Dandified Gothic: the architecture of Henry Woodyer (1816-1896)

This blog does not deal primarily with lost heritage, but recently a long-vanished building was brought to my attention which is simply too good not to feature here. The most grievous losses suffered by 19th and early 20th century architectural heritage as a result of accident, war damage, changes of fashion and redevelopment are well known, and Gavin Stamp’s Lost Victorian Britain provides a good, if depressing national overview. But they were so extensive that only the most voluminous of publications could ever provide an exhaustive catalogue. That this loss should not be better known is surprising because it was inflicted on a major city and on the legacy of someone whose output otherwise survives well. But it forms a useful hook on which to hang an introduction to a wonderful architect whose colourful and entertaining work gives endless pleasure and delight. About him in due course, but first, the sad story of the building featured in the picture below.

St Raphael’s Church and Almshouses, Cumberland Road, Bristol (Henry Woodyer, 1858-1859, demolished): view from southwest. The taller building with the prominent chimneys in the background is St Raphael’s House of Charity.

St Raphael’s Church and almshouses, Bristol

Although the whole ensemble has a clearly ecclesiastical character, this was more than just a place of worship. This establishment was founded as a mission to active seamen and almshouses for retired sailors and the widows of those who had been lost at sea. It was the initiative of Canon R.H.W. Miles, who paid the entire cost of construction out of his own pocket. This was carried out in 1858-1859 and ran to some £10,000. Miles chose for it a site on Cumberland Road in the harbour area on Spike Island. To the south, the complex fronted the embankment of the River Avon, while to the rear was an extensive network of railway lines serving the docks. It was dominated by the chapel, a substantial affair 100ft (30.5m) long and 51ft (15.5m) wide, capable of seating up to 350 worshippers. This was a single volume and externally the division between nave and chancel was marked only by a wooden bellcote of quite fantastical form. Internally, the label stops of the arcades were decorated by carvings of anchors, nets, seaweed and other items with nautical associations. The east window was filled with stained glass by Hardman and the reredos was constructed of variously coloured types of marble.  

St Raphael’s Church, Cumberland Road, Bristol (Henry Woodyer, 1858-1859, demolished): the interior looking east

The church was adjoined to the west by an elongated range, 160ft (48.8m) in length, consisting of a terrace of six almshouses terminating at the opposite end in a residence for the chaplain. This was effectively a single-storey construction, although as the prominent dormers make clear, there was accommodation in the roof space. A cloister walk ran the entire length, providing covered access between all the parts of the complex. There were small walled gardens to the rear, a larger walled garden at the west end of the site for the chaplain, and a grassed communal area that was larger still to the Cumberland Road side. Twenty years after the almhouses went up, another charitable institution appeared on the neighbouring site to the east. Opened in 1880, St Raphael’s House of Charity – it is not currently clear exactly to whom it ministered – was a substantial affair, four storeys in height on a raised basement with a chapel of its own, designed by local architect Edward Henry Edwards. Like St Raphael’s, it was Gothic and the two must have made a most imposing ensemble. But for all of Miles’s good intentions, his venture proved to be ill-starred. The chaplain made St Raphael’s a centre for Anglo-Catholic ritualism and overstepped the bounds of liturgical and theological propriety to such a degree that in 1878 his licence was revoked by the Bishop. The chapel closed and did not reopen until 1893, now as a parish church.

St Raphael’s House of Charity, Cumberland Road, Bristol (E.H. Edward, demolished): view from north west, artist’s impression published in The Building News of 10 January 1879

The complex was damaged by bombing during World War II. The effects do not seem to have been serious, but, as happened in so many cases, this provided a convenient excuse to offload a building which was by now a liability. One conjectures that the dock area was becoming depopulated and the church was far too big viably to resume its role as an institutional chapel. St Raphael’s was made redundant in 1946 and used for a short time as a warehouse (a vehicle entrance was opened in the east wall) before being demolished in 1953. The almshouses survived a little longer, but seem to have been disused and dilapidated by the time they were demolished in 1970. St Raphael’s House of Charity has also disappeared without a trace. All that survives today is the lower part of the west wall of the church with a pent roof between two buttresses (not statutorily listed) spanning what appears to be a public right of way that runs between two modern blocks of flats. It was a sad loss by any standards and particularly so in the context both of Bristol’s architectural heritage and the output of its architect. As is noted in Andor Gomme, Michael Jenner and Bryan Little’s Bristol, an Architectural History, it was ‘one of the best works of the underrated Henry Woodyer, and the church the only one in Victorian Bristol to be anywhere near the class of [G.E.] Street’s great buildings of the 1860s’. The last comment alludes to Street’s church of All Saints in Clifton (designed 1863, finished c. 1881, demolished in 1964 after being gutted in World War II) and the nave and west towers that he added to the cathedral (designed 1867, completed in 1888).

