The coming History Afternoon includes a tour of the church investigating the 1866-67 restoration by the young architect Thomas Graham Jackson. Here, one of our speakers, Martin Jones, specialist in Victorian church architecture and the work of Jackson, offers a preview. The Victorians changed the look of the English church, and not just because of the many new ones they built. Few were the ancient churches they did not ‘restore’. The scale of what they did is easy to miss and misunderstand. Repairs were just the start. Restoration meant modernisation. Modernisation followed fashion.The right ‘look’ was essential.
Overhauling St Mary’s: a passion for modernity
Buildings need maintenance. St Mary’s was known to need repairs and further problems were uncovered once work began. Restoration became rescue. Concrete underpinning stabilised pillars and walls. Buttresses held the chancel. Damp and cold were also targeted. Drains and heating were installed. Draughts were cut, ventilation controlled. Hygiene and comfort dovetailed conveniently in Victorian drives to improve public health.
Keeping up with neighbours and competitors
The church was the most important public building in a village. As restoration became more common, parishes did not want to be left behind. Four neighbouring churches, including Binsted and Madehurst, had just been restored or currently had the builders in when Rev. William Chandler Izard was instituted. He got things moving quickly and appointed Thomas Graham Jackson. His upgrade also made the church rather grander. This was not parochial vanity. Round the corner was brand new St Richard’s, contesting Slindon’s religious identity in a way not seen since the Reformation. Izard would meet the rising Catholic presence head-on.
Preserving old St Mary’s?
Jackson tried to preserve ancient work, but not everything ‘old’ was valued equally. Post-medieval work was usually ripped out. That was the fate of St Mary’s Jacobethan East window. Similarly, painted Biblical texts ‘only’ 200-300 years old were destroyed to reveal 12th Century wall decoration underneath. Restorers also put back medieval features that were missing. St Mary’s had lost its chancel arch so Jackson put one in. Today, we notice its carving and miss the significance of its width. St Mary’s was an Evangelical parish. Nothing must interrupt the congregation’s ability to see and hear Common Prayer.
The seating revolution at St. Mary’s
Ejecting box pews and a gallery made a massive visual impact. The real transformation came, however, when Izard simultaneously abolished ancient seating arrangements. No longer would the parish sit each in their proper place. Henceforth, anyone could sit anywhere. In an age obsessed with hierarchy, the Victorian clergy used restorations to execute a profound social revolution.
Redefining gothic in the high days of the Gothic Revival
Young Jackson was exploring what “gothic” meant. Pushing the boundaries, he adopted a free interpretation for fixtures and fittings. In his ideas for the reredos, he brought 13th Century Italy to Slindon. With his pulpit, he took Sussex parishioners to 6th Century Byzantium. Rather than calling the Middle Ages back, the Victorians revealed themselves in their version of gothic.
Come and find out more at the History Afternoon. There is lots we still don’t know, especially about how the village reacted to these massive changes. Can you help?