The Beasts of the East

The Beasts of the East were closed.

I had no camera on me, and so to visit churches for a blog that relies on the visual seemed pointless. But I had the sun with me and I had feet and I had a bag and the pocket mini A to Z. Finding myself on the same page I used to visit some east end churches before, I saw black ticks made against black crosses to denote visits that had happened. On this previous occasion, I had been traipsing eastwards aligned with, as I moved, the east end orientations that I was following on east end churches around Commercial Road and the East India Dock Road in E14. Now today, I was being guided by pp. 36-7 and then a part-repeat of pp. 34-6 as I effectively walked backwards. A few more churches to ‘black tick off’ before I could (in my ever intense OCD way) rip the pages out to throw away with the mission of church visited accomplished. So this time, out of joint, out of the east and this time heading west towards what was to become four locked, bolted and empty churches. Some of them had grand iron gates – with rusty padlocks, some had gates to a huge garden set before the church. So somehow the lack of a camera mattered not. Instead, I looked at stone-work, light jumping around on brick-work and then the signs of life, of decoration, craftsmanship on the exterior, even a person.

I was in a sort of geographical no-man’s land, with watery fingers, tucked in around the curve of the River Thames straddled populous areas and where other sorts of nestling land and water collisions cradled themselves against post-industrial neglect – the Basin of Limehouse, the creeks of Bow, the wharves and buoys, docks and piers around the pit of the Thames, and near to where routes north and south, and west and east are fast and furious, and ugly and polluted. And here where once mills would have churned, and pushed and spewed out water when London was surging out the full vigorous force of the Industrial Revolution. And all of this was happening at a place by the main artery of water for London, which did not yet know major roads, ways and highways. And the roads barely bearing up, with the weight of car and coach and all throbbing, wretched, announcing their existence alongside them with badly conceived social housing both high and low, the odd Victorian, but now utterly neglected municipal building, such as a public baths, one-stop shops, ‘Bible and Book’ churches, Baptist chapels and information centres and the procession of cars bringing in pollution and fumes and smog as they speed up, slow down, pouring forth angst, energy, music beats and heart-beat. And then we view the ‘church’ beasts from the east standing there, so sullen in their steadfast majesty that they seemed fittingly uninhabited and silent today.

Maybe when the churches were built, the architects were thinking of the water that lay so close, where the slightest tilt of stone could slip down to surf and stew in the water-pit of a London that then had no Thames barrier. And so through these gates I peered. Through these gates I peered to gaze at a building that had the stately, but unguarded poise of a castle, which could monitor those in and those out.

And these beasts of the east stand high and mighty, bulky, dominant, shapely and statuesque. All around them on the watery ways, the boats chug, while the cars groan. The river curves accordingly and willingly while north are areas of congestion still digesting their post-war creation and grim development as part of the east end’s housing growth in the areas of Poplar, Tower Hamlets, Stepney.
The first two beasts (All Saints, Poplar and St. Anne’s Limehouse) are built in an exaggeratedly large and imposing classical style, complete with columns topped by ionic capitals, bulbous semi-domes sitting within blind arches and portals, apsidal porches and ends, topped up apertures and rising structures and steeples cutting the eye with their corners, projections, turns and smooth faces. Catch the gentle glinting spring light on the buildings and you might believe you are gazing at ivory. The bulk of them though is such that ivory would be far too costly, as would have been marble. Though they stand, as if slowly passing ships on slowly moving water where the windows look like portholes. They looked like church containers, but sadly today containing nothing. Or what is contained is kept hidden. These are ferociously bold, audacious classical designs, but the stone and the buildings stand forlorn beside the troubled waters and roads of an area of the city that is dropping its way and weight down to the river and the road tunnels and highways, and near to where the DLR, on its narrow track-way has trains on it, that look ready to tumble; mapped onto an area that became a necessary outer fringe for London’s expansion. All Saints was built in 1821-3 in order to give the newly forming Poplar parish a place to worship. St. Anne was built even earlier in 1712-24, when the stones invaded the green of lush fields. The first vicar had been the rector of St. Dunstan (see below). It is the design of Hawksmoor and in the shape of a Greek cross.

I also tried to visit a large Catholic church called St. Mary and St. Joseph, which was also resolutely closed. A statue of the Virgin Mary standing safe within a wide porch is also gated. How endlessly useful and fascinating is Google Maps, for on my return, while checking the churches I had visited against their layout with streets – I found this and wondered if it had been open.

By contrast, I then visited a church I knew years ago. I wanted to see how I remembered it. This is the church of St. Dunstan and all Saints in Stepney. On the way, I walked past a small patch of ‘fenced’ grass, with some very ancient graves and grave-stones dotted around. I read that this had originally been a burial ground for the Puritans in an area where from the 17th century many dissenting religions practised.

St. Dunstan’s looks like a Kentish flint Gothic church. It is situated in a church-yard that once was country, where apple and cherry and pear trees may have flourished. And by contrast to the previous churches, it still has the genteel feel of a parish country church. And yet, the mood of the church is heavy, bearing the weight of its very ancient past with boulders of stone, rather than graceful curls, loops, and flourishes made to conceal the stone, which is what you find in classical architecture. This is the style of no messing with me, fundamental, we are what we seem sort of architecture. The rest is done inside. As for hope of an opening, the notice board gave me hope, even though the door was also firmly closed. It said that on Saturdays the church was open from 10-4pm. But it was nearly 1 pm, and I was still surrounded by silence, except for the odd bird-song. This was the fourth and final church of the day to be closed.