The triple chancel arch at St Mary’s, Westwell in Kent, thought by John Newman in The Buildings of England to be an insertion into older fabric dating from no earlier than c. 1250. This is the possible inspiration for a distinctive device used by Woodyer at Twinstead and elsewhere.

Background and training

Since Bristol, an Architectural History was published in 1979, Woodyer might deserve at the very least to be recategorized as ‘poorly known’, as he has been the subject of a monograph that includes a comprehensive catalogue of his works: John Elliott and John Pritchard (eds.), Henry Woodyer, Gentleman Architect (Reading: Department of Continuing Education, The University of Reading, 2002). I am indebted to that source for much of the information presented here, especially the extensive biographical details. A perusal of that book will quickly demonstrate why Woodyer merited serious scholarly attention and that his stock deserves to be high. But it has one major failing, which is the small number of colour plates and the poor quality of the reproductions. Presumably this was the result of a need to keep costs down (ultimately to no avail, as the book is expensive to acquire, although that is due more to the limited number of copies in circulation), but it sells badly short an architect in whose work material, colour, pattern and texture all play a very important role. That is something that I would like to rectify here.

‘Contrasted Residences for the Poor’ from A.W.N. Pugin’s Contrasts

Woodyer’s upbringing and professional formation are important, as they throw light on why he built as he did, where he did and for whom he did. He was born in Guildford to a father who had a successful and lucrative practice as a surgeon and accoucheur. Brought up in comfortable circumstances, he was sent to Eton and then was a student at Merton College, Oxford between 1835 and 1838. This was not a typical background for an architect at the time (it was a line of work viewed more as a trade to be acquired through apprenticeship than a learned profession) and there was little in his educational career that suggested a predisposition to the vocation that he eventually chose. He is supposedly the first Old Etonian to have become a professional architect. Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888), the artist, art historian and art collector, claimed that, contemplating his future on graduation, Woodyer at first vacillated between law and Holy Orders. But Woodyer’s university education did have one very important bearing on his career in that it placed him right at the centre of considerable theological ferment from which High Anglicanism eventually emerged. John Keble had delivered his Assize Sermon ‘National Apostasy’ two years before Woodyer went up to Oxford, and the publication of Tracts for the Times was in full flood throughout his undergraduate career. Many of Woodyer’s contemporaries from both school and university, including Parry, fell under the influence of the so-called Oxford Movement, subsequently referred to more generally as the High Church. Though initially theological and liturgical, it soon became a vitally important driving force in the rediscovery of Gothic architecture, promoting the style not merely as a fashion, but as symbolic of a revived Anglican faith that had rediscovered its place as part of the One Catholic and Apostolic Church.

A.W.N. Pugin’s gatehouse at Oxenford in Peter Harow, Surrey of c. 1843

By January 1842, Woodyer was back in his home town designing fittings for one of its churches and came into contact with the Rev’d John Mason Neale (1818-1866), who three years earlier as an undergraduate at Cambridge had founded the Cambridge Camden (later Ecclesiological) Society with Edward Boyce and Benjamin Webb to define correct principles of church architecture and decoration, ritual and music. Woodyer was approvingly recorded in Neale’s diary as ‘a man of some architectural taste’, but at that date he still lacked any professional training. This may have come three years later when he seems to have come into contact with A.W.N. Pugin (1812-1852), who was busy at Peper Harow, a few miles to the southwest of Guildford. In 1843, Pugin designed a barn and fortified gatehouse at Oxenford on the Peper Harow estate, and the following year he extensively remodelled the parish church of St Nicholas, of which Woodyer’s uncle by marriage was rector. In an entry for 1845, Pugin records Woodyer’s name and address in his diary, but whether this led to any prolonged contact between the two men is unknown. However, the course was now set. That same year, Woodyer set up an office in Guildford and quickly received a commission for a new church in the hamlet of Wyke near Ash in Surrey. Then in 1846 he entered the office of William Butterfield (1814-1900) as one of only two pupils that he is known ever to have taken. The two worked together on the restoration of the medieval collegiate church at Ottery St Mary in Devon and evidence from London Post Office Directories suggests that Woodyer maintained some kind of presence in Butterfield’s office until as late as 1857. At any rate, the two remained in contact and from time to time Woodyer approached his former mentor for professional advice.

