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The Dean and the Vorticist

17 November 2023

Seventy-five years after its publication, William Whyte examines the legacy of Addleshaw and Etchells’s book on Anglican architecture

Kevin Baxter

The Very Revd George Addleshaw, Dean of Chester

The Very Revd George Addleshaw, Dean of Chester

SOUNDING a little like a firm of provincial solicitors, or an especially old-fashioned menswear shop, “Addleshaw and Etchells” is, in fact, a book.

But what a book! The Architectural Setting of Anglican Worship, by G. W. O. Addleshaw and Frederick Etchells, was published in 1948, and has remained the standard work on its subject ever since. Much read, and widely referred to, it has not only informed our understanding of church architecture, but also helped to shape the way in which we build and reorder churches themselves. As we celebrate its 75th birthday, it is time to understand why that should be so.

Addleshaw and Etchells were themselves an unlikely pair. One was an Anglican priest; the other, as his daughter recalled, “couldn’t stand vicars”. One was an antiquarian; the other had made his name as an avant-garde artist and close associate of the remorselessly aggressive poet and painter Percy Wyndham Lewis. It was a relationship that simply should not have worked. Somehow, it did.

The priest and antiquary George Addleshaw was an undeniably Establishment figure. The son of a parson, he was born in 1906, educated at public school and Trinity College, Oxford, where he just missed a first-class degree in history. After training at Cuddesdon, he pursued a successful career in the Church, eventually becoming Dean of Chester and writing several well-received historical studies, including an account of High Churchmanship before the Oxford Movement.

But Addleshaw was more interesting than his apparently effortless rise in the hierarchy might suggest. He was a serious thinker and a social reformer, with a real interest in how the Church could serve the people of England more effectively.

Frederick Etchells was a similarly complex figure. Born in 1886, he was a radical art-reformer in his youth, living on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group, decorating the room that John Maynard Keynes rented from Virginia Woolf in Brunswick Square. He was a member of Roger Fry’s Omega Group — and then left it to join Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticists. Influenced by the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti, they formed the Rebel Art Centre, and published a shocking attack on their contemporaries, BLAST.

The young Etchells even looked extraordinary. Red-haired, but sporting an ample blond beard — “as big as a spade” — during the First World War, he aroused so much suspicion by his appearance that the French authorities arrested him as a spy. On the cusp of middle age, he remained capable of shocking the conservative, publishing the first English translation of the provocative modern architect Le Corbusier’s tract Vers une architecture in 1927. “It may annoy,” Etchells observed in his introduction, “but it will certainly stimulate.”


YET Etchells was always more than just a modernist agent provocateur. He had a real sympathy for the Arts and Crafts movement, and a love of 16th-century music. He was an expert bookbinder, and enjoyed playing the harpsichord. As Malcolm Dickson has shown, in the only serious study of his career to date, Etchells’s work as an architect was strikingly eclectic. Not least, he built neo-Georgian and neo-Tudor houses for the Grosvenor Estate in London.

John Betjeman, who considered Etchells a “genius”, was amused by these apparent contradictions. The poet owned a copy of BLAST, and recalled the architect’s anxiety that, through this, his more small-minded clients might learn of the magazine’s controversial contents. “I hope you don’t draw attention to that, John,” he would exclaim. “It would upset my little vicars.”

Working together, two complex, multifaceted men produced a work of immense importance: a panoramic survey of church building from the Reformation to the start of the 20th century. Although responsibility for individual parts is unclear, it seems likely that “Young Addleshaw”, as Etchells always called him, was the source of the rich antiquarian research that gave authority to the text. Despite the restrictions of post-war publishing, it was a handsome book, filled with pictures and plans — and it seems probable that Etchells took the lead in providing that material.

Beginning its story in the Elizabethan age, their book traced the different ways in which parishes had evolved an Anglican architecture. They had inherited a set of buildings perfectly suited to the performance of the Latin mass.

“An English medieval church”, Addleshaw and Etchells observed, “is a mysterious succession of self-contained rooms, seemingly stretching into infinity.”

Slowly, steadily, successive generations adapted old churches, and erected new ones designed to serve the purpose of Prayer Book worship, creating what the two authors described as “the classic Anglican conception of a church as a building with three parts, one for christening, one for the offices and the sermon, and one for the communion”.