Four churches wielding a mysterious strength, none of which were exerting a state of preparedness for four weddings; but which were not precarious enough to set sail in the filters of my eye amidst the wateriness of east London, now, nourished by the April light. And even without the vicars at the door, a visible church office, or even the guffaws of birds and screeches of a bat in the belfry. Virtual tourism is one thing, but do open your doors and let visual tourism in – even if we all bring our cameras. For these are four churches that demonstrate the extraordinary diversity and vitality of church building in just one small area of London. Silence was soon replaced with human sound. As I walked out of the tube nearest my home, a bellow of a sound cracked the air. God and a Christ who loved me was being spoken about through a microphone, by a man standing half in the road, and who, once I had got to the bus stop started to sing.


Crystal Palace, the church of St. Constantine and St. Helen (and I guess, of the 19th century) ______________________________________________




An arrangement of exacting colours and clouds in non-exacting gatherings. Panels and boards depicting religious bodies, angels and holy ones on columns, cupboards, walls and any other surface designed to draw and still the eye. All a haphazard assembly, with no obvious hierarchy in how the images are placed. The effect is rather like a junk shop that displays china and glass on tables, and pictures on surfaces higher up where they can be attached to another support or structure, or where they can lean against a surface whether a table, a chair, a wall, or even a chair. Here, it is not clarity of organisation in display that matters, but the overall effect of conveying the authority of Christianity for all to see.
If only you knew it was there…
A little bit of eastern Orthodoxy on yet another cold day in London during yet another winter where I have lost about four gloves, leaving me the four from the other half of the pair.

A church interior full of smoothly painted surfaces, dazzling colours, reflected light, grainy marble and porphyry. I am in a Greek Orthodox Church on one side of an unobtrusive street, not endowed with a capacious and majestic driveway or precincts to announce its splendour. Indeed, it is not best positioned to announce its arrival, located as it is on a narrow street, riddled with traffic, close to a petrol station and a small block of flats over the road. In fact, it must be so easy to pass by without knowing it is there. The location is not down-town Athens. I am in the heart of Crystal Palace suburban clamour in south-east London. I had not chosen to visit a church today. I had chosen Crystal Palace as I had heard that the town centre had vintage and junk shops and I was looking for an armchair for about £10.00, or pushing it, £20.00. I found quite the opposite: artful vintage shops selling this and that from the 1950s mixed with the ultra- modern and a coffee shop briskly serving easy eggs and mugs of coffee at every turn, corner, angle and face. Crystal Palace is fast becoming like many trendy areas in London: a place to be seen with a laptop in a café, wearing yoga clothes and beards to keep out the brazen elements. And so to step into the world of Greek Orthodoxy was not what I was expecting. Today. Or even any day as I go about my irregular itinerant ways.
I am a little nervous to write about this church, or include the pictures, as a kind, but firm custodian, who was preparing for a wedding, asked me not to take photos of the icons. So those you shall not really see.
And so here I gather by a roughly- hewn, clumpy stone exterior on a cold, whistling, wind-raging day, masking another world, that is hidden within: warmly-glowing, translucent, resplendent, honey wax candle-filled and icon rich. The exterior looks like a high Victorian Gothic model and familiarly recognisable: a tall tower replete with tracery and mouldings, a pointed arch framing the doorway, surmounted by a pointed gable broken up with a gentler pointed tracery filled window. There is though no stained glass. The colour slowly awakens and then dazzles as you go inside.
And where Greek is spoken. Greek is heard. The movements of people inside are slow, serene, and monumental. Black coats are worn. An old man is selling the thinnest candles I have ever seen. The church feels reverential, hushed, and meditative, despite the over-filled colour palette, but the mood is sombre and simple and yet all so out of place in Crystal palace, heaving in traffic with its precarious one way system. But this is just what I love about London. You just never know what is there. Be brave and enter. Churches are so much more than what they used to represent.
And the panels and the boards that I describe are icons. Rather than one large image at the high altar and perhaps a few other altarpieces dotted around the church, either in small chapels or arranged in progression on the aisle walls, the icons are everywhere. Up and down, here and there, on strips of wall, on parts of wall, tucked into corners, by the back entrance, the vestry, the cleaning cupboard, jutting into richly carved corbels, hanging down too into the painted space of an icon, by door frames, decorated windows, by lights, some near the roof, the sky, and the street. There are even mini icons on window ledges and on shelves. Icons lead the way for the viewer; icons are like the ways to the cross. In other words, the whole church weighs with the image of the sacred. The aisle is not just a thoroughfare to move towards the altar. Everywhere you look is iconic, icon splendour, where the eyes of the camera need to hesitate. I took a few photos from far away. And that is why some of the shots seem a little obscure. There are exceptions – for example the place to light the candles, lodged into pools of sand and framed by two windows chequered and lozenge like by small glass panels. And then a close up shot of a rich repertory of marble in the form of a column, with a base, rounded smooth and polished by the sheer versatility of the marble’s flexibility.



