The London Festival of Architecture 2010 starts in Fitzrovia on Saturday 19 June. Peter Whyatt pays tribute to one of Fitzrovia’s most stunning buildings. Additional research by Churchwarden John Forde, Rebecca Hirst and Francis O’Neil.
“To describe a church as an orgasm is bound to offend someone; yet this building can only be understood in terms of compelling, overwhelming passion. Here is the force of Wuthering Heights translated into dusky red and black bricks, put down in a mundane street to rivet you, pluck you into the courtyard with its hard welcoming wings and quivering steeple.” — Ian Nairn, British architectural critic and topographer.
All Saints Margaret Street is a Grade I listed church on the north side of Margaret Street, the Church’s spire is the second tallest in London. It was built in High Victorian Gothic style by the eminent architect William Butterfield between 1850-59, consecrated in 1859, and cost £70,000. The church is situated within a small courtyard. Two other buildings face onto this courtyard: one is the vicarage, and the other (formerly a choir school) now houses meeting spaces with some residential accommodation above. All Saints is famous for its architecture, its style of worship, and its musical tradition. Architecturally, William Butterfield’s “savage masterpiece” is one of the greatest examples of the High Victorian Gothic style.
William Butterfield was born in London in 1814. His architectural practice was at 4 Adam Street, Adelphi, Strand where he lived above his office and later moving in 1886 to 42 Bedford Square where a blue plaque commemorates his time there. Butterfield reinterpreted the original Gothic style in Victorian terms. Many of his buildings were for religious use, although he also designed for colleges and schools, All Saints Margaret Street remains his masterpiece. Despite his non-conformist upbringing Butterfield was involved with The Ecclesiological Society and drew religious inspiration from the Oxford Movement which was very high church. This involvement influenced his architectural style.
A church had existed on the Margaret Street site since 1760, by 1845, it had become a centre of Tractarian worship and the minister was determined to build a more appropriate church on a large and splendid scale’ in the Gothic style of the late 13th and early 14th centuries which would bring church architecture, arrangement, and liturgy closer to its pre-Reformation roots. The Ecclesiological Society advocated use of the Gothic style, the use of honest materials and ornament that should highlight, rather than dominate the structure. It was also to express the attitude of the Tractarians to try to convert city dwellers to Anglicanism, believing this to be a social service. In this mission, the ideal model of a church would be a fortress, strong and tough, just like their urban setting.
All Saints is built of brick. The Ecclesiologists had originally extolled the virtues of rough stone walls, but were converted by the brick churches of Italy and North Germany. The pink brick chosen by Butterfield was actually more expensive than stone. The bold chequered patterning is most likely to have been based on English East Anglian tradition. The site was just 100 feet square for a church, choir school and clergy house. The church is set back from the street with a small courtyard, and the buildings to left and right are also by Butterfield.
The inside of the church is astonishing, a kaleidoscope of coloured tiles, brick, painting and gilding. It uses highly coloured actual materials as opposed to coloured surface decoration. There are a series of large tile pictures on the walls, encaustic tiling in geometric patterns, and a wide variety of costly stones used in the pillars and other internal features of the church. The interior decoration was meant to embody a ‘beauty and holiness’ which was to highlight All Saints as a living presence within the community. The walls are decorated with multicoloured patterns. Butterfield juxtaposed differing textures against one another. The floor and lower walls of the church are tiled in purple, yellow, slate blue, white and black, and show zig zags, squares, hexagons and stars. The aisles have arches on pillars of red granite, with capitals of alabaster, and the ornate pulpit is also in a variety of coloured stones. ‘ Butterfield’s tiled floor, made by Minton, is deep red with black checks and a white stone diaper, while the north and south aisles have a triangular variation on this pattern. The roof, now repainted to the authentic 1895 scheme is in deep chocolate brown timberwork with architectural lines brought out in white, blue and chrome orange.
The tile pictures – four of them fill the North wall, with another on the rear wall, and one on the tower wall on a filled in arch – date from the 1870s cost £1,100. The tiles were designed by Butterfield to replace his original geometric patterns. The panels depict many Saints, the Nativity and characters from the Old Testament. The panel beneath the great west window dates from 1889, and depicts three Old Testament scenes: Moses lifting up the serpent, Abraham offering his only son Isaac and Melchizedek, priest of God. The panel on the north wall of the tower, the last to be erected, in 1891, depicts the Ascension. They were designed by Butterfield, in pastel colours, large scale and avoiding fine detail. Deceptively simple, fine work with a nice sense of drapery.
The nature of the All Saints site nestling among other buildings in Fitzrovia means there are few windows and they are generally limited to the upper reaches of the building. The exception is the magnificent west window, the glass of which dates from 1877.
The glass in the clerestory, and in the east window of the south chancel aisle dates from 1857, depicts Christ in majesty with St Edward and St Augustine. A window at the west end of the north aisle shows the prophets Enoch, Isaiah, and Malachai.
The majestic and serene statue of Our Lady with the Christ child was carved in Bruges by Louis Grosse. It was painted and gilded in London, and presented to the church in 1924.
The Lady Chapel (1911), situated at the east-end of the north aisle, was designed by Sir Ninian Comper in late Gothic style, the reredos (screen behind the alter) is of Caen stone and alabaster, and shows the Virgin and Child surrounded by angels and saints.
The baptistery, in the south-west corner, houses the font (1857-8), and the large paschal candlestick, a copy of one in the Certosa at Pavia, Italy. In the ceiling resides ‘the Pelican in its Piety’, piercing her breast to feed her young – symbolic of the Fall and Redemption of man (the pelican was supposed to slay her rebellious offspring then revive them with her own blood).
The pulpit, by Butterfield, c1858 is made of polished alabaster, granite, types of marbles all in rich colours; their vitality stems from Butterfield’s unusual juxtaposition of both colour and patterns.
The chancel, (space around the altar at the liturgical east end of the church building). is one of the most sumptuous and dramatic in London, it occupies almost one-third of the length of the church, notable fot its size, and grand ornate reredos, The chancel is entered through Butterfield-designed gilt iron and brass gates set into a low screen of alabaster and marble. The chancel’s side arches are filled with rich Decorated tracery modelled in alabaster and supported on red serpentine shafts. The floor is elaborately patterned in six colours. The north wall of the sanctuary depicts the Latin Doctors and the south wall the Greek Doctors with 16 boy and girl saints above them.
The chancel screen, designed by Butterfield, is made of several types of marble and echoes the mosaic patterns found throughout the interior. The ceiling was influenced by thirteenth century design; the ribs lend a tremendous soaring quality to the finished work as the resultant upward energy serves to compensate for the overall lack of space.
Most of today’s sanctuary furnishings were acquired in the early 20th century – Butterfield, suspicious of ritualism, had originally planned it to be simply furnished. The great silver pyx, (small round lidded box) was given by the 7th Duke of Newcastle in 1928 as a memorial to choristers killed in the First World War.