28 September 2022
Holy Trinity Sloane Square is
John Betjeman’s ‘Cathedral of
the Arts and Crafts Movement’
I was in London last weekend for the annual reunion of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). We were invited to a celebration of the Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, followed by lunch and short presentations by USPG staff.
Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, is right at the heart of London. The former Poet Laureate, Sir John Betjeman, described Holy Trinity Church in Chelsea as the ‘Cathedral of the Arts and Crafts Movement’, referring to treasures and glass by William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and many others.
Holy Trinity Sloane Square is in the Catholic tradition in the Church of England, and says on its website and materials ‘The world will be saved by beauty’, a quotation from The Fool by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Holy Trinity is one of the few churches in these islands that can be regarded as what the Germans describe as a gesamtkunstwerk – a total work of art. Behind the magnificent red brick and stone façade, reminiscent of collegiate architecture of the late 16th and early 17th century, is truly a jewel-box of the best stained glass, sculpture and highly wrought metalwork created by many of the finest artists and craftsmen of the late 19th century.
The first church on the site was a Gothic building from 1828-1830, designed by James Savage and built in brick with stone dressings. The west front, towards the street, had an entrance flanked by octagonal turrets topped with spires.
It was originally intended as chapel of ease to the new parish church of Saint Luke, but was given its own parish, sometimes known as Upper Chelsea, in 1831. It could seat 1,450 in 1838 and 1,600 in 1881.
George Henry Cadogan (1840-1915), 5th Earl Cadogan, and his wife, the former Lady Beatrix Craven, decided to replace the earlier church building which was part of their London estate. The old church was closed and demolished in 1888, and a temporary iron church with seating for 800 was provided in Symons Street while the new church was built.
The Cadogans chose John Dando Sedding (1838-1891) as the architect. He was one of the prime movers in the Arts and Crafts Movement, which was inspired at an early stage by AWN Pugin and John Ruskin.
At the Liverpool Art Congress in 1888, in a roll-call of the great architects and designers of his day, Sedding declared, ‘We should have had no Morris, no Burges, no Shaw, no Webb, no Bodley, no Rossetti, no Crane, but for Pugin.’
While he was still in his teens, Sedding was influenced by Ruskin and his Stones of Venice (1853). He trained as an architect in the offices of GE Street (1824-1881), the prolific and influential church architect. Other key figures in the Arts and Crafts Movement, including William Morris, Philip Webb and Norman Shaw, had also trained in Street’s offices.
Holy Trinity Church was built in 1888-1890 on the south-east side of Sloane Street and was paid for by Lord Cadogan.
Sedding’s church was not the longest church in London, but it was the widest, exceeding Saint Paul’s Cathedral by 23 cm (9 inches). The internal fittings were the work of leading sculptors and designers of the day, including FW Pomeroy, HH Armstead, Onslow Ford and Hamo Thornycroft. Sedding died in 1891, and his memorial is on the north wall in the Lady Chapel.
Sedding died two years after Lady Cadogan laid the foundation stone of the church. His chief assistant, Henry Wilson (1864-1934), took charge of the project to complete the interior decoration of the church to Sedding’s original design.
The main structure is as Sedding designed it, but the street railings and much of the interior fittings and decoration were inspired or designed by Wilson, including the font, the Lady Chapel, the Byzantine-inspired metal screen and the bronze angels that flank the entrance to the Memorial Chapel. However, Sedding’s original conception was never fully completed.
The first thing that impresses visitors is the wealth of stained glass, particularly the great east window by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) and William Morris (1834-1896), the largest window ever made by William Morris & Company.
Burne-Jones first contemplated a window with ‘thousands of bright little figures.’ This idea became 48 Prophets, Apostles and Saints in three columns of four rows that make up the bottom half of the window.
There are impressive windows in the north and south aisles, three by Sir William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) and two by Christopher Whall (1849-1924), and by James Powell and Sons in the Memorial Chapel.
The large west window, which Morris and Burne-Jones planned to complete before moving onto the east window, but this never happened. Its plain glass was destroyed during World War II, although all the other windows survived or were repaired.
The range of sculptures includes FW Pomeroy’s bronze angels and sculptured reliefs. There are works of other major sculptors too, including Onslow Ford, Frank Boucher, HH Armstead, Harry Bates and John Tweed, who carved the marble reredos in 1901.
A wealth of different marbles is employed, especially on the pulpit and in the Lady Chapel, while the bowl of the Font is made of one piece of Mexican Onyx.
The processional cross is a reproduction of the 12th century Celtic Cross of Cong.
