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London: St Peter's, Walworth, designs for construction and interiors, 1822-25 (66)

St Peter’s Church and Burial Ground at Walworth in the Parish of St Mary, Newington, was the second church commission Soane received under the Church Commissioner’s Act (1818). It was also the first to be started and completed.

A dispute in the parish meant a local act of 1820 had been passed giving a five year timetable for a church to be built in Newington. Soane was the fourth architect to have been approached to build a church in the area. The previous three: Christopher Edmonds, Thomas Ruck, and Simeon Thomas Bull, had their plans rejected. Soane was approached, and on the 26 August 1822 assumed the commission. Soane was told by the Commissioners that the church should be designed:

'With accommodation for 2000 persons, One fourth to be in free seats; the Estimate including incidental Expense, and the Architects Commission must not exceed £16,000' (Soane Mus. Corresp. 2, Div. X, C1, no. 1).

The site was surveyed the following day, and drawings started to be produced in September 1822. The church would stand on an east-west axis within a large green field which was at right angles to the major thoroughfare, Turnpike Road. This field belonged (or had belonged) to Mr Thomas Clutton, while the surrounding land belonged to a Mr John Rolls. The principal front of the proposed church was to be approached from the front west entrance via an avenue from Turnpike Road. Any house in the way of this axial approach would be purchased and demolished. A further pathway running north to south across the back of the church also appears on SM 54/6/1.

The early plans and elevations reveal that Soane had conceived the church as being five-by-nine bays, approached by steps with a four-columned portico, the windows would be of equal size on the flanks, transomed and latticed, and within relieving arches. On the roof there would be a high central hipped roof to create a clerestory level, the steeple (or tower) was transferred to the front of the roof-line, eliminating the need for a pediment, which would be replaced by a balustrade instead; the classical orders and decoration would be favoured, along with Soane idioms such as pinecone finials and caps. The plans for the interior show a nave and gallery similar in conception to his other two churches: a rectangular shaped nave, with the centre of the aisle reserved for free seats, and the reading desk facing the pulpit, and a smaller scale chancel flanked by a robing room and a vestry; the western end of the gallery would have the organ, and children’s gallery above. In many regards, Soane was using the designs for Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone as the basis.

Soane estimated this 1822 scheme would cost £17,800, which he claimed would be reduced to £16,000 to the tendering process. Unlike Holy Trinity, where Soane was dealing with a few main contractors, at St Peter’s he was using many smaller contractors, and felt the overall cost could be lowered by £2,000 because of tendering for specific elements.

Soane also wrote to the commission stating he could save money by: using Bath instead of Portland stone, grey brick stock instead of white, slate instead of lead for the roof, and reducing the size of the vault. Much of this, as Carr pointed out, was structural. Nonetheless, Soane was far from happy and wrote a series of draft memorandums to the commission, of which the last was the most diplomatic; but in one of the earlier drafts Soane made his frustrations clear:

'I have pinched, (compressed) pared & starved the design in all its parts in substance & quality of materials - - & under these (distressing) mortifying circumstances the Church may be built in the limits prescribed by his Majestys Coms. For buildg. Churches' (Soane Mus. Corr. 2, Div, X, C1, no. 29).

Therefore, Soane had to revise his designs accordingly, and these revisions became evident in the 1823 scheme. The elevations revealed in addition to the structural changes, the surface ornament would also be reduced: the frieze of fret would run along the front and rear ends, but only the first and last bays on the side instead of all the way around, the pinecone finials above the first and last bay would be removed, the end bay windows on the flanks would be reduced in size, and the centrally placed, high hipped roof is reduced to a shallow pitched roof which would about the tower. Interior details also mirrored these reductions such as: the interior columns being unfluted and a lowering of the nave ceiling to that of the chancel (comp. SM 54/6/9 and SM 54/6/21).

Nonetheless, Soane was disappointed to find even after the lowest tenders were considered, the church would still be £1,380 over-budget. The Commissioners were unmoved and wrote to Soane:

'the Board cannot, according to their general rule of proceeding approve of the Plans, unless the Estimate of the whole Expence was within the limit'. (Soane Mus. Corr. 2, Div, X, C1, no. 7).

Soane did suggest further ‘deductions’ but the Newington Trustees were worried about the increasing delays (the five-year period would run out in 1825). They urged the Commissioners to accept the budget and the excess could be split between the two parties. On the 6 May 1823, the Commissioners approved the budget, and the first foundation stone was laid on 2 June 1823 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This enabled Soane to start producing more designs for details: elevations of door surrounds, iron posts, stairs and windows. These continued into 1824 with renewed plans for the final version of the tower, and designs for the organ – which only survive for St. Peter’s.

Nevertheless, over the course of the following year, Soane’s estimate had crept up to £18,468. Of course by this time, the church was well under construction, so the estimate was a fait accompli. In late 1824 into early 1825, readjusting the number of pews, the construction of the pulpit and reading desk, and possibly, the contract for the altarpiece, meant the church eventually cost a total of £18,952.6.61/2. This meant Soane’s commission of 5% was £957.2 shillings.

