The Gothic Revival changed British architecture forever. Though the Gothic style in Britain never really disappeared, its resurrection in the Victorian period was rapid, impactful, and global. As Alex Bremner’s book Imperial Gothic richly illustrates, empire-building in the nineteenth century resulted in British groups of Anglicans relocated to India, South Africa, Canada and elsewhere. They brought this architectural style with them, and their new churches often brought British architects, local religious figures, and local craftspeople into contact with one another to create unique buildings both rooted to their specific location and part of a global and controversial political movement.
In England, buildings including Manchester Town Hall by Alfred Waterhouse, the Albert Memorial by George Gilbert Scott, Cardiff Castle by William Burges, the New Palace of Westminster (better known as the Houses of Parliament) by Charles Barry and A. W. N. Pugin, and hundreds upon hundreds of churches by William Butterfield, George Frederick Bodley, George Edmund Street and numerous others punctuated the UK’s landscape. Schools, train stations, homes, and government offices were all candidates for this new and vigorously medievalist architectural approach. Amongst all these Victorian buildings, one in particular has stood out for me recently.
St Cuthbert’s, Philbeach Gardens is a late Victorian church a few minutes’ walk from Earl’s Court station in west London. As Ian Nairn described it, ‘The outside, bald a bricky, may not tempt. The inside will engross: a High Anglican temple, sombre and indrawn…’ In March 2014, a group of art and architectural historians gathered to explore how this church represents a kind of microcosm of late Victorian architectural development, the onset of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1890s and early twentieth centuries, and the unique formation of a community of artists working collaboratively to produce complex and culturally significant interiors. Andrew Saint, one of the UK’s most renowned architectural historians and the general editor of the Survey of London at the Bartlett School of Architecture, astutely pointed out that St Cuthbert’s must be seen in a more widely transnational and European context. British architectural history can be inward-looking – by expanding its horizons while also looking closely at this church as a case study of late nineteenth-century art and religion, great strides could be made.
St Cuthbert’s was founded in 1883 and the church, designed by Hugh Romieu Gough, was complete by 1887. Gough was particularly interested in Cistercian medieval architecture and echoes of that inspiration can be seen in the proportions of the nave. The church’s sense of height is emphasised by a lofty rood screen carved with Arts and Crafts vigour, an enormous reredos celebrating the worship of the Lord with incense and light, and a gallery at the west end.
Climbing up the seriously dusty and precarious spiral staircase is worth it – one of the best views in London can be enjoyed from the top. From here, you can see the logic of the whole building, from its west end with the baptismal font to its imposing wooden rood screen (complete with a small chapel in the loft), and the bold and highly decorated sanctuary beyond. The people who have lived out their Christian dedication and experience in this place over over a century have expressed a particular devotion to Christ in the Eucharist. This means that the sanctuary space is the most ornamentally rich in comparison with other parts of the building. The pulpit with its Victorian portraits of religious figures, and the lectern’s curving Arts and Crafts metalwork are both important features of the church, but as much as anything they act as gateways to the main focus on the altar and on the importance of recognising the distinctive Christian understanding of communion with the divine through bread and wine.
As a specialist in Anglican art and architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I’m especially curious about how a whole variety of arts circulated around a single space and its community. St Cuthbert’s in London is a great example of this. The majority of the church’s textiles – such altar frontals and vestments for the clergy and others with important roles to play during sacred rituals – were designed by an architect who was also a priest and a writer named Ernest Geldart. Scholars including James Bettley and Mary Schoeser have highlighted his contributions to Victorian art, but there’s a lot more to discover. At St Cuthbert’s the vast amount of delicate and accomplished stone carving, wood carving and metalwork are also important components of the church’s interior and its cohesive visual and symbolic effect. St Cuthbert’s is unusual and exciting for a Victorianist as their records show that much of the art created for the church was done by guilds, many of which were run by local women. There is a great deal to learn, and by investing time and collaborative research expertise into this project, it may change art and architectural historians’ understanding about Victorian art production and gender more broadly.
St Cuthbert’s is building a network to help support new research about its own history and about Victorian and early twentieth-century art and architecture. The organisations I work with regularly – such as the London DAC (Diocesan Advisory Committee) and The Victorian Society – are part of this London project too, and there are exciting discoveries to come.
Ayla Lepine (Teaching Associate, Art History)
Photographs of St Cuthbert’s are courtesy the parish and Edmund Harris. Images used with permission.