Bodley’s Vision of St. Michael’s

George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), though not one of his age’s most prolific architects, was one of its most influential and his churches stand apart from their Victorian counterparts by their sense of refinement and an atmosphere of timeless otherness that elevates the experience of worship to the level of faultless art. Not long after his death, critics were to look down on his buildings as potentially ‘embarrassing to poor or dirty people.’ Partially for this reason, and because the Gothic style of Bodley’s work slipped out of fashion after the 1930s, his buildings remained in the shadows. Even when Victorian architecture came again to be celebrated in the late 1970s the later buildings by architects like Bodley were overlooked in favour of more ‘vigorous’ churches by George Gilbert Scott, George Edmund Street, and William Butterfield. Only in recent years have Bodley’s churches been given concentrated attention and his use of the Gothic style is at last proved to be masterful rather than merely ‘charming.’

Bodley was articled to George Gilbert Scott and so learned his art from one of the Victorian period’s most prolific architects. His own stylistic development took him down a different path from that of his teacher and over time Bodley came to be associated with the quality of ‘refinement,’ a quality which suffuses one of his most significant city churches – and the first built by Bodley in London – St Michael’s, Camden Town. St Michael’s shows Bodley at his most powerful and, despite not having been completed according to the original designs, it stands as a monument to the ideals of its first priest, E. B. Penfold, whose great desire was that the working class citizens of Camden Town be able to worship God in an uplifting setting, in the ‘beauty of holiness.’

The site of St Michael’s, near the junction of five major thoroughfares, called for a grand scale and so the church was given a tall, thin nave undivided from west to east by any break or chancel arch. Such a unified interior, inspired by late thirteenth-century friar churches on the Continent, allowed for unimpeded sightlines of the pulpit and High Altar. Despite the Continental inspiration of its plan, the type of Gothic chosen by Bodley is pure English Decorated of the fourteenth century. The clustered piers of the nave and elegant flowing tracery of the east window and clerestory windows play off against the bare, smooth walls creating a gentle tension of ornament and austerity. Characteristic of Bodley’s work, this contrast is what gives the building its sense of refinement; ornament is used carefully and only where it will generate maximum visual impact.

St-M's-interior

In the case of an urban mission church such care in deploying detail would also have fulfilled an economic function. St Michael’s was designed in 1876 but, though the nave was complete by 1881, the chancel was not finished until 1894. For this reason the intended stone vaulting of the chancel was replaced in execution by a continuation of the nave ceiling, itself an avant-garde design making use of transverse arches supported on the exterior of the building by flying buttresses. Also unbuilt was the great west tower, intended to act as the main entrance onto Camden Road, and exhibiting the same gentle play of austerity and ornament so typical of Bodley.

Building News, June 24, 1881.
Building News, June 24, 1881.

Yet seen today in its denuded state the effect of St Michael’s is far less lively than Bodley intended. As completed, the wooden paneling of the nave walls was painted a rich olive green and the walls above a deep red flocked with the sacred monogram of the Name of Jesus (IHS) in black and white. Seen against the soft grey stone, this striking decorative scheme would have added a dimension of depth to the design. The north aisle windows by Burlison & Grylls, a firm often employed by Bodley in his churches, must have looked especially splendid in this setting.

Shining down from the east, the crisp white light of Charles Eamer Kempe’s east window glistens on a black and white marble chancel pavement- another element typical of Bodley- and the memorial brass to E. B. Penfold whose vision made St Michael’s possible. It was the drive and energy of a large number of late Victorian clergy which transformed the urban landscape of London and enabled the construction of such glorious buildings as St Michael’s, Camden Town. Such an heritage of skill and beauty deserves to be celebrated.

Evan McWilliams