Alec Hamilton, author of Arts & Crafts Churches, grapples with the question of defining the Arts & Crafts Church, and considers what we might learn from the structures - and especially the architects - who appear to 'break the rules'...
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St Stephen, Pamphill, Charles Ponting.
When I was writing my book Arts & Crafts Churches, I got three constant questions.
1) ‘What is Arts & Crafts?’ (Sometimes the more careful, ‘What is meant by Arts & Crafts?’, or the frankly pugnacious, ‘What exactly do you mean – or think you mean – by ‘Arts & Crafts’?, with the implied suffix, ‘matey’ or, despite my age, ‘sonny’.)
This one is not too hard: almost every book on Arts & Crafts starts with some sort of explanation, usually chronological – who met whom and what they did next and why. Yes, it was about what you did or said or thought. But it was more about who you were, and who you knew. For it was about clubs: primarily the Art Workers’ Guild (AWG) – if you were a Brother of that, then QED you were part of the Arts & Crafts. Or if you were a member of the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society (ACES), or ever exhibited with them. Or you were in the Century Guild, or the Guild of Handicraft… or (he added weakly) bodies like that. ‘What about Harry Hems?’ they demanded. I tended to smile enigmatically: ‘What indeed?’ There wasn’t a definition. Those involved were not interested in definitions, they were interested in actions – not what you made, but how you made it. And they did not subscribe to a credo, or sign a manifesto. They were free – like us. They rather liked defying categorization.
2) OK. So…‘What is an Arts & Crafts church?’
By the time I had finished the book, I had got this down to eight ‘parameters’. To some extent it is simply to do with date – the church has to be built in or after 1884 (when the AWG was founded), and before 1918, the end of the Great War. But neither of these dates is very firm – because there are plenty of ‘pre-cursor’ churches that exhibit some of the aesthetic ideas, and even some of the ways of working, in the 1870s; and plenty of churches that echo them into the 1920 and 1930s.
To some extent this is because, as one scholar put it to me after a long wrangle, ‘Arts & Crafts church is in the eye of the beholder.’ Looking the part is certainly important because, whilst Arts & Crafts is how you make things and build things, that tends to mean things come out looking a certain way – and that quickly comes to be identified with the ideas: the notion of an ‘Arts & Crafts style’. The AWG hated the notion of style, which they saw as ‘copying’, which they did not approve of.
Be that as it may, something was meanwhile happening in churches around 1900 which was not like what had gone before – these were not churches for a church-going consensual majority. God had become optional. Not that they went so far as the churches of the 1930s, when Modernism dictated both rationality in the way buildings were built, and in what we believed. Arts & Crafts churches are from a much more interesting time – when we, the No-Longer-Victorians, were trying to find a way to express our personal spiritual longings using the old, out-dated language of church-building, but in a new way that took just as much interest in art and the secular and in earthly beauty and the hand of Man, as it did in God.
People find it somehow easy and non-controversial to say what is an Arts & Crafts house, or table, or brooch, or plate. But church tends to raise all sorts of problems. I think – I hope – that is at least in part because there has never (until now) been a book on the subject. Even Gavin Stamp admitted to me that, though he had just given a lecture on the subject (in 2005) it was “too difficult” to make into a book. If there isn’t a book, the unspoken reasoning goes, there can’t be any such thing. Such is the faith in authority. We are not terribly good at thinking for ourselves, sometimes.
3) ‘But St X isn’t an Arts & Crafts church!’
Oh dear. People are frightfully certain about this. They are not always quite able to say what an Arts & Church is, but by gum, they have no doubt when a church is not Arts & Crafts.
If I suggest a certain church ‘is’ – say St Catherine, Hoarwithy, or Cymdu Chapel near Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, or Holy Rood, Watford – or really any church built within 20 years either side of 1900 – the ton of bricks is on my head before I have time to run. I get a pitying look, or a snort of incredulous laughter, or a lengthy dissertation on my poor grasp of typology and cladistics. Sometimes I get the benefit of an alternative, and seemingly water-tight categorization for the church under advisement (Art Nouveau, Vernacular Revival, Late Gothic Revival, Neo-Gothic – you name it) which only an unlettered fool would not see. Well, OK, so I am a fool. But, I hope, a holy one.
The one great lesson of my 15 years looking at these buildings is that ‘Arts & Crafts church’ is not an architectural category at all. It is not equivalent to ‘Gothic Revival church’ or ‘Gilbert Scott church’. It is not really about how to categorize the different way it looks. It is that these churches are an expression of a new idea – the supremacy of the individual, the holiness of Me. Getting hung up on the way it looks, is as wrong as classifying works of art by their colour.
So, with that under our belt, let us wade out into the swamp.
St Chad, Church Wilne, 1917–23, Percy Heylyn Currey.
Because while trying to set out the rules is all very well, it is the churches that break them that are the most instructive.