St Peter’s was formerly consecrated on 28 February 1825 (again by the Archbishop of Canterbury), although some modifications to the front steps and balusters supporting the organ gallery were also carried out after this date (SM 54/6/41; SM 54/6/42). Fortunately for Soane, one problem turned into a blessing. The decision to use more economical Bath instead of Portland stone ran into problems, as Bath stone fell in short supply in 1823. The stone mason, William Chadwick (1797-1852), provided Portland stone for the church gratis (see below). This enabled the front Ionic columns of the church to be constructed from Portland stone, although the bulk of the tower was from the less durable Bath variety.

Soane fulfilled the requirements of the Church Commissioners in terms of seating. There was 2002 seats, 1502 pews, and 500 (25%) were FreeSeats.

One area which is not recorded in the surviving drawings record is the decision to forego the plasterwork which would cover the brickwork. Excising the plasterwork to leave exposed bricks became a feature which characterises St Peter’s and St John’s, Bethnal Green, and would have immeasurably reduced the final cost. Engravings and watercolours (SM P259; SM 15/4/8) show the church as having banded masonry, but these may have been aspirational, rather than realistic. Consequently, unlike St John’s, Bethnal Green, where exposed brickwork was part of the design from the beginning, the exposed brickwork at St Peter’s was probably reluctantly included as part of the final design. Nevertheless, construction of the church took one year and nine months.

Additionally, Soane paid ‘Mr Collins, of the Strand’ to produce three stained-glass windows which, unfortunately, do not survive. However, a photograph from 1910 shows the subjects: the left-hand side shows ‘Our lord giving commission to St Peter’, the centre shows ‘the crucifixion’, and the right-hand side depicted ‘St Peter being released from prison by the angel’. William Collins was established at 221 Strand, near to Soane’s home at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and he had also provided Soane with stained glass for Soane’s ‘Tivoli Recess’ in his home. Harrison suggested a date of 1829 for the stained glass, as on the 2nd February 1830, Soane paid for glazers at this time, and previous bills for Collin’s work up until 1828 had concerned the lamps (see below). Therefore, the stained glass post-dates the consecration of the church.

As mentioned, for St Peter’s Soane faced a problem of dealing with small contractors for each element of the work, such as: William Chadwick, the stone-mason; Mrs Elizabeth Broomfield, the Bricklayers (both Chadwick and Broomfield had worked for the architect Francis Bedford on Holy Trinity Church, Newington from 1822-1824, and Broomfield was also contracted for Holy Trinity, Marylebone, while Chadwick lost out to Daniel Sharp for a tender for the same church); Jonathan Bateman and associates, the carpenters, joiners, smiths and founders (deceased during the contract); William Collins, lamps (and also the stained glass, see above); Thomas Godward, plasterers; James Hunt, painter, who painted the altarpiece (SM 54/6/37-39). Thomas Johnson and Sons, carpenters; John Lincoln, organ builder; Thomas Mears, bell founder; P. Moore, clock maker; J. Noakes, upholsterer; Thomas Peacock, carpenters; William Piper, plumbers (deceased during the contract); J. Smalley, hot air stoves; Daniel and James Smart, and Sharp, slaters; George Stratton, steam apparatus.

Such a diverse group did cause problems, as the tenders were not as low as Soane anticipated. Indeed, Soane had hired a friend of his, James Spiller, who advised him throughout the tendering process, and who always anticipated the tenders being higher than expected. Other problems were exacerbated by the demise of some of the contractors during the process. It may be, as Dean argued, Soane disliked tendering processes, as he was not in control of who was working for him, and many tenderers may have been firms and individuals Soane was unfamiliar with.

Nonetheless, the problems were not only in Soane’s direction. In December 1823, Soane decided to stop construction work on St Peter’s over the winter and resume in the spring of 1824. This caused Mrs Elizabeth Broomfield to complain at having had to tender at a very low price to get the commission in the first place meaning that he delay would cause hardship, as the balance of her tender would not be paid until the spring. This would ‘not only occasion me a severe loss but will put me to most serious inconvenience’ (Port, 2006, p. 116, p. 299 n. 103).

The Reception of St Peter’s Church, Walworth

When constructed, the church received mixed reviews from architectural critics. The interiors were praised, whilst the exterior was treated indifferently or unfavourably. The earliest critical assessment by E. J. Carlos in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1826 remarked ‘On the whole, it (St Peter’s) has been much admired for the tasteful nature of its decoration and the general pleasing character of the interior’ (my brackets) as well as the good acoustics and ‘air and lightness to the composition’ of the interior. Other twentieth century architectural historians have noticed the interior too, Henry-Russell Hitchcock argued that the interiors were ‘elegant and ingenious in the way the galleries are incorporated into the internal architectural organization rather than treated as mere afterthoughts’, but John Summerson described the interior of St Peter’s (and Holy Trinity) simply as ‘interesting’.

