Chelsea 2 - Our Most Holy Redeemer and St Thomas More

Cheyne Row, Chelsea, London SW3

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A church of 1894-95, built from designs by Edward Goldie and unusually for that architect in a Renaissance rather than Gothic style. This was probably at the insistence of the mission priest, Canon Keens, who was a great church builder in the diocese. Nevertheless, it is a very accomplished design, despite having to be simplified and reduced due to financial and site constraints. Originally, the church had numerous side altars in shallow niches on either side of the nave; these are now largely filled with a collection of Spanish and Italian paintings. The church is located close to the site of the town house of Sir Thomas More, who was canonised in 1935, at which time the saint was included in the dedication. The church occupies a prominent corner position in the Cheyne Conservation Area, close to an important row of early eighteenth-century town houses, including the home of Thomas Carlyle. 

Thomas More moved to Chelsea in 1520, building a large house which was later known as Beaufort House (demolished in 1740, Beaufort Street now lies over part of the site). In 1528, More built a private chapel at Chelsea Old Church, and this survived the bombing of 1941, when much of the rest of the church was destroyed. More also took a lease on the fifteenth-century Crosby Hall, in Bishopsgate in the City of London, the Great Hall of which was rebuilt in 1910 on part of the site of More’s extensive Chelsea garden (now part of a large neo-Tudor house built at the end of the twentieth century).     

At the end of the nineteenth century, Canon Cornelius James Keens founded a mission in Chelsea at the request of Cardinal Vaughan and commissioned Edward Goldie to design a church. Canon Keens was a great church builder, founding eight missions in the London area. The choice of a Renaissance design, uncharacteristic of Goldie’s work, may be attributed to Canon Keens. The site was that of a house of 1708 dating from the original development of Cheyne Row, near the site of William de Morgan’s pottery. The original design for the church included a nave, aisles, a chancel and an octagonal domed crossing. However, due to cost and London County Council street widening plans, the aisles and the crossing were not executed (figure 1). The foundation stone was laid on 7 June 1894 and the church was opened on 23 October 1895. The builders were Messrs Goddard of Farnham & Dorking. Two underground spaces were created: the sacristies below the sanctuary and a heating chamber below the west end. A drawing of the interior (published in 1895) was exhibited at the Royal Academy (figure 2).

The church was consecrated on 21 June 1905 by Archbishop Bourne. Following the canonisation of Thomas More in 1935, the dedication of the church was amended and the side altars were reorganised to include one for the saint. During the 1930s also, the high altar was simplified. In September 1940, the church was bombed, killing nineteen people who were sheltering in the heating chamber and destroying the organ and west wall. The church was repaired after the war and in 1952 the coat of arms of St Thomas More (by Peter Watts) was installed in the porch pediment. A further restoration took place in 1962, undertaken by Messrs. Bartlett and Purnell of the Art and Book Company. They removed most of Goldie’s side altars, apart from that in the Lady Chapel and St Thomas More’s altar.

Messrs. Bartlett and Purnell were also responsible for the post-Vatican II reordering (1970-72). The floor levels were altered, a new sanctuary floor laid, the altar moved forward and placed on plinths, and a new marble ambo installed. In 1980, a matching marble font was installed, as a memorial to Alfonso de Zulueta, rector.

In 1990-91, stained glass windows by Shades of Light were installed in the west window. The current Stations of the Cross were commissioned from Ken Thompson for the Millennium (replacing miniatures by G. Ruggeri). In c.2006-7, Blampied & Partners converted the west ‘crypt’ (the former heating chamber) to a parish hall (named the Monckton Room after the murdered local resident John Monckton) and constructed a ramp to the west entrance. Further works in recent years have included the cleaning and repair of the exterior, the repainting of the interior, and the laying of black and white marble sanctuary paving (by Ormesby of Scarisbrick) to replace the 1970 tile paving.

The church was built in 1894-95 by Edward Goldie in the Italian Renaissance style. Externally, the walls are of red brick laid in English bond with Bath stone dressings. The roof is covered with slate (originally lead). The interior has plastered walls and Bath stone plinths to the pilasters. The plan is rectangular, consisting of a five-bay nave with shallow side chapels and a narrower two-bay chancel. (The side chapels on the north side are slightly staggered and not flush with each other, see figure 1),

The west elevation is very briefly described in the list entry (see below). The east elevation also has an oculus in the gable. Apart from round-headed clerestory windows, the side elevation is blank.

At the west end is a timber porch, beside a timber spiral staircase to the organ gallery. The stair and the gallery are made of kauri pine. Two timber confessionals also stand below the gallery. The organ is by G. M. Holdich. The narthex is divided from the nave by a metal grille screen (1940s).

Inside, the bays are marked by giant Ionic pilasters supporting the coved and panelled ceiling, which is much plainer than in the architect’s vision published in 1895 (figure 2). Between the pilaster plinths are very shallow niches, framed by arches and originally containing side altars. Only two now contain altars, including the altar to St Thomas More (1935) in the first bay from the west on the north side. A statue of the saint is set on a corbel in front of a stone aedicule with Corinthian pilasters and More’s coat of arms placed centrally between the capitals. The broken pediment is filled with two angels, the Agnus Dei and the papal insignia.

The next niche to the east has modern statues of St Antony and St Teresa (by S. Ercoreca) and a painting of St Francis receiving the stigmata (a copy after Correggio). The remaining two niches on the north side have a statue of Christ (which might be the Sacred Heart of 1896 described by Evinson) and a pieta of 1909 by Mayer of Munich. Above the latter is a lunette painting of the Agony in the Garden. The furnishing of the nave side chapels on the south side (from the west) include: a copy of Murillo’s painting of St John the Baptist; a copy of Murillo’s Madonna and Child in an elaborate frame hanging above a shallow timber altar with fluted pilasters between floral relief panels; a modern statue of St Joseph and an older statue, possibly Bavarian, of the Queen of Heaven. The easternmost bay has a plaque listing rectors of the church, a modern crucifixion scene in relief, and a reproduction of Holbein’s portrait of St Thomas More.

The giant pilasters and arcades continue into the sanctuary, although the niches here are even shallower. The two bays each on the north and south sides have lunette paintings of four Fathers of the Church. Below them hang on the north side two paintings: a saint receiving a chasuble (possibly seventeenth-century Spanish), and St Francis in a heavy gilt frame (possibly by Zurbaran or follower). On the opposite wall hangs a painting depicting the ecstasy of a saint (possibly seventeenth-century Spanish), while the other bay is occupied by the sacristy door.

The east wall is framed by two giant Ionic pilasters. Below a shallow arch with heavy keystone hangs a large painting of the Crucifixion by Prosper Greenwood. It is flanked by two pedimented niches holding statues of St Peter and St Paul. The tabernacle is placed to the south, while the presidential chair and brass eagle lectern occupy the raised central part of the sanctuary. The forward altar, the font (1980) and the ambo (1971) are all made from white and green marble. Above the altar hangs a modern baldacchino. Behind the ambo stands a modern bronze statue of St Thomas More (by Enzo Plazotta).

The west window has stained glass depicting the Redeemer, while the lower west oculi have stained glass depictions of St Francis and St Thomas More (all 1990-91, Shades of Light). The Stations of the Cross are oblong stone reliefs with some gilding and colouring (2000, Ken Thompson).

Diocese: Westminster

Architect: Edward Goldie

Original Date: 1894

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II