Let us consider the work of three architects who were not members of the AWG or the ACES, and who never subscribed to any of those ideas, or went to the meetings, or even mixed with the people. But who nonetheless designed churches which it is both meaningful and, more importantly, helpful, to see as Arts & Crafts churches. Not that they thought they were ‘Arts & Crafts architects’. (Not that any architect did, actually.) It is only because I have developed Arts & Crafts spectacles that I can see them that way – unconsciously Arts & Crafts.
Christ Church, Shaw, 1905, Charles Ponting.
Images throughout courtesy of the author.
Charles Ponting (1849-1932) is not quite un-studied – there is an assessment of his life and work (Anthony Nicholson, Charles Edward Pointing FSA 1849-1932, Architect, BA dissertation, University of Exeter, 2007), but he is under-observed and little regarded. Shame.
He was profoundly provincial, hardly ever working outside Wiltshire and Dorset. He was not in the AWG. Yet there is something – almost despite himself – which is Arts & Crafts: a quality, though tamed and circumspect, that nonetheless has the freedom, energy, originality and even playfulness of the Arts & Crafts. He can be adventurous, at times preposterous, devil-may-care, and much more interested in beauty and craftsmanship than historical correctness. With Ponting the notion of ‘Arts & Crafts instincts’ is palpable: not political, nor even perhaps deliberate, but heart-felt and sincere. Even a little naïve. He was always, I think, trying to be an artistic architect, and always sensitive to the beauty that resides in small detail. He never became FRIBA, though he was frequently approached to do so. On the other hand, he did exhibit at the RA – 17 drawings over his career – suggesting he saw architecture as an art more than a profession.
He was born in the village of Collingbourne Ducis, Wilts. He trained in the office of Samuel Overton, the Savernake Estate’s principal architect. He was sent into the estate’s masons’ yard and its joinery shop. He acquired hands-on craft skills: a perfect Arts & Crafts architectural background. Churches rang a bell, in a rather old-fashioned way. In a 1924 article he recalled that the restoration of Collingbourne Ducis church by G E Street in 1856 came ‘at the time of life when such wonderful works made a lasting impression.’
He was agent for the Meux Estate 1870-88: his first new-build church, St Michael, West Overton, was paid for by the Estate. He became locally eminent: in 1883 Diocesan Surveyor for the Wiltshire part of Salisbury Diocese; part of Bristol Diocese added from 1887, and Dorset in 1892. At the height of his career he was responsible for 237 churches.
St Birinus, Redlynch, 1894-6, Charles Ponting.
He built a dozen new churches. They do not form a neat group with common characteristics – each seems a piece of fresh thinking. By far the most visually exciting is Christ Church, Shaw, 1905, with its soaring woodwork. At St Birinus, Redlynch, 1894–6, he is rather Olde Worlde. St John the Evangelist, North Wraxall, Ford, 1897 is now a private house – but look at his drawing, for Alpine drama.
St John the Evangelist, North Wraxall, 1897. Taken from Building News, 30 December 1898.
He also designed St Thomas, Southwick, 1899–1904; the Chapel of St Mary’s School, Wantage, Berks, 1898–9, now a dental surgery; St Aldhelm, Sandleheath, Hants, 1907, now a brass band storeroom. And four churches in Dorset – St Martin, Weymouth, 1908, now a house; St Mary, West Fordington, Dorchester, 1910–12; the touchingly pretty memorial church St George, Langham, 1921; and St Stephen, Pamphill, probably the most costly, for the Bankes family of Kingston Lacy - showy, but not gaudy; part ‘jewel-box’, part homely; almost a private chapel, but at heart a country church; cosy and arty all at the same time. The little children Christ suffers to come to him in the east window are the Lady of the Manor’s children. The benefactress used to leave the service before the end, and by a private door, so as not to encounter the congregation, her employees.
Ponting was, perhaps, not posh enough for some – the tang of the joinery shop lingered. In 1905 St Melor, Amesbury was to be restored. A local worthy, Lady Antrobus, took fright: ‘Ponting has just been appointed to pull about the chancel.’ She claimed he would ‘ruin everything’, and offered to pay for the more OK Detmar Blow to step in. SPAB were called to arms. In the end, Ponting did the work – stripping back the brutal 1852 restoration by Butterfield, lovingly reinstating and repairing the screen and meticulously reassembling the font. Ponting had it all: craft skills and understanding, a background in local tradition, diligence and dogged persistence, and the self-effacing diffidence so typical of the Arts & Crafts.
St Aldhelm, Sandleheath and St Stephen, Pamphill, Charles Ponting.
St George, Langham, 1921, Charles Ponting.
The name of Percy Heylyn Currey (1864-1942) rings few bells, even in his native Derbyshire. It’s a shame, when his churches are so interesting. They embody those intangible characteristics of temperament – sincerity, simplicity, clarity and warmth – which epitomise Arts & Crafts sentiments when expressed in churches.
