Holy Trinity Church, Clapham
Disagreeable. This is a word of uncommon parlance these days. A word we might associate with the parlour politics of Mrs Gaskell or George Eliot, where, upon the departure of a guest, the remaining party comment on the character of the departed person with acerbity, wit and even venom. It is also a word that nineteenth-century novels indulge in to describe characters with ‘disagreeable’ manners, appearances or punctuality. We read quips just as ‘Do look at that disagreeable way in which the lady in the rose pink bonnet was holding her tea cup’.
So, it was hardly agreeable for me to find that Holy Trinity Church, Clapham was closed on a hot Thursday afternoon in August. An approaching end of summer sort of feeling when the few leaves on the ground and on the pathway leading to the two entrance gates of the church were being whipped up by the hot, sultry, almost silent breeze; like burnt crisps in the air as if an autumn fire had begun. The closed church was made even more disagreeable because I had just put £2.50 in a ticket machine to park in a leafy Clapham road, in order to visit the church, where wealth seemed to even eke out of the pavements.There was a mere half an hour to visit God. Surely that would be enough. It turned out to be more than enough.
I had a choice of three doors facing me and indeed facing Clapham Common. But all three were firmly closed. I wondered if they were soon to be bolted and padlocked too. Had God in fact bolted? No, I was reassured that this was still an active church as at the back of the church was a large poster attached to the railings which go all the way round the perimeter of the church. This animated banner advertised a forthcoming Alpha course. In Passion red letters were the words ‘Got questions about life?’ Yes, many I said to myself. But in the case of this closed church today, I wondered if I should be asking questions about death. I walked round the church, passing a doorway, with another sign advertising the entrance to the parish office. And a handy telephone number in case nobody answered the buzzer to be let in. On the other side of the church, there was another door, with a laminated sign, this time with the words, ‘Al. Anon here’. But apart from signs and welcoming words which heralded that there was something afoot, there was nobody around.
Then I saw a youngish woman looking at another sign just outside the church, with service times on it. Looking at it intently, dressed in blue top, jeans and with a small ruck-sack, she then noticed me, stared a little, moved on a little and stared back. She was hesitant, slothful, watchful. She then turned as if to come back. I felt undesirably suspicious. Who knows she was probably dubious about me, standing there with pen and note-book,like a detective or journalist, glancing at the church, at the notice board, then at her. A ‘my patch, not yours’ sort of thing. Nearby, a man was picking up his dog’s daily detritus, while speaking on his phone. A multi-tasker in the open air. Life just outside the church was humming.There was something about the layout of the church, occupying a large area of land, with common on two sides, shops and cafes on the other and estate agents’ row on the other that made me wonder if the area and even the church could be turned into ‘Operation red bus’. After all, these vehicles were chasing down the thread of roads surrounding the common land. I was reminded of the church of Santo Spirito in Florence, a cavernous space that at one time in its life-cycle had been just that, an omnibus depository. Just inside the gated area of the church, all was silent. Just how a church should be – or so we are led to believe these days. Even so, a closed, silent, sturdily clad classical porticoed church still has its merits and attractions. And what history is bound in if one does poke around.
I noticed a large inscription near the façade referring to the Clapham Sect. This was a group of men including one William Wilberforce who set up an organisation to abolish slavery in their capacity as Anglicans in the nineteenth century. And indeed the church became the centre for this activity. No doubt there is some more tantalising evidence about this gathering of men inspired by the same common cause inside the church. I looked through a window and saw a large rectangular space with box pews. A church closed to its other delights. Then again, perhaps a shy church-goer can be as delighted by a closed church as an open one. And just for today, perhaps it is God who is shy.
The Church of St. Cyprian’s, Clarence Gate, Ninian Comper
If there must be medieval imitation in the twentieth century, it is here unquestionably done with joy and care. Beyond that appreciation can hardly go. There is no reason for the excesses of praise lavished on Comper’s church furnishings by those who confound aesthetic with religious emotion.
Nikolaus Pevsner, 1952
But do not let this quote put you off. Read on.
Murders might take place in English churches, but revolutions do not. Or do they? The English church has long been the bastion of aesthetic combat. A tug of war between purple, gold filigree, embroidered copes, gilded traceries and the simpler undercoated or un-altered (altared) altar and the vicar’s way of dress – or the Catholic versus the Protestant. This tension is also reflected in the style of church architecture where we can ‘read’ all about it. So what is the true and most appropriate style for a church? In the tug, or, perhaps appropriately, the historic duel, is the classical, the classic iconic style associated with the Colosseum (gladiators), the Pantheon (a Roman temple) and the legendary Parthenon (the ruin of ruins for classical architecture). And its opponent, the style known as the Gothic, a continental style, pan European, the style for church building in England prior to the Reformation. This is the building of arches, vaults, pinnacles, buttresses and rose windows. Soon, this combat will be as ancient as Christianity itself.