Gerald Carr’s unpublished PhD thesis was far more positive about the exterior:

‘From this location (the south east), the powerfully solid proportions, the windows encased within the walls, the minimum of ornament, and the total absence of vertical diversions of pinnacles or balustrades, combine to give the composition a truly “primitive” appearance’

Of course, Carr was referring the final version. Soane used exposed bricks with false windows within relieving arches on other projects such for the stables at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, and the curtain wall for the Dulwich Picture Gallery (again necessitated by a shortage of funds). Whether ‘primitivism’ was what Soane was truly aiming for at St Peter’s is less certain. If his earlier and one could suggest, favoured 1822 scheme, was realised instead, it would have been far more ornate and with the brickwork covered.

Nevertheless, it does seem Soane was content enough with the end result at St Peter’s, Walworth, hence the donation of the stained glass, and it was a personal milestone as it was the first church Soane had executed, and it was consecrated one month after his seventy-second birthday.

The Drawings

St Peter’s has the least amount of drawings surviving for any of Soane’s Commissioner Churches (66), and although six others are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, this still remains the case. It seems as though Soane had a clearer conception from the start as to what he wanted St Peter’s to look like, and he had ‘comparatively’ less trouble between the Newington Trustees and Church Commissioners than with the Vestrymen at Holy Trinity, Marylebone. Of course, the budgetary constraints forced Soane to amend his more ambitious designs, but it was not so injurious that he could not finish the work within the proscribed time-frame.

The corpus of drawings at Sir John Soane’s Museum consists of: 29 plans (including site surveys), 21 elevations, 12 sections, 2 perspectives and 2 correspondences. On some occasions one sheet may have a plan, elevation and section all together (for example, SM 54/6/28). In these cases plans are nearly always considered as primary, unless they are a minor element in the composition of a drawing.

The drawings for St Peter’s follow a distinct chronology which largely tallies with the Soane Office Day Books. The dates of the drawings show that they were executed in distinct bursts: September 1822, January - June 1823, December 1824 - January 1825, with periodic work in between these dates.

It is not certain why there are a series of holes along the inner edge of the long side of a sheet. Two possibilities were that they were either to be bound to form either a sample-book, or alternatively to form a record for the office, and by consequence, for posterity. The paper and watermarks are consistent: there is only one use of laid paper, for a site survey (SM 54/6/3), the others being wove paper of varying qualities, but the corpus does include Whatman paper such as SM 54/6/5-6.

The drawings are all to scale, and rough sketches do not appear in the corpus. On two occasions there are drawings, produced some time before, are at a later date are used to form contracts: one for the altarpiece (SM 54/6/37) and the other for balusters (SM 54/6/41); but unlike Holy Trinity Marylebone, Commissioner Seals, or spaces reserved for them, are not amongst the drawings for St Peter’s.

Unlike the drawings for Holy Trinity Marylebone, those for St Peter’s Church, Walworth attest to a more methodical and straight-forward approach to the project. Even when the 1822 scheme was rejected, the whole process of redesigning the church started again.

The church has undergone changes in the post-Soane era, and they are outlined in John’s study of the church. This included the crypt receiving a bomb in 1940 during the Second World War, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 65-80 people. Post-war restoration has been sympathetic and has meant St Peter’s Church Walworth is closer to Soane’s original design — on the exterior and interior — than either Holy Trinity, Marylebone or St John’s, Bethnal Green.

Roberto Rossi, 2018

E. J. Carlos, ‘New Churches No. IX: St. Peter’s Church, Walworth’, 1826, in Gentleman’s Magazine, September, vol. 96, 2, pp. 201-203; G. Carr, The Commissioners’ Churches of London, 1818-1837: A Study of Religious Art, Architecture and Patronage in Britain from the Formation of the Commission to the Accession of Victoria, 3 Vols, 1976 (PhD thesis, History of Art: University of Michigan); H.R. Hitchcock, Architecture; Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, 1977 (4th Edition); P. Du Prey, Sir John Soane: Catalogues of Architectural Drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1985; H. Ewing, ‘The Royal Hospital, Chelsea’, in M. Richardson and M. Stevens (eds.), John Soane Architect: Master of Space and Light, 1999, pp.186-195; G. Waterfield, ‘Dulwich Picture Gallery’, in M. Richardson and M. Stevens (eds.), John Soane Architect: Master of Space and Light, 1999, pp. 174-185; D. Reiman, B. Barker-Benfield, T. Tokoo, The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts XXIII, 2002; M. John, Sir John Soane’s Three London Churches, 2003, (Diploma, Architecture Association); J. Summerson, Georgian London, 2003 (5th Edition); M. Harrison, ‘Monumental, spectacular and Gothick: Soane and Georgian glass-painting’, in, 'Catalogue of Stained Glass in Sir John Soane’s Museum', in The Stained Glass Collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum. The Journal of Stained Glass Studies, Volume 27: Special Issue, 2004, pp. 107-117; M. Peover, and H. Dorey ‘Catalogue of Stained Glass in Sir John Soane’s Museum’, in The Stained Glass Collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum. The Journal of Stained Glass Studies, Volume 27: Special Issue, 2004, pp. 131-287; P. Dean, Sir John Soane and London, 2006; M. H. Porte, Six Hundred New Churches: The Church Building Commission 1818-1856, 2006; S. Palmer, At Home with the Soanes: Upstairs, Downstairs in 19th Century London, 2015
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