22: 7-38). Sometimes painters of the Last Supper make Judas the culprit very obvious as we see here. The sinner is singled out and is made to look not one of ‘them’. In the St. Barnabas mosaic, Christ sits apart, in the foreground, but his hand is firmly clutched to his body, while the other apostles seem to be responding to Christ’s first enactment of the Eucharist. Moreover, in many Last Suppers, it is also obvious who St. Peter is, as the oldest follower of Christ, he is often seen beside him and sometimes wielding a knife as if to protect his Master over the scheming Judas plan. Here for example in this detail of a Last Supper in the convent of San Marco by Domenico Ghirlandaio – Ghirlandaio, Last Supperwhere Peter is holding a knife and looking towards Christ as if to say, ‘but who, but why?’ In the mosaic at St. Barnabas, Peter is likely to be the figure to Christ’s left and as Jesus blesses, Peter holds his hand to his heart. He is looking up to his master in a searching, perplexed way. The upper room is set against a classically inspired colonnade of arches which frame a gold background interlaced with bushes. The mosaic is inscribed in memory of Elizabeth Biddulph and dated to 1882. I show here another mosaic from this church, a sumptuous Adoration of the Magi, where Christ is standing up, held by his mother, who waits patiently for each king to come and pay his respects. Adorned in heavy rich long drapes, accessories of jewel and chain, buckle and belt, they feign reverence. When I was chatting to the vicar, who as I have said, was waiting for afternoon tea (cups and saucers and plates were laid out on a table to his right), he told me that he had heard that so ‘Catholic’ were the mosaics considered that there were protests on the streets.
A good example of the decorative adornment of art in this church is is seen with an image painted into a niche at the bottom of the pulpit. Here is an image of St. Jerome, wearing his characteristic red, broad brimmed hat, reading the Vulgate Bible, the translation into Latin from the Greek. It is more common to depict him with one or other of his attributes (one as the cardinal in the hat, the scholar, the image of him in his study); the other as the man beating his breast in the desert accompanied by a lion, who Jerome had protected by removing a thorn from his paw. Here though we see the rock he beat his breast with and the lion seated at his foot. The many attributes of St. Jerome are formed into a whole. And behind him a curling leaf form of flowers, petals painted in gold leaf, which matches the gold halo set against his hat. His eyes are closed to reflect his spiritual entrapment or should I say enchantment? See too in another image, a painted relief statue of an angel with a banderol and gold painted wings. The church is full of such decoration illustrating the mid-to-late Victorian search to recapture what was seen as the glory of the medieval church in its art and liturgy. See the image through an aperture framed by painted decoration at the bottom on a sill, where through this we can see typical Gothic tracery which the Victorians saw as a medieval motif to be replicated.
And at the altar a vivid, rich in gold altar frontal of the deposition of Christ, with a graceful, young, pale skinned Mary who delicately touches his skin, while Mary Magdalen is opening her attribute of the jar, holding the oil with which she anointed Christ’s feet. Christ’s lean body is slumped, showing a muscular torso, creased by the position of his sunken tummy. The colours of the frontal: red, gold, pinky, orange contrast with the bluer, sea skimmed colours of the stained glass in the window above. All the while the church is dimly lit, which brings a further, warm, almost sultry glow to the interior. All the corners, and niches, arches and windows of the Church abound in art – see the little roundel with the Crucifixion where two angels leap into the sky to get closer to Christ on the cross.
Another unusual piece of iconography is seen in the figure of St. Martin and the beggar in a stained glass window in a little vestibule on the way down to the crypt. It is commonplace to see St. Martin on a horse, while the beggar stands beside him waiting for him to cut off his cloak to give to the beggar. Here though St. Martin stands, looks down to the beggar, who eagerly awaits and hopes for the cloak that Martin holds in his left hand. You can see that he is about to cut it with his sword. The beggar, youthful, straw coloured hair, and with what looks like a blood stained mouth looks up while gesturing with both his hands, a gesture of hope and thanks. Here is a fresco by Simone Martini, dated to c. 1320 where we see St. Martin on his horse, looking back at the beggar Here the beggar clutches the robe, while looking at St. Martin beseechingly. No doubt this was an artistic effect to emphasise the dramatic tension between the two figures.
This is St. Martin, or St. Martin of Tours (c. 316-97) St. Martin and the Beggar who became bishop of Tours having had a Christian conversion from his worldly life as a soldier. He was imprisoned for refusing to fight and as a subsequent holy man became known for his acts of generosity and his miracles.
