KING’S ROAD, CHELSEA AND PIMLICO

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.Mary and child painting, Christchurch

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

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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.

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St. Augustine’s Highgate (HILL)

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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 – https://uploads0.wikiart.org/images/giotto/nativity-birth-of-jesus.jp, 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.

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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.

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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. http://www.arthur.rope.clara.net/torbio.htm. 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.

WALTHAMSTOW, ST. MARY’S CHURCH (village)

The ground was uneven. The wall was wobbly. The churchyard of St. Mary’s Walthamstow village.

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The pavement was uneven and wonky and the trees were old, their roots rising up. There was a profusely green and wild feel to the place. To the right, I glimpsed the graveyard shadowed and enclosed by more deciduous than evergreen trees. The air was dark and silent; a sort of liquid layer of moisture, all wet and rainy. And all around was a sense of something forgotten and forlorn – from the houses bordering the perimeter of the church and its grounds, to the walkways, the bricks and the stones. Indeed the graveyard is an eloquent elegy to extinction. The gravestones are so old that if there had once been inscriptions, they were not visible now. In a once relatively prosperous area, behold the graves of the profundly unknown. The stones were renouncing their role as identification structures.  But what size and bulk about these tombs, their weight and mass of stone affordable only by the historic elite of a village that is now part of greater London. Walthamstow was surrounded by forest and country until the 19th century and would have been a country parish, part of the county of Essex. Along with tombs, there were slabs that once marked the spot of a person who had once, too, roamed near this church. But so old were these slabs, that some of them had also been pushed out of the earth and were tilting upwards, ranked up precariously abutting the space above and the chill of the air here dedicated to remembrance. The stones were devoid of recognition, the cold grey stone a chilling reminder of somebody that once lived. The graveyard is on two sides of a path and bordered by a black iron fence – reminding me of a painting called Home from Sea by a Pre-Raphaelite painter called Arthur Hughes.  The path feels like an intersection between the worldly and the heavenly, as people use it as a walking cut-through from north to south and vice versa, whereas west and east are inhabited by the stones covering the dead. And while the walker walks on oblivious, we too are slowly sinking as we walk there –  along with the slabs and tombs. Without realising it, we are recognising our anonymity and the stones with now blank faces are unavoidably marking the way to our probable forgotten destiny.

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I meet the gardener. I sensed him before I met him, as walking round the graveyard, I saw a shirt hanging off a lawn mower. The grass was long and growing around the stones, along with ivy and other crawling plants. Indeed the ivy was also growing, low, clumped around the stones on the ground. A graveyard of creeping forms that knows no discretion. The gardener had a lot of grass to mow and said that it was quite an upward struggle. But so wild was the church land here, that I thought he had quite a nice job. I was tempted to suggest he shouldn’t bother and let the wildness flourish. The church was closed. I had hoped to visit, as this was the church where William Morris had been baptised. I had just been to visit the William Morris Gallery which had been his house for a few years when he was a teenager. He used to spend a lot of time in the woods at Epping Forest learning all about wood and the crafts of wood as well as studying the birds and trees and plant forms that are central to so much of his decorative work. The churchyard itself is a study in making art out of a churchyard. Insouciant careless natural flora and fauna and natural forms and dishevelment but which makes the place altogether more alluring.

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And then it started to rain. I began walking south down the church path heading in the direction of Vestry House Museum, a beautiful old building that used to be a workhouse, but which is now a museum dedicated to local history. I found myself, as I went, walking behind a young teenage boy. Instead of me looking behind nervously fearful that somebody was following me, he turned round, at once, I presume, reassured that I was not an axe murderer and carried on. But then he did it again. I was surprised that a young man was aware of the gait of somebody behind him at c. 11am in the morning. Yet, he was not walking along with his phone – clearly just his thoughts.
Note too the rather charming path flanked by alms-houses, called the Monoux alms-houses. That is in tribute to George Monoux, a local resident, and once Mayor of London who contributed to the re-building of the church in the 16th century.

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I also noted that one of the alleys and paths that leads to the church is called Vinegar Alley. So named because vinegar was used as some sort of desperate measure against the plague and I read that the church had two plague pits here – one from the Black Death and one from the Great Plague of 1665.