And behind you see the light of the chandelier, bathing the church in light that throws specks of dust around like star dust. The pews wait patiently, for I am told a funeral is about to start. At the place where the altar is tucked away, a mandorla shape containing a Christ triumphant, arms raised to the painted Heavenly blue above, while angels, picking their way through balls of cloud stand to protect him beside.



The screen, rather like a rood screen painted with images of the medieval saints – here is a wonderful medieval example at the church of St. Helen, Ranworth, Norfolk – is a showcase of other saints, such as St. Michael, protecting and screening the altar area behind. Gold backgrounds regally reign here, the figures stationary, firm, steadfastly strong.
The church is dedicated to St. Constantine and St. Helen, a son and his mother. As far as I know, these are not common dedicatees for English parish churches. Let me start with the mother first. Helen (or Helena, c. 255-330) is a pillar of female courage and bravery, but not from the perspective of modern day feminism. She was a guiding leader, not requiring a category and when there was no need for a way in which to describe here. She mothered the boy to be Emperor, she spoke for Christianity in the Holy Land, she founded churches and she found the true cross – which is radiantly commemorated in a painting, as part of a cycle of frescoes at the church of St. Francis, in Arezzo by the Renaissance artist – Piero della Francesca – – you will see Helen on the left, slightly bent, wearing a black cape, a white headdress and a cream conical hat as she stands beside the cross she has just discovered and then on the right – kneeling in veneration of the true and only true find. This took place just outside Jerusalem and there it is prominently dispayed as if a Tuscan hill town to the left. One of my favourite figures in this image is of the man looking back towards Helen– and mirroring her in his choice of dress: a white tunic and a sharply tailored black coat with buttons, with bare legs. Except that he is wearing ‘short’ while she is bedecked in ‘long’. And his lesser status signalled by a cloth, and softly moulded cap, instead of an angular crown like hat. Helena in her solemn, silent, elegant pose seems to capture the tentative, even dangerous early stirrings of Christianity. And meanwhile her son’s turning to that is reflected in this early morning, night-dreamy state of the vision – – where he is offered the way as he sleeps. In power from 312, Christianity was finally and formally established under his watch. But is he really sleeping? Yet, is he dreaming? For he gazes out sleepily at us, to say look, look at this, behold what is happening to me, and it shall happen to you. Light or dark, sunrise, or sunset, the light is radiant, ethereal, for something has happened. Or has it? Is this anything to do with the change to Christianity, for the sleepy dream represents the soon to be victory seized from another – as he waited for the day to fight the Emperor Maxentius at a battle by the Tiber. And while he sleeps or dreams, he is given the message ‘By this sign shalt thou conquer’.
I could not really linger. I was poised, on toes, twitchy, nervous, in case the eye found me out. I was taking pictures; I was casting a modern glow on that of the mysterious, but bold Greek icon. The sensation was one of watchfulness – both by the eyes in the icons, large, all-seeing, all-knowing and then mine – checking on my custodian, checking all around for the next image of beauty I wanted to capture. I was frozen, held captive by my delight and my nerves.
There were too many distractions, too many chambers to root in, too many gaps for my curiosity to be piqued.


And with just a brief conversation, how I learnt. There is no obvious high altar. I had asked where it was. That is concealed by some wooden gates, which lead into a small vestibule which is the altar area. And in that area I just about glimpsed some more icons. And there is no obvious altar table given a permanent place before the altar. It is merely a table wheeled out upon which the Eucharist items are laid out, when the gates are opened for the ritual during service times. Compared to the Latin Catholic church, the high altar is preserved, hidden and concealed from roving nosy eyes like mine. I was also shown the relics (although I could not tell which bodily bits exactly), of a bishop that had attended the Council of Nicaea, now Turkey in AD325. This was an important mission, on a global, truly international scale convened by Constantine in a religious and civic role. It was a massive gathering of bishops and priests, deacons and acolytes, all travel expenses paid. A great assembly for and to represent Christendom in which matters such as the date of Easter (still a movable feast), and the establishment of the Nicene Creed, still said today etc were discussed.
And so, here in a church in south-east London on a windy mad-March day comes a worldwide, all embracing gathering of visual and historical unity – to celebrate the easterly forms, patterns, ways and visions of Christianity, an understanding of some of its eastern history and a coming into glorious technicolour from a dreary, drab London street.
Sometimes churches give so little away to us outside. But maybe that is how it should be. Otherwise, what else, apart from driving rain might encourage us to step inside?



Being, Body, Truth, Essence, distilled by Feibusch in one large church mural.

The exterior of All Saints is no preparation for what is there inside at the high altar.
It is Friday morning. In the Christian way, it is the day to eat fish. The red-bricked church of All Saints in Herbert Road, SE18 is open. The vicar Herbert (and yes, he is of the same name as the road) had invited me to see the mural. I am told the church used to be in another location along the road. See the proof in the the memorial stone outside which commemorates the re-dedication of the church by the Bishop of Woolwich on 18 February, 1956. Ladies in the church this Friday morning were busy: sweeping, cleaning, re-arranging, preparing chairs with service sheets. A Friday service was about to take place and would I like to join them?

