Category Archives: Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture

“Perfectly plain” Pugin

St Barnabas Cathedral, Nottingham

After he had begun work on St Mary’s Church, Derby, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was invited to design a parish church for Nottingham, a bigger building with a limited budget, and therefore plainer than he liked.

Pugin himself had envisaged St Mary’s as the future cathedral for the North Midlands, but when the Catholic hierarchy was re-established, the East Midlands diocese was based at St Barnabas’ Cathedral, Nottingham.

By the time he designed St Barnabas’, Pugin had already completed the drawings for the much more elaborate St Giles’ Church, Cheadle, yet at Nottingham he contrived dramatic effects in what he claimed was the most economical manner, though he exceeded the initial budget by half.

Always melodramatic, and sometimes hysterical, this talented, obsessive, frantic, fascinating man remonstrated with the Earl of Shrewsbury, who had subscribed £7,000 of the original £10,500 estimate, about whether, and where, to have the tower:

I have no reason for placing the tower of Nottingham at the West end.  It would be a loss, a clear loss of funds.  I have not one tracery window, no pinnacles or any ornament externally.  It will be the greatest triumph of external simplicity and internal effect yet achieved.  Yet I must have outline and breaks or the building will go for nothing.

Looking at the completed church, it’s easy to see what he meant about the position of the tower;  it is equally easy to see that the finished design is not short of external ornament.

Pugin’s stated aim was to build a church “which would give general satisfaction, have a grand appearance, although perfectly plain and admit of a most solemn and rich interior.”  The plain ashlar walls, pierced by narrow lancets and a rose window of plate tracery, give an impression of solidity.  The whole church is 190 feet from end to end, and the spire rises to 150 feet but looks higher as the street slopes downhill towards the east.

But Pugin himself was dissatisfied.  He felt, quite literally, that his style was cramped:

Nottingham was spoilt by the style restricted to lancet – a period well suited to a cistercian abbey in a secluded vale, but very unsuitable for the centre of a crowded town… there was nothing left but to make the best under the circumstances, and the result has been what might be expected;  the church is too dark, and I am blamed for it…

Indeed, Pugin was easily disgruntled.  Having converted to Catholicism only in 1832, he was “a Catholic first and whatever else he was second”.

Monsignor Martin Cummins, in Nottingham Cathedral:  a history of Catholic Nottingham (1985), relates how –

When showing an Anglican friend the Rood-screen, Pugin said:  “Within is the holy of holies.  The people remain outside.  Never is the sanctuary entered save by those in sacred orders.”  Then, to his horror, a priest appeared in the sanctuary showing the screen to two ladies.  Pugin turned to the sacristan, “Turn these people out at once!  How dare they enter!”  But the sacristan replied, “Sir, it is Bishop Wiseman.”  Pugin, powerless, retired to the nearest bench and burst into tears.

Pugin’s architectural career only began in the late 1830s.  By the end of the 1840s the energy he poured into his creativity had wrecked his health, and he died, a broken man, in 1851 at the age of forty.

Pioneer of the Gothic Revival

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Derby

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Derby, built 1838-39, was the first complete design of the foremost designer of the English Gothic Revival, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852).

Its foundation stone was laid on June 28th 1837, the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation.

Previously the few Catholics in Derby had worshipped in a small building in Chapel Street.

Built to the north of Derby town centre, at precisely the time when the approaching railways were about to cause rapid growth in population, St Mary’s was an acknowledgement that many of the workers who would migrate to the new railway works would be Irish in origin.

The site was constricted and funds limited.  Pugin set out the building with the sanctuary to the north and a tall tower, 100 feet high, placed centrally at the south (liturgical west) front.

The church would have been even more prominent if Pugin’s slender spire, supported by flying buttresses, had been built:  its tip would have reached two hundred feet above street level.

In the absence of a spire, a white Portland stone statue of St Mary was mounted on top of the tower and unveiled on Trinity Sunday 1928.

Now that many of the surrounding buildings have been cleared the plainness of the side walls is noticeable.

Though the exterior of St Mary’s is elegant and understated, the interior was richly decorated.

Pugin designed a whole range of fittings and metal furniture in collaboration with the Birmingham manufacturer, John Hardman.  The panoply of lamps, crosses, candlesticks, vessels and altar furniture first seen at the consecration ceremony were the earliest products of a partnership which lasted to the end of the architect’s life.

The Derby Mercury reported that “the appearance of the clergy, upwards of fifty in number, surrounding the Altar, was extremely gorgeous”.

The Catholic newcomers were not welcomed to Derby by the established Anglicans.