THE OVAL AND THE CHURCH OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE

THE OVAL AND A ‘DIVINE’ CHURCH

 

St. John the Divine

CHURCH TOWER

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view from church

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entrance portal

 

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one apse

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view of the church

SOUTH OF THE CHURCH

The church of St. John the Divine, Vassall Road, SW9, architect G.E. Street (1871-4)
So ‘divine’, but so little knowledge about this Victorian gem church. Why isn’t it better known?
BBC’s Radio 4, encyclopedic for stimulation, information, vision and imagination alerted me to the church of ‘St. John the Divine in south-west London’, with a brief reference to the art in the church. I guessed it was Kennington from online searches. I was impelled to visit  sooner than I might have done, upon hearing the view of some listeners on  Farming Today, that country parish churches should just be knocked down so that homes can be built .A rash, quickly made decision to get up and go while listening to the radio at the same time as reading Persuasion, where longed for moneyed marriages are made in reception rooms of country estates rather than ancient country churches. There was no comment in response to this view on what one does with all the grave-stones were the country churches to go. Do one parish church and its graveyard take up so much room? And so there I was unexpectedly at church in London one Saturday morning. Mass had just finished (this is a high Anglican church) and people were busy sweeping, rinsing flowers, clearing out the wax from the candle holders, while their bags and rucksacks waited on chairs for their jobs to end .The congregants who had also been on the chairs had gone.

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altar image and mandorla

Part of the high altar painting is in the shape of an oval or more commonly in art history parlance an almond (a mandorla). The church is close to the Oval cricket ground, clearly marked on my now customary little A to Z which takes me to these churches so off the beaten tourist track. But if St. John the Divine was on a known track, it might make more people watch cricket. Or better than that, visit a church they had never heard of. A visit to one thing often lends itself to a visit to another. But human-kind or should I say human-herds need cues; tips, recommendations; we need to be led by the hand and foot. What is seen in London by visitors is what is written about, or heard about (thank you Radio 4). But one day just lead yourself: take two streets down, one to the right, one to the left; a diagonal over there, a turnabout over here, a corner yonder and there is always something to look at. And you will have found something for yourself. You might even find somebody there with whom you have a charming chat. Well that is what happened to me on my outing to St. John and the church divine.
The announcement on Farming Today stopped me reading Persuasion. You might think this would take some persuasion. But wait  oh novel. Visual stimulus first. Please. Early Saturday morning in London has a silence about it that is precious just because we know that precious time is not yet the fraught time of later. Its silence is not long-lasting. And as I walked down the road towards the church, I was accompanied by the mellifluous church bells of, well, none other, I had to conclude than that of St. John the Divine. I entered to the right of the main door, just as one does in Italian churches, usually signed with a large arrow, so you enter in without banging on or into the wrong door. The church before me is large, long, lofty and elegant. I look down towards the altar and a Gothic vaulted apse. This is Victorian resemblance in style to Byzantine and then their idea of later medieval church designs.  All making a delightful hotch-potch of inaccurate stylising. It is fetching and convincing. But somehow the decoration of strong and vivid colour and bold figure types in paint and stone give its period aesthetic away.
And there was the altar, the altar painting behind and some quasi-like wall paintings partly attached to the altar painting. Here is the partly enclosed, sacred space of any church where if they are going to happen at all, is the locus for visions, voices, virginal beings and the apparition of angels and celestial wings. That is, unless, beings appear before you, when you least expect them. I was in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy recently, sitting on a chair, quietly, sedately, reading. I was by the ruins of an old abbey in a hotel, where the crypt of the church had been made into a spa with saunas, pools and massage rooms. Above were the remains of the church and an apse with faded frescoes of St. Ursula and her virgins, old fragments of corbels, guttering, capitals, assorted pieces of stones and architectural broken off shapes and so on. Few people looked round this part of the hotel, but on this occasion, suddenly before me was a man completely naked with a towel draped over his shoulder walking around the apse with a woman, who was instead in a towelling robe. I was not having a vision. And now, as I stood before the high altar at St. John and watched a man hoovering and then by the altar, a woman dusting the altarpiece, I did not see any nakedness. Or even artful nudity. But I may have been responsible for the woman dusting having a vision. By standing there, I frightened this poor lady dusting who had her back to me. She turned round and as she recovered from my presence said that normally she had a good sense of who was around her. We started talking, mainly about the beauty of the church. The church that I would describe as Victorian Gothic, although that is not a term that is or indeed should be obvious to all. After all, churches are not just about cult style or design. And yet, I was talking about a church that it seems even the congregants do not think is that special. She spoke movingly about why she liked church spaces, but also other buildings. She said, ‘you see, I am not like Prince Charles. I like modern buildings’. She added that we all need a sanctuary and upon saying this tears welled up in her eyes. She apologised and said that she was such a soppy person and I told her in response that she was lovely. She then said ‘While we may not agree with the present government, what about the houses of parliament… and all of them that would like to see it knocked down, it would be terrible. How we need these buildings’… and in putting her fingers to her lips blew a kiss to it, once, twice, maybe a third time. How I would have liked her to be a ‘speaking’ visionary for those who do not believe that a parish church has a place in the heart of the countryside. This woman was eloquent, but gentle, firm in her views, but respectful of difference and confirmed for me that in going off the beaten track in a city that you think you know, you see that you don’t. And then, in places where there are fewer people, you start talking.