I demurred.  I could, I thought, but I was here to see the mural.  And only the mural.It is large and overwhelmingly impressive in another 1950s church that is light-filled, airy, spacious, if a little stark. This is a mural of large-scale proportions and drama: the bodies all flesh, all gestures, all arms and emotion. How does an artist create spectacular vision with watery, limpid colours, as if they have been mixed with rain-water freshly mixed with a puddle as a palette? This is the power of Feibusch – look close and you wonder how with seemingly so few brush-strokes he creates awe and wonder. Sparing with paint and form, he creates atmosphere and intensity. So here was Feibusch working hard mixing paints, standing on scaffolding, using large paint brushes  and watery colours to cover large surfaces in the lean post-war years in south-east London. I wonder how many knew what he was painting, where or when or how.

The subject is the Ascension of Christ. At the centre is Christ with angels below him – both figure and figures are in pink/ochre, redolent of Sienese Renaissance art, like their terracotta pink towers and turrets. Except this is Woolwich on a dreary day in February, not a heat-filled land blessed with vines and grapes, olives and oil. What was Feibusch imagining as he painted in pink? Radiating outwards both left and right the colours become stronger and sharper. Instead of focussing our eye on the centre with the strongest colours, Feibusch does the opposite. Just like a modernist painter, he inverts all pictorial traditions.
The strong force of the Ascension precludes the angels beside Christ looking. Instead they look the other way. They should be supporting Christ, even with just a look.  But somehow they cannot.
And the angels are not the graceful, air-borne, dreamy feminine angels we might be used to. These, like the apostles that surround are fleshy, muscly, tall, facing towards us. One has his hand stretching out, the other back towards Christ, as if to push away. The other, also with his back to Christ has one bent leg revealing thigh, a raised right hand – pointing to the action, slightly lowering the head. While Christ too, is like the angels – graceful, balletic in flight with both hands gesturing down and excitable drapery. There is no radiant sunlight – but one figure looks as though he is covering his head to protect from something strong, something strange and furious. Even something angry. All is inversion with Feibush – the colours are arranged in unexpected ways, while body positions and gestures are the wrong way round. He cannot contain the energy of his figures.
I wonder if he was a mystic at heart – I wonder if he was ever drawn to the eastern religions.
He gives us body and bodily weight and substance, but his figures are also ethereal, lofty and spiritual. The light colours, an audacious way to depict an Ascension contrasting with the glistening heavy oils of an earlier Master – see Titian’s Assumption of the Virginhere in the Frari in Venice for example.
Feibusch is incapable of being doctrinal, dogmatic or dour. He is the Modernist painter of sublime religious art and form and I liken him to Stanley Spencer.
All is unity between the space, the rising Christ, the apostles and the angels. This artist defies hierarchy. The figures are all really in the space together. Christ, the angels, they are with the apostles. And the apostles are with them. Feibush plays with our perception of earth and the far distance of heaven. As this is the quintessence of equality – Heaven is just an extension of earth.
The trees are quivering and agile, framing a thick clump of green behind, as well as the apostles.The figures curve round the trees. The trees act like an arc round the figures. Nature and people inhabit the same space, remote together among the trees. Apostles’ faces are like ancient rock formations, creased or lined, jutting jaws, and high foreheads, seared and skeletal torsos. Their hands, – smooth, but pushing upwards, added to which are straining, arms and elbows tense and taut. A multitude of responses with limb, muscle, sinew and form to their Master up above.


In the crook of a tree crouches one apostle with a flock of red hair, hands as if about to pray, head bent, in a manner of disbelief or despair, it is hard to know. Feibusch gives us few clues – the apostles seem bewildered, but seem to resist at the same time. And then there is one figure sheltered by a green and yellow overhang, who also expresses dismay. But he does not shelter his skin. Standing apart, he wears merely a pair of white shorts, his flesh taut, strong, smooth, while looking up as if to ask the question.  20180202_105038

To the left, a figure, who is maybe not an Apostle, but a bystander. Holding a staff in his right arm, by contrast his left arm is placed parallel to his torso. Look closely and a slightly open mouth suggests he might be gritting his teeth.

And in a detail, you can see the marks of bold, flat, forms conjuring up elements from a Biblical garden. Apart from the ochre, earthy colours of the central scene of the Ascension, vivid greens make up a sort of Elysian wood: vibrant, green brushes making rushes against pink earth, pink, peach blossoms and ivy growing up a tree.


We are deep in a sort of folk-lore laid bare forest, redolent perhaps of the German woods of ancient myth and lore that Feibusch left behind. And gloom is not so far away. The pink he seems to love has shadows cloaking it – around the bottom of the trees and then below the apostles’ feet. Bodies react with feet as well as hands. The flesh feels ancient too. He shows us the crumpled skin of the soles of feet from one who is kneeling – just how the skin looks when it comes out of a long, hot bath.

This must be a majestic mural  to cherish and yet, as as far as I can tell so little seen.
Feibusch embodies our love of beauty in religious art without us having to be at all religious.


