There’s pleasure in Vauxhall

St Peter’s, Vauxhall, London SE11

St Peter’s church (1864) on Kennington Lane in Vauxhall, south London, is a very nice unadulterated example of work by the English architect John Loughborough Pearson (1817–97). What a pleasure to discover it this week.

From the late seventeenth century and all through the eighteenth this place was the location of the celebrated New Spring Gardens or Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a place of fantasy and fun on the south bank of the Thames for leisured Londoners. By the mid-nineteenth century the gardens were closed and the area was fast becoming a densely populated and semi-industrial working-class suburb with almost none of the gardens remaining, indeed the church is built on the south-west corner of the gardens’ site. The 1794 house next door to St Peter’s church is now the vicarage but it was originally the home of the widow of Jonathan Tyers II, a former owner of the Vauxhall Gardens.

While the outside of this well-maintained church has some nice decorative flourishes here and there, the inside brims with finely wrought design such as the fine carving and decoration on the font and the elaborate carved capitals of the nave, the decoration of the chancel, and the lofty brick vaulting.

The organ (1870) by T.C. Lewis sits at the east end of the south aisle, next to the chancel. It was initially rented from Lewis as a temporary instrument but was eventually purchased outright by the parish in about 1873. It is rather too modest for the building and it is to be regretted that Lewis did not get the chance to provide this fine building with a more substantial permanent instrument. But as with all organs by Lewis the tone is lovely; each stop sounds remarkably fine in its own right, crisp and articulate, and yet is able to blend wonderfully well with its neighbours. Now, after almost 150 years of service the mechanism is rather tired and rackety, and at the time of writing an organ-restoration appeal is underway.

Stranded by Kings

St Mary-le-Strand, London WC2

As far as I can remember, until last week  I had not previously stepped inside the London church of St Mary-le-Strand (1714–23), stranded rather splendidly in the middle of the Strand opposite Kings College (University of London) in a sea of traffic.

The site was formerly occupied by a giant maypole, reputedly the largest in England, and part of the original plan for the church was for this maypole to be replaced by a 250-feet-high column topped of by a statue of Queen Anne (1665–1714), but the queen died just as the church foundations were being laid and the stone for the column was used instead to add a steeple (1717) at the west end.

St Mary-le-Strand was the first of the fifty new churches built in London under the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, at a cost of some £16,000. It was the first major building project completed by the Catholic Tory architect James Gibbs (1682–1754) upon his return home to England after studying architecture in Rome, and it reflects the influence of Italian Baroque models; the interior is quite splendid.

It is said that in this church the so-called ‘Young Pretender’ Charles Edward Stuart (1720–88) abjured Catholicism to pronounce his loyalty to the Church of England during a clandestine visit to London in 1750, hoping to accede to the British throne.

An organ never seems to have been part of the original design so far as I can tell. The first known organ dates from 1790. The organologist Henry Leffler (1761–1819) described it as “Not a very good organ being part new & part old”.

The 1790 organ was built by William Warrell, a little-known music-seller and organ-builder whose business was in Bridge Street, Lambeth. The subsequent fate of the Warrell organ is not clear, but by 1863 there was another organ in the building, made by the firm of Hunter & Webb. It too is no longer present.

Warrell’s organ of 1790 was a so-called ‘annuity organ’ i.e. installed at the builder’s expense, the cost repaid to him by the parish by a fixed annuity. Such ‘annuity organ’ schemes are rare but not unheard of at this time, indeed Warrell was involved in another such scheme at St Olave, Jewry in 1814. These schemes often entailed appointing the organ builder as the organist, and this was the case with Warrell both at St Mary-le-Strand and at St Olave Jewry where Warell provided a deputy. (Donovan Dawe (1983) Organs and Organists of the City of London).

Today the liturgy at St Mary-le-Strand is accompanied by a far-from-new Johannes electronic 2-manual organ, an instrument that would once have been considered cutting edge but which – having experienced it – now has little to commend it. To quote Henry Leffler: “Not a very good organ”.

Jerusalem E9

St John of Jerusalem, London E9

Back in June of this year I had the chance to visit the rather lovely early Victorian church of St John of Jerusalem in Hackney, east London. The ‘Jerusalem’ in the name relates to the area’s historic links with the Order of St John of Jerusalem, which owned land and property in Hackney before the English Reformation (mid 16th century).

The parish dates from about 1810 and the current church was built in 1848. As the pictures show it is a rather lovely building, and the area around the church is much gentrified of late.

Sadly the large and imposing west-gallery pipe organ (by the firm of Gray & Davidson c.1873) was removed in the early 1980s; only the facade pipe-display remains. It was replaced with one of the world’s first “dual specification” electronic analogue organs, the Wyvern ST60. Then cutting-edge, but now more than 30 years on a fine example of left-behind technology. In this age of advanced digital sound it does not sound good,  although we can be impressed by the quality of the workmanship that ensures it still works.

Old Edmonton …

All Saints, Edmonton, London N9

Back in June I made a visit to All Saints, Edmonton, north London.

Edmonton is an ancient settlement, rural and well-to-do and genteel in tone until the coming of the railway and London’s massive c19 expansion. I was born in the area at a time when the population was largely blue-collar lower-middle and working class.

