Saturday, 24 July 2010

Further travels in search of Pugin

Saint Michael’s ... a rare example of an English church with a thatched roof ... is said to have inspired Pugin’s design of a parish church in Barntown, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

When the summer school ended in Sidney Sussex College, I headed off on Friday afternoon to Longstanton, a small village about 10 km north of Cambridge with a population of about 1,700.

Long Stanton railway station closed in 1970, but as part of the Cambridge and Huntingdon line, Long Stanton railway station is recalled in the Flanders and Swann song, Slow Train. But the train station closed in 1970, and I had to catch a No 5 bus from Emmanuel Street heading towards Saint Ive’s, out past the back of Christ’s College and Sidney Sussex, past Jesus College, Westcott House, the Round Church, Saint John’s, over Mag’s Bridge, past Magdalene, New Hall, Fitzwilliam, Girton and out into the countryside on the road leading to Huntingdon.

This is still flat, sun-kissed open countryside, with yellow fields that spread as far as they eye can see. Yet Longstanton is only half an hour away. But, while the villages and the country side are captivating in the summer sun, I was in search of some interesting connections with the influences on Augustus Pugin, the leading light in the Gothic Revival in mid-19th century church architecture.

It is only a few weeks ago since I found myself searching out Pugin’s churches and cathedrals in Uttoxeter, Cheadle, Birmingham and Solihull, trying to find what had influenced and inspired his designs for his church buildings in Co Wexford. On this summer afternoon, I was in for a special treat.

One village, two parishes

All Saints’ Church, on the corner of the High Street in Longstanton, dates from the mid-14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2010)

Longstanton is unusual among English villages for it has two mediaeval parish churches – a legacy of its long history as two parishes. For most of its history, Longstanton was divided into two separate parishes – the larger Long Stanton All Saints’ to the north of the village, and the smaller Long Stanton Saint Michael to the south. The Domesday Book in 1086 refers to both a “Stantone” and a “Stantune.” By 1240, there are references to both “Stanton” and “the other Stanton.”

During World War II, the once sleepy village was transformed in 1940 with the opening of RAF Oakington, when new housing estates were built and the population trebled. The two villages were formally amalgamated only as late as 1953.

The larger of the two parish churches, All Saints’ Church, is in the centre of the village and dates from the mid-14th Century, when it replaced an earlier church that had been destroyed by a fire. All Saints’ closed in 2003 when the ceiling collapsed, but it opened again three years ago, and is now a Grade I listed building.

The restored Hatton family monument in All Saints’ Church, Longstanton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Further north, there are thatched houses, the site of the old railway station, and the Black Bull – a pub that is said to be over 300 years’ old but that was closed on Friday afternoon.

At the southern end of the village, Saint Michael’s Church is the smaller and older parish church. It was built around 1230, and is a notable, rare example of an English church with a thatched roof – one of only two surviving thatched churches in Cambridgeshire. A well in the churchyard is said to have been used in mediaeval times for baptisms.

Saint Michael’s is a Grade II listed building. It has no longer used for regular worship and has been closed since the two parishes in Longstanton were amalgamated. It is now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust.

Inspirational and formative

Saint Michael’s played an interesting and formative role in the development of 19th century church architecture, inspiring the design in churches from Wexford to Philadelphia and South Dakota (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Saint Michael’s played an interesting and formative role in the development of 19th century church architecture. Churches modelled after its style have been built in Co Wexford, Philadelphia and South Dakota.

Pugin conceived of Saint Alphonsus’s Church, Barntown, in the parish of Glynn, as a complete Catholic parish church and is his only complete expression in Ireland of the small village parish church. Some writers suggest the church in Barntown is a finer version of the simplest of all Pugin’s designs, Saint Augustine’s in Solihull, which I visited earlier this month. However, most historians say Pugin’s design for Barntown was based on Saint Michael’s in Longstanton.

Saint Michael’s also inspired the design of Saint James the Less in Philadelphia. The remarkable fidelity of that church to Gothic design was accidental. When the parish asked the Cambridge Camden Society for a set of plans for a new church, it was inadvertently sent measured drawings of Saint Michael’s in Longstanton, prepared by GG Place, and these were followed in every detail under the supervision of the architect, John E Carver.

The Round Church … Pugin was enthusiastic about its restoration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Pugin loved this part of England: he was a keen supporter of the Cambridge Camden Society, which was founded in 1835 and later became the Ecclesiological Society, and was enthusiastic about its restoration of the Round Church in Cambridge; in 1842-1843, he built Saint Andrew’s, the first post-Reformation Roman Catholic parish church in Cambridge; and for three years, between 1846 and 1849, he was involved in the restoration of the chapel in Jesus College, including the furnishing and the redecoration of the mediaeval fabric, and inserting the lancet windows at the East End.

