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Art review: A Festival of Flowers and Vestments (St Mary’s, Bourne Street, London SW1)

24 May 2024

Glyn Paflin views fine vestments matched with carefully chosen and arranged flowers in an Anglo-Catholic church near the Chelsea Flower Show

Clare Tollemache

Fine silk cope (1890) with flower display by Francis Holland Junior School

Fine silk cope (1890) with flower display by Francis Holland Junior School

THE queues at Sloane Square Underground station, in London, seemed to point to only one thing: that there was a flower festival at St Mary’s, Bourne Street — although the RHS Chelsea Flower Show was also in the neighbourhood, too.

The event at St Mary’s, one of the best-known Anglo-Catholic churches in London, noted for, among other things, its Baroque décor by Travers and English Missal-style liturgy with elaborate ceremonial and music, including the propers from the Plainsong Gradual, continues until tomorrow (24 May). Its theme is “Holy ground: the liturgy as theatre”. It is part of the wider Belgravia in Bloom festival (and winner of a gold award in it), but also marks the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the church.

And it is, to be more precise, “A Festival of Flowers and Vestments”. On Thursday, when I visited, I was told that cathedral broderers and others with a special interest in ecclesiastical needlework and vesture had formed a significant portion of a healthy number of visitors so far, after publicity in the national press.

The Vicar, the Revd Andrew Walker, describes the church’s own collection as “rich and astonishing”, and the flower arrangements are skilfully co-ordinated with and inspired by vestments on display. Since floral patterns are a feature of the church’s collection, a great deal of thought, and scouting around for the right flowers, has clearly gone into this.

The church (whose parish is Pimlico, not Chelsea) was a daughter church of St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, opened with the needs of domestic servants in mind. Although it was always, therefore, at the Catholic end of the Church of England spectrum, it was only in the 1910s, Fr Walker told me, that “the shopping began.”

Where the shopping was done is not clear from Dr Jessica Borge’s vestment catalogue in the full-colour festival brochure. Probably the finest, if not necessarily the most appealing, chasuble on display is the rare English medieval chasuble dated to 1490, and displayed in the sanctuary of the high altar. This is the classic Opus Anglicanum style, using red Italian silk velvet, and could have been made from a full Gothic chasuble. It is used at St Mary’s only on Holy Cross Day and St Andrew’s Day.

It is on display close to the Travers Red Set, dating from 1911. Decorated with pomegranates and roses, and powdered with “tongues of fire”, it is used at mass on Pentecost. It is the only Gothic chasuble in the church’s collection, and has been exhibited elsewhere several times: one occasion was the Oxford Movement Centenary Exhibition at the Imperial Institute in 1933.

Although Travers was the church’s furnisher, it was in fact worn by a former Vicar, the Revd Humphrey Whitby, for his first mass in St Columba’s, Haggerston, and bequeathed by him to St Mary’s with the much older “Gold Bullion” (South Germany or Austria, c.1740).

As you enter the church, one of the first vestments that you see, with matching flowers, is the one engagingly described in the catalogue as “Green Ballgown”. Dated to the c.1850s-80s, it is one of the floral sets at St Mary’s, and is made from a luxurious machine-woven jacquard fabric, thought to have been taken from a crinoline ballgown after the cage crinoline skirt went out of fashion.

The “Cardinal Mendoza” high-mass set is Italian, from the early 18th century, and made of white silk, embroidered with carnations, peacocks, and butterflies, in coloured silks and gold thread. It comes out on special occasions.

The name of this set is, like others in use at St Mary’s, not necessarily very accurate, but a matter of parish tradition. For example, the “William Morris” chasuble is in fact Central European (late 19th or early 20th century).

The late-19th-century mitre displayed on the font is one of three that the church has available for visiting bishops to wear, and is kept for pontifical functions on major feast days. It is embroidered with tulips and carnations in coloured silk and metal thread, and the lappets are fringed in gold.

This is just a small sample of the vestments on display, and, if it is not quite a once-in-a-lifetime experience — the last flower festival was in 1979 — it is a rich and rewarding display, in which St Mary’s shares not only its impressive aesthetic heritage but also the implicit generosity of those who gave these artefacts to the glory of God, and the supporters of the festival who have paid for all the glorious flowers.

Open Friday 24 May, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday 25 May, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.


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