Brighton and Hove – St Bartholomew, Ann Street
The sight of St Bartholomew’s, towering above terraces of housing (now mostly cleared) with a railway viaduct in the background, recalls the industrial north rather than the Sussex coast, though the effect from the west is less apparent after recent reconstruction. When built, it was near the edge of the town and dominated the northern and eastern approaches. Commissioned by Father Wagner to the designs of E E Scott between 1872 and 1874 (B 32 p908), it replaced a mission church of 1868, which had rapidly become too small. After H M Wagner died in 1870, his son had more money for building churches and spent £18000 on St Bartholomew’s (Sawyer III p1). That was in addition to what was needed for grandiose gestures like buying a nearby row of houses, whose occupants feared that down draughts from the church would make their chimneys smoke (AR 45 p38).
There is no church in England like it for the gable cross is 142ft above the ground with sheer walls of brick, lightly patterned in yellow and red inside and out. Though the church probably never reached its intended form at the eastern end, but there was apparently no plan for a tower. To be in proportion it would have had to be vast and the placing of the bells behind four openings in the west gable seems to have been intended to be permanent. As it stands, the nave is a single space with a boarded barrel roof and two tiers of plain lancets in the sides. The longer upper ones are recessed externally behind shallow buttresses. The reason for the division is apparent inside, where the elevation is divided into the three parts traditionally associated with gothic, arcades, triforium or gallery and clerestory. However, the nine arches open not into aisles, but shallow, square recesses. Outside, only the ‘west’ (actually south) front is more elaborate, with bands of stone, with decreasing spaces between them towards the top, and a round-headed doorway. High up is a large circular window without any tracery. Originally, the roof tiles were patterned in colours (B 32 ibid).
A bald description hardly does justice to the church, though not everything that appeals to modern eyes, notably the single unencumbered space, was as intended. The question is how far Wagner determined what was built since Scott’s other work is less impressive. Scott, usually a reticent man, was moved to write to The Architect (11 p123), mainly to scotch rumours put about by Wagner’s opponents of secret confessionals and cells in the triforium stage, but also revealing much about Wagner’s involvement. Later recollections by Somers Clarke Junior (AR 45 pp38 and 86), who advised Wagner, and F de Jersey Clere, Scott’s pupil (BN 116 p344), provide additional information.
Wagner was inspired to build the church in this way after a visit to South West France and Northern Spain, where he was deeply impressed by the size and simplicity of the great churches such as Albi. Somers Clarke provides the key (AR 45 p38):
He [Wagner] was very appreciative of simplicity and the dignity gained by height. He told me he greatly admired the vast reredoses he had seen in Spain, the windows high up, lots of elbow room and thick walls. He would sooner have a few feet more of height than all the little mouldings and marble pillars in the world. Economy dictated brick; let one therefore design for brick.
Wagner’s mind was, however, not closed and he was willing to discuss matters with Scott and others such as Somers Clarke. Scott’s first design, according to de Jersey Clere, was lower with simple internal buttresses. Only later did he design the arches and recesses. Somers Clarke stated that Scott initially intended to link these by an ambulatory, an arrangement that recalls J L Pearson‘s St Augustine, Kilburn which was then under construction and was also influenced by Albi. However, Wagner then decided he wanted to increase the height of the walls by 10ft and, as explained in his letter to Building News, Scott concluded the foundations were strong enough for this, providing the ambulatory openings were omitted. The change must have been at an early stage, as there is no sign of blocked openings, although it must be said that the recesses seem too shallow for more than the smallest of openings to have been contemplated.
Another question is the form of the ‘east’ end. This is a vast blank wall, the lower part of which is concealed by later fittings, but all authorities agree the church was intended to be longer, with some kind of chancel, which de Jersey Clere believed that Scott wanted to be apsidal. Somers Clarke supports this, but elsewhere states that Wagner wanted a square east end to allow for a great Spanish-style reredos. No later than c1881, Sawyer (III p1) speaks of planned transepts, which seem improbable. More certainly, in 1897 H Wilson was asked to develop the church including new fittings (see below), since it was at that time still largely bare. Although by this date Wilson was primarily a designer of fittings rather than an architect, he proposed to extend the church by inserting three arches in the east wall, opening into a Lady Chapel, probably of three further bays though a surviving drawing of 1898 in the RIBA Collection (M Richardson, p17) is not ideally clear. The three eastern arches were placed above a baldacchino, which was very similar to the one built. Echoing the existing church, the Lady Chapel was to have had a flat east wall on which there would have been a colossal and brightly coloured representation of the madonna. It is not known whether this would have been painted or made of mosaics. The result would have been remarkable, especially if another feature of the plan had been realised. This called for baroque transparente above the arches, though these are not visible on the drawing (1 p9). Teresa Sladen (in Victorian Society: Churches 1870-1914, p96) suggests that as with his fittings (see below), Wilson was inspired by Byzantine examples, though the style of architecture was hardly the same nor is the general plan. She bases her argument on the separation of congregation and clergy that the plan would have entailed.