The church’s Lady chapel, was built by the Oxford movement architect Ninan Comper whose work I have mentioned before. In particular he designed the east Lancet window of the Virgin and child with angels. The leaflet also says that St. Barnabas was the first church where the Anglo-Catholic movement was embodied in the architecture and liturgy.
From the street the buildings of the church extend into arches and walls and outer porches making it look collegiate in feel and structure. The stone is grey, even cold looking, but look closer and the stones are not just grey, but white, brown, tawny, speckled. Conversely, most of the churches in the King’s Road area are characterised by red brick.
St. Mary, Bourne Street is altogether a more masculine, rugged church. Containing more brick, less gold, it embodies a bigger structure, it has less delicacy. Perhaps it is more Arts and Crafts, and less Victorian Gothic. Notable though is a painted screen behind two pilasters of another Deposition, where we see only Mary holding up her son. To the right an angel seems to be facing in another direction, whereby his body is twisted to his left, shying away from what is unfolding before him. In contrast an angel to the left kneels to witness the event.
But there against the brick on a wall, easily missed, a thin, wiry structure cascading down intertwining petal and flower forms, curves, volutes and curls, at the top of what looks like a cross. Hidden within is a bell. One solitary bell to which is attached a long metal rope. This is the church’s Arts and Crafts bell, lovingly carved out of metal. It could have been wrenched out of a fiery furnace, and made crisp from real leaves thrown into the fire, which then become covered in the metal to make forms from Nature for posterity. It reminds me of many Pre-Raphaelite pictures such as Mariana by John Everett Millais, where outside in plays with our eyes. Have the leaves on her embroidery just been blown in?
And there in a part of the church known as the apse – a Visitation, the narrative scene recorded inLuke (1: 36-56) when John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth comes to greet Mary when they have both heard about their respective conceptions. In one of the most sensational pictures I know of the subject by Pontormo in an ordinary church in Carmignano, Italy, we see the two women embracing. But in this version and I think quite unusually, Elizabeth is kneeling while paying her respects to Mary who stands above her. Just as John the Baptist moves over and allows Christ to stand and become the true religious leader when they become adults. This is a touching moment and here Mary looks directly into Elizabeth whose is face is partly covered by her head shawl and at the back a halo.
Have a hawk’s eye view of these churches and their interiors. Or crawl along the surfaces like an ant close reading, close crawling, and close looking.
Rather like the church of St. John the Divine in Kennington, there are more stunning painted carved reliefs of the road to Calvary dotted around the walls of this church. In the Deposition scene, Mary is not holding up Christ, but the young John the Evangelist is. In the foreground we recognise Mary Magdalene by her shock of red long hair, blending in with the orange of her upper garment and her green over-gown. About her is a vessel looking rather like a thermos and she also holds a tray on which she is about to place her jar. These are calculated to impress: they have clear strong gestures, clear facial expressions and the vivid colour of robes highlights the gold background. In another scene, we see Christ flattened out on the cross as two men bind his arms with twine. One is a Roman soldier. He looks out at one, his forehead leaking with blood. It is hard to tell if he is dead or alive – but as the Roman soldiers are beside him; this must be the moment before the cross is erected. Another figure to the left holds a nail, similar to how a cigarette is held staring at Christ, watchful for Christ to wince with the pain of a nail slitting his pale, white, glossy flesh.
And then a delightful water stoop with above a tiny relief of the Madonna and Child –two angels hands cupped to place a crown over the Virgin – their hair blown back while a wind gusts. The Virgin is intent on looking at Christ who holds up his arm to hers. Garment folds and striations elegant, eloquent, and full of expression and tenderness.
The interior is built more in the model of a Romanesque interior – in addition to early English modelled Gothic arches and round headed arches as well as pointed windows above. A colonnade of simple stone breaking into brick mouldings, pictures in the spandrels of the arches. What we witness is a sturdy form of Victorian medievalising to love and admire, or denounce and decry. Released from the overpowering fear of sin in the Middle Ages, these churches were built and adorned when they were remote from floods, pestilence, plague and want. Instead, when they were lovingly built and adorned, they were a succour to art and the craft of art making.
Some windows with little coloured border panes, glimpses through to outside. Letting the light stream in, enclosing, embracing, a real little jewelled world. What is particularly distinctive about St. Mary is the entrance. Walk through the gate, you see the church ahead of you, but the path leading to it consists of planters with small olive trees in them which would not go amiss down the road at the Chelsea Physic Garden.
