An architectural nutshell

Thomas Allin_St Pauls

Coloured Engraving showing the North West prospect of St. Paul’s Deptford together with the Rector’s House (1731), by Thomas Allin & William Toms. (Image source from Government Art Collection online)

Church buildings tell us so much – the history of the area in which they sit,  the local traditions of craftsmen and the architecture, the social patterns, the economy and the religious activities. Perhaps this is why these buildings are so important to protect and conserve for future generations.

One key part of protecting the building is to know it inside and out, as thoroughly and comprehensively as possible. In order to do so, I have spent a lot of time (happily with my pencil in hand at the British Library!) researching various sources in order to be as fully briefed as possible. One source that I found extremely useful, in order to form an architectural description of the building was from Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Buildings of England: London 2: South (1983) which on page 403-405 includes the following description.

St Paul, Deptford High Street. One of the most moving c. 18 churches in London: large, somber and viril. The church is ingenious in plan, and equally ingenious in its solution of the eternal English West tower and West portico problem. Archer did not fancy the illogical and aesthetically painful way in which Gibbs at St Martins-in-the-Fields simply let the tower ride on the Greek roof. So he made his tower circular, and let it project in a semicircle at the w end (which in addition corresponded to the semicircular low apse at the e end and thus stressed a centralizing tendency welcome to Archer as it had been to Wren). Around the base of the tower is a semi-circular portico of giant columns crowned by a balustrade round the semicircle of the tower projection. Thus a structurally convincing and at the same time highly original solution was found. The Tuscan columns of the portico is derived from Wren’s transept at St. Paul’s or from the source of that, S. Maria della Pace, which Archer would himself have seen in Rome).

The Tuscan columns of the portico are of majestic girth, contrasted against the slender upper parts of the steeple. A wide staircase fans out from it. The n and s sides of the church also have quite unnecessarily lavish staircases, each of two arms starting at right angles to the fronts and turning to end parallel with them. It is the way Palladio designed staircases for his villas, or Lord Burlington for his villa at Chiswick (and Archer himself at Heythrop, Oxfordshire). Here they lead to projecting pedimented three-bay centres emphasizing a n-s axis, another aspect of the central planning which interested English Baroque architects at this time (Hawksmoor’s St. George Bloomsbury and Christ Church Spitalfields) The walls are articulated by colossal pilasters with cyclopean intermittent rustication. Venetian e window bent round the curve of the apse with a bent pediment above (a very Baroque trait, no doubt indulged in by Archer on the precedent of Vanbrugh’s licenses).

The church, almost but not quite square, is entered through a circular entrance lobby beneath the tower. Inside, the impression is of a square within a square, the outer corners being filled by two-storey chambers (the w spaces also accomomodating staircases). To the broad nave these chambers have chamfered angles, and their upper walls are opened up by large glazed round-headed windows above the projecting private pews. The rhythm of the giant Corinthian engaged columns which flank these pews and the E apse creates the illusion of an oval central space, coming loser to Borromini and the Roman Baroque than any other English church of this date. In an ambiguously Baroque fashion some of these half columns double as responds for the short three-bay n and s aisles. Yet the aisles, and the shallow trapezoidal chancel and apse, concur with the traditionally English emphasis on the e-w direction. Flat ceilings with splendid classical plasterwork by James Hands. The main galleries of wood are not originally part of the architects design. The furnishings cannot compete with the architecture. They were less ambitious than Archer had intended (his designs for pulpit and altarpiece were simplified by John James in 1721), and have been altered and rearranged.

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