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the rose garden

But what of the art? The art is, to use a cliché, truly divine. From the solidly comforting Victorian red brick with the finely pointed apertures on the tower, the brick contrasting with the stone dressings and articulations, to the shape of a small bee-hive feel apse from the south, to the rose garden courtyard to the left of the north entrance. Added to which, the building is positioned in a road of mixed housing, which in many ways is far more appealing than if the housing was perfectly formed and uniform.
The chief feature of attraction in the church is the colourful, high-relief Road to Calvary sculptures (made, the church website says by mother Maribel), exhibiting some expressive faces of grief and anguish as they witness Christ heaving the cross up to Golgotha. But the power of these scenes is conversely the fact that the faces do not feature as largely as the body types: hung, bent, huddled, stretched, convoluted and twisted. The expression is in the body, not the face. And the cross here is an expression of power. It is set at an angle or semi elevated from a horizontal position in the 12 different scenes. It looks as though it is pushing out into our space. And the heavy mood is brought out by the way in which Christ is shown assaulted and exhausted by having to carry it. The series makes a point of showing the suffering with just that carrying, heaving, and struggling. There are, for example three panels devoted to ‘Christ falling down’, as he carries. He carries and falls, falls and then carries. Falling down, once, twice, thrice. We imagine it might happen again and again. In the scene for the third time, we see a soldier bent over with his arms around Christ to pull him up again. Heads are covered, hands touch the heads in suffering, even Christ’s head is hidden, his body heaving, straining, pushing. We also see Roman soldiers with bright turquoise blue leggings on nailing him to the cross, with the nails, the tools of the Crucifixion, the repetition in all the scenes if I recall of his crown of thorns. And the overbearing mood continues as we see three of them trying to push the cross up, elevated as they are on a stone, while a soldier on the right is shown nailing him down. This contrasts with the way in which the sculptor conveys the raw grief of the females in the scenes –cast as the mourners whose bodies are bent, faces indeterminable by the headdresses and with their backs to us. Yet the images do not feel staged, so they are not acting foolishly. Finally, in the actual Crucifixion scene, there is a sort of calm as Christ is, oddly, after the previous scenes, vertical, while two soldiers, with self-satisfied faces on the left look up; their body language insouciant and triumphant, leg positions jaunty and relaxed – the job, after all, has been executed with success. The nails can now be put away. Colourful high-Victorian art may not be to everybody’s taste, but it is hard not to be moved by the laying out scene, where we see Christ in his shroud, the stone of the tomb pushed back, his crown of thorns beside and a beautiful cluster of ivy leave surrounding. Meanwhile we see Mary to the left, but completely covered in her blue robe revealing nothing but what the tension and bulk of her blue robe convey. The strength of these pieces must have something to do with the colour. And for that they are daring works of art. Quite often Road to Calvary scenes are carved in just the white or grey stone, thus making the emotional effect less visible.

