Charterhouse Chronicle Anthony Symondson
Vanished buildings have great poignancy, especially if they are churches. Few these days remember St Agnes', Kennington Park. in South London. It was an Anglo-Catholic shrine. the most beautiful church of the late Gothic revival in England, one of the greatest buildings of the 19th century. Of all the London churches destroyed in the Second World War it is the one I most regret not having seen. Yet for most of my life I have read so much about it, and seen so many photographs, that I sometimes have the odd sensation that I have.
Anglo-Catholic churches, however magnificent, however valuable as part of Britain's architectural legacy, rarely fall within this column's scheme of reference. St Agnes' was not only remarkable for its architecture. but for the number of clerical converts it produced who went on to enrich the life of the Church in England. It is an extraordinary record.
St Agnes' was the supreme masterpiece of a genius, George Gilbert Scott Junior, the eldest son of Sir George Gilbert Scott, and the most brilliant of the Scott architectural dynasty. The church broke new ground when it was designed in 1874. It was a stately building of red brick in the Perpendicular style with white plastered walls, arches dying into their piers, fan-vaulted aisles with wainscot panelling, wide windows with flowing tracery filled with stained glass by CE Kempe, and generous liturgical space.
It was like an etching by Axel Haig and embodied the Northern Renaissance. Sir Ninian Camper who, as a boy, was sent up the scaffolding by Kempe to decorate the roof, described it as "that greatest work of the greatest architect of the Victorian era". He thought St Agnes' represented "veritable Nuremburg" for Kempe's magnificent late-Gothic glass, the splendour of the gilded and coloured rood on a curved beam, the tryptich and screens, the fir trees that lined the nave at Christmas.
Medievalism permeated St Agnes'. The Middle Ages were thought by Canon Dover, the founder, to have been unrivalled in the dignity of their worship and he believed it was to the Middle Ages that the rubrics of the Prayer Book led. He delighted in ornate, pre-Reformation, English ceremonial "according to the use of Sarum". A Catholic priest who had witnessed one of his functions said: "Yes, it was all very grand, but I think I prefer our simple old-fashioned Roman rite!" But while Dover liked gorgeous ceremonial, he disliked modem Roman developments, preached against Transubstantiation, and was not "sound" on eternal punishment. He was happy to proclaim that he was a "common-sense Englishman, who couldn't stand Rome or Romanisers!".
Not so his architect and curates. To Dover's regret, Scott was received into the Church in St Mary's, Holly Place, Hampstead, in 1880, a month after his wife. They lived in an early 18th century house in Church Row and soon entered the circle of Baron Friedrich von Hiigel who became godfather to their eldest son, Christopher. He went on to design the great Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Norwich, for the Duke of Norfolk, and died mad.
The senior curate, H Middleton Evans, was horrified by his vicar's dismissal of Catholics as schismatics who belonged to the Italian Mission. He loved everything Roman, and his greatest delight was to spend his holidays abroad, attending services in Catholic churches. Once across the Channel, he flung aside his Book of Common Prayer, recited the Breviary, and studiously avoided Anglican chapels. At the turn of the century he walked in procession to St Mary Moorfields to be received, bringing the entire congregation of St Michael's, Shoreditch, with him.
Evans was preceded by Reginald Camm, better known as Dom Bede Camm, the martyrologist, who made his submission to Rome in 1890 at the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous in Belgium. He had long been drawn to the monastic life and in the same year received the habit and was professed in the following year. He joined the English foundation at Erdington Abbey, in Birmingham. There he commissioned Comper to design a gilded feretory with a steeple to enshrine one of the skulls of St Ursula's 11,000 virgins. It was carried into the church by four bearers wearing Pugin's tunicles from Oscott and Comper thought they looked like a medieval miniature.
Then came Henry Worth and Arthur Stapylton Barnes. Worth was received by Dorn Bede in 1895 and was even more Roman than Evans. He was learned in liturgy and was responsible for the correctness of St Agnes services. Worth was chaplain to St Katherine's Convent, Queen Square, Holborn, a branch house of the Community of St Margaret, East Grinstead. The superior behaved like an abbess and used a pastoral staff. There Worth said Mass in Latin using the Roman rite. It was the most extreme Anglican convent in London, noted for its embroidery room and faultless ceremonial. Mother Ellen Haighton Noyes and the community submitted in 1908 and their splendid vestments are still in use at Farnborough Abbey. As for Worth, in 1904 he became a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican edition of the Gregorian Liturgical Books and helped to implement the reforms of St Pius X.
Barnes. an Old Etonian, became Rector of St Ives, in Huntingdonshire, where he commissioned Camper to design a magnificent medievalist restoration of the Perpendicular church. He was received into the Church at Downside in 1895. In later life he became a monsignor, a notable Catholic chaplain to Cambridge University, and an expert on St Peter's tomb. Soon after his reception he presented a Gothic altar with riddel posts to the Lady Chapel of Downside Abbey, again designed by Comper, and in doing so injected a strand of liturgical medievalism there which still lingers to this day. In 1913 Dom Bede Carom himself became affiliated to Downside, after first having received the Anglican Benedictine monks of Caldey Abbey into the Church in the same year
For more on St Agnes', Kennington, read An Architect of Promise: George Gilbert Scott Junior (1837-1897) and the late Gothic Revival, by Gavin Stamp, Shaun Tyas £49.50.