So in this architectural debate, where does the Parish Church of St. Cyprian Clarence Gate fit in? A church near Baker Street. 1903. And not, I don’t believe that well known. Indeed, does anyone know it is there?
This is an early 20-th century church which makes you think that Catholicism is back! No, not quite. It is an example of the Gothic revisited. Or a style commonly known as neo-Gothic, or Gothic revival that became the norm for some Protestant churches from the 1830s or so, even though we associate the Gothic with Catholicism. This heralded a return to a pre-Reformation Britain and a time when classical columns and porticoes did not exist in London.
This is a sumptuous, ornate, highly coloured and decorated Gothic church. Under the heading People, I have already written a little about the architect of St. Cyprian – Ninan Comper, not I dare to suggest a household name. If you regard Pevsner, that irrepressible, determined, somewhat dogmatic architectural historian as your actual and indeed virtual guide to English architecture, then you will have been persuaded by Pevsner who dismissed him in every county of the land. But Pevsner was not always right in his judgements. So what did Pevsner dislike about Comper? He declared that the architect conflated the aesthetic with the religion. And that he was using beauty as a language, by presenting the worship in a promoting of architecture sense, where the rood screen marks the sacral space. I do not understand what Pevsner means, as it architecture has to define worship and the liturgical plan of a church in one sense. And the rood screen is one of the features that destroyed a Catholic church layout at the Reformation. So hang on Pevsner, there seems to be some missing logic in your denouncements. Would you not feel the same way about a Catholic church if you had been able to see them? Of course their original plans and designs have been destroyed. Just because Comper was revitalising the plan and feel of a medieval church does not mean that he is confounding religion by mixing it with his first and foremost aesthetic and design principles. Was his aim of bringing back the Gothic any different to a Renaissance architect who used the classical style (which ironically had originally been founded on pagan buildings) in a church design? Neither the religion or the architecture necessarily accommodate one another in the classical style, but the two became conflated. So to be reminded of how English churches looked before the classical revival in the eighteenth century cannot be such a rude act against the existing classical order. And in England, Gothic was ‘ere first. Perhaps this declaration by Pevsner is because he was fiercely Protestant and rationalist and anti-popery and Catholic mysticism, all of which one is reminded of in any Pugin or Comper church.
For the highly charged, energetic, indefatigable Pugin worked hard to restore the medieval Gothic style. He advocated spires, heights, pointed arches, statues in niches, sculptural encyclopaedias, tracery, colour, lofty, celestial moods and the sort of mood and ritual that had not been seen in England since the eighteenth century. He wrote that ‘pointed or Christian architecture has far higher claims on our admiration than mere beauty or antiquity’, as it was held that the beauty of Gothic churches could evoke and inspire in contrast to the cool calculations of the geometry and ratios of classical architecture. But at St. Cyprian’s, although you are standing in a church that is not medieval, it has the flavour, mood and colour of that period. And colour is one of the defining features of medieval-post-Gothic-neo-Gothic ecclesiastical architecture. The Tractarians, the theoretical and theological wing of the Gothic revival wanted to restore colour and depth back into religion. They felt that to worship, Gothic architecture needed to be brought back. And nowhere better to do that than with the arches, niches, tracery, vaults and portals of the fabric of a church. A church ‘is as it should be’ heralded the carousing angels of the Revival – and as it should be was Gothic. Plain and simply. Except that Gothic is far from plain and simple. The Tractarians were criticised as being romantic merchants peddling an altogether out-moded, irrational mood, like a trailing rose going nowhere. This was in sharp contrast to the classical fashion, which was solid, earnest, man-scaled, rational and sensible. But I wonder if all it took was a decade of the Gothic Revival for people to absorb the newish style and then forget. And this might be true, for I do not hear the cries against Comper and his approach now. Yet when it was first built, it must have been received with some shock to those familiar with the cool and light and white classicising features of eighteenth-century London churches – those designed by Hawksmoor or Wren for example. What came back after years of being banned through Comper’s architectural and ornamental insertions were ancient rituals such as bowing to the crucifix, kissing the Gospel book, lights on the altar and on the Gospel, altar cloths, and many liturgical items at the heart of the Eucharist ritual that had not been seen in English churches for many years. One of my favourite churches in Norfolk was the inspiration for Comper to try to spirit himself away to late medieval England. This is the church at Salle which he thought was one of the loveliest of parish churches.