In 1846 the great bulk of the Anglican parish church of St Alkmund, designed by the local architect Henry Isaac Stevens (1806-1873), was built, blocking the view of St Mary’s from the town centre.  It was traditionally said to have been the “Anglicans’ revenge” for the construction of Pugin’s church.

Ironically, when St Alkmund’s was demolished in 1967 to make way for the Inner Ring Road, some of its stone was offered for the construction of a new East Porch for St Mary’s.

The footbridge across the underpass leads directly to St Mary’s main entrance, and there is now an unimpeded view between Pugin’s elegant Gothic Revival church and the superb medieval Perpendicular tower of the Anglican cathedral of All Saints’.

St Mary’s Church is listed Grade II*.

A guided tour of St Mary’s Parish Church is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Pugin’s Gem

St Giles' Roman Catholic Church, Cheadle, Staffordshire

St Giles’ Roman Catholic Church, Cheadle, Staffordshire

Of all the architectural work that Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin carried out for John, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, the finest and most complete is the Catholic parish church of St Giles, Cheadle, Staffordshire.   (The Anglican parish church in Cheadle is also dedicated to St Giles.)

The Earl was keen to provide the finest of parish churches for the Catholic community in the nearest town to his Alton Towers seat.  As an enlightened Victorian landowner, he specified that construction should be entrusted to “resident artisans of the village” so that “all his dependants should…be benefited by the effects of his munificence”.

His architect set out to present “a perfect revival of the English parish church of the time of Edward I, decidedly the best period of pointed architecture”.

There were a few compromises, especially after the £5,000 budget overran, but in essence St Giles’ represents the physical embodiment of the architectural ideals of the first and greatest of Gothic Revival designers.

He set out his basic principles in The True Principles of Pointed Architecture (1841):

The two great rules for design are these:  first, that there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction or propriety;  second, that all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building.

St Giles’ dominates the skyline for miles around Cheadle, and impresses at close quarters, because the structural features, particularly the 200ft-high tower and the buttresses, are in fact larger than they practically need to be.  Pugin also tweaked the west-east orientation to make best use of the site and to align the west door with the street opposite.

The interior of St Giles’ takes the breath away.  Every inch of wall and column is coloured and gilded.  Each of the windows has tracery of a differing design.  The floor is tiled, and the roof is of English oak.  The painted decoration has tremendous impact:  the ground colours of the north aisle (blue) and the south aisle (red) represent respectively Our Lady and Our Lord.  The glass, floor-tiles, woodwork and ornaments were designed by Pugin, who closely supervised their manufacture.

St Giles’ is special because it is almost entirely the vision of one superbly talented designer.

By the time of the consecration on St Giles’ Day, September 1st 1846, Pugin was putting himself under the stress that five years later led to a complete physical and mental breakdown.

It seems as if he was destined for a short life of brilliant achievement.  He adored the place – “my consolation in all afflictions” – and in many ways it is his finest monument.

He would demur, and no doubt assert that it was built ad majorem Dei gloriam – for the greater glory of God.

A guided tour of St Giles’ Roman Catholic Church is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Not that sort of hospital

Parish church of St John the Baptist and Hospital, Alton, Staffordshire

Parish church of St John the Baptist and Hospital, Alton, Staffordshire

Photo:  Maureen Mannion

Alongside the spectacular dwelling at Alton Castle, George, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury commissioned Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin to build a complex of philanthropic buildings that came to be called Alton Hospital – certainly not a medical facility as the word is now used, nor entirely what we’d now call a “hospice”.

It was to be a hospital according to the medieval concept,– that is a complex including a chapel, schoolroom and almshouses for “decayed priests”, which Pugin came to describe with his customary enthusiasm as “a perfect revival of the true thing”.

Pugin was an artistic genius and an irrepressible personality.  As a convert to Roman Catholicism he had developed a rigorous aesthetic philosophy that Britain, as a Christian country, should maintain the traditions of the pre-Reformation Church, in its architecture as much as in religious observance.  To Pugin, Gothic was a matter of purity and integrity, and not merely a decorative style.

He had come to the Earl’s attention, and was entrusted with significant extensions to the main house at Alton Towers, as well as Alton Castle and the Hospital.

Though his architectural legacy is entirely serious, Pugin himself was flamboyant.  Apart from Gothic architecture, his other enthusiasm was sailing.  He once declared, “There is nothing worth living for but Christian architecture and a boat.”

