IN THE Essex village of Great Warley, a unique gem sparkles with Arts and Crafts flair. In 1904, the Church of St Mary the Virgin was designed by Harrison Townsend and William Reynolds-Stephens for the stockbroker Evelyn Heseltine, in memory of his younger brother. Its understated exterior gives nothing away, making the interior all the more dazzling. It teems with diverse symbols and materials, and very little surface area is left untouched by craftspeople’s skilful hands.
The ceiling is covered with aluminium foil, which was just as expensive as silver in 1902. The image of Christ above the altar is inscribed “Peace I give unto you,” and his silver cope includes a mother-of pearl morse and a heart of ruby glass. Alec Hamilton, remarking on this church in his beautifully illustrated book, describes this image of the resurrection as “a benevolent, sweet, approachable Saviour: Christ our friend, his blessing a cheery wave”.
This is not the strident moralising atmosphere often associated with the Victorian Gothic Revival, but a new generation’s lushly extravagant exploration of Christianity within changing dynamics between faith, culture, and the arts. Contrastingly, St Agatha’s Lamport, an Anglo-Catholic mission church, has not fared well. Its “glorious outpouring” of Arts and Crafts imagination is now a frail memory in a church that is “a ruined survivor — a victim of violence, municipal stupidity and incompetence”. The status of many churches as a truly endangered species leaps off the pages alongside celebrations of their histories.
Despite the style’s widespread appeal and a huge number of books dedicated to houses and design, there has never been a book focusing on Arts and Crafts churches. Within a few months of each other, two have just been published. Both books feature churches of many denominations, and Hamilton’s definition of “church” is so expansive as to exceed the term, as his book also mentions mosques, synagogues, and gurdwaras.
While there is understandable overlap between Hamilton’s book and Roger Button’s, and while both are accessibly written and have extensive gazetteers for those who will enjoy visiting these famous and more obscure buildings (when it’s possible to do so some day . . .), the two books cover substantially different territory, with diverse emphases, examples, and strategies.
© Chris StaffordAngels look down from the ceiling of the Mortuary Chapel, Compton, Surrey, 1895-98, designed by Mary Seton Watts (1849-1938), who was trained not as an architect, but as a sculptor and illustrator. A photo from Alec Hamilton’s book
Button includes a very short but welcome chapter on women, and Hamilton integrates their work throughout his study. These include Mary Seton Watts’s Compton Chapel for the painter G. F. Watts, Sarah Losh’s church in Wreay, and Phoebe Anna Traquair’s interior for the Catholic Apostolic Church often described as “Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel”. An apocryphal story of her commission is that she walked in off the street and simply said to one of the clergy, “I want to paint these walls.”
“Arts and Crafts” is difficult to define, and both Button and Hamilton are sensitive to this problem. Between 1884 and 1918, there were about 5000 churches built in the UK. Hamilton suggests that only around 350 of them can really be called Arts and Crafts. Button suggests that the movement began in the 1870s and identifies four key ideas: “concern about industrialisation”; “importance of craftsmanship”; “need for social harmony”; and “return to local vernacular traditions”.
Perhaps it goes without saying that avoidance of mechanical or mass-produced processes and materials is also a core aspect of the Arts and Crafts style and ethos, as well as a strong connection between architects, painters, sculptors, stained-glass artists, and others who made substantial creative contributions either at the beginning of a project or, in some examples, some decades later. Not all churches were fortunate enough to have a stockbroker patron who could ensure that a vision came to fruition with such swift coherence.
Additionally, Hamilton claims that the Arts and Crafts church is a product of secularisation. He can be somewhat dismissive of religious devotion in producing and engaging with these buildings, and suggests that contemporary atheism, or at least agnosticism, has its roots in the sumptuously carved pews of parishes from Cornwall to Cumbria.
Button sees connections between the style and changing patterns of religious life in Britain in a similar way, though is less inclined to perceive it as a step in the right direction. Undeniably, the Arts and Crafts church changed and beautified hundreds of British cities and villages. Whether such churches are enjoyed and celebrated by tourists, scholars, or worshippers, they must not be neglected; rather, they are gems to be treasured.
The Revd Dr Ayla Lepine is Chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge.
Arts and Crafts Churches
Lund Humphries £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50
Arts and Crafts Churches of Great Britain: Architects, craftsmen and patrons
2QT Publishing £19.50*
*from online outlets, distributed by www.summerhousebooksyork.com