Career and style

St Martha-on-the-Hill, Chilworth, Surrey: Woodyer’s reconstruction carried out in 1848-1850 of a medieval church which had fallen into serious disrepair. The roof of the chancel and transepts had fallen in two years before he began work and the nave had long been a ruin, but he allowed himself considerable licence – the central tower is entirely his invention (Michael Coppins, Wikipedia Commons).

In the previous post on J.P. Seddon, I looked at an architect who advanced his career by cultivating contacts in professional organisations, participating in architectural competitions, lecturing and writing. In many ways, Woodyer is the exact inverse of that. He was not clubbable, nor a believer in architecture as a profession. He never joined the RIBA, the Royal Academy or even – surprisingly – the Ecclesiological Society. He shunned architectural competitions. Once he had wound up whatever presence he had had at Butterfield’s office, he worked solely out of the estate at Grafham in the Surrey Hills. He purchased this in 1854, rebuilding on a grander scale the farmhouse that formerly occupied it to include office accommodation for his practice and laying out a formal garden. He never occupied any post as diocesan architect and held no surveyorships. He did not actively seek commissions and did not advertise his services, preferring instead to take advantage of personal connections made at school and university. Though he apparently later rued the fact that no opportunity had ever arisen to build something in Oxford, there seem otherwise to have been no regrets and one surmises that he was selective about the jobs that he took on. In part, this was because the practice was never big, but in any case he could afford to be discerning: on his father’s death in 1849, he inherited several properties and a private asylum, making him independently wealthy. Though his marriage was tragically short-lived (Frances died 10 months after their wedding, not long after giving birth to their only daughter), his wife had also been brought up in comfortable circumstances and he benefited from the money that had been left in trust to her by her mother. He dressed rakishly and owned a yacht called The Queen Mab, a substantial craft with six berths that required a crew of three.

St Mary’s Church, Stratford St Mary, Suffolk – the upper stages of the tower, completely rebuilt to Woodyer’s design when he remodelled this large Stour Valley wool church for the Rev’d Henry Golding in 1876-1879.

Though he dealt with a small amount of country house work, Woodyer was primarily an ecclesiastical architect. Churches (both new buildings and restorations of existing ones) account for 60 percent of his output. If one widens the definition to include any work for a client in ecclesiastical circles, such as parsonages, church schools, religious houses and charitable institutions, that figure rises to 90 percent. It needs to be stressed at this point that the activity of the High Church embraced not just liturgical and aesthetic but also social reform. In Contrasts (published 1836, revised 1841), Pugin advanced the notion that a decline in architectural standards with the abandonment of Gothic in the 16th century had led to moral degradation, poignantly demonstrated by the paired illustrations of ‘Contrasted Residences for the Poor’. High Church clergy – and J.M. Neale is an important case in point – were actively engaged in establishing missions to the fast-growing major industrial and commercial centres and organising relief for the dire poverty caused by overcrowding and exploitative working conditions.

Lithographed bird’s eye view of the House of Mercy at Clewer, outside Windsor in Berkshire, a penitentiary for fallen women living as a religious community, which in time became the kernel of a substantial complex of schools and charitable institutions, all designed by Woodyer. This shows the original complex erected in 1854-1858. The chapel, visible to the left of centre, was superseded by a much larger building, put up in 1878-1881. (© British Museum)

For that reason, St Raphael’s represents the quintessence of Woodyer’s milieu. But in all other respects, it is a most unusual building for him, since he worked primarily in rural areas and his few urban churches are almost exclusively in country towns. He designed only one in the capital, St Augustine’s in Haggerston, east London (1865-1870). Even that qualification might be narrowed still further, since Woodyer was active primarily in the Home Counties and then mostly to the southwest of London. Where there are geographical outliers, it seems generally that a ‘bridgehead’ would lead to a scattering of more commissions in the locality. Thus it was, for example, that the new church that he designed at Parry’s estate of Highnam Court and the restoration of the existing church and new school at Upton St Leonards, jobs both won in 1849 and both in the vicinity of Gloucester, led to a crop of buildings in that county. St Raphael’s is again unusual for remaining his only job in Bristol. Woodyer’s output begins to fall off in the 1870s and largely ceased after his daughter Hester married in 1891. One of his last jobs was to remodel a half-timbered farmhouse outside Padworth in west Berkshire, which he had purchased in 1893 (it survives, and surprisingly is not covered by any statutory designation). He look up residence there in 1895, but was in poor health and died the following year.