Pugin had begun his career, before his conversion, as a theatre set-painter at Covent Garden, and at the height of his powers he was perfectly capable of throwing what we’d now call a hissy-fit:

I implore and entreat your Lordship, if you do not wish to see me sink with misery, to withdraw that dreadful idea about the alteration to the hospital.  I would sooner jump off the rocks than build a castellated residence for priests.  I have been really ill since I read the letter…for heaven’s sake, my dear Lord Shrewsbury, abandon this suggestion which must be a device of the Devil to spoil so fair a design.

The Earl, a sincere and tolerant man with a fat cheque book, was inclined to indulge his brilliant protégé’s striving for perfection.

The design of Alton Hospital consists of three sides of a quadrangle, with the Guildhall, comprising a school and village institute, almshouse accommodation, latterly used as a convent, and a chapel, which now serves as the parish church of St John the Baptist.

Pugin and the Earl died within two months of each other in 1852 and the earldom and the Alton Estate soon afterwards passed to a Protestant branch of the family.

Nevertheless, the buildings survived intact and in use, and are now part of a Catholic residential centre administered by the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

A guided tour of Pugin sites in Alton village is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Stately pre-fab

Hill Bark, Frankby, Cheshire

Hill Bark, Frankby, Cheshire

Robert Spear Hudson (1812-1884) was the man who first popularised soap powder, working from his modest shop in West Bromwich. He eventually moved his business to a factory in Bank Hall, Liverpool, and went to live in Chester.

His son Robert William Hudson (1856-1937) became extremely wealthy and sold the business to Lever Brothers in 1908.

He commissioned the distinguished local architect Edward Ould to build a Black-and-White Revival house in 1891 on a site near Bidston Hill on the Wirral.  It bears more than a passing resemblance to Little Moreton Hall, near Macclesfield – but built in reverse. It was named Bidston Grange.

Typically of its time and its style, Bidston Grange contained sumptuous glass by William Morris, and architectural bric-a-brac with antique associations – dining-room doors from a tea-clipper and a fireplace dated 1577 reputedly from “Sir Walter Raleigh’s former home”.

It was apparently the model, or at least the inspiration, for Cecelianhof, the Potsdam residence of the Crown Prince Wilhelm, son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, built c1911 and subsequently the site of the signing of the Potsdam Agreement of 1945.

In 1921 Bidston Court was sold to Sir Ernest Royden (1873-1960), one of a dynasty of shipbuilders and shipowners.

Because Lady Royden disliked the way its setting was encroached by housing [http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/218605] the 1891 structure was dismantled and re-erected a property she had inherited five miles away at Frankby.

There it replaced a house of 1868-70, originally built for Septimus Ledward JP, which took its name ‘Hillbark’ from a stone barn that had stood for several centuries.

The Roydens’ transplanted residence became known as Hill Bark.

The original site at Vyner Road South, Bidston, is now a public garden.

When Sir Ernest Royden died in 1960, Hill Bark was purchased by Hoylake Urban District Council and converted into a residential home for the elderly.

It was sold in 1999 for £300,000 and converted first into a catering-facility specialising in weddings, opened in 2000, but using only the ground-floor rooms. In 2002 it was restored as a luxurious 19-bedroom five-star boutique hotel: http://www.hillbarkhotel.co.uk.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Leasowe Castle

Leasowe Castle, Cheshire

Leasowe Castle, Cheshire

One of the most distinctive places to stay on the Wirral is Leasowe Castle, which was in fact never a castle, though it has been put to many uses in its four-hundred-year history.

Leasowe Castle is identified with the “New Hall” built by Ferdinando, 5th Earl of Derby in 1593, the year of his accession to his title, possibly as a stand from which to watch horse-racing on the flat shore.

A datestone bearing the Stanleys’ triskelion, the three-legged symbol of the Manx kingdom, is now in the Williamson Museum & Art Gallery in Birkenhead.

Ferdinando, Earl of Derby’s original structure was an octagonal tower with walls three feet thick, to which were later added four square towers, possibly by William, 6th Earl, in the early seventeenth century.

By the late seventeenth century the building was derelict and known locally as “Mockbeggar Hall” and for much of the eighteenth century it was used as a farmhouse.

In 1802 was sold to Margaret Boole, “the kind old lady of Leasowe Castle”, which she had made a refuge for the victims of shipwrecks and wreckers on the Wirral coast.

She set up Dannet’s Rocket Apparatus on the shore in an attempt to prevent shipwrecks and the pernicious activities of the local wreckers, who would show false lights in an attempt to lure vessels ashore.

Margaret Boole died in 1826 as a result of a carriage accident, and the Castle passed to her daughter and heir, Mary Anne, the wife of Col Edward Cust.

