Project Canterbury

Some English Altars

With an Introductory Note by

Dr. Percy Dearmer
Professor of Ecclesiastical Art, and Lecturer in Art, King's College,
University of London

London: The Warham Guild, Ltd., no date.

It is a melancholy reflection that the men who sought most devotedly and enthusiastically to restore our English churches to their pristine glory were the very men, in the end, who completed the destruction of their character and beauty. About the middle of the nineteenth century there arose the ecclesiological movement, following on the work of Pugin, which set itself to the great ideal of making our churches the glorious centres of worship they once had been. A famous pamphlet was issued, called Reformation and Deformation, which gave telling pictures of what churches had been like in the Middle Ages, and on the opposite page illustrations of what they were like in the early Victorian era. Now those slovely Victorian churches were neglected and overlaid, but they were in great measure intact; if a few things--the high pews especially--had been carefully removed, and the services carefully improved without breaking with tradition, the old beauty would have come back, and the people would not have become estranged from their parish churches. This, alas, did not happen. Wholesale destruction, under the guise of 'restoration,' began; and the churches were filled with horrible travesties of mediaeval furniture. They lost their home-like character. Worst of all, the central feature of the church, the altar with its reredos, was distorted out of all knowledge.

Few old churches escaped the new 'deformation,' so well-meant, and so disastrous in its results. Chelsea Old Church and a score or so of other churches in remote villages remain to show how lovely and home-like our churches used to be. The altar in the chancel was almost invariably spoilt. This is why the improvement of altars is at the present time still mainly in the side-chapels, which are generally not encumbered with bad reredoses. Every one who travels about England must have noticed how, in one village after another, the 'English altar' has reappeared, first in a side chapel, and then, as people saw its points, in the chancel as well. The process of recovery has begun in side chapels and in new churches, as our illustrations show; but one by one high altars also are now being modified or reconstructed.

People call these altars 'English altars,' because they must have some name; but they are really Catholic altars--the type which, in more than one form, persisted from early times over the whole Church, and only succumbed, two centuries after the Renaissance had begun, to the Baroque influence of the counter-Reformation. There are many Flemish pictures in the National Gallery to show this; and all over Italy from Giotto to Ghirlandaio and the painters of the sixteenth century, the pictures show no other form of altar.

The same is true even of fifteenth and sixteen century Spain (where the sunlight was excluded by the retablo); and the miniatures of France and Germany tell the same story as those of England. What that story is our illustrations show.

It will be noticed how extremely convenient this Catholic altar is for mission chapels, and for places (as on board ship) where an altar is temporarily set up. The whole place at once becomes church-like in the best sense. But it is equally admirable in a great cathedral, as the high altar of Westminster Abbey shows. It is also forced upon us (unless we do violence to all architectural principles) by our old parish churches, just because they were built for it, and their low east window requires a reredos not more than about three feet high. Our illustrations show how dignity is secured more surely in this way than in any other.

Just as I am writing this, the last volume of Michel's great Histoire de l'Art has arrived from Paris, and I notice that among much condemnation of modern church architecture, an exception is made for Mr. Comper, and for Mr. Howard, who is honoured by a special illustration, and who has designed so many of our Warham Guild altars and screens. [The screen by Wigan illustrated in Michel's Histoire de l'Art was executed by the Warham Guild.] Last year an interesting sign came from another quarter; there is an ecclesiological Society in Spain which has issued from Barcelona in its Anuari for 1925 a picture of a frontal with 'Warham Guild' underneath it.

Indeed there is a general agreement nowadays among architects, artists and ecclesiologists. Not in one restricted model (for riddel-posts are not of course necessary, beautiful as they are--and even riddels can be dispensed with--and altar-crosses also), but in the general principle, the type of altar illustrated in these pages is now agreed to be, with the ciborium type of basilican churches, that required by our architecture, and by the traditions and requirements of Catholic worship.

S. Michael and All Angels, Queenstown, South Africa.

Christ Church, Woking.

Side Chapel: Parish Church, Merrow.

Lady Chapel: Bury Parish Church.

Lady Chapel: S. Mary's, Princes Risboro'.

Parish Church, Wookey Hole, near Wells.

Lady Chapel: Parish Church, Sutton, Surrey.

Side Chapel: S. Mark's, Reigate.

Side Altar: S. Mark's, Regent's Park, London, N.W.

Side Chapel: S. John's, Red Lion Square, London.

King's College, Cambridge.

Lenten Array. Lady Chapel: S. Augustine's Church, Gillingham.

Mission Chapel: S. Andrew's Mission, East Sheen, London.

Toc. H. Chapel, Torquay.

On Board Ship: H.M.S. 'S. Vincent.'

Small Altar for the Children's Corner.

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