Tag Archives: George Gilbert Scott

St Mary Abbots – Kensington’s parish church

This week’s post features the return of regular contributor Isabel Hernandez who has been looking into the history of one of Kensington’s most iconic buildings.

“One of the handsomest churches in the metropolis” ~ The London Journal, 1880

When you live in a place and go about your busy routine, especially in large cities, your perception of what surrounds you can sometimes become clouded. This is true of buildings. When we are not consciously looking for them, their presence often goes unnoticed. Some buildings are not particularly attractive or significant; most are functional structures. The over-familiar landmarks can become so much a part of our everyday existence that we rarely imagine them never being there, and so we don’t give them much attention.

Tucked away at the junction of Kensington High Street and Kensington Church Street stands St Mary Abbots Church. You may have passed it many times; perhaps even fleetingly noticed its quiet presence away from the hubbub of traffic and rushing people, before continuing on your journey to somewhere. You may be a resident and have attended services, recitals, or special occasions celebrated within its walls, you may even have been a passing pilgrim in search of a little quiet meditation away from the madding crowds. Whatever your encounter with St Mary Abbots, it has been a presence in Kensington for centuries.

Below is a photograph taken around 1950 of St Mary Abbots with its stunning tower and spire.

The church from the S.E C.1950's

 

Kensington is mentioned in the Domesday Book as Chenesiton, the manor belonging to Aubrey De Vere. There is uncertainty as to whether or not a church existed in the area in Saxon days but we do know that a gift of land was given to the Monastery of Abingdon by Godfrey De Vere with consent from his family as a testimonial of gratitude towards the Abbot responsible for “having cured him of a former sickness” (Thomas Faulkner, in his History and Antiquities of Kensington, 1820). It is at this point that a Vicarage was ordained and endowed, with patronage eventually given by the Bishop of London.

SMA pub. March1807 by S.Woodburn

(An etching by S. Woodburn depicting St Mary Abbots as it was in 1807)

The medieval church was largely rebuilt between 1683 and 1704. It is not known if it was built on the site of the original church which was granted by the Abbey of Abingdon c.1100. What we do know is that St Mary Abbots has undergone a series of incarnations with rebuilding and repairs throughout its existence, eventually culminating in the church building we know today.

According to a survey done in 1866, when it was clear that the old church was falling apart, “it was found that many of the walls consisted of a thin skin of brickwork encasing a rubble core, indicating that in some cases the medieval walls may merely have been refaced with brick”. The beams were riddled with dry rot and it was clear that the church was no longer fit for purpose. With a growing population, the demand for a suitable parish church meant that something drastic had to be done.

SMA 1840

Here is another (unknown) artist’s creative depiction of about 1840. Occasionally, when you compare an etching or a drawing to an actual photograph, you can sometimes appreciate the accuracy with which a decent artist could recreate an image before the age of photography became the new emperor, even if some details were subject to poetic licence at times, such as the width of Kensington Church Street here. Also, you may find features that may have been illustrated earlier by another artist in the exact same place – the water pump on the left, for example. You will also see it in the image above this one by Woodburn.

St Mary Abbots C.1860's

Here is a photograph of the old church around the 1860’s. The old church is strikingly different to what St Mary Abbots looks like today. To the west you can clearly see the Georgian tower constructed in 1770-72:

“At the top was a battlemented parapet surmounted by a clock-turret on which stood a cupola containing the bells, the whole being topped by a weather vane.” (Survey of London)

There appear to be a few young chaps milling around in the foreground with a horse taking a break from its carriage duties eating out of a nose bag. To the right, along Church Street, there are evidently shops and a few blurred shoppers going about their business. One thing I enjoy about these old photos is trying to ascertain what I’m looking at when I focus on an area and increase the magnitude. To the right of the church you can see a butcher’s shop with a long line of whole pigs hanging from a shop window. Quite extraordinary! Of course, these were the pre-packaging days when organic was the order of the day.