Welling and the church of St. Mary the Virgin

How easy it is to dismiss. How easy it is to assume blind ignorance about things so close. How easy it is to ignore, detach and pass by. Unwittingly, unenergetically, carelessly. In cultivating the popularity of art by showcasing it in public places and spaces alone, we are inviting people to abjure what is on their doorsteps. If only we could find a way to show that high quality art can also be found within a small, little visited church in an un visited part of London. I cannot take credit for deciding to visit a church so close to my home. I was led there by a chain of links that I had not welded together myself. The main contributor of the chain was an artist whose name I had recently discovered. I first heard about him at a gallery in Lewes, East Sussex. The Martyr’s Gallery there are master-minding a campaign to save a mural painting by this artist called Hans Feibush from a reckless, forlorn and forgetful future. See this link: . At a church called St. Elisabeth’s in Eastbourne, a modern Catholic church, there is a mural painting by Feibusch called the Pilgrim’s Progress. It is going to be a painted martyr unless a new home can be found. According to the campaign plea, the church will be destroyed irrespective of whether the mural is inside or not. How painfully apt it is that the image is of pilgrims, when their future fate is stuck and they cannot walk on. I came across Feibusch when I visited the Gallery before Christmas. Little did I realise that having tried to see the Pilgrim’s Progress, without any luck, that I would be gazing at another of his works at a church near my home.

Looking one day at Pevsner’s guide to West Kent and the Weald, I noted places on the map that were marked Kent. But are now very much outer London: Belvedere, East Wickham, Welling. I looked up the entry for Welling and the entry for St. Mary’s church referred to a wall painting by Feibusch. He would have been meaningless to me unless I had heard about the plight of the Pilgrim’s mural. Pevsner writes in characteristic brief fashion, when there is something only of vague interest to him: ‘Wall paintings. E, wall, Ascension by Hans Feibusch. The rest by Clare Dawson, Old and New Testament scenes arranged typologically’. He also notes that the building is all that 20th century architecture should be which I read as a generous compliment to the church. I was indeed surprised by its ascetic, clean, under-stated beauty. How it must have seemed like a fresh newly grown verdant meadow in the face of 1950s brutality, misery and austerity post-war.
Not that I found it that easy to find. I first drove to where I thought the church stood. There were horses grazing in a paddock. There was a Greek Orthodox Church opposite. There was nobody about to ask. On then finding the church and its care-taker, I noted a medium sized red brick structure, with a municipal feel about it: a small drive to it where a funeral hearse car was parked, and a garden bed scarcely planted. The funeral men were chatting quietly until a signal to briskly return inside to pick up the coffin made them move quickly. Their ‘sign of service’ imminently displayed in the funeral car – Gore Brothers, but no sons. Although it was hard to tell whether it was brothers and/or sons standing there. Age is indiscriminate when men are meanly dressed all in black. I chatted to Pam (caretaker Pam). She knew a little about Feibusch, and knew that there was a collection of his work at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and that there was another mural by him in a church in Herbert Road, Plumstead (see another post). She also said how much they liked the work by him inside. Funeral over, I stood patiently, and watched just a little as the congregation left. Those coming out talked, they lit cigarettes, they headed for what I assumed was the lavatory discretely placed behind. I waited just a bit more. There were not that many people coming out. I wondered about how lonely the lady who had died had been in her last days.

I guessed the date of the church – 1920 I said to Pam? How wrong I was. It is 1954. How easy it is to dismiss a church built in the 1950s. The architect was Thomas F. Ford. The foundation stone outside remembers the dedication service conducted by the Bishop of Woolwich.

See the photo for some figures painted as if out of plaster above the entrance doorway. They belong to a sequence of separately arranged figures from scenes of the life of Mary and Christ: the Annunciation, Mary and Elizabeth tentatively embracing – their Visitation – the younger woman in olive green, the older in lime green, Christ seated (as an adult – his Incarnation), the Presentation, Mary seated with her child, and then the Finding of Christ in the temple. The forms effectively made of voluminous drapery, the bodies amorphous with an unbaked quality as if they have just been moulded. There is a sense of the unfinished, but intentionally so about them. These were made by Augustus Lunn (1905-1986) and it seems he was using a sort of graffito technique where forms are built up of different coloured plaster.

And by and by I went inside. It is light, bright, airy, elegant, poised with a certain nod to neo-classical spaces. There are little murals in little lunettes as you go down the side aisles. These were also to be painted by Feibusch, but he was unable to, due to illness. They were instead painted by the aforementioned Clare Dawson about who little is known.

And so what of Feibusch? He was a Jewish, German refugee who came to England in the 1930s. Hans Feibusch is known today as a painter of murals in English churches. Here, an exile, who found sanctuary behind the closed doors of churches when there, in his own country, he was outed ravenously – ‘ostensibly’ for his non-Christian views. How poignant the murals seem in the light of this dark dark fact. And how poignant that he later converted to Christianity, but towards the end of his life reconverted to the Jewish faith. He was also a member of a group of artists who called themselves the London Group. Before his arrival in England, he had worked in Frankfurt and was chosen by Hitler and Goebbels as one artist to represent the degenerate art associated with Modernism in Munich in 1937. Ironically the optimistic musculature of heath that they wanted art to show is very visible in the murals he created. Even though he was probably destined for a great artistic career in Germany, he bravely decided to move to England and commanded something of a reputation, and with commissions for murals in Newport and Chichester Cathedral. For a time after his conversion in 1965, he worshipped at the Church of St. Alban the Martyr, for whom he executed a sculpture. See a post I have previously written on this church.

