Leicester Place - Notre Dame de France (French Church)

Leicester Place, Leicester Square, London WC2

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Built for the London French community in 1953-55 from designs by Professor Hector Corfiato, the circular design of the church repeats the form of two previous buildings on the site, a diorama of the 1790s and a church of the 1860s by L.A. Boileau. Corfiato’s church is important as an advanced design showing the influence of the Liturgical Movement, and as a showcase of Art Sacré, notably the murals in the Lady Chapel by Jean Cocteau.

The church stands on the site of Leicester House, built in the 1630s for the first Earl of Leicester. It lies to the north of Leicester Square, laid out in 1670 by the second Earl, and originally called Leicester Fields. Leicester House was demolished in about 1790 and Leicester Place laid out across the site. Here was constructed in 1793-94 from designs by Robert Mitchell a large rotunda, used as a diorama. In 1865 this building and two adjoining houses were acquired by Père Charles Faure, of the Marist Fathers, for use as a church for the French Catholics population of London, which was concentrated in Soho. The diorama was converted to a church in 1865-68 by the French architect Louis Auguste Boileau, and was notable for its iron construction (Boileau later worked with Gustave Eiffel on additions to the Bon Marché store in Rue de Babylone, Paris, which also had much decorative and structural use of iron).  The church was opened on 11 June 1868, with Mass celebrated by Bishop Grant of Southwark, and the sermon preached by Archbishop Manning. The church was of Greek cross plan, formed within the circular shell of Mitchell’s diorama. Its chief internal furnishing was the statue of Our Lady on the altar of Notre Dame des Victoires, a copy of a statue in the Paris church of that name.  

In 1940 Boileau’s church suffered from bomb damage, but was repaired in the following year by architects Hall, Easton & Robertson. The statue of Our Lady of Victories was destroyed, but the head was salvaged and parachuted into France in 1942, where it was restored and incorporated in a new figure by the sculptor Henri Vallette (1891-1962), returning to London in 1945.

In the early 1950s, a decision was taken to rebuild the church. With the encouragement of the Cultural Attaché René Varin, this was to become a showcase of Art Sacré, or modern French sacred Catholic art of a generally left-leaning and progressive sort which sought to legitimise artistic Modernism, particularly after its denunciation by Pope Pius XI in 1932. The architect was Professor Hector Corfiato, a graduate of the École des Beaux Arts de Paris and practising as Corfiato, Thomson & Partners. The contractors were C. P. Roberts & Co. of Holborn. The foundation stone (brought from Chartres Cathedral) was laid on 31 May 1953 by Maurice Schumann, French Foreign Secretary, and the church was opened on 6 October 1955 by Cardinal Feltin, Archbishop of Paris. Like its predecessor, the new church was circular on plan with twelve Doric columns supporting a domed roof, and with an ambulatory and galleries around the central space (figure 1).

Artists employed in the fitting out of the new church included the Benedictine monk Dom Robert de Chaumac (1907-1977), who designed the large tapestry behind the altar on the theme of Paradise on earth, woven in Aubusson (1954); Professor Georges-Laurent Saupique (1889-1961) and his students at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, responsible for sculpture and other carved stonework on the exterior (1953); the Russian-born artist Boris Anrep (1863-1969), an altar front with a mosaic of the Nativity, covered for many years and only recently revealed (dating from 1954, i.e. before his major work at Westminster Cathedral); and, most famous of all, Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), a friend of Dom Robert’s, who painted the murals in the Lady Chapel between 3 and 11 November 1959. These are Cocteau’s only murals in the United Kingdom. They are divided into three panels, depicting the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and the Assumption. The murals are simplified line drawings, with sparing use of colour. Cocteau included a portrait of himself in the Crucifixion scene.

In 1998 the church was listed grade II. Apart from the removal (at some point not determined) of the large pulpit shown in the early photograph at figure 1, the church was largely unaltered at the time of the listing. However, in 2001 plans for liturgical reordering were advanced (architect Gerald Murphy), involving the removal of the two polygonal and incised ambos on either side of the sanctuary, Corfiato’s high altar and the marble communion rails.  After discussions with the relevant authorities, an amended scheme was agreed, involving the creation of a new elliptical sanctuary raised on a dais, with the relocated and slightly reduced original altar at its centre and the paired ambos relocated to the back of the sanctuary. The communion rails were moved to a new position in front of the Lady Chapel.  

In March-April 2012 the Cocteau murals were conserved, with later overpainting removed (estimated cost £24,000) by the team who had previously conserved the Cocteau murals in the chapel of S. Pierre at Villefranche-sur-Mer, near Nice.  In the course of this work the Boris Anrep mosaic on the altar frontal in the Lady Chapel was uncovered beneath a painting attached to the frontal (said in the list entry to be by Cocteau, but the evidence for this is not clear). The mosaic has been cleaned, repaired and left on display, while the painting (visible in figure 3) has been placed in store. The chapel is now enclosed by a glass screen for better protection, and the relocated communion rails have been removed (possibly a temporary measure).  

Diocese: Westminster

Architect: Corfiato, Thomson & Partners

Original Date: 1953

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II