Words & Photography Mary-Rose Storey
You’ll need to look upwards to take in the glorious Victorian Gothic architecture of All Saints Church, as it’s tucked away between buildings in a rather narrow part of Margaret Street and you could easily walk right past it. The renowned Victorian architect, William Butterfield, designed this magnificent church in 1850 and it was the building that initiated the High Victorian Gothic era. He chose pink brick, which was more expensive than stone, inspired by the churches of Italy and North Germany. The use of intricate, patterned brickwork called polychrome was considered a pivotal project, as was his use of elaborate colour, both inside and out. In 1849, just before Butterfield designed the church, John Ruskin, the leading art critic at that time, had published his Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which he urged the study of Italian Gothic and the use of polychromy.
The poet and writer, Sir John Betjeman, who founded the Victorian Society and was a passionate defender of Victorian architecture, wrote of All Saints, “It was here, in the 1850s that the revolution in architecture began… It led the way, All Saints Margaret Street, in church building.” In January 2014, the church was chosen by Simon Thurley, head of English Heritage, as one of the ten buildings that changed the face of Britain. If you go through the pretty courtyard and enter the church there’ll be even more of a feast for your eyes and soul, for the exotic interior is breath taking. Betjeman described it as “a riot of colour, there’d never been anything like it.”
The colour and patterns of the brickwork, the ornate details and tiles covering the walls and floor are fabulous. The tiles were designed by Butterfield and painted by Alexander Gibbs, who also designed the beautiful stained glass windows. The panels depict a variety of scenes from the Bible and the Early Church. Alexander Gibbs also designed the beautiful stained glass windows. Father Alan Moses, who has been the vicar for the past twenty years, officially holds the title of Prebendary, although, as he says, “Nobody has any idea what a Prebendary is and I spend my life explaining it. It is actually an honorary Canon. In the Middle Ages, cathedrals, which weren’t run by monks, had chapters of clergy. Their incomes were provided by a manor or farm, which was called a prebend. The Bishop hands these titles out as a kind of good conduct medal I suppose. It means I have a stall in St Paul’s Cathedral choir.”
Recently, the church has been impeccably and sympathetically restored. Father Moses was responsible for the fundraising and leadership of the restoration programme, which has been a great work but still not yet finished. It’s been 20 years in different phases. The roof was done first, as it was an urgent problem, then the organ was rebuilt, which cost another half a million pounds. Some exploratory work of what was underneath, paintwork was done and then the main interior in three successive years. Things had got very dirty because for the first 50 years the church had coal gas lighting and there were no real restoration techniques as we have them now, so the only thing then to freshen things up was to slap paint over everything. The stonework, which you now see restored to its natural state, had dull flat paint on it, which drained the life out of it and lost all the texture. The tiles were all very dirty and some of the painted designs you can see now had been painted over and the design lost. The restorers went back to the last restoration by Butterfield, which was in the 1880s and settled that that would be the scheme. In 1910, the east wall fresco deteriorated so badly that it had to be completely replaced. The same design was used but with the paintings on Elmwood panels rather than straight onto the wall.
“One of the things about the building is that it’s so elaborate that you keep discovering things you hadn’t noticed before, or you see things in a different light. I suppose because I sit in it saying my prayers every day that it’s the ethos of the whole place that appeals. It’s home to me. It took me about six months to settle in because I’d worked in a church in the centre of Edinburgh before I came here, which was the place I was used to. It takes a while to settle into a new home,” says Father Moses.
Butterfield talked about the ‘floating jewels’ yet not much evidence of these was seen until the windows were cleaned and the stonework restored. If you come in on a sunny morning, you can see reds and blues and greens where the light has streamed through the upper windows onto the stonework. The church itself has always had a very strong choral tradition. When it started there was a choir school and the choir sang services every day; the choir school closed in 1968. It only had about 20 boys so it was no longer really educationally viable and unfortunately there wasn’t a local boys’ school it could be attached to. There is now, however, an excellent adult professional choir. They sing on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings with a very wide repertoire, from Plain Song to Mozart, from extravagantly operatic to austerely plain. The organ is a cathedral standard organ and new music is constantly added, often composed by some of the musicians.
The church is open daily from 7am to 7pm, and supports a number of projects for the homeless as well as helping people who come to the door. The congregation is very mixed, attracting people from all over the world. One regular parishioner, Dr Yvonne Craig, who is in her nineties, says of All Saints, “It’s a treasure, founded with Christian concern for the poor and now has a lighted candle for the persecuted. I love its integration of celebration and compassion.” So, even if you’re not of a religious disposition, you can go and sit at peace inside, have a moment of quiet reflection and absorb the beauty and magnificence of your surroundings.