Thursday, December 7, 2017

Kilburn, London

Pearson’s triumph

I was reminded the other day by an article by Gavin Stamp in Apollo that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Victorian architect John Loughborough Pearson.* I’ve been a fan of Pearson since the 1990s, when I got to know his lovely early church of St Peter, Vauxhall. Gavin Stamp rates the architect highly too, although he rightly insists that Pearson was sometimes too eager to rebuild to his own design when restoring ancient buildings.†

Pearson’s masterpiece is the church of St Augustine, Kilburn, known to some by the nickname ‘the Cathedral of North London’. From the outside it has a fine soaring spire, but it’s the interior that really sets this building apart. I’d single out three aspects of it that work especially well.

The first is the handling of space. It’s tall, and the large windows at gallery level make it also very light. It’s also broad, because there are double aisles, meaning that there is plenty of room for a large congregation and also, no doubt, for elaborate processions. The depth of those aisles and of the gallery above them is due to the way they contain concealed internal buttresses, a feature that Pearson adapted from the great southern French cathedral of Albi.

Those buttresses are the key to the second outstanding feature of this church, the stone vaulting that they support. Pearson was very good at vaulting and the vaults dominate the interior of St Augustine’s. The shafts from which the vaults spring begin at floor level, leading the eye up from the rather low arcades, past the much taller galleries, to the ceiling itself. This consists of a simple quadripartite vault with slender ribs, whose pale stone contrasts with the darker brick of the infilling. The vault is continuous, covering both nave and chancel, which gives the space unity and also leads the eye eastwards, towards the altar, as well as upwards.
St Augustine, Kilburn, chancel

But if our gaze is led east and up, it also pauses along the way because of the third remarkable thing about this interior: the decoration. There is a lot of it, too much even to list here, from the paintings depicting miracles along the gallery fronts (done by Clayton and Bell, who were also responsible for the stained glass) to the collection of sculpture (the Crucifixion, Resurrection, apostles, saints, angels) in the chancel.¶ Everything exemplifies the Victorian view of church building outlined in William Whyte’s book reviewed in my previous post: that a church should contain a collection of symbols that can be read and that it should move the visitor and worshipper. It certainly moves me.

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* I was pleased that Stamp also singles out one of Pearson’s smaller churches, the one at Daylesford, Gloucestershire, another favourite of mine.

† Pearson was by no means unique in this, of course, but his treatment of the north transept of Westminster Abbey is a particularly glaring example of a Victorian redesign where replacement would have been both possible and appropriate. See Stamp’s piece for more detail.

¶ All this is a far cry from the temporary corrugated iron church that was built for the congregation to use while St Augustine’s was being built, the subject of an earlier post here.


HunterGatherer said...

‘The depth of those aisles and of the gallery above them is due to the way they contain concealed internal flying buttresses…’

Flying buttresses I understand. Conceal flying buttresses, too. But concealed internal flying buttresses? Surely these are just internal buttresses—nothing flying, nothing concealed.

Philip Wilkinson said...

You're right. Internal buttresses, I meant. I'll amend the post.