St Andrew’s Church, Clewer, Berkshire: the combined sexton’s lodge and lychgate added by Woodyer in 1866 when the churchyard was extended. (© Jaggery and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence)

Though the question of Pugin’s direct influence on him will probably remain forever open, Woodyer was very much an architect in the Puginian mould. His sources were essentially English Gothic of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. He showed no interest in the early French Gothic with its ‘vigour’ and ‘go’ that had such an influence on his contemporaries, and he resisted the influence of the Ruskinian aesthetic derived from Italian sources. Indeed, his style changed little throughout the course of his career. But whereas Pugin’s architecture aims to conjure up a vision of the Middle Ages – albeit one conceived by a medieval architect of exceptional skill and individuality – Woodyer always achieves an effect readily identifiable as a product of the 19th century. In some ways, it is Gothic in a hall of mirrors. Proportions are distorted (take, for instance, the arcades at St Raphael’s, with arches that are enormously wide and tall in relation to the diminutive piers on which they rest) and individual features overscaled.

St Michael and All Angels, Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire (designed 1853, built 1854-1856): general view of the interior looking west from the chancel. The first collegiate church to be established in England since the Reformation, it was intended by its founder, clergyman and musician Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley (1825-1889), to train choristers, who provided daily sung worship here, with a view to improving the standards of church music nationally. Ousley bore much of the total cost of £20,000 himself and no expense was spared. Note that even the organ pipes are painted and gilded – individually, rather than according to a unified scheme.

This wilful, sometimes even perverse treatment of historical models places Woodyer in a similar line of development to that demonstrated by Charles Buxton’s buildings on his estate of Foxwarren – a concern with eliciting a primarily emotional response in the viewer that arguably points ultimately towards the work of 20th century Expressionists. By the same token, his architecture encapsulates Romanticism in its purest form and what Ian Nairn said about an early design by Woodyer’s teacher – St Mary Magdalen, West Lavington in West Sussex of 1850 – might well be applied to the work of his pupil: ‘Butterfield’s artistic pattern – like Beethoven, unlike Haydn – was one in which inspiration was everything. Without it, his buildings are worse than dull: with it, they catch alight, ordinary Middle Pointed details smouldering away with an intensity and rigidity which would probably astonish their 13th century creators’. But whereas Butterfield could be aggressively strident, Woodyer tends more to playful and picturesque effects, sometimes verging on the grotesque. The originality is concentrated in the detailing and ornament, much of which is highly capricious. It begs the question of where exactly ‘roguishness’ in Victorian Gothic ends and gives the lie to the notion that archaeological correctness and seriousness of intent were the be-all and end-all for the Ecclesiologists.

St Michael and All Angels, Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire (designed 1853, built 1854-1856): south elevation of the church seen from the quadrangle separating it from the adjacent collegiate buildings.

The architecture is, indeed, sometimes a little too reliant on wilful detailing. Nairn’s criticism of his churches (taken from the entry on St Martin’s in Dorking of 1868-1877 in the ‘Surrey’ volume of The Buildings of England) for having ‘weak overall design and intriguing detail’, which ‘nags and grinds, working out what may well have been a 19th century psychological problem, because a lot of Woodyer’s work is neurotic’, is fair comment. But despite that, Woodyer’s aesthetic was every bit as uncompromising as that of his teacher. As also with Butterfield, it is a total aesthetic, permeating everything down to fine detail, even essentially utilitarian features as apparently insignificant in the overall effect as the candle stands in the nave at St Peter’s in Hascombe. He was lucky to have among his clientele numerous wealthy patrons who had the means to indulge his perfectionism and taste for visual extravagance. Woodyer formed a close working relationship with the stained glass artist John Hardman Powell (1827-1895), which seems to have begun in the mid-1850s, when they worked together on the church and college of St Michael, Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire. Powell was able satisfy Woodyer’s taste for the rich, jewel-like colours that are such an important component of his interiors. Woodyer had little sympathy with the incipient conservation movement and left the strong imprint of his architectural personality on his numerous restorations of medieval churches, having no qualms about replacing or improving on ancient fabric.

St Michael and All Angels, Tenbury Wells: view of the block of collegiate buildings from the quadrangle that separates it from the church, which provided living and teaching accommodation for the boys and warden. The cloister arm to the left with its pentice roof provides direct covered access from the south transept. Note the closely spaced dormer windows with acutely pitched roofs, a favourite Woodyer mannerism. After the college closed in 1985, the building became an international school, but this recently vacated the premises, which at the time of writing (July 2021) are empty and decaying. The featured photograph at the top of the page shows the collegiate buildings from the opposite side, with larger windows marking the location of the library to the right and the dining hall to the left.

