ST. BARNABAS CHURCH, OXFORD,
IN A LETTER TO
THOMAS COMBE, M.A.
ARTHUR W. BLOMFIELD.
ST. BARNABAS CHURCH, OXFORD.
1, HENRIETTA STREET, CAVENDISH SQUARE,
LONDON, November 11, 1871.
MY DEAR SIR,
My description must be divided into at least two parts, one comprising the construction and architecture [3/4] and the other the internal arrangement, with the latter of which I will begin.
If we take at random a number of churches built within the last fifty years, we shall find among them every variety of plan, from that of the simple lecture-room, or auditorium, crowded with pews and galleries in every part, to that of the exaggerated mediaeval type, consisting of narrow nave, wide aisles, transepts, a central tower, and a long and narrow chancel divided from the body of the church by a high and close screen, rendering the altar invisible and the services inaudible in many parts of the building. It is true that new churches are now no longer designed in either extreme, and while, on the one hand, we constantly see buildings of the former class being altered and converted to suit services more complete than were ever contemplated when they were originally planned, new churches of the higher type are built with wider and more open chancels, and occasionally with wide naves. In both cases, however, a compromise is made, and it may be questioned whether the result is ever quite successful in all respects. A simple auditorium cannot be converted into a really satisfactory church, and the latest fashion of the mediaeval type, without [4/5] quite meeting our present requirements, seems to waste space, and to sacrifice much of the distinctive beauty and meaning of the very features which it is intended to preserve. Yet such attempts appear to show a growing feeling, which I have not seen distinctly expressed in words, but which I take to be, that if our Church is wide enough to embrace each extreme of the divergent views which produce buildings of these two opposite types, the material fabrics which we erect should be planned in an equally large spirit; in other words, that our churches should be so designed as to meet perfectly all the requirements of an auditorium, and at the same time be equally well adapted for the due observance of all the rites and ceremonies of our Church, whether carried out with the highest development of ritual, or in a simpler manner. This problem, difficult enough in itself, is usually rendered still more so by questions of architectural propriety, archaeology, conventional ideas of taste, and other considerations, all of which (even to symbolism itself), although they may be right, beautiful, and useful as helps and adjuncts, should certainly be held secondary to the simple utilitarian requirements of the building; so soon as they [5/6] interfere in the slightest degree with these, they are, if not wrong, at least wrongly or unskilfully treated.
The deep conviction I have always had of the truth and justice of these views, long ago led me to the conclusion that the solution of the difficulty lies, not in any modification of our own medieval type, still less in the invention of anything new or strange, but in reverting to the earliest arrangement of Christian Churches (namely, that of the Basilica) in its broad features. In matters of detail there are of course many things which point to customs not existing in our branch of the Church, and these, though interesting to the archaeologist, must be omitted as utterly without real significance to us in the present day.
I need not here enter into a description of the early Basilica, as most lovers of Church architecture are perfectly familiar with the simplicity and beauty of its arrangement; those who are not, can refer to Gaily Knight's plan of San Clemente at Rome, or to 'Bingham's Antiquities of the Christian Church,' where they will find a full and minute account of it. A reference to the plan at the beginning of this letter will show in what manner [6/7] its main features have been introduced in the Church of St. Barnabas as suitable for our own use. How far the attempt thus made has been successful in embodying and carrying out the views and objects I have just described, is not for me to say. With reference to the small size of the Vestry, and the absence of any special chamber for an organ, which may be noticed as defects in the plan, I must say, that when the Church was begun, it was thought the choir would at first be extremely small, and the addition of another vestry at some future time, if required, would be a matter of no difficulty whatever. The Church was purposely designed not to admit of a very large organ, the advantage of which is open to question—the space at the east end of the south aisle is amply sufficient for an organ large enough to satisfy all reasonable requirements in a building of this size.
I now come to the construction and architecture; and first, I must point out that these are quite distinct from the internal arrangement.
The adoption of the general features of its plan would not necessarily involve a copy or repetition of St. Barnabas in other respects. The Basilican is quite as capable of variety of treatment in detail [7/8] and architecture as the Mediaeval or any other type of church. In this instance I was led to employ a system of construction and a style of architecture which I thought best adapted to realize the wishes expressed in your instructions to me. They were, that I should design a church to hold a thousand persons for as small a sum as possible, and so far they were common enough; but to them you appended the much less usual conditions, that while you hoped I should be able to produce a dignified interior, no reasonable expense was to be spared in first securing strength, solidity, and thoroughly sound construction in every part; and not a penny was to be thrown away on external appearance or decoration. The Tower was consequently to be left as a more or less ornamental and unnecessary feature to be added hereafter.