So when he painted the mural in this church, he was a non-believer. And this too seems extraordinary in the fact that he was an exile due to his non-Christian, non-Arian position. Here he was painting an iamge which asks for the suspension of disbelief from all of us. Here he was central stage painting Christian flesh and form at the high altar – and the subject of the Ascension of Christ. The big Christian event narrated by Luke (24: 50-51) and in Acts (1: 9-11). Christ is in the air, floating. Beside him are two seated angels and on the other side, another – hovering. Below are some of his apostles, muscly, revealing flesh, loosely draped, kneeling facing him, showing us the bottom of their feet. Feet are notoriously difficult to paint. Here is an artist who does not run away from them. We see gesticulating apostles with pushing out arms and hands. One has his hand to his nose. Are they remonstrating? Are they expressing disbelief? Was it easier for a Jewish painter to express disbelief at such an event when he himself was held in disbelief? Are they imploring, crying out, and cheering?


Feibush relies on his skill with anatomy and drapery, gestures and expressions to create a vivid piece of theatre. In their seeming incorporeality, here floating, but there steady, firm, bewilderingly bounded to the space. Yet because the colours are pale, limpid, ochre and brown, green and orange and grey, the effect is far more dramatic than if the colours had been painted in heavy oil. The Virgin Mary is there, only lightly gesturing with her left hand. She looks out nervously to us. She is the only one facing out directly. A bold gesture – it is normally the Virgin who holds back. But she is our point of contact to explain, to give hope that his ‘rise’, her son’s ascension will be our ‘rise’ too. From the crib to her arms, to the temple, to his ministry, his mother watched and waited, innocent, unsure, expectant. Perhaps here at the Ascension, she could finally reveal her confidence about her son’s dramatic move. Perhaps only a non believe could make Mary act as a subtle, but communicative channel to the congregation. Beside the upturned feet of the apostle on the right is the artist’s signature and the date of 1955 – evidently this was a commission for him soon after the church had been built. Even in the gloomiest post-war built parts of London, there was enough vital charge to paint out the gloom and tone in hope.

There are other examples of art in the church that are brightly coloured (see the 2004 image of the Virgin and Child – with a token nod to a Byzantine icon) and see the small tiled panels of the Road to Calvary – Christ is in orange, as is his cross. And the pulpit with the golden coloured plantation on its front reminded me of much Church art seen in Stockholm.


Could 1950s post-war church architecture and art be likened to our recent interest in all things Nordic and plain and simple Scandi, touched with patches of colour?
Could we make Feibush and his wonderful art in south-east London part of the Crossrail effect?


A beetle feast of black crosses on pp. 48-9 of the mini A-Z. I counted at least 23 and wondered why this small pocket in London possessed so many. With up to four marked in some squares, I thought I could swiftly ‘demolish’ each and every church in a matter of hours. An easy pilgrimage around Camberwell and Peckham. Or so I thought. No such luck. There are wide residential streets in this nether zone of south London, where tree and car collide. There are wide, throbbing, frenetic and frantic boulevards to cross –causing somewhat of a Parisian panic. And then there are the littlest and cutest of churches tucked away at the backs of housing estates, or on paths beside them or indeed hidden from my view completely. And then there was the square that was the square that was the quintessentially London square. Perfectly formed houses, unexpectedly beheld, fluid symmetry, like obedient school-children all in a row, saved on one side. If the square is lucky, clinging to two sides. But to three and four, rarely. And other than the Georgian row there might be a block of post-war housing, squat enough, sensitive enough not to tower over the ‘we got here’ first Georgian terrace. Both types of edifice are low enough to glimpse beyond the church tower that has risen from time and space and fiery energy into the grey, growing, floating cloud of the London skyline. Turreted, delicately shaped, wider and wider is the tower as you follow the eye up. Even with cars parked in front of the end of the street near the path, from which you see the church, the view is a happy find. See the picture, but which of the 23 crosses it belongs to, I do not recall. I view from afar, but I do not enter.


From the road


Scaffolding – St. Wilfrid’s


The exterior of St. Wilfrid’s

And so I go to a church likewise sitting prettily at the high-seat of another once fine Georgian residential square. This is the church of St. Wilfrid’s. Note it is spelt with and I, not an e. I before e. Except after c. But is the church named after St. Wilfrid 9#c. 633-709), bishop whose cult was focussed at Ripon or Wilfrid 2, (d. 744) who was bishop of York?
A church stung by scaffolding at the high altar. It adds to the propulsion to go forward. Like an elf that jumped out of a mossy hole, I meet a most friendly, sprightly Father. For this is a Catholic church and the Father sees me and comes over to speak to me. He says welcome, he says look at our fine church, he tells me about a friend of his who does what I do– with the help of the Blue Guide (I explained my method); he points to the workers, re-building and maintaining, nourishing and remembering. It takes a Father to propel the masses. He says that many parts of the building date back to WW2 damage. The damage was done. The damage is still to be undone. Just that one declaration was like a fist tightening around my heart. Not just the war. But thinking of the difficulty these churches have in staying with us. Time then, time now, the constant demands on structure, stone, brick, tower and pillar, all in the name of remaining. I felt for this cheery Father who seemed genuinely delighted that I came by. He cannot just hold his hands with parishioners, pray, fast and hope. He has to be a building surveyor too.



