Farnham - St Joan of Arc

Tilford Road, Farnham, Surrey GU9 8DJ.

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The Church of St Joan of Arc is one of the best works of John Edward Dixon-Spain and, as far as I know, the only complete church built to his design.  Although the style of the church is traditional, there is nothing slavish in the way the architect makes use of earlier forms.  In fact, with its sharply defined cubic shapes and open-arched campanile, it is unlike any other church I have seen.  

The west front of the church is further enhanced by the formality of its setting with its hedged ‘piazza’ and avenue of cherry trees leading towards the main door.  In my view this church certainly deserves inclusion on the government List of Buildings of Special Architectural and Historical Interest.

John Edward Dixon-Spain (1878-1955) went into partnership with Charles Nicholas in 1905, and the two men remained together throughout their careers.  Dixon-Spain was the son of an Anglican vicar but converted to Roman Catholicism in 1914.  His best known works are the Quasr el Aini State Hospital, Cairo, Newcastle Public Hall and Baths, the Rock Hotel, Gibraltar, and the Church of St Joan of Arc, Farnham.  He also designed a number of film studios and, after 1945, was chiefly involved with designing RC primary and secondary schools.  His obituary in the RIBA Journal says

He was a great worker, devoted to architecture, and his standards both for himself and others were very high.  With his passing the profession has lost an architect of great ability and unerring judgement.  He was a man of complete integrity whose quiet manner masked a very strong character which was illuminated by a slightly sardonic wit.

It is likely that Dixon-Spain only built two churches, of which the more important is the one at Farnham.  His other church, St Alphage, Hendon, never received its intended campanile and was, in any case, damaged in the war.  The Church of St Joan of Arc is built in red brick with a steeply pitched tiled roof and tall, open-arched, campanile.  The style is, loosely speaking, Romanesque, but the pitch of the roof and form of the campanile break away from this tradition.  The cubic volumes of the building are emphasised by the plain surfaces and crisp lines.  The “formal yet vigorous” statue of St Joan over the entrance to the narthex is the work of Roger de Villiers. 

Inside, the church has white walls and the windows are filled with clear glass, something that Father Robo, who commissioned the building, was anxious to maintain.  In contrast to the plainness of the structure, it contains a number of fine fittings.  The paving in the sanctuary, of Roman stone with large porphyry star, is now hidden under carpet, but the gilded baldacchino over the altar can still be seen.  The 17th century gilt wood reredos, on the other hand, that was once beautifully framed by the apsidal niche in the east wall, is no longer in place.  A small crucifix, made by a local artist, now hangs in the niche.  The two statues in niches to either side of the High Altar are by Vernon Hill, as are the statues in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin (completed 1935) and the Chapel of St Catherine and St Margaret (completed 1937).  Finished before either of these chapels, however, was the Baptistery with its fine Sienese marble fittings and bronze screen.  The painting of the Baptism of Christ that hangs behind the font is the work of a Catholic artist, Geoffrey Burnand.

There is a grassy expanse to the west of the church, with an avenue of cherry trees leading up to the hedged ‘piazza’ in front of the main entrance.  

Diocese: Arundel and Brighton

Architect: John Edward Dixon-Spain

Original Date: 1930

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II