Brixton Hill, Brixton, London SW2
Even in its incomplete state, this major town church by J. F. Bentley is an impressive structure. The church takes full advantage of its prominent location on Brixton Hill, being tall and majestic in its proportions. It is a free polychromatic essay in Decorated Gothic, its interior retaining a number of important original furnishings by Bentley.
A mission was established in Brixton by 1880, by Fr Hendrick Van Doorne, a Flemish priest at Camberwell. In 1881 he acquired a large house between Lambert Road and Hayter Road, which was renamed Corpus Christi house and which housed a temporary chapel. Fundraising for a permanent church began in 1883. Fr Van Doorne approached the Catholic convert architect John Francis Bentley to draw up plans, and Bethel House, an 18th-century house on the corner of Brixton Hill and Trent Road, was identified as a suitable site and was acquired for £3500. The foundation stone for the new church was laid by Bishop Butt on 14 June 1886. The contractors were Messrs E. Lawrence and Sons. Bentley’s plans were for a church of considerable height and length, vaulted throughout in stone. However, only the sanctuary (with a pointed timber wagon roof) and side chapels had been built by the time of the opening by Bishop Butt on 12 June 1887. The transepts were added in 1904 (after Bentley’s death), but after that no further work took place. A ‘temporary’ west wall was put up pending the building of the nave and aisles, which would have more than doubled the size of the church, but these were not to be. Instead, much later (in 1983-84) a new entrance area and parish hall were built over the intended site of the nave, from designs by T. Houlihan & Associates.
The church is a very impressive structure, even in its unfinished state. It is in an enriched Decorated Gothic style, of red brick with stone dressings under slate roofs. It is a richly modulated design, with the stone offsetting the red brick to give a banded and polychromatic effect, almost a Gothic anticipation of Bentley’s later design for Westminster Cathedral. On plan the church consists of chancel and sanctuary with flanking chapels and transepts and sacristies beyond. The intended nave and aisles were never built.
The east end faces towards Brixton Hill. The tall centrepiece is divided broadly into three tall vertical bays, divided by slender buttresses and within which are partially blind lancet openings in the lower levels and above this a three-light window flanked by two-light windows, all with Dec tracery. Above this are panels of stone arcading and a gable containing two Gothic niches or aedicules. Flanking the sanctuary wall, the lower east walls of the chapels are lit by large five-light Dec windows surmounted by gables, again with panelled arcading and stone banding. At the corners are buttresses and octagonal staircase turrets, with conical, banded topknots.
On the sides, the end walls of the transepts have tall lancet openings, part glazed and part blind with banded infill. Above a central banded buttress a rose window is in each gable. Filling in the junction between the transept and side chapel on the south side is the ancillary accommodation, two storeys and gabled, in Bentley’s distinctive free Gothic idiom. The unfinished west elevation (photo top right) is made good with stock bricks and render, and incorporates a large west window of three lights at its centre.
The church is entered via the parish hall at the west end. As built the church is wider than it is long, and consists of sanctuary, flanking chapels and transepts. The chancel east wall is of thin wall construction, with a cusped arcaded triforium over the high altar and tall clerestory above this. The clustered shafts of the sanctuary arcades have enriched carved stone capitals and angel corbels supporting stone wall posts which rise up to the springing of the ribbed fan vaulting supporting the central pointed wagon roof (photo bottom left). Over the transepts, these wall posts rise as columns over the apex of the arcades below.
The high altar and gradine are of Hopton Wood stone with a marble frontal, designed by Bentley. So too was the tall, panelled reredos (photo middle right) with opus sectile depictions of the Baptism of Christ, the Descent from the Cross and the Resurrection. There are tiled panels on either side and at the ends turreted niches housing Carrara marble angels. Above the high altar, the seven windows of the triforium retain their glass of 1899, designed by Bentley, and depicting St Evaristus, St Stephen, St Peter, St John the Baptist, St Paul, St Henry and St Charles Borromeo. The glass in the main triple windows above these are later, by an identified artist, and depict a central crucifixion flanked by Our Lady and St John and other saints. The brass altar rails were made by Bentley’s firm.
Of the four windows in the flanking former Lady Chapel to the north, two have lost their original stained glass (except for that in the tracery lights), while two remain, with scenes from the life of Our Lady and other female biblical figures and saints. Alongside this, the north transept has windows of 1911 by Osmond Bentley, son of J. F. Bentley and a timber altar to St Joseph, its panelled reredos with figures of the saint and the Christ child. The south transept also has glass by Osmond Bentley, dating from 1910, and a beautiful reredos with Gothic canopy and a central figure of the Virgin and Child flanked by polychromatic high relief panels of the Nativity (photo bottom right) and the Coronation of the Virgin.
Other features of note include:
• The Stations of the Cross, painted on metal with a beaten gold background to the figures
• The marble font, octagonal, 1888 (in memory of John Conway)
• The organ, in the choir loft adjacent to the south transept, by W. Ginns of Merton
Apart from the marble inlaid dais to the high altar, the sanctuary floor is carpeted, as is that of the nave. The seating consists of modern benches. There are one or two pod- like incursions around the perimeter, for reconciliation rooms etc.
East end only has been built. Begun in 1886 to designs of J F Bentley but lack of money prevented completion. Aisled chancel, outer chapels and shallow transepts. Red brick with stone bands and dressings in English early C14 style. Large scale and tall proportions. Gabled south aisle extensions.
Architect: J. F. Bentley
Original Date: 1886
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: II*