St Mary Abbots 1865

This is one of my favourite photographs of the old St Mary Abbots Church. The image of the solitary figure standing in the doorway makes for a compelling ghost story. But I would think that the lady may perhaps have been in the employ of the church as caretaker in one form or another. Not a ghost at all, even if memory of her is most likely forgotten now.

This photograph was apparently taken around 1865 in the church grounds showing the tower and part of the burial ground one year before the 1866 survey was conducted to ascertain the condition of the building, which was declared unsafe: the vaults and the foundations needed particular attention and were considered an embarrassment.

The vicar, Archdeacon Sinclair, decided that a new church should be built, declaring “…the house that is to be builded for the Lord must be exceeding magnifical…the work is great…for the palace is not for man but for the Lord.”

(The Story of St Mary Abbots Kensington – J. D. Guillam Scott).

The man who was commissioned with the job of creating Kensington’s new church was the leading architect, George Gilbert Scott who was working on the Albert Memorial at the time.

St Mary Abbots 1869

Here is another view of the old church at ground level (1869) from High Street Kensington. Demolition of the old church appears to be underway. Behind the closed gates you can see the remnants of what look like timbers or beams.

G.G Scott chalk by G Richmond 1877

(The chalk study above is taken from the painting by George Richmond for RIBA in 1877)

Sir George Gilbert Scott is probably best known for his Gothic Universal style. His practice was never short of commissions, especially ecclesiastical contracts. They were not considered the most prominent examples of his work, but the scale of his achievements is quite astonishing, to the point where it could be said he was something of a workaholic. When he was approached, after a unanimous decision was taken to rebuild the church from scratch, the project was considered to be in safe hands, even when his original plan was met with both criticism and praise. He drew up a plan with an estimated cost of £35,000 – quite staggering for the time – but after some modification, and funds allowing, the first contract was approved, work beginning with the chancel, the vestry, and the foundations of what would become the present day St Mary Abbots. It was around this time that Scott’s health began to fail him. He became very ill in November 1870 with heart disease and bronchitis and he relied on his son, John Oldrid, to deal with much of the firm’s commissions.

The Scott family of architects have all had a hand in work for Kensington. The son, John Oldrid Scott, and grandson, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, both had designs incorporated into St Mary Abbots, and were well known architects in their own right.

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (grandson) is also responsible for the Carmelite Church which is also in Kensington Church Street. It replaced the original building designed by E.W Pugin in 1865-1866, bombed during the war. He is also responsible for Battersea Power Station and the iconic, red telephone box, amongst many other works.

Sir George Gilbert Scott died of heart failure on 27th March 1878 at Courtfield House, Kensington. He was buried in Westminster Abbey with Queen Victoria joining the funeral procession from Kensington on the 6th April.

SMA plan

( G.G. Scott’s plan for the new St Mary Abbots.)

The demand for Gothic-style buildings in the Victorian era led to many churches in South-east England being built of Kentish ragstone, amongst other materials. It is basically hard, grey limestone that was laid down in the cretaceous period and is hard-wearing. Ideal for large structures. Bensted’s Quarry, also known as the Iguanodon Quarry, around Maidstone, is famous for the fossilised remains of an Iguanodon found when limestone was being excavated in 1834. It is from this quarry that the ragstone used to face the church originated (contractor’s report 1881). The quarry was apparently closed in 1872, the same year St Mary Abbots was consecrated.

St Mary Abbots May 1872

A rare image of St Mary Abbots in 1872 before its tower and spire were built. It would be another seven years before it was completed.

Demolition of the old church took place in 1869 after parishioners approved a slightly amended design for its replacement. The main body of the new church was quickly built over the course of three years or so, and considered sufficiently far advanced to be consecrated on 14 May 1872, later completed when the top stone of the impressive spire was laid in an elaborate ceremony by the Rev Edward Carr Glynn on the 15 November 1879 after a special service was held on what was a windy day.

According to the London Journal, several gentlemen of the clergy, churchwardens, and others involved with the project, joined the Rev Carr Glyn and “ascended by a solid stone spiral staircase to the top of the tower and then by ladders up the scaffolding outside the spire to a platform at the top, the Royal Standard flying above all at a height of about 300 feet from the ground, and at a point from which there is a fine view of Kensington Palace Gardens. The top stone was quickly placed in position for lowering, the scaffolding with its rather heavy load of visitors, swaying slightly but perceptively in the high wind.”

