Monday, 30 July 2012

"Carved Stone Heads"


Two of the most famous Unitarian gothic-revival churches in the UK are Hyde Chapel, Cheshire and Mill Hill Chapel, Leeds both by the Manchester firm of Bowman & Crowther and opened within months of each other. In fact, the Leeds congregation took a lot of inspiration from  Hyde for their own building, including the pews, stained glass window and the final form of the piers in the arcades!



At Hyde the Minister decided upon gothic-revival architecture for the new chapel building, as he subscribed to August Wilby Pugin's view that gothic architecutre was "pure, Christian, architecture", especially the pointed arch and pinnacles of the Early English style. Pugin in his The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841) where he suggested that modern craftsmen seeking to emulate the style of medieval workmanship should also reproduce its methods. Pugin believed Gothic the true Christian architecture, and even claimed "The pointed arch was produced by the Catholic faith", championing the Early English’ style in favour of the later Decorated or Perpendicular style which he believed were debased. It should be no surprise that many Unitarians reproduced Pugin’s arguments as they too believed they were trying to recreate the "true, simple faith of the early Church". It is rather ironic therefore that Pugin hated the idea of Nonconformists using gothic- revival architecture.

At Leeds the building committee decided upon a gothic revival building "for the celebration of those sacred rites, which  are now full accorded to us; and in a manner worthy, so far as our means admit, of that Great Being, to whose service and worship we dedicate it". In otherwords, gothic was the only appropriate architecture for Christian worship. Just to make sure, the congegation approached Rev Mr Charles Wellbeloved of York to ascertain whether there may be any doctrinal issues arising from a Unitarian congregation using gothic-revival architecture: he could find none, and indeed agree with Pugin in rejecting classical or vernacular architecture for churches and chapels.

Due to Pugin rejecting the commission (he also rejected Hyde Chapel) the congregation at Leeds turned to the noted  Unitarian architect Henry Bowman of Manchester; they also approached Messrs. Shaw & Dobson of Leeds who were also early gothic-revivalists. In fact, Shaw & Dobson restored  St John's Church Briggate, Leeds instead of demolishing it! The congregation at Leeds preferred Bowman because he was "well known" as a Unitarian and they admired his "study, attention and ability" as an architect.

Plans were produced by both firms: that of Shaw & Dobson lacked an arcade and so was "free from internal pillars" and in fact the "pillars were the only tangible objections made to Mr Bowman's [original] plan". Due to lack of money, it was proposed to build the Bowman & Crowther plan with an iron arcade covered wtih plaster work, saving over £200 - thankfully this scheme was rejected! Unlike at Hyde, where money was no object, it certainly was at Leeds: despite the chapel being known as the "Mayor's Nest" as no fewer than five consecutive Lord Mayors of Leeds were members of the congregation! In another ironic twist, Rev Robert Aslpand, editor of the Christian Reformer Or Unitarian Magazine and Review praised the interior layout of Mill Hill compared to Hyde Chapel because of its simple box pews and benches: it was "fitted-up and made, to all appearances, to the old meeting-house principle of accommodation.". Why the irony? Because the building committee had visited Hyde Chapel, greatly admired the 'poppy headed' pews there and had wanted to copy them for Leeds. However, as they would have cost £527 for "plain" pews and "£603 for "embellishsed" they were a cost that they could not afford, and instead some pews had oak ends with pine bodies "stained and painted to emulate oak" covered with crimson cloth and the rest made entirely of deal "painted in immitation of oak, lined throughout with crimson cloth".

Bowman originally proposed that Leeds have a tower and spire, rather like that at Hyde. However this was rejected on 29th May 1846: " there was not a single member of the committee who approved of the extraordinary and fantastic tower and spire; or who could understand the principles upon which it is based." Furthermore,it was felt that a tower and spire were a step "too far" and were "too much in the ecclestiastical taste" for a Nonconformist congregation. There was also a question of being able to dig sufficiently deep foundations. At Hyde the new chapel was on a differant site to the old building. At Leeds the new chapel was to stand on the foot-print of the old and "solid ground " was several feet deep, not least due to the large number of graves in the Chapel Yard which it was hoped would not be disturbed.The lack of firm foundations and large numbers of graves meant that the Transcept was built considerably shorter than originally designed!

There never appears to have been any doubt whatsoever that the congregaton at Leeds were building a Gothick Church: the Chancel with Communion Table, Communion Rail and East Window were all included from the start. The Communion Rail was the gift of James Kitson of the railway engineering firm of the same name.

Similarly, after the building committee visited Hyde Chapel in April 1847 they unanimously proposed stained glass windows in the Chancel and Transpet at Leeds. They expressed "the higihest admiration of the painted glass East Window and the very beauitful effect which it produces and we consider it highly desirable we should have a painted glass window in the Chancel at Mill Hill." There was absolutely no dissent in the congregation over the use of painted glass depicting Biblical imagery; but more on imagey anon. The Hyde Chapel window had been painted by the presitigious London firm of  Messrs. Warrington and cost £150 ( it was given as a gift of the Ladies of the Congregation); due to the Mill Hill window being larger, however, the window was estimated to cost £200 "to complete it in equal style" but it was felt that the cost "fully compensated in beauty and effect...in its adoption".

Whilst the painted glass East window was viewed solely in artistic terms, as a piece of art to beautify the chapel, the question of carved sculpture was raised in February 1847 when some older membners of the congregation found differance with the proposed "carved Angels, heads and figures" which would ornamanet the roof corbels and door jambs (there are also on the Transcept niches containing figures of the four Evangelists). A commitee meeting on 19 November resolved to use "foliage in lieu of heads for the corbels" and wrote to Bowman & Crowther to that effect. A meeting of 2nd December 1847 resolved " that all able imitations of the human figure and face, and all emblems and imaginary Beings ought to be avoided". Obviously, the angels on the corbels and door jambs fell under the epithet of "imaginary Being".

On 13th March Joseph Crowther wrote to the committee saying that  that he "had considered the objections raise to angel & head corbels but was not at present prepared with a substitute remaking; the stones would be put in plain and might be worked afterwards to the pleasure of the Congregation."

 This argument dragged on for the best part of 1847:  Henry Bowman wrote from Manchester - obviously exasperated -  on 9 October saying he could change his designs, but would rather not.

A Special Meeting of the congregation was held  on 2nd December to discuss the matter further and to find a solution to the problem of "carved heads" which many felt had "become preposterously out of proportion".

A committee meeting of 9th December, convened to discuss the resolutions of the congregation, resolved in favour of the architects finding " no reason to alter the Original Plan and that no other forms of ornamentation we can devize can be adopted without detriment to the building."

The committee, however, did reject the use of "monsters" and "grotesques" for the corbels (obviously finding them, like Angels, 'imaginary Beings') but went on to state that "All the carved details be left entirely to the Architect". Ultimately, it was found that  as "the faces were so small and unobtrusive" from the floor of the Nave, they would not attract attention! (out of sight, out of mind?) Why  some members of the congregation too exception to carved figures adorning the chapel, but not to stained glass windows depicting Jesus, and the Apostles will never be known, but it shows that there were still theological issues surrounding the use of gothic-revival architecture by Nonconformists. Whilst it is obvious that the East Window was viewed solely as a piece of art for the "effect" it created, then the "carved stone heads", whilst also being purely decorative (the corbel would have worked just as well without being carved) appear to have been more threatening. Was it because angels were "imaginary Beings" and therefore a sign of superstition? Or was sculpture, unlike the stained glass, one step too far? Too close to being a"graven image" and therefore "popish"?

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