Decide for yourself. Put yourself in the mind and soul and heart of a British church-going audience. If you could be moved, would it be revived Gothic or Classical?
I have purposefully left out images of this church in the hope you can see the church yourself and make up your own minds – but do not the high altar and the rood screen, the decorated furnishings and architectural elements. But the words of Comper might serve to illustrate his mission:
Straight his eye went to the pix, which told of the presence of God, its gold and snow-white linen glittering in front of the expanse of the silver glass, ‘clear as crystal’ like the sea before the throne, bearing its jewelled imagery of the saints that ever surround that Presence’.
And if he had been alive to respond to Pevsner’s criticisms, he would no doubt refute the claim that he was conflating worship with aesthetic considerations. After all, he was only modelling his designs on the medieval church building types and a time which was undeniably fuelled by the flames and Passions of the sacred place of religious worship in people’s minds and hearts and vulnerable eyes.
And if you want to go and see what the man is like – see his portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, which was painted in the 1930s by Beatrice Bright.
The classic book on the Gothic Revival is a book of that name by Kenneth Clark (1928). And another architect of the Gothic revival was George Gilbert Scott who designed S. Giles, Camberwell, full of Gothic porches, spires and points. There is also the 1912 church of the Annunciation in Bryanston Street designed by Walter Tapper – a model of the Decorated form of Gothic. Two churches to be visited in due course by the idle blogger.
Words and Place and Elephants and Castles
- St. Giles, Camberwell
- Church notice – St. Peter’s Walworth
- Artisan bakery
- View of spire of St. Giles from garden behind
- Peabody developments
- Garden and side of St. Peter’s Walworth
In the lush and verdant environment/place/Nature/landscape/topographical writing are book-gatherings and word-meanderings that arise out of just one word. These collections are thoughts in prose of diverse writers who write about what would have regarded once as immaterial, improvident or irrelevant things.They are often referred to as memoirs/cultural history books – a sort of concept literature I suppose. But now the life of the moorhen, the river, the badger, the wind, the holloway or the wayfarer are more than just the quotidian and give the writer an opportunity to muster more than just a comment. A more recent, divergent kind of this writing which takes a word and makes it into a theme of many variants and tributaries is Lauren Elkin’s recent polemic – the Flâneuse. Or as the sub-title gives away, this is a book about women who walk. And like many writers who take a word, she goes beyond it and fuses ideas, memories, associations, and her thoughts on the works of other writers which soon makes the starting word something else. It is a word-game with endless possibilities and diverting all the same.
For Elkin, her book is an exploration of writers through cities or cities through writers and her place in the book is to comment on her walking and her own writing. Such is her stance that she can define and redefine the word flaneur, making it her own. And marking the absence of the female equivalent. She makes flâneur flâneuse and in so doing constructs her adult wandering city self as to quote her ‘a dawdling observer, an idler, usually found in cities’.
If it had been me, I would have given a chapter of this book over to Phyllis Pearsall, the inventor of the legendary A to Z. The woman flâneuse forgotten. But that is because she ‘wrote’ maps, not words. And that is because she began the A to Z having got lost one day in London. Pearsall was not about losing her way in a city to profit from that adventure. To get lost, to go forth without a destination is the beguiling feature of being a flâneuse, or a London walker. But the legendary A to Z was the result of walking along 23,000 streets or so and recording their names so as to produce a book of immense practical use. Crossing them, walking them from end to end, around and about them, through and by them. What energy, what walking feet were required. This collation was a feat of skill and determination. But what a typographic production came about as a result of her zeal to record.
Elkin records too in her wanders. She offers a rational, analytical critique of writers such as Virginia Woolf who have been curious and observant voyeur flâneuse(s) of the streets they walked and roamed and wandered and wondered. And so Elkin’s polished writing meanders: fluently, randomly, moving the reader on as if to parallel the constant surprises unplanned walking can bring. And so I wander to write my itinerant and idle blog. And even when a church is closed and I fail to find the next church for my blog, I can wonder. For this leaves me to do some unplanned for wandering and finding unexpected, hidden churches, plaques, names on walls of other forgotten Londoners (see the picture of Thomas Peacock and his self-styled word selfie). But what Elkin finds unappealing in her occasional harsh judgements is, to me, a pleasant joy. In her book she refers to her awareness of ‘the absolute awfulness of Elephant and Castle’. On a hot Monday morning in August, when this corner of south-east grimy, gritty London is remembering it is a normal, busy, working day, I find more than one church to visit, all within walking distance of Elephant and Castle tube. And I think of where the name elephant and castle comes from. Here is the image of the original elephant and castle – the broad back of the elephant being a useful transportation vehicle to take mobile castles into battle: Elephant and Castle. This image is a miniature and comes from an English bestiary, (13th century, British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 8r). Bestiaries were colourful anthologies of words and images about animals, both mystical and real and served, through the rather cryptic writing as moralising aides to their owners and readers, who were mainly the monks and educated laity of the time. In many ways, a similar anthology conjuring up more than just a word as the books I write of here. But little knowledge the bestiary makers had of an actual place that is now down-town Elephant and Castle!