I expect that those watching from the ground may have been a little apprehensive of the whole ceremony, let alone readers of the journal describing the event. The London Journal concludes, almost with relief: “It is, perhaps, worth noting that during the ten years the works have been in progress no serious accident has happened.”

SMA details of tower and spire G.G Scott

Unlike their Georgian predecessors, the Victorians tended to be bolder in their architectural statements, and churches were no exception. Before the 13th century, towers were rare on parish churches. By the 13th and 14th centuries they were usually only seen in major towns, or built at the behest of a very wealthy benefactor. Towers and spires serve no real liturgical purpose other than to house the bells.

SMA menworking on spire

(Note the three men working on the spire, including one brave man right at the top)

St Mary Abbots boasts a large tower with spire, situated in the north-east corner of the church. Measurements vary as to its height depending on what you read: “A recent measurement by nautical sextant showed the height of the tower and spire to be approximately 250 feet. The spire is surmounted by a vane. Originally fourteen feet in height.” (Survey of London)

Whatever the accuracy, the vertigo I feel looking at those chaps on the spire is enough to make me understand that yes, the height of the tower and spire is formidable and impressive. The three gentlemen appear to be inspecting the structure at different points. I wonder at the near impossibility of such a feat, but what a view!

SMA 1960 spire view

This photograph (1960) was possibly taken from the Barker’s building opposite and shows in great detail the tower and spire, apparently inspired by St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. From here the peal of ten bells can sometimes be heard harmoniously ringing across Kensington to remind us of St Mary Abbots’ presence.

In the distance, to the right of the tower, you can also see the spire of St Matthew’s church in Bayswater, built in 1881-82. It is of a similar height to St Mary Abbots, measuring around 240 feet. Church building was big business for architectural firms of the period. A growing Victorian population kept the building firms and parish districts busy; the smaller chapels and crumbling older churches could no longer serve the parishioners. The Paddington district, particularly, had one of the highest population densities in London. Most green spaces in West London soon succumbed to the building boom to accommodate this growth.

SMA C.1900

This is the ‘winding and rising vaulted cloistral approach’ to the south door of St Mary Abbots added by John Oldrid Scott in 1889-93. The arched entrance almost looks forbidding – something about gothic tales and fanciful whims to fuel the overactive imagination – but as soon as you walk through, those feelings vanish. The sense of another era and the peace and quiet away from the traffic soon becomes a welcome respite.

SMA 1960 Aerial

Here is another view, of 1960, showing the steeply pitched roof of the church. Unfortunately it is not the original roof. That was destroyed during the bombing of London in WW2. The monument you see in the foreground is a war memorial dedicated to those of Kensington who died in the war. Below the great church are people going places. It does not look busy but I suspect this is a very early morning photographic shot, taken before the rush hour. It is also worth noting that some modifications to that junction have been made since then to accommodate the increasing traffic. London’s noise and bustle is consistent throughout the decades. But one could argue that this is a typical characteristic of any major city.

St Mary Abotts 1984

(c.1984)

The throes of autumn: conjure up a little mist and you could be on the set of a gothic drama. I have often had my lunch here in this quiet garden, away from the fury of traffic and the impatience of people. It looks lonely here. You can still find gravestones scattered around the church ground, mostly just eroded relics of a time and people that once were. But it is never lonely, more of a small sanctuary. And then there is St Mary Abbots, architecturally “a solid and impeccably detailed essay in the Early English style” and yet to me, something of a majestic presence bridging the old Chenesiton and the modern Kensington.

The next time you go for a walk, take a look around. You may find yourself in the presence of a lovely building that you may not have noticed before. Consider it a moment of awareness when the cloak of invisibility suddenly peels away to reveal something interesting.