Currey was a shy, bookish man who never belonged to the AWG nor, as far as is known, exhibited with the ACES. His only enthusiasm seems to have been, from 1901, as Secretary of the Derbyshire Archaeological and Natural History Society. His lengthy list of articles in its Journal indicates his interests were archaeological, and medieval churches in particular. (Ponting was an archaeological expert too.) He was FRIBA in 1907.
Christ Church, Holloway, 1900–3, Percy Heylyn Currey. Glass by Louis Davis.
Currey designed five churches in Derbyshire: St Stephen, Borrowash, 1889–92, abruptly self-effacing in unapologetic brick; St John, Ilkeston, 1893–4, big-boned and confident; St Bartholomew, Hallam Fields, 1895, now offices; St Peter, Stonebroom, 1900–2, with its suggestion of simple, honest work by the village’s miners; Christ Church, Holloway, 1900–3 which became a striking and moving War Memorial, with Louis Davis east window and carving by Laurence Turner; the tower of St Thomas, Somercotes (1902); and a chapel for Derby School (1891). He also built St Mary, Westwood, Notts, 1899.
St John, Ilkeston, 1893–4, Percy Heylyn Currey.
In 1902 he went into partnership with Charles Thompson: together they built the rather awe-inspiring, forbidding St Osmund, Osmaston, 1904; the modest Holy Trinity, Fernilee, Whaley Bridge, 1904–5; St Mary the Virgin, Buxton, 1914–5; and four or five more.
Of his early churches Stonebroom and Westwood are the most homely – “cosy” – at least partly because they are small, and in village settings. And they contrast with their predecessors at Borrowash and Ilkeston, which seem severe and sternly unforgiving by comparison. The churches that come after Stonebroom, once Thompson joined the practice, are altogether more ambitious and sophisticated: Holloway has the tower Stonebroom yearns for; Somercotes has gloomy authority and muscular presence. But neither has much artistic originality, at least from outside. They are conventional, even pedestrian. (The interiors are rather less so.)
St Peter, Stonebroom, 1900-2, Percy Heylyn Currey.
Then at St Mary, Dale Road, Buxton, just before the Great War, something new happens: with the simple addition of eyebrow dormers, there seems to be an entirely different visual language for a church – at once modern and curvaceously welcoming. The chancel screen is something entirely original, spare and open with exuberantly carved wooden fleurons/bosses and panels, and reminiscent, in less lurid materials, of Great Warley. There are similar screens at St Chad, Church Wilne, 1917–23, refitted after a disastrous fire; and All Saints, Totley (now in Yorkshire), 1924.
He wrote little (or nothing) about his own buildings. His politics and working methods were not noticeably Arts & Crafts, but his aesthetics grew in that direction bit by bit. At Buxton, there seems to emerge an entirely new visual language for a church – at once modern and romantic.
St Mary the Virgin, Buxton, 1914-15, Currey and Thompson.
Richard Bassnett Preston (1855–1934) was not a member of any Arts & Crafts body, nor was he necessarily ‘Arts & Crafts’ in instincts or outlook. But he was ARIBA. He is thought of – if thought of at all – as ‘merely’ a Lancashire provincial architect.
Some of his churches are pedestrian, but some, seen by Arts & Crafts lights, have an engaging artistic liveliness, albeit muffled, and often contain good and unexpected craft skills with thoughtful detailing. Yes, they can seem to be pale imitations of Bodley (often in harsh brick), but often there is more. He loved mosaic pavements in the sanctuary, and intricate reredoses.
Emmanuel, Southport, 1895-8 & St Michael, Foulridge, 1903-5. Richard Bassnett Preston.
Emmanuel, Southport, 1895–8 is ponderous, but has a dashing Great War Memorial screen and a novel bookstand/lectern with carved service-men and women by W.E. Vernon Crompton (AWG 1916). St Michael, Foulridge, 1903–5 has green-stained benches, an elaborate gesso reredos and a font in the manner of Laurence Turner. There is fine glass at St John the Evangelist, Old Trafford, 1907–8; an intriguing faux naïf gesso reredos with Burne-Jones angels and altar at St Katharine, Blackrod, 1910–11; at St John, Furness Vale, 1912, near Stockport, there is inventive tracery, and sensitive wood carving in the pulpit and choir stalls – it is also the church of his that looks most Arts & Crafts from the road.
St John, Furness Vale, 1912, Richard Bassnett Preston.
Surely the most fully realised – and now the saddest – is St Thomas, Leigh, Wigan, 1902–9, with naturalistic squirrels, a lion and seabirds on the choir stalls, a powerful carved and painted reredos, a muscular pulpit – all now derelict and relentlessly vandalised.
St Katharine, Blackrod, 1910–11, Richard Bassnett Preston.
Are these churches ‘Arts & Crafts’?
Arts & Crafts is not a private party with a bouncer at the door barring entry. At their date it is impossible to avoid the seductive influences. But, unlike what might have been built 40 years earlier, these churches are not so much about architectural or liturgical propriety, as glorying in the flame of individuality that now animated both religion and architecture.
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