And just there, a statue of the Virgin Mary, her blue robe pushed back to reveal a camel colour under-dress. About her waist a glitzy gold belt, dazzling alongside the copper under-side of her blue garment. She is quite the siren. Her hands are splayed out downwards like her head. Unlike the Father, she greets me not. She is enraptured by her contemplation. I wish I could be as meditative and solemn as she. She stands beside a pillar with the hymn board, but there were no numbers listed today. And just now, her hands become expressive of something else – as if to say where are the hymns and chants?



And right there, the commemoration in a plaque of the war damage. Of the church, it says it opened with a blessing during the 1st WW (1915), but was wrecked with a bomb in the 2nd WW – 1940. Restored, so it says ‘happily’. A declaration of strength for the late 1940s. Christian militarism and all its might will survive. But what plight that the church has not yet been restored to full-glowing completion. And so all is revealed. War and Christian plight come together. At the high altar, lace, the gilded lily, polished gold candlesticks, wax, oozed away some time ago, painted surface, bold red border, extravagant gold wings of angels’ glorying gowns, the purple passion cloth of Bishopric status covering the tabernacle at the centre, marble, surface, tremor of decoration and a gently lit candle.


And how could I forget my habitually viewed Road to Calvary – this gem no worse than the other one, or the one at the other church, or the church before that. The way was not designed by me – that is to see one Anglo Catholic or Catholic church in quick succession. But there they are. Soldiers, mourners and weepers in woollen long-stockings, ribbed, short robed, tense and taut arm muscles, body suits showing yet more musculature, an effort in anatomical beauty, the bodies bending and supporting themselves as they carry the weight of Jesus collapsing by and under his cross. Unlike the hymn boards, these Calvary scenes are numbered. So you can marvel at Roman numerals while perambulating round looking at the polished, fine, angular facial features of these Calvary Cavaliers. Look to the end of the group and there is a horse, by contrast, compliant, still, serene. But this is not Jesus’s donkey, the ignoble creature who carried him into Jerusalem. No, he is the status symbol of the Roman centurion, who leads.



And there, nearby, a sign on a glass door saying ‘Confessional and Crying Chapel’. I have never seen a sign for a crying chapel before.



And near to that, a copper water stoop inscribed with Holy Water. Rather similar to those glass water vessels with a spout that you see in London restaurants and cafes. Water is the elixir to life – eating and drinking.


Outside the church is brick, red, blue doors, brick wall, moulding round apertures, statue of St. Wifred holding a model of this church, there he is surrounded by brick and stone. He is  soft. He has the drapery, the fold, the folded, the creased and crushed, the smooth chisel moulding him. But how can he mould when he is stuck in a niche. Will the stone crumble to release him? Will the brick crash to liberate him?
I think I stumbled upon something rather special, charming. But the London Encyclopedia gives it no entry. They probably could not find it.


Camberwell Evangelical church

And I found only one more church in the journey to find about 23 churches. This was Camberwell Evangelical church. Slits and bricks, a gutter and a roof. And a car parked outside. Christianity has no need to sell itself here. It stands, it is, it is being and long it will. The brazen and bleak architectural antidote to Catholic calls and cries. There it is too, just down the road. One of those 23.
I am particularly interested in this area for churches, as it is thought that Cam, the pre-fix for Camberwell may have come from an old Celtic word meaning crooked. And the well designating well – to heal the crooked? Or a useful source of water for them and accordingly used by invalids. See how a word becomes a name becomes a place, which arose out of the well of the crippled or crooked. And the parish church – Camberwell high street of St. Giles is dedicated to cripples and mendicants. But it was destroyed by fire in 1841, and now we see a new church designed by George Gilbert Scott. But that is a church for another day and a day when I know it is open.


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.

School plaque, Christchurch

Christchurch school

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.

Mary and child painting, Christchurch

Mary the Virgin

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.

children's bags
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, Plimlico

St. Barnabas, Plimlico

Judas, the crook looking bored

Last Supper

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.

St. Jerome on the pulpit

St. Jerome

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 with the holy stoop

Cute little carving, St. Mary

St. James

St. James, Christchurch

east end, holy trinity

Holy Trinity

More Road to Calvary

St. Mary, Road to Calvary


Christ, Calvalry

Arts and Crafts bell

Arts and Crafts bell, St. Mary

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.