Walking north from Sloane Square along Sloane Street, I find majesty. I go to the Church of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, built from 1888 by John Dando Sedding. Sedding, like Ruskin, like William Morris was an apostle of the Arts and Crafts movement – loving the pure, authentic, rough shapes of Nature which they felt could be brought inside into buildings such as churches. On the whole men born into wealth who saw industrialism encroaching and wanted to remind themselves of the light, the shade, the form, the texture, the scroll, the foliage, the petal, rush and reed, the scope and air of the natural forms that so many were leaving behind as they trod towards London, Manchester and Birmingham to find work. In finding work, they could then come back home in the churches where painted and iron-work, metal-work Nature could be found. As John Betjeman says in his leaflet about the church, in the advance of industry, craftsmen lost work. Re-populating churches with Catholic art could bring about more craft work.
You will not miss it, but if you think you might, look out for the bikes waiting for your ride thanks to Santander. Or look for some graceful lettering– this corner stone of ye church of the holy trinity erected by George 5th Earl Cadogan as laid by Beatrix Countess Cadogan on Ascension day May 30, 1889. And a little inscription below saying J.D. Sedding, Arch. – he gets an abbreviated mention of his profession. But it was the Cadogan family, clearly of immense wealth who could afford such lavish decoration.
Although it receives many plaudits from John Betjeman in his guide, the volume and rather bulky width lacks the graceful gentility of the two other churches. I see that the north side, to my left, is wider than the south. And the nave is made to house a ship or two. It is more fat noisy abbot than nubile novice nun. A church that calls out for a deafening organ rather than the rows of tables decked with Christmas cards. It is cavernous inside, the stained glass is hard to penetrate and there are too many darkened spaces. The light does not have that magical hue of the other two. However, I was pleased to see the church as my gentle guide at St. Augustine’s Archway had told me that the church was Sedding’s great architectural glory and see the picture here for a charming memorial to his work here. Two kneeling angels are bent over the central section consisting of his portrait in profile in characteristic Victorian beard and a beautiful inscription in artful lettering. The monument was made by the Art workers guild. It seems to be a playful take on angels not protecting and supporting holy figures, but the maker and creator of this audaciously decorated church.
Note the screen silver plated and inscribed – like something from San Marco in Venice. Is this taken from somewhere else to become the entrance way to an inner door which is private? Is this the entrance to the sacristy or the priest’s inner chamber? The guides tell you little about what is behind closed doors in churches. In Italy, it habitually means the route to yet more art. Marvel at the great big Sedding gate made out of iron, but dazzling with flowers and leaves. It could have originated from the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. Sedding, as a true Arts and Crafts man was much more than an architect. He designed plate, candlesticks, lettering, fonts, hangings, crosses and recalls many a Renaissance artist who did far more than just frescoes and panel paintings. Glance distantly at Burne Jones’ stained glass window at the east- consisting of Patriarchs, Kings, prophets.
See the beautiful embroidery made by Sedding’s wife –lovingly threaded thistles with a deer whose antlers are as sharp and thorny as the thistles curling up above him. These are gold filigree like radiant thistles and antlers – in some ways as ugly and incommodious as the other, but eloquently graceful in this arrangement of Nature. A feature of the art of the 19th century, in the dictum of Ruskin – go to nature, selecting, picking out, plucking, rejecting nothing, scorning nothing, making all anew in art. The deer heads left, staring to the left, and his right leg is in motion, with thread and stitch, weaving a slightly bulbous tummy.
The church contains many a plaque to peruse. In particular there is just one that caught my attention. ‘In loving memory of Beatrice Adelaide Carver (1993-1975), who worshipped in this church for many years Wife of Alfred Edward Arthur Carver and mother of Basil Arthur and Clive.’ Naturally I googled her, but without any luck – Beatrice who had a life, sadness, sorrow, loneliness, laughter, children and love. But what remains is some lettering to her name.
The pulpit a confection of plain marble and variegated marble, porphyry panels, high, majestic and oh so Italianate. Equally the Lady Chapel is a repository for rich and varied materials – more marble, more porphyry, more smooth and polished gleam. Less enclosed than some I know, open, a sort of lofty space compared to the rest of the church. A man praying keeps on looking up and watches me. It makes me nervous, exposed. Should I be praying? Or is he a beggar looking to seize my cloak?
My church going was a quiet going today. Instead, I saw some magnificent art. What was good was that the churches (apart from one) were open. And generally, they are open for liturgy, charity, (greetings) cards and coffee. What about a large, glowing fire with fire dogs and a dog sitting them grumbling and dreaming as we wander in. By and by.