Many of London’s Catholic churches were built in the 19th century. We have none of the Renaissance frescoes of Rome or the accreted history of Paris’s Gothic churches. But a tour of the capital’s Catholic churches from an art-historical viewpoint is, nevertheless, well worth the Tube fare.
Perhaps the finest altarpiece in London is at the National Gallery: Renaissance artist Francesco Botticini’s Palmieri Altarpiece , which is being exhibited from November 4. Inside London’s Catholic churches, however, there is a lot you can see.
There are two main Modernist churches in the capital. The first is SS Mary and Joseph, in Poplar, east London, which John Betjeman admired – a hunched hulk of light-brown brick. St Margarets in Twickenham is altogether more Brutalist and austere. It has seating in the round and a stained-glass window by Patrick Reyntiens (a long-time art reviewer for the Catholic Herald). These two churches may not inspire the awe that history does, yet they mix the modern world with God in a way that may extend the boundaries of our faith.
The art within central London churches is well worth discovering. In a day, you could visit several.
There’s the largest stained-glass window in the city: in St Etheldreda’s in Holborn. There’s also a medieval window there (unique in London Catholic churches) which is filled in by a 1952 Joseph Nuttgens stained glass, Christ in Majesty, which illuminates the sombre chapel in spectacular crimsons, blues and yellows.
Nearby, in Clerkenwell, is St Peter’s Italian Church, with sky-blue and auburn frescoes by Austrian and Piedmont artists of the 19th century. Further east on the Hackney Road is the Lithuanian Church of St Casimir, with its Tyrolean carved altarpiece which, legend has it, was submitted to the Grand Exhibition of 1851.
There are lots of links in this world: the 19th-century stained-glass artist and painter Nathaniel Westlake was best friends with Westminster Cathedral architect John Francis Bentley. The modern religious sculptor Peter Watts was apprenticed by another Catholic church sculptor, Philip Lindsey Clark. Joseph Bonomi the Elder, the church architect, was the uncle of Charles Goldie, whose paintings hang in Mayfair’s Farm Street Church.
But if you’ve had enough of Pre-Raphaelite daubings or reproduction-Spanish, Old Testament altarpieces, then check out the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral by Eric Gill. He had a retrospective at the Barbican in 1992. His Jacob Epstein-style, simple, beautiful reliefs, will comfortably restore any loss of faith when it comes to Catholic church art in the capital.
This article first appeared in a recent edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (2/10/15).
Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!