The chapel of Jesus College … Pugin was involved in the restoration, furnishing and redecoration of the mediaeval fabric (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

But Pugin was unrestrained in his criticism of the work of his contemporaries in Cambridge, and described Saint Paul’s as a “cheap church of the nineteenth century.” He had already used red brick in building Saint Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham – had he had now consigned this approach to church design to the past?

On his visits to Cambridge, he was lionized by his lifelong friend, Benjamin Webb, one of the founders of the Cambridge Camden Society, and Pugin was invited to lecture in Cambridge on his True Principles and to contribute to the journal The Ecclesiologist.

Ely Cathedral … Webb found Pugin weeping openly in the Lady Chapel after Choral Evensong one summer afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Perhaps Pugin returned to this corner of England again and again for inspiration and for emotional reasons. He once expressed complete contempt for Wyatt’s work at Ely Cathedral, and during another visit to Ely Cathedral on a late summer afternoon, Webb found Pugin weeping openly in the Lady Chapel after Evensong.

I had a better experience in Ely Cathedral on a visit this summer, when I stayed for Choral Evensong. But that’s another story for another day, I think.

Downing College, which has no courts, was designed in the classical style by William Wilkins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Earlier in the day, I visited Downing College, which is unusual among Cambridge Colleges, for it has no courts. It was designed in the classical style by William Wilkins, because George III disapproved of the Gothic style.

Perhaps there is an irony in the fact that I am staying at Sidney Sussex College, which owes so much to Wyatt’s interpretation of Gothic architecture, despite Pugin’s detestation of his work.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Wyatt removed the dilapidated classical gateway of Sidney Sussex, replacing it with a new Porter’s Lodge and Tower, and redesigned the Master’s Lodge and the two front courts, Chapel Court and Hall Court, between 1821 and 1832. He covered the red-brick buildings with Roman cement, added a porch and bell turret to the chapel, and decorated the buildings with gables and battlements in his interpretation of the Gothic style.

Wyatt removed the classical gateway at Sidney Sussex, replacing it with a new Porter’s Lodge and Tower, and redesigned Hall Court and Chapel Court (Photograph, Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In a harsh criticism of Wyatt, Sir Nicholas Pevsner – who had a strong affection for Pugin’s work, especially in Staffordshire – once said unkindly: “There is no getting away from the fact that Sidney Sussex is architecturally the least attractive of the old colleges of the universities.”

For my part, though, Sidney Sussex had been a very attractive and very welcoming old college for the past week. I am heading back to Dublin this afternoon, but hope to return to Cambridge soon.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

‘A little too gorgeous and complete’

Our Lady and the English Martyrs, standing on a strategic corner in Cambridge (Photograph, Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

It is impossible not to notice the exuberantly massive Roman Catholic Church that stands guard on a prominent street corner on the way from the train station and the heart of Cambridge city centre.

This impressive – if not overpowering – castellated Gothic building is known locally as the Catholic church, or simply as “the Catholic,” although local Cambridge Catholics often refer to it affectionately by its acronym, OLEM – Our Lady and the English Martyrs.

The first post-Reformation Roman Catholic church in Cambridge, Saint Andrew’s, was built by the architect of the Gothic revival, Augustus Pugin, in 1842-1843, who also played an important role in the restoration, decoration and furnishing of the mediaeval fabric of the chapel of Jesus College between 1846 and 1849.

The church makes a strong dramatic statement of faith in a city with a strong Protestant tradition (Photograph, Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Eventually, Pugin’s church was dismantled, removed and rebuilt at Saint Ives, and replaced by OLEM, which was intended to make a strong, dramatic statement of faith in a city with a strong Protestant tradition. It was only in 1895 that the ban on Roman Catholics attending the university was lifted.

The new church cost a fortune, but it was all made possible by the wealth of Yolande Lyne-Stephens, a former ballerina at the Paris Opera and Drury Lane, who had married a very wealthy landowner.

Gothic gargoyles and sleeping dogs decorate the church fabric (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Outside and inside, the church is a riot of detail and decoration: Gothic gargoyles, sleeping dogs, saints and angels, apostles and martyrs, all decorate and embellish the church in stone and in glass.

The best-known priest associated with the church, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914), who had studied classics and theology at Trinity College, Cambridge, between 1890 and 1893. He was a curate there in 1905-1908 and found it all “a little too gorgeous and complete.”

Benson found his church in Cambridge “a little too gorgeous and complete” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Benson was a son of Archbishop Edward White Benson of Canterbury, who had ordained him priest in 1895. But after some time with the Community of the Resurrection, he became a zealous convert to Rome in 1903, was ordained a priest a year later and was then sent to Cambridge. His impact on Cambridge undergraduates was so great that leading Cambridge Anglicans tried to put pressure on his family to make him leave.

Perhaps that is why EM Forster, in The Longest Journey, says the Catholic church “watches over the apostate city, taller by many a yard than anything within, and asserting, however wildly, that here is eternity, stability, and bubbles unbreakable upon a windless sea.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin