The Church of St Mary Magdelen, built by G. E. Street


St Mary Magdalene
by A.G. Street

This church was built in 1873 by Street, who was the architect of many other churches and of the Law Courts. St. Mary Magdalene is a very fine church, built of rich red brick and banded with stone. In some lights, against clouds of a matching colour and density, the horizontal stone banding of the spire seems to cut it off from the body of the church, allowing it to float. The interior has tall, flat walls in brick, with stone bands and a high, wagon roof.

The site was an extremely difficult one. This is the ancient valley of the River Westbourne, where Jessop had to culvert the river below the canal and build large retaining banks to support the canal. The site of the church rises so steeply from south to north that the northern entrance is up six steps and the southern one, down fourteen. The land is twenty steps higher on one side than on the other. Because of this steep slope, the church had to be kept as narrow as possible. The Plan shows how narrow the church had to be. There is an aisle on one side and mere buttresses on the other, with the seating and altar off centre.

Street was building at the height of the Oxford Movement, with its feeling for Gothic Revival in brick. In the Eighreen Sixties and Seventies architects had developed a strong dislike of stucco. Stucco was not considered 'honest', covering up shoddy brickwork with elaborate decoration. Architects began to favour coarser, more 'natural' materials. Trains and canals made it possible to bring together stones and bricks from all parts of the country, so that many different materials could be placed side by side to give contrasts in colour and texture.  To these architects decoration was not something to be applied: it was part of the structure of building. Nor was bad brickwork in poorly made bricks, to be hidden by plaster as Nash had done.

Ruskin was the father of the Gothic Revival and this illustration shows his influence. The quality of the workmanship had to be clear for everyone to see. Ruskin's ideas led to an era of bravura brickwork. In the same way, the return to polychromatic brickwork in the 1980s, as a reaction to the failures of the 1960s concrete slabs, with their condensation and other problems, is very similar in spirit, but we have a long way to go before we regain their levels of brickwork skills.

At its best, their 'structural polychromy' is pleasing and full of vigour. When too exaggerated, it was called the 'streaky bacon style' but this certainly could not be said of St Mary Magdalene, which is a very fine church indeed.

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