Colonel Cust converted the Castle to a hotel with the intention of establishing a resort in the grounds, and when this ambitious project failed in 1843 he turned back it into a residence which he kept until his death.

Edward Cust added most of the features of the building as it now stands –

  • the perimeter wall and entrance gateway
  • the Battle Staircase, its 84 wrought-iron balusters each carrying a painted nameplate commemorating a British victory
  • the dining room panelled with wood ostensibly taken in 1839 from the original Star Chamber in the Exchequer Buildings of the Palace of Westminster
  • the supposedly haunted library fitted with oak timbers from the submerged forest at Moels

– and possibly the oak Canute’s Chair, now lost, which stood above the high-water line, carved with the motto “Sea come not hither nor wet the sole of my foot”.

One of Col Edward Cust’s successors sold the Castle in 1891 to the Leasowe Castle Hotel company.

The original Star Chamber panels are reported to have been sold in the contents sale which took place on September 16th-20th 1895: the existing ones may be reproductions.

In 1910 the Castle was bought by the Trustees of the Railway Convalescent Home and, apart from an interlude during the First World War when it housed German prisoners of war, it remained in their hands until 1970.

In 1982 it returned to hotel use: http://www.leasowecastle.com.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Gothic survival: Staunton Harold Church

Staunton Harold Church, Leicestershire:  detail

Staunton Harold Church, Leicestershire: detail

We live in an age when religious extremism causes conflicts that sometimes prove fatal.

So it was in the seventeenth-century, when the repercussions of the English Reformation set Anglicans against Puritans to the point of civil war.

At Staunton Harold, on the border between Derbyshire and Leicestershire, Sir Robert Shirley, 4th baronet, chose to build opposite his hall a new parish church that looks, for all practical purposes, as if it was one or two centuries earlier than its actual date.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England: Leicestershire & Rutland describes it as “completely Gothic, not simply a continuation of the Perp[endicular] style but Gothic in a more conscious and general way”.

Above the west door is an inscription – added in 1662-5 – that is an unambiguous statement of defiance:

In the year 1653

when all thinges Sacred were throughout ye nation

Either demolisht or profaned

Sir Robert Shirley, Barronet,

Founded this church;

Whose singular praise it is,

to haue done the best things in ye worst times,

and

hoped them in the most callamitous.

The righteous shal be had in everlasting remembrance.

For his pains, the Commonwealth government imprisoned Sir Robert in the Tower of London, where he died in 1656.

After the Restoration, the church was completed for Sir Robert’s heir, Sir Seymour Shirley, 5th Baronet (1647-67).

The interior is consistently Jacobean with panelling by William Smith of Melbourne and a nave ceiling signed by Samuel and Zachary Kyrk and dated 1655. The communion plate dates from 1654.

The wrought-iron chancel screen is slightly later, and thought to be by the ironsmith Robert Bakewell.

Staunton Harold Church, which is Grade I listed, is now in the care of the National Trust: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/staunton-harold-church.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Gothic survival: St John’s Church, Briggate, Leeds

St John the Evangelist Church, Briggate, Leeds

St John the Evangelist Church, Briggate, Leeds

The term “Gothic Revival” is familiar to anyone with the remotest interest in architecture, but “Gothic Survival” is much rarer.

There’s a splendid example of a Gothic church built after the Reformation but still in the medieval tradition at the end of Leeds’ main shopping street, Briggate, opposite the Grand Theatre.

It was needed because in the early seventeenth century Leeds was expanding as a centre for the wool trade, and the parish church, St Peter’s, became overcrowded.

The church of St John the Evangelist was paid for by Alderman John Harrison (1579–1656), a cloth-merchant and much-loved philanthropist who also provided a market cross, alms-houses and land and a building for the Leeds Grammar School. Leeds’ first historian, Ralph Thoresby, notes that Harrison fitted his doors and wainscots with holes “for the free passage of cats”.

When St John’s was built, 1632-4, it was fully a hundred years since church-building had been commonplace, and the folk-memory of the old masons had faded. The window-tracery is quirky, as if improvised, and the layout is odd: what might be the south aisle is the same size as the nave.

This double nave, with a central arcade, was practical because the preacher was positioned at the centre of the north wall. An elaborate screen separates the chancel area, where communion was celebrated “as in times past”.

St John’s looks superficially like a medieval church, but the panelling, the pulpit and the screens are distinctively Jacobean, with strapwork and obelisks, and the Royal Arms are those of James I & VI, who had died in 1625.

In its layout and decoration, this was a church that followed the ritualistic principles of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud (1573–1645).