SMA by W.F.M

Postscript

In this post I have concentrated on the exterior of St Mary Abbots. Many of our historical publications go into great detail regarding the church but I wanted to try and keep to one aspect of the church as indeed there is scope for so much more within our collection: the church interior is equally as fascinating and potentially there are more posts to come.

Most of the quotes I have used are from the Survey of London. I have also consulted Pevsner, and other sources which I have credited above. Not being an architect myself these were invaluable and I would urge anyone who is interested to consult these for further information.

A special thank you goes to Jane MacAllan (SMA archivist) and Pat Wilson (SMA Parish Clerk) who were kind enough to show me around St Mary Abbots over the summer and are a wealth of knowledge. I hope to put that to good use in another future post about the church. And thanks to Dave for being infinitely patient with me on this one.

Postscript by DW

Isabel has no need to thank me for my patience. I know she looked at practically every picture of SMA we have. (And we have a lot).It was worth the wait. Next week is Halloween of course.

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Albert’s companions: art / empire / industry

Last week I noted that the climax of the Albert Memorial, the great statue of Albert took its place at the centre of a large group of other sculptures and figures. This week we’re going to have a closer look at those other statues. This picture shows the rising succession of steps and terraces

K- unknown

It is as though you are entering a sacred precinct in a temple complex. Perhaps you are. The Memorial is located at the apex of a series of great Victoria buildings among them the V&A, the Natural History Museum, the Imperial Institute (the brainchild of Albert’s son) and the Albert Hall which together formed the area in South Kensington called Albertopolis.

Albert is surrounded by guardians representing geography, art, science and religion. The outer ring joined by an ornate fence is the four continents, each represented by a series of figures and an animal.

Albert Memorial - Africa

Africa, behind it the dome of the Albert Hall. This is a fairly partial view of the African continent concentrating on north Africa, with an Egyptian figure mounted on  a kneeling camel. (It was decided not to use a lion for Africa to avoid confusion with the “British” lion, although it might also have strained credulity to place a predatory animal among a group of people.) An engraving of the sculpture reveals a further detail.

Albert Memorial - Africa197

The Sphinx – Egyptian imagery was extremely popular at the time.

America gets another quirky treatment.

Albert Memorial - America

The spirit of America rides the bison wearing a native American head dress. The woman standing is the United States. The seated man is an Aztec and there’s a Canadian woman on the other side. You can’t see the south American cowboy behind the bison. (The relevant engraving is no help in this regard).

Europe’s animal was the bull, possibly a reference to the story of Europa who was abducted by Zeus in the form of a white bull.

Albert Memorial - Europe

The bull is the only male in the group. The spirit of Europe rides the bull holding an orb and sceptre. Britain holds a trident symbolising ocean supremacy. Beside her, peaceful Germany, a home of learning, sits with  a book. This time the engraving shows us the other side.

Albert Memorial - Europe 193

Europe 22 oct 1998

France has a sword for military prowess and Italy, with one finger raised as though shyly making a point, concentrates on the arts and music, with a palette and lyre. The 1998 photo shows that other side.

The last of the four groups was Asia, by John Foley who eventually sculpted Albert. This is the most striking of the four continents.

Albert Memorial - Asia

The woman on the kneeling elephant is unveiling herself not as an allusion to the sometimes explicit sculptures on Hindu temples but apparently because the Great Exhbition was a showcase for goods coming out of Asia. Beside her, a Chinese potter, an Indian warrior, a Persian poet and, unseen, an Arab merchant holding the Koran. You can glimpse him in the engraving.

Albert Memorial - Asia195

After the continents, on the main plinth, the Parnassus frieze. 169 figures of individual poets, painters, musicians, architects, the contemporary idea of the finest or most significant in their respective fields. The carving was all done on the spot by two sculptors, John Birnie Philip and Henry Hugh Armstead.

Frieze - Shakespeare etc

Here Shakespeare lounges next to Homer with Chaucer looking on. At the other end Bach and Handel exchange musical ideas. (Between them Gluck looks overawed by the company).

Frieze - Titian etc

A bunch of Italian old masters stand around. Raphael gets a throne, with Michaelangelo slumped against it deep in thought. (Not his only appearance on the frieze – he’s with the painters here and takes the central spot amongst the sculptors on another panel.)