This three-fold plan was, according to Addleshaw and Etchells, developed — and then challenged — over three well-defined periods. The first, which ran from 1559 until 1841, was characterised by the growth of that “Anglican ideal”, with churches built or reordered to ensure that the congregation could take a full part in the services. The second, which lasted from 1841 to 1930, represented “an ever-increasing departure” from this ideal, in favour of something more hieratic and hierarchical.

Finally, the two authors argued for a new beginning in 1930, which marked the start — or so they claimed — of “a hesitant reaction against the typical nineteenth-century”.


PUT like this this, The Architectural Setting of Anglican Worship might sound both dull and somewhat esoteric, hardly something worth commemorating three-quarters of a century after it was first published. Yet it is saved from tedium or irrelevancy by its wit and its polemical edge. It is, to be sure, not laugh-out-loud, but it wears its learning lightly, and is capable of dry humour, regretting, for example that “England has yet to produce a poet who will sing the dignity of the reading pew and three-storeyed pulpit.”

“Addleshaw’s enthusiasm for congregational involvement is apparent in the injunctions. Etchells’s lack of interest in style and consistent emphasis on function underwrote the whole project”  

Its argument is more compelling still; for the book was not just a history of church architecture in the past: it was also a manifesto for how to build in the future. The “Anglican tradition” that Addleshaw and Etchells claimed to have identified was one in which worship was congregational, and the church was designed to maximise the congregation’s ability to engage with the officiant. “The officiating minister must be placed in close relationship to the people,” they argued. “In a building which attempts to be true to all that is best in the Anglican tradition, everything must be subordinated to this principle.”

This was an all-out assault on almost every church erected or reordered in the 19th century. The Victorians had downplayed the importance of the officiant and emphasised the significance of the building itself, seeing it as an active agent of ministry in its own right. Addleshaw and Etchells were also attacking the influence of contemporary developments in worship and architecture.

As Betjeman noted, “It was really a Laudian answer to the Anglo-Catholic Baroque.”

It was also a rebuttal of the Continental liturgical-reform movement that was beginning to influence a variety of Anglicans, too. Rather than look abroad, the book urged the Church to look back.

“If”, the authors concluded, “the present opportunities are grasped in the spirit of the bold approach, the flexibility, the imagination which characterised the best work of the period between the Reformation and the Oxford Movement, the next few years might see a splendid revival in the building and arranging of our churches, combining freedom and adaptability in meeting local needs with loyalty to the spirit as well as to the letter of the Prayer Book and to the classical tradition of the Church of England.”

It was an argument that clearly resonated. Post-war architects and their clients drew on these principles to produce a series of sensible, practical, adaptable churches that maximised contact between the minister and his congregation. Many of the plain brick boxes that went up on new housing estates, or replaced bombed-out buildings around the country, owed much to the claims made by the book.

It was also an argument that could have been developed only by Addleshaw and Etchells. It rested not only on Addleshaw’s antiquarian researches in general, but also on his specific expertise on what he termed in another book The High Church Tradition before the Tractarians. His enthusiasm for congregational involvement, for a more democratic Church, is also apparent in the injunctions laid out by The Architectural Setting of Anglican Worship.

Etchells’s idiosyncratic combination of interests also made the book’s arguments distinctive. His lack of interest in style and consistent emphasis on function underwrote the whole project. Above all, what united all his disparate projects — from Bloomsbury to Le Corbusier — was a hatred of Victorianism. For him, the 19th century was always something to eschew and escape.

The Church of England has inherited that tradition. To this day, the Victorian church remains rejected by most clergy and architects alike. That may, indeed, be the longest-lasting legacy of Addleshaw and Etchells, two apparently ill-assorted men with one compelling thesis that shapes our experiences of church architecture even after 75 years.

A one-day Conference is being held at the University of Kent at Canterbury on Saturday 25 November to honour the 75th anniversary of the volume by Addleshaw and Etchells. The conference is organised by the Centre for Anglican History and Theology in conjunction with the Ecclesiological Society.

Dr William Whyte is among the speakers: details from K.C.Fincham@kent.ac.uk

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