And so to church…
The plan was to visit St. Giles, Camberwell, mentioned in the post about Comper, another late Victorian or Gothic Revival church built by George Gilbert Scott. It did not occur to me that it might be closed. A train from Haywards Heath to Elephant and Castle (slow, but direct), followed by a bus to Camberwell Green and a bus- stop stinking high of urine and litter catching in my toes in the addictive August breeze. So, was it just to be a church’s exterior today and no more ‘within’? Set majestically in its own gated park, soaring spires and muscular granite looking stone, the door was firmly closed. I saw a notice in the porch with the parish office telephone number on it. I rang in the hope that a vicar might be just round the corner at Costa and could open up for me shortly. But a telephone message asked me to write an email, the strong urging being not to leave a telephone message. A needy parishioner might not take kindly to this exhortation. I left a message all the same, my email facility not on me, explaining how much I wanted to see the church, but leaving too my email address. And while my thoughts turned to mid-morning coffee, I then walked up a residential street beside the church (note the image of the gorgeous garden behind the church) and into Camberwell Grove, the elegant sweeping hill of still in-tack Georgian residences. I then found another residential street with a café and bakery at the bottom, where I might have waited, if I could, for the vicar with a cup of coffee. But the bakers, chiming in with the church times were also closed.
Still, I had enjoyed my bus ride down the road from the Elephant and thinking that buses could be my new companions in London, as I was habitually either a walker or a tube user. And as I sat on the bus on the way down to St. Giles, I had looked left and saw at the end of a street a church with a prominent classical façade, a rich contrast to the Victorian Gothic I thought I was about to see. And while the bus moved on, I wondered whether to get off at the next stop so as to make sure of finding the church then and there, or returning on another day (and relying on poor memory for location); or getting on a bus back north after visiting St. Giles. Or indeed walking back – to, was it Westmoreland Place, Webstock Place? SE17 or SE7? I panicked that I might never find it again. And in so doing, not thinking the church I had originally planned to visit, but another one that was not on my list for today. But this thinking was not wasted, as because St. Giles was closed, I could return to the church seen from the bus. So not defeated and enjoying my walk, I decided to re-trace the bus route and walked back north to find this church. I passed beauty parlours, new housing developments (see the image of the billboard for Peabody – the Victorian builder of homes for the poor and still operating, though I am sure with mightier prices), African clothes shops, hair-dressers, taxi shops and the newsagent with the windows so congested with ‘wares’ that one is never sure if it is open or not. And then the slight panic, that a classical façade of a church had all been in my imagination.
The clock on the church at the end of the road said only 10.20 am. I had after all left deepest Sussex at 7am, with plenty to do in London in one day. There was too a weather-vane and a beehive like stone structure surmounting a little colonnade with pilasters. On the tower, elaborate Corinthian capitals. All in all, a church in an out of way London Street, like a mini temple, a paradigm of the period of architecture it once sought to revive.
And as you see from its welcoming board near the entrance, the church was open. Classical imperialism reigns supreme. The church was empty, cavernous and silent. The crypt though has been turned over to office space – cool for the computers and their workers nestled into the red brick cavities of the crypt’s curvilinear structure. Down there I was greeted by a kind and welcoming woman, gently probing as to the purpose of my visit. I commented on what a lovely place it was to work (even more so, I thought when the community café was open). She replied most enthusiastically and said it was a wonderful place to work. Crossed communication did not matter in this context – for it would make no difference to my mood whether she was meaning the cool crypt or the church of St. Peter’s Walworth and its community itself was ‘wonderful’. Both I suppose. Location and context shaping the positive vibes of the other. The church community extends to the plant world too. At the side and back, is a pretty garden flanked by long untouched grave-stones replaced by the greenness and newness of life. But there is also a nod to Darwin and evolution where a statue in wood of a gorilla and her baby cuddling is found. Not a popular Christian iconography, unless of course it features in the Bestiary.
So take a trip to Elephant and Castle. Not only are there churches tucked away, some in pretty well-preserved squares of Georgian vernacular, replete with terraced houses, some with little parks in the middle and even with the artisan café where people are sitting at tables with cups and note-books. Elephant and Castle is not appalling. It is not appalling at all.