Frieze - Wren etc
The rule was that no living artists could be depicted, but the Queen made an exception for George Gilbert Scott himself. Modestly, he had himself placed discreetly just above the shoulder of Pugin. Wren is at the centre of this group of architects.

Above the frieze another set of group statues representing industry – agriculture, manufactures, commerce, engineering

Agriculture - Copy

Once again a set of figures engage in the work presided over by an idealised personage – a female muse. You can also see further eminent men on the corners of the frieze.
Manufactures - Copy

Manufactures – Turner sits at the centre of the group underneath.

Commerce - Copy

Commerce, and below Engineering:

Engineering - Copy

Sennacherib the Assyrian king and Cheops stand there discussing building work. Between them, looking a bit weary of the whole thing is Nitocris, a 6th dynasty Egyptian queen holding a model of a pyramid (she was credited with building the third pyramid).

Finally we reach the canopy itself where a set of plain bronze statues representing the  sciences are gathered around Albert like a guard of honour

The lower group each on their own plinth:

lower group

Geometry, chemistry, geology and astronomy.

The upper group: philosophy, physiology, medicine and rhetoric.

upper group

I’ve rearranged the figures so they follow the spatial arrangement of the monument but if you look carefully you can see the figures are the work of two sculptors who took two corners each, our friends Philip and Armstead again.

The canopy is decorated by mosaics of four female figures- Sculptura, Poesis, Pictura and Architectura. I’ve picked the last one for a reason I’m sure you can guess.

Architectura

Then there’s the spire, inhabited by the virtues, almost too high to make out in detail – Faith, Hope, Charity, Humility, Fortitude, Prudence, Justice and Temperance  and above them two sets of angels before you get to the cross at the very top. This drawing shows the arrangement.

Spire

The whole thing is an anthology of Victorian iconography. Is it all a bit much for one man, no matter what he did, or how much he was missed? Well, you decide. The Memorial has proved to be a survivor.

Albert Memorial c1970 PC1397

This was it about 1970 with the ungilded Albert (and the statues on the spire, withthat bluish colour of old bronze.) And here they all are gilded again:  Albert, the angels and the virtues:
Memorial 22 oct 1998 - Copy

 

Postscript
It was a purely factual post this week, and also a picture marathon. I remember many years ago watching an Open University documentary about the Albert Memorial which covered much the same ground. Do you remember how they used to broadcast in the early mornings and early hours of the morning in the dead hours before 24 hour television? Perhaps it was the oddness of the hour or the seemingly random nature of the subject matter but that documentary stuck in my mind. Hence the need, once I’d started, to lay out as much of the whole scheme as I could, for you. I’m taking a couple of team members out on Friday to take a look. It’s a reminder to me that it’s a privilege to work in an area with such a rich heritage.

And I’ve sneaked in the title of a Bill Nelson song.

The Albert Memorial: illustrated by 29 photographs (c1872)

The Albert Memorial, Hyde Park: its history and description by James Dafforne (Virtue & Co, 1878)

The National Memorial to His Royal Highness the Prince Consort (John Murray, 1879)

The two modern colour photographs were by Maureen G Stainton and are copyright by her.


Albert’s memorial

Do you remember the Albert Memorial being enclosed?

Memorial covered 1990s

This curious tower of scaffolding came about as as result of a decision to repair and restore the most famous monument in London. A dangerously large section of lead had fallen from the canopy in 1983. After that, although it took some time for a final decision to be made, it was clear that some extensive work needed to be done. It took place over a period of several years and the restored monument was unveiled in October 1998.

26- 21 oct 98

Albert veiled…

28- 22 oct 98

…and unveiled, impossibly bright.

The restoration brought the memorial back as far as was possible to how it looked in the 1870s. The statue of Albert had been gilded again. My wife and I went down there at the time to take a look at something neither of us had ever seen, having grown up with the black version of the statue. (The gilding was removed during the First World War. The story goes that it was feared the gilding might provide a shiny target for Zeppelins, but it seems more likely it was a result of increasing pollution damage.)