All Saints is where, as a schoolboy in the 1970s, I learned to play the organ and sang in the choir. It was interesting to return after 40 years, and even to be remembered by some of the old ‘uns I bumped into.

The organ dates back to 1772, the gift of a City businessman called Samuel Spragg who had his country house in the parish. The organ was originally the work of George England (fl. 1740–88). Over the years and as the building has been altered much of the original work by George England  has been removed. A recent renovation of the organ has restored the organ to the condition of its last major rebuilding in 1927, but in doing so it seems to me that quite a bit of the tonal vivacity that had been covertly added since 1927  – and which I remember from my school days – has been lost.

However, the church itself is most attractive, with fine nineteenth-century painting on the east wall. With its pleasant churchyard, sadly cleared of the majority of ancient tombs, the church is worth a visit, especially on a fine summer evening when the bellringers are practising.

The essayist Charles Lamb (1775–1834) and and his sister, the writer Mary Lamb (1764–1847) are buried in the churchyard, and their house survives opposite the church on Church Street.

The poet John Keats (1795–1821) was a trainee pharmacist in a shop nearby. A more recent building on the same site in Church Street was still a pharmacy when I was a teenager, but it is currently a betting shop; a blue plaque notes the facts.

It was pleasing to see still remaining on Church Street the late eighteenth–century building that was formerly home to a Blue Coat Charity School for Girls and the original teacher’s cottage next door.

It’s been quite a while …

The Five Precious Wounds, Stonebridge, London NW10

It’s been quite a while since I played the Norman & Beard (1911) pipe-organ in the Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, London; I was a post-graduate student there some thirty-six years ago.

So it was with a real sense of pleasure that this week I snapped up the chance to play this instrument once again, in its new home in the Catholic church of The Five Precious Wounds in Stonebridge, north-west London. As the pictures indicate, this is a rather fine Catholic building of 1968.

The instrument was transplanted here in 1988, when the Royal Academy of Music acquired a new organ for the Duke’s Hall. In being moved the instrument has been only slightly altered by the addition of a couple of stops (see specifications, below) – and, I might add, some enitrely unnecessary electronic playing aids (gadgets!) that didn’t work for me – but all  without compromising the organ’s structural or tonal integrity as originally conceived.

The acoustic of this well-maintained church is pleasantly reverberant and the organ sounds very good in its gallery location, speaking directly down into and along the high-ceilinged nave. Thus it is well placed and well designed not only to support the liturgy,  congregational hymns and even plainsong, but also – as the opportunity demands – to raise the roof with some clever showing-off!

I could find no details of which company transplanted the organ or any details of the company that currently maintains the instrument.

Pipeless but not hopeless

St Benet & All Saints, Kentish Town, London NW5

During this summer  I have had the chance to use the organ at the church of St Benet & All Saints in  Kentish Town, north London, and to attend some Sunday services.

St Benet’s is an impressive building perched atop a hill overlooking the valley of the Fleet river. The church was built in stages between 1884 and 1928 on a site given by St. John’s College, Cambridge, then engaged in property speculation by developing its land in the area for well-to-do housing. While the parish adheres to traditional ‘high’ Anglican principles its worship is very nicely fitted to modern liturgical sensibilities.

St Benet's Kentish Town, the chancel pipe organ and its gallery.
St Benet’s Kentish Town, the chancel pipe organ and its gallery.

The church has a small, two-manual pipe organ sited in a gallery high above the north side of the chancel. In an earlier incarnation this instrument had been a house organ designed and built by the eminent London firm of Gray and Davidson, and exhibited at the Great Exhibition (1861). It was rebuilt and enlarged in 1933 by the far less eminent firm of Richards & Matthews of Finchley.  More …

In its elevated chancel position the organ’s primary function was to accompany the liturgical action in the chancel area, sung masses and the Daily Office. The instrument struggles to support worship in the nave. (See also …). Even in the chancel the separation of the organ and organist from those below is musically demanding.  In short, the pipe organ in St Benet’s was always a very limited liturgical organ and although still in situ it is now unplayable.

Thus, in around 2000 the parish purchased a large, brand new electronic (pipeless) instrument from Wyvern Organs; more … .

Built before the days of digital technology, the Wyvern instrument is nonetheless a joy to play, not only for the well-designed console and keyboard action but also for the quality of its sampled sound; money seems to have been well invested in a very high-quality speaker system.

The instrument’s specification is large by any standard and it really does sound very good in the building. The reed stops seem particularly effective. Most importantly this ‘new’ instrument is able to support the needs of parish worship in general and congregational singing in particular. The folk of St Benet’s do sing well.

A small confession here is that on my first visit I was a bit disappointed to find  only an electric, pipeless instrument to play on, even though I knew the pipe organ here to be no masterpiece. You see, I had played it before, some 30 years or so ago and rather enjoyed it …  not so much for the instrument but for the crows-nest position of the organist!

But this rather splendid electric, pipeless machine has won me over to the potential of the pipeless organ.

Trivia/l point: according to Rev’d Dr Peter Anthony, the priest in charge, the large crucifix above the high altar was originally part of the set decoration for the 1964 film ‘Becket’. 

Parish website