Finding that your views of church-building, when means are limited, so entirely coincided with my own, and that you also had a strong desire to adopt the Basilican model, I entered on the work with the greatest interest and pleasure. Mr. Joseph Castle, of Oxford, was called in to undertake the building, and to consult with me as to materials and cost. We found [8/9] that to build entirely in concrete, as I had at first proposed, would be considerably more expensive—even with thinner walls—than the sort of work ultimately adopted and carried out. The walls as now seen are rubble-work of local stone set in a mortar composed of blue lias lime and very coarse sand, forming a sort of fine concrete, and when set becoming as hard as the stone itself. Courses of brickwork were used for squaring the quoins, and levelling up the work at intervals, and in the construction of the arches; except where it would have involved extra cost, these bricks have been allowed to show in the finished work, partly for the sake of the lines of colour, and partly because there was not the same reason for cementing them over as existed in the case of the rubble-work; the stone of this was necessarily very rough, and the joints wide, and if not protected by an external covering, it would be liable to decay from long exposure to the weather; the whole building was therefore roughly coated externally with Portland cement, and internally plastered with blue lias.
There is no wrought stone whatever in the building, except the Bath-stone used in the shafts, bases, and capitals of columns, where we found that no [9/10] other material equally fit in all respects for the purpose could be used at a less cost. For the sills of windows, lintels of square openings, steps, and wherever hard stone is commonly used, or where great strength and durability was required, we employed a concrete carefully composed of broken brick rubbish, sharp sand, and Portland cement, formed in wooden moulds or boxes into the necessary shapes in situ, and rendered with fine gauged stuff before quite dry; we found that a considerable saving was effected by this method of construction over the use of any good hard stone, while the strength and hardness of the material are if anything greater. Some idea of this may be gained by an examination of the steps at the southwest entrance, which have been in constant wear since the consecration of the Church. [For the space of two years, from five to seven hundred people have trod these steps, going in and coming out, three times every Sunday, besides all the week-day usage of them, yet no sign of wear is to be seen.—T. C.] The floor throughout is also formed with Portland cement on a bed of blue lias concrete. [St. Barnabas, I believe, is the warmest Church in Oxford, and that because its floor is the driest—drier than a boarded floor, will wear for centuries, and never requires washing. It is warmed in winter by flues under the floor; the receptacles for coal and coke are about 12 ft. apart. A flue runs down each aisle, and one in the nave; they separate at the West end—one flue goes up to the North, and the other to the South, both meeting at the apex of the roof at the West end. The quantity of coal consumed last winter was 3 tons, and of coke 2 tons, and the wood cost £2 2s.—T. C.]
 The roofs are strongly framed with timbers of good scantling, but they have no special peculiarity, unless it be that I allowed none of the rafters or boarding to be planed; the whole is true carpenters' work.
The external covering was formed of large ribbed tiles of local manufacture. Those, however, over the nave failed to keep out the wet entirely, and it has since been slated.
Such are the peculiarities of material and construction, adopted simply with a view of combining the greatest economy with the greatest strength and durability, and in total disregard of all conventional notions as to fitness and external appearance.
The style of architecture is so bald and plain, that I only use the term at all for want of any other less pretentious to express my meaning. It professes nothing, and consists merely in the employment of such simple forms as I found best suited for my purpose, which was to produce a dignified interior [11/12] at a small cost. Thus, the openings are covered, where possible, with circular arches, but where a straight lintel appeared more convenient, I at once used it without hesitation. Except in the capitals and bases of the columns and in some of the added fittings, there is not a moulding throughout the church, and it can only be looked upon, architecturally speaking, as a vehicle for coloured decoration, for which I designed and intended it. It is a satisfaction to know that in a building so solidly and simply constructed, any amount of colour, whether in marbles, mosaic, or painting, may be added from time to time with the certainty that for many generations to come it will be secure from any damage arising from premature decay of the fabric. A certain amount of decoration in the roof and at the east end has already been executed by Messrs. Heaton, Butler, and Bayne.
I have now finished my description; but it may be thought incomplete unless some more precise particulars as to cost be added. The Church being built entirely by yourself, and not by public subscription, I should not venture to allude to this part of the subject did I not feel assured that you are anxious to give every information that may [12/13] be of real practical use to others, and I do not doubt that you will add to my letter such a statement of expenses as you may think likely to prove interesting or useful.
I cannot conclude, however, without saying a few words about St. Barnabas considered as "a cheap church." The idea usually conveyed by this term is that of a showy exterior, flimsy construction, and a mean and disappointing interior. Now, as the exact opposites of these are found in St. Barnabas, I object to its being classed with cheap churches; it is true that no money was wasted on it, and it was in that sense economically designed and economically carried out; but, as I have before said, no expense was spared to secure strength and solidity of construction; the work was put without any competition into the hands of a thoroughly good contractor, and not one single item of the design from first to last was altered or cut down in the slightest degree to reduce the cost—everything was carried out as originally designed, and this is more than can be said for many churches that have cost three times as much. If committees would give architects as distinct and sensible instructions as you, Sir, gave me, and would then leave them as [13/14] unfettered as I was left, cheap churches of the flimsy class would be much less common.
Trusting that the description I have now given will prove sufficient for your purpose,
MY DEAR SIR,
Yours most sincerely and obliged,
ARTHUR W. BLOMFIELD.
To Thomas Combe, Esq., M.A.