Scott had defended the initial plainness since it allowed for decoration and expansion, but the involvement of Wilson was the first serious attempt to undertake this. The occasion was the advent of a new vicar, Father Arthur Cocks, who had advanced ritualist preferences (ibid pp68-69). Down to 1910 Wilson designed new fittings, including an organ gallery of 1906, which appears to have been intended as a permanency, despite its plain appearance. The scheme was unfinished, but the Byzantine style, chosen for most of what was realised is, though unexpected, worthy of the setting (see below for details). Completion of Wilson’s plans was prevented as Cocks became a Roman Catholic and left the parish. The plans for the Lady Chapel had probably always been more of an aspiration than realistic, but the idea survived. As early as 1912, there was an unrealised scheme by an unnamed architect for an apsidal east chapel, which would have entailed the destruction of the baldacchino. Also unrealised was Sir Giles G Scott‘s plan of 1924 for one and a half more bays of nave and a polygonal chancel (4 p276). In the event there have thus been few changes to the fabric beyond repair and maintenance, notably in 1965 by J L Denman, assisted by his son (ICBS), so the fabric of St Bartholomew’s remains as E E Scott and Wagner left it, remarkable for one man’s vision and purpose and the other’s willingness to translate them into reality.
1. (High altar) Painting by S Bell, 1874 (Dale p149).
2. (Fourth niche on the left) Lady altar by Wilson, 1902. The frontal is made of silver-plated copper and the embossed centre shows the Adoration of the Magi. The silver cross (formerly on the high altar) has broad arms and is of similar workmanship. This replaced an altar by C E Kempe, later moved to St Alban, Coombe Road (4 p276).
Altar rails: Wilson, with polished metalwork and enamel, 1905.
Baldacchino and sanctuary fittings: Wilson designed the sanctuary fittings, centred on the baldacchino of dark red and green marble with an arched top. This dates from 1899-1900 and is restrained as it was conceived to stand underneath the proposed transparente (ibid p275), yet at 45 ft high (the height of many a parish church) it is a worthy termination of the church as it stands. The large cylindrical candle-holders of 1905-06 are equally austere except for the bronze tops. The choir-stalls are of contrasting woods.
Crucifix: A cross of hewn chalk designed by S Bell was placed on the ‘east’ wall in 1874 (B 32 p908), but the present one, which takes up most of the space above the baldacchino, is of encaustic tile. Maughan implies it follows the original design (p59).
Font and baptistery: Wilson, 1908, with a bowl of dark green marble with a red top. Apart from borders of beaten copper it is as restrained as his other work. Wilson also designed the surrounding recess, which is lined with lighter green marble. The alabaster statue of St John the Baptist was designed by Sir Giles G Scott, 1925 (I p10).
1. (Four windows in eastern recesses) Kempe and Co, 1910.
2. (Lower four west windows) J C N Bewsey, 1914. It was also intended that he should glaze the round window (4 p276) and the design is displayed in one of the recesses on the western side.
3. (Window, third south recess) J C N Bewsey (www.stainedglassrecords.org retrieved on 4/2/2013).
4. (Window in fifth recess to north) W Lawson, 1931 (signed).
Mosaics: (Behind the baldacchino) F H Jackson, 1911 (1 p31) and made by James Powell and Sons (Hadley list). They are not part of Wilson’s scheme and are let down by a sentimentality lacking in his work, but are sufficiently large scale and sombre to compliment from a distance the fittings.
Pulpit: Wilson, 1906. Large and set back into a recess. It is in the Italian style and made of multi-coloured marble with a circular tester. Thus, its green marble top stands on dark red marble columns and the mouldings and capitals are white. Wilson originally intended the organ to stand in this position, until it was realised that this would block much of the church and it was placed on the west gallery (4 p277).
War memorial: (In one of the western recesses) Painted triptych by Sir W Tapper, 1918.
1. Anon: St Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton: a Story of Fifty Years, Brighton, 1924
2. R J G Holmes: St Bartholomew Brighton, Brighton 1975
3. N Taylor: Wagnerian High Church, St Bartholomew’s, Brighton, AR 137 (1965) pp212-17
4. : Byzantium in Brighton, AR 139 (1966) pp274-77
My thanks to Nick Wiseman for the photographs