The Sedding Altar Frontal, originally intended for use in Advent and Lent, was designed by Sedding and embroidered by his wife Rose.
Sedding believed that nature was the source of all true art. He always sought to find his inspiration in hedgerows and cottage gardens, especially those in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. He also had a deep love of mediaeval embroidery, a passion he shared with his wife.
The emblems in the panel of the frontal alternate between symbols of Christ’s passion, and human images of holy devotion: Prophets and Saints.
Above the display case with the frontal are busts of William Morris and John Ruskin.
The churchmanship when the new church opened might be described as eclectically high, as the liturgy seems to have been drawn from a number of sources and traditions.
The church soon attracted the attention of Bohemian artists and poets some of whom clustered loosely round Oscar Wilde, who was arrested nearby in the Cadogan Hotel on Sloane Street. Many notable figures have been parishioners, including the Liberal politicians WE Gladstone and Sir Charles Dilke. Dilke lived on Sloane Street; his promising political career was destroyed by a well-publicised divorce case in the 1880s.
The interior was whitened by the third architect of Holy Trinity FC Eden in the 1920s, lightening the character and feel of the building considerably. The south chapel was remodelled to become the Memorial Chapel with Eden’s crucifix painted by Egerton Cooper, and the panelling inscribed with the names of parishioners who died in World War I. The War Memorial is in Sloane Square and on Remembrance Sunday clergy, choir and congregation process from the church to Sloane Square.
The church was very popular in the 1920s with a very extensive clergy team under the rector, the Revd Christopher Cheshire (1924-1945). For a time, the liturgist and hymn writer Percy Dearmer, who collaborated closely with Ralph Vaughan Williams, was associated the church.
During World War II, the church was hit by several incendiary bombs, one at least bursting in the nave, causing considerable damage.
It took several decades of work to carry out post-war repairs and the church was closed except for Sunday matins. There was pressure to demolish rather than restore the building, and it was saved only by a vigorous campaign mounted by the Victorian Society and Sir John Betjeman who wrote in verse:
Bishop, archdeacon, rector, wardens, mayor
Guardians of Chelsea’s noblest house of prayer.
You your church’s vastness deplore
‘Should we not sell and give it to the poor?’
Recall, despite your practical suggestion
Which the disciple was who asked that question.
Betjeman said the central North Wall window by Sir William Blake-Richmond, with the theme of Youth and its sacrifice and joys, was ‘symbolising the hope that this great city may rise to the value of beauty, setting aside money and society as chief aims of life.’ Needless to say, Betjeman’s ‘noblest house of prayer’ was saved.
After a long period of less symbolic worship, notably when the Revd Alfred Basil Carver was Rector (1945-1980) and the shorter incumbencies of the Revd Phillip Roberts (1980-1987) and the Revd Keith Yates (1987–1997), the church has returned to a liberal Catholic style of worship and liturgy.
The church now has a thriving congregation built when Bishop Michael Eric Marshall, former Bishop of Woolwich, was Rector (1997-2007). The connection with the world of the fine arts continued under the Revd Rob Gillion was Rector (2008-2014). He later became Bishop of Riverina in western New South Wales.
Holy Trinity has enjoyed a reputation for church music since its early days. John Sedding, also an organist, provided an unusually large chamber for the noted four-manual Walker organ. Notable organists have included Edwin Lemare (1892-1895), Sir Walter Alcock (1895-1902), John Ireland (sub organist, 1896-1904), and HL Balfour (1902-1942).
The organ was badly damaged in World War II, but was repaired in 1947 and partially rebuilt in 1967. Harrison & Harrison completed a rebuild in 2012, using the surviving Walker pipework and matching new material. The organ has 71 speaking stops and about 4,200 pipes, and remains one of the principal organs in London.
Today, the church sees itself as a ‘Shrine and Sanctuary’ for Sloane Square, and, for example, also provides chaplaincies to neighbouring places such as Harrods and the Royal Court Theatre. The parish of Saint Saviour, Upper Chelsea, was added to Holy Trinity in 2011.
Canon Nicholas Wheeler is the Rector of Holy Trinity and Saint Saviour. He returned to London from Brazil where he worked with USPG in the Parish of Christ the King in Rio de Janeiro and as a canon of the Cathedral of the Redeemer. His work in Cidade de Deus, one of the most disadvantaged communities in Rio, inspired the 2002 film, City of God.
Before going to Brazil with USPG, he spent 21 years in the Diocese of London, where his posts included Team Rector at Old Saint Pancras.
The Sung Eucharist is celebrated in Holy Trinity Church every Sunday at 11 a.m.