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Christ falling down
St. Veronica is also seen in profile, wearing a corn coloured headdress and robe of a more golden hue, as she places the linen cloth over Jesus’s face so as to soothe his sweaty brow. Christ’s face as an emblem of the ferocity of the faith that will endure is imprinted on the cloth and becomes another way in which his life is remembered. Her name is Veronica, because it derives from the Latin vera icon meaning true icon or true likeness. While she might be a legendary saint, this is a commonplace image in Passion cycles and was a narrative from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. It is more common though to see the imprint of the face at this event. Here, though, as seen in so many of the works here, the idea is imparted in a less obvious way. The sculptor has exploited the lack of face again, by containing the whole of Christ’s face in the cloth. On the other hand, it might also have been an effective way of not having to carve out intricate facial details! Let us hope that it was passion that she wanted to render. Grief ripples through the vista of people’s backs, their bent bodies, their drapery, and their hands on faces. It is not suggested. It is experienced, but in the most imaginative and achingly boisterous way.

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St. Veronica

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the pulling up of the cross

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The Crucifixion

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Shroud image

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detail of Christ in his shroud

There is too another powerful image, a large bronze statue ensemble – of the Crucifixion, with a mourning John and a mourning Virgin below. The figures are separated from one another and thus one is able to walk around each figure. While John is usually seen standing straight supporting Mary at the Crucifixion scene, here we see him bent (as are so many figures in this church) with both his hands on his face, obscuring it completely. By contrast Mary’s face is exposed while her arms are outstretched towards the figure of Christ. Her hands do not touch, but they appear as if they are about to cup her son’s face, if she could reach, or even her tears. Her hands are not the expression of prayer or acceptance. From behind, we see the contour and angularity of the bronze cast to evoke her long robe and her grieving body. This is another strategic way in which to express sorrow and solemnity, without the sculptor being a slave to the depiction of sorrow with lips and eyes, facial wrinkles and lines. But as the technique of bronze casting is so cumbersome, this approach gave him more choice in where to stress the intricacies, such as the drapery. So delicate is the technique of bronze casting that the finer parts of any of the process are often knocked off in the casting kiln. The work was done by Charles Jagger and is called Kelham Rood (1929).

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Mary

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St. John – figure ensemble

As I leave the church, the sunlight falls on a widely spreading tree opposite, framing not only the white stuccoed houses it partly occludes, but also the Gothic arch that makes up the portal to the church. A perfect picture formed to end a visual feast that gripped me at the church of St. John the Divine, a truly divine church. The authors of the London Encyclopaedia give it no more than a passing entry. Frustratingly, I cannot tell you any more about this church.  Who was this unknown crafts person who made the Road to Calvary pieces? I do know that John Betjeman remarked that it was the most magnificent church in the whole of south London. I could not agree more.

Some other decorative, visual features in the church

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a decorative detail

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STAINED GLASS DETAIL IN A CHAPEL

Bermondsey, SE1

Mary Magdalen, BermondseyBermondsey, SE1

The mini book of maps is being torn out. The pages are rent a sundered from the binding, the safety of its harness to other pages. Or, A is split from Z. Page 63 from page 64. Today it was a walk around Bermondsey, again with no specific church in mind. But when a page has been scoured for black crosses, I can conclude that I have walked all I want to walk in that area. Borough, Bermondsey, Southwark, Charlton, Lambeth… fascinating areas in their own right, but I am on a search for black crosses to lead me to churches.
In tearing out a page, I can also analyse the roads. The main ones marked in the A to Z are vivid raspberry pink. They are constructed at diagonals across the page, criss-crossing each other like birds in the sky. The other main ones are in green – making curves and half drawn triangles as they then join up with smaller orange roads. And in between are small white roads, and lots of lime green spaces where the housing is. It is only in walking around that we see just how residential London is – even in central areas. Some pages have no black crosses on them. And those I could just tear up and put in the bin. But many pages do as well as marks for other religious foundations such as those for synagogues. So there are many pages to dispense with before my task is through.
Today I dispensed with p. 138, the page marking the church of St. James in Bermondsey. It was closed, but rising upwards in its Greek classical revival porticoed style. There is a garden around and lots of flats which look as though they were built after the war. Bermondsey has wharves (for example Hay’s Wharf) old Amsterdam like narrow houses with shutters and balconied platforms on the first floor. But it also has a lot of cheap housing – post WW2 damage, as it is so close to London Bridge, the Thames and of course the City. Four churches to visit on p. 138, but only St. James’s detained me.

BErmondsey abbey
There is though the site of Old Bermondsey Abbey – a blue plaque marks the spot, which is now a pedestrianised area with a hotel, a bar cum cinema and about three or four cafes, where once might have been a cloister, or a chapter house. The plaque says that the abbey was founded as a Priory of the Order of Cluny (from here 1082-1538), the last date telling us so much about the fate of British abbeys and monasteries in the 16th century. The house here was granted to Sir Robert Southwell in 1541 and he then sold it to a Sir Thomas pope who pulled down most of the buildings – and built himself a new residence. Which explains why there are no ruins here. There were also abbots living in houses from St. Augustine’s of Canterbury in Tooley Street – their nice London residents, close to the river and no doubt other monastic houses. And now, the laity are back to walk on those once hallowed stones, but with the smell spell of coffee as the elixir and salvation to life, rather than by means of a monk’s words. And instead of miracle crosses dug up from the Thames (according to the legend, in 1117 the Rood of Grace was found nearby having dropped from heaven and which attracted many pilgrims), coffee is now the new wonder instant cure.
And then there is White Cube, a fantastic architectural space dedicated to contemporary and modern art on Bermondsey Street – the road snaking down from London Bridge to Caledonian market. I wander down and see a cobbled alleyway which leads directly onto a small and neat set of social housing. Its entrance is marked by a column, not with smooth or polished edges and faces, but with an amalgam of stones projecting, some of which had carvings cut into and out of the stone – here a face, there curvaceous female nude figure beside another nude, less obviously female, but with a well defined groin and tummy button. Seeing these figures side-by-side like sentinels, figure type individualisation is being probed by the chisel. A roughly cut carving following the same contours to create a body as one figure can look markedly different to the one it stands beside. Protrusions, marks, grooves, lozenge forms, zig zags, and roughly cut stone as if the vertical cliff has been wrenched away from a larger piece and left untouched. Revealing the raw and powerful strength of stone cut or un-cut. Mini arches and portals ar made with the stones, piled consciously haphazardly one on top of the other. A sharply finished stone on two sides, sinking down into two curved forms to make a heart is the wrong way up. Inscribed into the stone ‘Love’ and then on another carved heart below, ‘Each Other’. Tucked under two bulbous stones, another face, barely incised from the surface. These volumes of stone are reminiscent of Romanesque carving, which to some eyes seemed crude, unfinished, and far from the polished pristine finish of say Renaissance art. See for example this image from an abbey in Arles, Provence. http://c8.alamy.com/comp/FK7D7A/monster-or-tarasque-devouring-a-sinner-c12th-romanesque-carving-in-FK7D7A.jpg. Here you see the large oval shaped eyes, that might have been coloured, but which now stare out, piercing, intense and unsettling. But rather like African carvings (see the image above, a figure from Baule in the British Museum) Romanesque column art with capitals infused with heads, foliage, plant forms and hybrid creatures possesses something uniquely strange and hard to understand. But that is part of their charm and this column off Bermondsey Street, perhaps a totem pole, perhaps like a pineapple welcoming visitors to the housing site gave off an equally strange and alluring feel. And then as if emulating a classical architectural structure, but debunking and de-mythologising it at the same time, a rounded aperture in which is a piece of tufa like stone, some of which is painted red. Look a bit closer and the effect is of dried, congealed blood, which was originally poured out and left. Above this is a flatter piece of stone on which is another rectangular piece with the words’ Thanks’. The power of this column is that it plays around with our eyes – consciously crude, but reverting all the same to the classical prototypes of columns and carvings.
At the end of Bermondsey Street is the church of Mary Magdalen, but it was closed. Behind it though is a large garden where tombs and grave-stones lie. Now a people’s park for the living and the dead, as it is clearly being used for lunch-time sandwich eating and lounging on the grass. A plaque outside the church says this – ‘This church is open for divine service on Sundays at 11.30 and at half past 6 o’clock and for churchings and baptisms at 4 o’clock . The sacrament of the Lords’s supper is administered on the first Sunday in each month. ‘ And signed by one Lewes Tugwell.

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Coda – see the picture below of a small column topped by a capital carved with a punctured edge, two circles either side of a grooved corbel topped by another circle. No, this is not a column by another church, but is part of the entrance to a branch of Sainsbury’s in Bermondsey. It has a pair and they are joined by a rather elegant looking iron railing. With its proximity to Bermondsey Abbey, I wondered if the stone was once at the abbey and was saved by Sainsbury before they went floating down the River Thames.