St. Augustine’s Highgate (HILL)



Look for sleeping Joseph

I thought I was in Archway, but the church calls itself St. Augustine of Canterbury, Highgate, but has, too, a sub-title, which is St. Michael and all Angels. And I cannot locate either name designation in my comprehensive guide to London which appears to list all the churches that exist in every borough. But I do know that the church is indeed ‘high’ and its location is indeed ‘high up’. It is situated at the top of a hill between Highgate and Archway and runs on from Hornsey and a suburban residential area of London called Haringay, or in post-code speak, N4. The church is partly situated on a small residential street, its west end on the busy highway running south. It is near the big Archway bridge and has red buses thundering by. Sadly for the church it is not necessarily a church that one would find on an amble and not necessarily a church that one would choose to visit, given its less than Elysian location.
Yet, there is much of interest. St. Augustine’s is also a ‘high’ church in so far as we speak of the Anglican liturgy. There is Mass on a Sunday, there are little memorials to the Virgin and Child, Byzantine like icons with hanging censers behind them, tabernacles, a Lady chapel and I sense the whiff of incense might be used at suitable times and feast-day times. I was visiting the church as my last port of call during Open House, the most wonderful celebration of all the different types of buildings that are found in London, from water towers, to sewers, to tunnels, to churches, to houses, architect practices et al. As it was Open House, the church was very much open and I was greeted by a friendly gentleman, who was keen to give me a little tour, even though he said he was exhausted after, I imagined, what had been a busy day of giving tours. He had a cd of Palestrina on, which made the visit all the more apposite for a late September afternoon of church visiting.
The building is constructed of polychromed London masonry and has an imposing central tower, with short abutments and buttresses flanking the tower, but which are attached to the tower’s sides. The west end portral is made of stone and its place pronounced with a wide pointed arch and a large piece of stone above where there is a Crucifixion with a Mary and a John beside, the habitual figures at Crucifixion scenes. They are sculpted in extensively carved and grooved drapery, very much in the idiom of Gothic sculpture and redolent of statuary found on the great northern French cathedrals such as St. Denis in Paris and Chartres. Below within the arch is a statue of the Virgin and Child, angular, elegant and stylised – another example of how the Victorians built in the Gothic style in their own eyes and imaginations. If you look below the main sculptural group, you will see a sleeping figure, resting his hand in his left hand, fashioned with a long beard – white – as the stone is white and hardly appropriate for the figure, who, I believe is sleeping Joseph. Joseph the young man, but who, as we see here, is shown as an old man in Nativity scenes. He is also often shown asleep, having worked as hard as he has to bring his child Jesus into the world. See this example –, a sort of Nativity scene, but which also contains two shepherds with their backs to us, looking up to the angels on the roof of the stable and we might presume the heavens.
The interior is large and white and bright, clear and resonant and feels quasi Victorian, but in some respects does not know whether it is imitating a Belgian barn like church Gothic interior, or even something that was built in Scandinavia in the early part of the 20th century. It has a huge tunnel vault running down to the high altar, which is another reason why the church has a unique and striking quality. There are passages of colour whether on ledges for painted sculptures, or altar frontals, hanging banners, gilded crosses on altars and some stridently colourful stained glass.




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Then there are the colour filled images such as the rather beautiful Burne-Jones like Annunciation which is found at the altar in the Lady Chapel.The Virgin has the most beautiful white fringed shawl on which becomes a headdress round which is a wreath of what looks like gold thread. She looks up as Gabriel with a fiery looking red wing formation makes her greeting to announce to the Virgin. Gabriel and I use the pronoun she, for of all the angels in the angelic panoply, she is most likely to be female as the angel that presides over the Virgin birth and maternity. She has blended in with the red wings glittering long orange hair. And we catch a glimpse of similar hair colouring with the Virgin.

The architect of the church my guide told me was John Dandoe Sedding (I had heard of him, he asked me if I had). He then told me that Sedding had designed Holy Trinity, Chelsea and Holy Redeemer, Clerkenwell. But he died prematurely and so the building design was taken on by Henry Wilson. But by 1910, the building, still not yet finished required another architect and so after a competition to complete the west end (it is tradition to design the east end first), the job was given to J. Harrold Gibbon, who, my guide told him designed the west end in ‘mad Gothic’. I am not sure whether that was Gibbon’s idea of Gothic as being mad, or my guide’s. But as fronts go, it looked quite stable and sombre and without too many buttresses and niches and architectonic froth which I associate with Gothic. He explains that the front with the sculptures I have just described were made by a member of what sounded like a very artistic family – the Rope family of 5 daughters, who clearly could make their own way in the world with their talents in designing statues and stained glass.


And so I was shown two delightful stained glass panels by one sister – Margaret Edith Aldrich Rope (1891-1988), who trained at the Chelsea School of Art and LCC Central School of Arts and Crafts. She worked at the Glass House in Fulham and then lived in Putney. What is fascinating about Rope and which is visible in this church is the change in her personal style from the early twentieth century to later on, the former being abstract, the latter being abstract. In the earlier panel we see a baby Jesus lying down on a bed of straw and who is protected by two standing angels and a seraphim like angel, at the bottom of which is a rather overgrown looking lamb with the inscription in Latin ‘homo factus est’. He has his left hand touching the side of what might be a cot and his right hand with the characteristic two fingers raised as if to bless the angels whose hands are clasped in prayer. By contrast her later glass shows a baby vertical Christ in swaddling bands in a mandorla shape, with swathes or bands of colour interspersed with doves laid against the colour bands. But the doves give life and speed to the abstract background as they are shown flying – some are coloured white, blue, yellow. Here is a link to some rather wonderful pictures of this stained glass artist, who I had never heard of before. Another church unexpectedly seen and with some artworks of some genuine distinction and interest.