Sunday 29 June 2014

Over the Border - and even in Watford

Leek, over the border in Staffordshire, is a town I'd never visited before, and I loved it. It's a bit rough at the edges, and some of its streets are heavy with traffic, but the core of the old town has survived in good working order, with many fine buildings - especially from the Victorian era, when the local father-and-son firm of William Sugden and William Larner Sugden did impressive work - and the pleasant, lively feel of a largely unspoilt (but not preserved in amber) town that has come back to life in recent years and is undergoing something of a renaissance.
  It also contains an architectural gem, in the broad, sturdy shape of All Saints Church. Described by Pevsner as 'vigorous and personal', this is one of the rather few churches designed by Norman Shaw ('You know I am not a church man,' he once confessed, 'I am house man, and soil pipes are my speciality.' ) All Saints makes brilliant use of a sloping site to create an interior more lofty and spacious than you'd ever expect, entering through the broad, low porch. The effect is enhanced by the broad arcades and lack of clutter in the well-lit, white-painted interior; this is a church built on sound Tractarian principles, with the altar visible from everywhere in the church and the very substantial font prominently placed at the West end.
 This beautifully ordered space is enhanced by quite superb furnishings, designed by Shaw's collaborators W.R. Lethaby and Gerard Horsley. Lethaby designed the impressive font and the pulpit, beautifully carved in Gothic-style pierced work, as well as the reredos (above), which has painted by F. Hamilton Jackson. The windows are mostly by Morris & Co, some to Burne-Jones designs, many of them executed after Morris's death - perhaps just as well, as Shaw had no high opinion of Morris's business methods: 'Morris is no good. His work is sometimes splendid (not always) but he is so full of cranks and general stubbornness that is is nearly impossible to do anything like "business" with him - being an advanced Socialist he cannot do with much less than 100% to 250% clear profit in his work - and so his work is dear!!!'.

If you ever find yourself anywhere near Leek, do go and have a look - both at the town and at Shaw's extraordinary church. Similarly - with a violent shift of location - if you ever have the misfortune to find yourself in Watford, do not despair. I was there the other day and can assure you that this ill-favoured town contains a quite brilliant church - Holy Rood - designed by J.F. Bentley, whose most famous work is Westminster Cathedral. A fine tall building in flint with stone bands, the style is pure Gothic but many of the details are Arts and Crafts bordering on Art Nouveau. It makes brilliant use of a basically square plot, and the interior is a treasure house of late Victorian church furnishing, with every surface gloriously enriched. I can't find a picture that does it justice - nor can I of Watford's other fine church, St Mary, where the chief attraction is the Morison Chapel: this contains large and stunningly good early 17th-century monuments by the greatest English sculptor of his time, Nicholas Stone. Sadly, St Mary is usually locked, so if you do plan to brave Watford for the sake of its ecclesiastical gems, you'd be wise to call ahead...

1 comment:

  1. "being an advanced Socialist he cannot do with much less than 100% to 250% clear profit in his work"

    Nothing's too good for the workers. Staggering, but, paradoxically, unsurprising.