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Albert, Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria died in 1861. The Queen was devastated by her loss, and the nation consumed by her grief and its own, along with a certain amount of guilt at not having appreciated Albert and everything he had done. The 1851 Great Exhibition was indentified with Albert and the work he had done for his adopted country. A national memorial to Albert would best be sited near the site of the Exhibition and also close to the complex of museums and educational establishments in South Kensington that was already known as Albertopolis. Funds were raised and a competition for the design established.

The outstanding design was by the presiding architectural genius of the day George Gilbert Scott. Scott is well known to us now as the creator of a number of iconic buildings such as the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station.

Albert Memorial K75-177 cropped

A giant statue of Albert seated under a gothic canopy

Building began in 1864.

The memorial is a complex structure supported by a massive steel cross with an undercroft.

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And an elaborate support structure.

114 K-13389p

Massive pieces of stone were assembled on the site.

122 K12389-kB

An overhead crane moved the sections of sculptured stone around.

123 K12389-Bc

All these pieces were slotted together under the direction of Scott and the builder John Kelk.

 

121 K12389m

The structure grew, under another layer of scaffolding.

120 K12389l

It opened in 1872.

Albert Memorial - before statue

This picture shows the memorial before the statue was installed in 1875. The original sculptor,Carlo Marochetti, had produced different designs for the statue, all unsatisfactory. He then died and they had to start again with another sculptor, John Henry Foley, who had created one of the surrounding groups. The absence of the statue of Albert makes you look more closely at all the other sculptures, representing the continents, the arts and sciences, the virtues and a host of famous men. We’ll have a closer look at them next week but just for now let’s say that Albert was placed in the context of all the arts and sciences of the 1860s.

The finished monument in the 1880s, magnificent, grandiose or sinister?

Albert Memorial 1880s

The memorial became a fashionable spot to be seen, as in this 1870s illustration of fashions on the steps of the memorial.

Fashions in Hyde Park a sketch on the steps of the Albert Memorial July 1873

Our old friend Markino depicted the same steps some years later, with a slightly thinner gathering of fashionable Londoners.

On the step of the Albert Memorial COL

It could be argued that perhaps as the monument aged and suffered the ravages of city life, the Victorian taste for excess in decoration, and the Gothic style itself began to seem dated, and odd. Over the weekend I happened to watch the Jonathan Miller film of Alice in Wonderland, which was designed to look like the photographs of that era. Alice is another product of the 1860s, feverish and fantastic. I don’t want to labour the comparison but it may be that hallucenogenic quality shared by Alice and Albert which captured the popular imagination again in the 1960s when we began to appreciate Victorian taste again

When it was clear some major repair work had to be done in the 1980s the possiblity of dissassembling the monument for good was briefly considered. But not seriously  I think. London loves its strange monuments, and remembers that the memorial exists because these two individuals loved each other.

Victoria and Albert by Roger Fenton

 

Postscript

Now, I know what you’re thinking, some of you anyway. The Albert Memorial is not actually in Kensington but across the border in the City Of Westminster. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that Queen Victoria had the border moved so that the memorial and the Royal Albert Hall would be in Westminster. However, the Memorial is in Kensington Gardens, and is closely identified with Kensington by many people. Culturally I think it is just as much a part of Kensington as Westminster.

And of course we have a lot of interesting material in our collection including some images not often seen. So I hope you’ll let me off. Especially as I found so many pictures that I decided to do a second post next week devoted to the surrounding sculptures.

The two books by Chris Brooks about the memorial were invaluable to me with this post. The first image of the covered memorial is from the 2000 book. Photographs 2 and 3 are by Maureen G Stainton and are copright by her. The picture of Victoria and Albert is by Roger Fenton. All other images are from the Local Studies collection.

The Albert Memorial. The Prince Consort National Memorial: its history, contexts and conservation. Edited by Chris Brooks. Yale University Press 2000.

The Albert Memorial by Chris Brooks. English Heritage 1995.

 


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