An architectural slice of Catholic history

Pugin as inculturated by the Jesuits: the Church of the Immaculate Conception (David Iluff)

Farm Street
By Michael Hall, Sheridan Gilley and Maria Perry, Unicorn, £35

London Catholics call their churches by street names, not their dedications. Farm Street is dedicated to Our Lady in Her Immaculate Conception, the devotion made dogmatic by Pius IX in 1854. The church was the achievement of Fr Randal Lythgoe, English Jesuit Provincial from 1841 to 1847, who was “all but the refounder of the Society of Jesus in Britain”. It was built between 1844 and 1849 by the architect John Joseph Scoles, with major alterations and refurbishing continued to 1903.

This beautifully designed and photographed book is supported by three essays. “The History of Farm Street to 1914” is by Sheridan Gilley, the historian of the 19th-century Catholic Revival and its personalities. A Jesuit presence in Mayfair was opposed not by Protestant neighbours, but by the bishop, so the church was not to be a parish; nor could it open a school. This allowed the Jesuit forte, preaching and hearing confessions, to flourish and it became a church of fashion. One grande dame convert is noted as not only the granddaughter of a duke and also a marquess, but “with family connections to six more dukes and three earls”. The antidote is the Jesuit who “did not believe that any poor man could commit more than a venial sin”. Cardinal Manning was received into the Church here, but he later turned against the Jesuits.

Without a secondary school, the house became the seat of a Jesuit school of history, particularly on the English and Welsh martyrs, beginning with Fr John Morris. Gilley’s masterly sketches of individual Jesuits accompany the carte de visite photographs. Alas, there is nothing similar for the 20th century, so Fr Philip Caraman and many others are missing.

“The Architecture and Furnishings of the Church” essay is by the historian Michael Hall. It forms the major part of the book, keyed to the photographs, for which he wrote the captions. The church was built right to edge of its plot, strongly lit from the north and south, and by its clerestory. It was “Late” in style, between the English Decorated and the French Flamboyant. Scoles, who sidestepped Pugin’s insistence on the use of English styles, country models and rood screens, much resented the Pugin-designed high altar, a gift of 1848. The next architect was Henry Clutton, whose Sacred Heart chapel (1857-60) has wonderful alabaster carvings, gilt brass bas-reliefs and a vaulted roof. Clutton, replacing Scoles’s piers in polished Aberdeen granite, widened and vaulted the aisles on the east. He was also responsible for two fine “late” side altars.

George Goldie added the Farm Street residence (1883-1885). Alfred Edward Purdie appended the Mount Street presbytery (1887), about which Evelyn Waugh was so withering: “Anglicans can never achieve this ruthless absence of ‘good taste’.” Purdie’s sodality hall and chapel is shown only in a Victorian photograph. He was also responsible for many side altars and towering reredoses, with their deep architectural and figurative carving.

All these architects were Catholics, but the only architect the Jesuits seem to have indulged was a non-Catholic, WH Romaine-Walker. He cleverly contrived double aisles on the west with complex vaults and lavish side altars, with votive statues in exotic marbles, lapis lazuli, malachite and bronze. He also rebuilt the St Ignatius chapel, under its own arched vault. However, the role of confraternities, side altars and sodalities, so normative of pre-Vatican II religion, is not explained. And the implication that mid-19th century Jesuits favoured “lay participation in the Mass” is a century too early. In all of this Scoles’s originality – surely this was a “town church” which architects were to campaign for from 1850 – gets rather lost, and indeed his surviving pulpit is unnoticed.

“Farm Street Between the Wars and Beyond” is by Maria Perry, who takes a Jennifer’s Diary approach to clergy and events as seen by an active parishioner. Bomb damage was repaired, and the south gable redesigned by Adrian Gilbert Scott. Stained glass by Evie Hone was installed.

The liturgical and musical turmoil of the mid-century is indicated by the “concelebrated Low Mass” which opened in the year 1966 (when the famous choir was disbanded). The Pugin high altar was spared: the forward altar is faced with moulds taken from it, with Pugin’s reredos and tabernacle rising up behind. The canted angle photograph required to unpick this trompe-l’œil is not given. The commissioned photography by Andrew Twort achieves ravishing effects using natural light. His viewpoints are severely axial, so some double-spread photographs are split by the binding. The sacred vessels and vestments are not covered. Surprisingly, historic photos are not used.

Farm Street church today is an eclectic parish, much favoured by Americans. Its outreach, changed beyond recognition in method and object, is extensive, as Fr Lythgoe would have wished.

Dr Roderick O’Donnell is an architectural historian