The cathedral of the backstreets
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the consecration of the church of St Michael and All Angels, Brighton. To mark this event we offer an historical overview of the parish
St Michael and All Angels Church in Brighton contains ‘the finest collection of Pre-Raphaelite glass, in one place, in the country and, thus, the world.’ It receives four stars in Simon Jenkins’ book England’s Thousand Best Churches and was described by Sir Roy Strong as ‘one of England’s grandest Victorian churches’. The parish is firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition and continues to foster vocations to the sacred priesthood. Today the parish is served by Fr Robert Fayers and the assistant curate Fr Mark Lyon, who was ordained to the priesthood earlier this Petertide, as well as two honorary assistant priests.
The church serves the loosely-defined Montpelier and Clifton Hill areas of Brighton, which lie west of the major Dyke Road and cover the steep slopes between the Seven Dials district and the seafront. A church named St Stephen’s had served parts of the district since 1851, when it had been moved to Montpelier Place from its previous location in Castle Square, close to the Royal Pavilion, where it served as the Royal Chapel. However, it was not convenient for the area as a whole, with most of its parishioners being drawn instead from the streets to the south of the church.
Plans for the church were drawn up in 1858, and construction took place between 1860 and 1861 to a design by George Frederick Bodley (whose father had been a doctor in Brighton and a resident of the Furze Hill area of Hove, close to the Montpelier and Clifton Hill districts). Bodley was also working on St Paul’s Church in West Street, Brighton at the time, on an interior alterations project. The design of the exterior was reminiscent of the Italianate style, in red brick with horizontal bands of white stone and a steeply pitched slate roof. This featured a modest flèche spire containing a bell recovered from Sevastopol during the Crimean War (1854–6).
The church took two years to build at a cost of £6,728, and was consecrated by the Bishop of Chichester on 29 September 1862. There was room for a congregation of 700; pew rent was charged on 300 of these seats at first. The Revd Charles Beanlands, who had been a curate at St Paul’s Church since his ordination in 1849, was given the perpetual curacy of St Michael’s Church, and he remained in this position until his death in 1898. However, this fine building quickly became too small and, in 1865, William Burges designed a parallel church which would incorporate Bodley’s building as its south aisle. The rebuilding was not carried out until 1893, and took two years. Burges was a contemporary of Bodley; both men were born in 1827. It is not known for certain why a different architect was chosen for the redesign, and the changes reportedly caused Bodley some upset. Burges did not live to see his designs realized; he died in 1881.
The new building
The exterior decoration of the new building broadly matched that of the original church, consisting of bands of white stone contrasting with dark red brick, but there is a considerable difference in height. The original building’s north aisle was demolished, and its remaining structure became the south aisle of the new church. In terms of the church’s present arrangement, therefore, the main body and the adjacent north aisle date from 1893, while the south aisle is original. The designs, as originally submitted, showed that a cloister and a campanile were planned to be built as well. Inside, additional decoration was to have been made in the chancel, and various additions were proposed for the sanctuary area. A predella (altar shelf) behind the altar, a set of sedilia within the sanctuary area and a baldacchino above the altar were all shown in the plans.
However, none of these proposals were implemented, and no changes took place in this area until around 1900, when architect and interior designer William Henry Romaine Walker (1854– 1940) provided a marble wall with Cosmatesquestyle decoration between the chancel and the nave, a screen for the chancel itself, a new marble altar (in his wife’s memory) and extra marble ornamentation for the sanctuary. A rood screen and new reredos were also installed at this time, designed by Romaine Walker.
Much has been written about the controversial high church practices at St Michael’s in the Victorian era. These continued into the twentieth century. Fr Hope Patten, who founded the Anglican shrine at Walsingham, began his spiritual life at St Michael’s as an altar server.
Interior and stained glass
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of people active in various areas of the arts who were influenced by the Quattrocento period of Italian art, were closely involved with the decoration of the interior. Bodley was informally associated with this recently formed group, in particular with Edward Burne -Jones and William Morris, a long-term friend of his. William Morris himself, along with Philip Webb and Charles Faulkner, was responsible for the painting of the chancel roof.
The First Mass of Fr Mark Lyon
The large windows on the western face of the church were made and installed by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., the predecessor of Morris’s firm Morris & Co. There are many stained glass windows by Morris and Burne -Jones in the old building. The east end of Burges’ building features a large trio of stepped lancets with basic two-light tracery. Internal fixtures include a grey marble font and a green serpentine and calcite (verde antique) pulpit, both designed and made
by Bodley. The noted stained glass designer Charles Eamer Kempe was responsible for the restoration and installation of a sixteenth-century reredos of Flemish origin. This depicts three scenes from Christ’s life in the form of a triptych which sadly has been removed due to awaiting restoration.
The 150th anniversary of the church is being celebrated in many different ways, with lectures, tours, parties and of course a celebration Mass to give thanks to God for all his blessings bestowed on the parish and her people. Further information about the parish can be found on its website <www. saintmichaelsbrighton>.ND
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