The religious turmoil of the time flared up on the consecration day, September 21st 1634. In the morning John Cosin, chaplain to Richard Neile, Archbishop of York, preached a sermon in line with Laud’s principles. The same afternoon, the Puritan first Vicar of the new church, Robert Todd, in his sermon, vehemently attacked Neile’s views and was promptly suspended by the Archbishop. It took a year for John Harrison, and Sir Arthur Ingram of Temple Newsam, to secure Todd’s reinstatement.

In the early nineteenth century there was a strong possibility St John’s would have been demolished. The south porch was in fact taken down, and the tower was rebuilt in 1838.

Its rarity was recognised by the young architect, Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912). He enlisted the great Gothic Revival architect, George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), and between them they persuaded the Church authorities in 1865 that it would be cheaper to restore than to rebuild.

The congregation has long since disappeared, and this Grade-I listed church is now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust.

It’s open over lunchtime from Tuesday to Saturday, and is a welcome haven of calm in the midst of the busy city centre: http://www.visitchurches.org.uk/Ourchurches/Completelistofchurches/Church-of-St-John-the-Evangelist-Leeds-West-Yorkshire.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

No expense spared 4: Gustav Adolfs Kyrka, Liverpool

Gustav Adolfs Kyrka, Park Lane, Liverpool

Gustav Adolfs Kyrka, Park Lane, Liverpool

One of the most original churches in Liverpool is the Gustav Adolfs Kyrka, now known as the Scandinavian Seamen’s Church, a rendering in brick of the Nordic stave church [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stave_church].

It was built to minister to the pastoral needs of the transitory population of around fifty thousand Scandinavian seamen and emigrants in Liverpool in the early 1880s. It was completed at a cost of 50,000 Swedish crowns in 1884.

Designed by William Douglas Caröe (1857-1938), who was the son of the Danish Consul in Liverpool and a pupil of the architect John Loughborough Pearson, its octagonal form and pyramidal roof with stepped gables and a spectacular concave lead and timber spire highlight its Scandinavian associations.

The minister’s house adjoins the church.

The original worship space was up a half-flight of stairs and consisted of a galleried octagonal space with an open timber vault.

This was floored at gallery level in 1956-61 to create social and recreational space, and as the numbers of seamen visiting Liverpool declined the congregation adapted to serve the needs and welfare of the Scandinavian community in the city and its surrounding region.

Four plaster reliefs, originally part of the reredos and now relocated to the staircase, are by Robert Anning Bell.

Two sculptures, the Madonna and Christ, are by the Liverpool sculptor Arthur Dooley.

The bell from the former Norwegian Seamen’s Church at St Michael-in-the-Hamlet hangs beside the altar.

The Gustaf Adolf Nordic Congregation in Liverpool operates as the Nordic Church and Cultural Centre, providing a base for Danes, Finns, Icelanders, Norwegians and Swedes in the district and maintaining their unique building for future generations.

Visitors are made welcome, particularly at events: http://nordicliverpool.co.uk. The buffets are memorable.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

No expense spared 3: Old Hebrew Congregation Synagogue, Liverpool

Old Hebrew Congregation Synagogue, Princes Road, Liverpool

Old Hebrew Congregation Synagogue, Princes Road, Liverpool

Among the many fine Victorian buildings in and around Liverpool 8, the Old Hebrew Congregation Syngogue is a particular jewel.

Built 1871-4 to the designs of the brothers William James and George Ashdown Audsley, it is constructed, like St Margaret’s Church on the same side of Princes Road, of red brick dressed with red sandstone.

Its façade combines elements of Gothic and Moorish styles, the pointed west door and the rose window contrasting with the oriental arches of the doorframes and the minarets that once surmounted the turrets.

The spectacular galleried interior has a tall arcade, supported by cast-iron columns with acanthus capitals. The horseshoe arches of the arcade lead the eye to the much more elaborate arch at the east end, which frames another rose window above the marble Ark with painted domes and gold stars.

The initial total cost was £14,975 8s 11d.

The marble pulpit, given in 1874 by the widow of James Braham, faces the bimah, the platform from which the Torah and haftarah are read. This was the gift of David Lewis, founder of the Liverpool department store, “in gratitude to Almighty God for His great goodness”.

The Ark is a replacement of the original which with its holy scrolls was destroyed by arson in May 1979: it was reconstructed and the synagogue restored and reopened in December 1980.

This spectacular place is open to group tours, which feature an exhibition about the history of the congregation: http://www.princesroad.org/#!tours/cfvg.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.