St John the Evangelist, Twinstead, Essex

St John the Evangelist, Twinstead, Essex (Henry Woodyer, 1860): view from south east
St John the Evangelist, Twinstead, Essex (Henry Woodyer, 1860): the chancel

Selective Woodyer may have been, but he clearly never wanted for commissions and his output was prolific. I have no intention of attempting to rival the excellent monograph mentioned above and can aim to do no more than give you a flavour of his work in this post. But through the descriptions of four churches – one a restoration, the remainder completely new buildings – that follow, I hope to be able to concretise some of the generalisations made above. The first is St John the Evangelist in Twinstead, just over the border from Sudbury in Essex, a county where Woodyer would subsequently be kept busy for most of the rest of his career. It replaced a predecessor that was ancient in origin but appears from surviving views to have incorporated a substantial amount of Georgian fabric. It had become dilapidated, and the replacement, erected in 1860, was intended to be a confident statement of revivified Christianity.

St John the Evangelist, Twinstead, Essex (Henry Woodyer, 1860): general view of the interior looking west from the chancel
St John the Evangelist, Twinstead, Essex (Henry Woodyer, 1860): the font

Built of brick and with elaborate constructional polychromy outside and within, this church comes closer in style to Butterfield than any other building in Woodyer’s career. But whereas Butterfield could make a virtue out of rustic simplicity, this building is frantically busy. Observe the tall, acutely pointed gable of the bell cote, the top-heavy buttresses with their tall upper offsets and inflated proportions of the windows – four lights to those in the nave, a miniature rose on the south side of the chancel. Yet despite their size, the interior is relatively dimly lit, a consequence of the extensive scheme of Hardman glass, which the scale of the building allows to be viewed at close range. Along with the brick polychromy and encaustic tiles by Minton and Poole, this imparts a dark richness. This building represents the first appearance of a striking device – the triple chancel arch, perhaps cribbed from a 13th century prototype at St Mary’s, Westwell in Kent. Woodyer used it again at St Nicholas, Mid Lavant in West Sussex (a restoration of 1871-1872) and St John the Evangelist, Woodley in Berkshire (a new church of 1871-1873). Note the ironwork filling the upper part of the three arches and also forming the support for the lifting mechanism for the font cover: this was supplied by Filmer and Mason of Guildford, a favoured collaborator.

St John the Evangelist, Twinstead, Essex (Henry Woodyer, 1860): Hardman glass in the window on the south side of the sanctuary

SS Peter & Paul, Foxearth, Essex

SS Peter & Paul, Foxearth, Essex: early 20th century view of the church from the east, showing Woodyer’s now destroyed spire of 1862.

Only a few miles to the north, also just on the south side of the county border with Suffolk, is Foxearth, Woodyer’s second job in Essex. In 1845, John Foster, an enthusiastic ritualist, became rector of the parish and he embarked on a lengthy scheme of refurnishing, remodelling and beautifying the medieval church, which occupied him for several decades. This seems to have begun in 1848 with the reconstruction of the south porch and by 1863 the church had been supplied with a rood screen, pulpit, new altar, lectern and reredos. The authorship of these items is not clear at present and may not have been Woodyer. Certainly, they bear no obvious hallmarks of his style. In 1861, Foster’s wife, Margaret, died and he and his brother paid for the construction the following year of a new west tower and spire to commemorate her, as recorded by an inscription in Gothic lettering running just below the string course dividing the ground floor and ringing chamber.

SS Peter & Paul, Foxearth, Essex: Woodyer’s tower of 1862 from south west
SS Peter & Paul, Foxearth, Essex: the mosaic dado in the base of the west tower

Woodyer handled the elevations of the belfry stage in a most original manner, with five single-light openings to each face, almost equal in width to the sections of solid wall that separate them. There are three bands of what appears to be red sandstone running from side to side, the uppermost incorporating the cusped window heads. The tower was originally crowned by a vertiginous spire rising to 130ft (39.6m), which must have been at least equal to it in height. This could have been a risky ploy, but the imaginative treatment of the belfry openings gave the tower greater visual prominence, preventing it from being overwhelmed and keeping the two sections in balance. Blown down in 1942, the spire was not replaced. The interior of the tower is decorated with mosaics and the west window is filled with glass by Hardman, neither easily visible since the space is now filled by the Father Willis organ, installed in c. 1863 and painted in 1880-1884 with decoration in the style of Fra Angelico by one Henrietta Fricker.

SS Peter & Paul, Foxearth, Essex: detail of the south elevation of the tower, showing the clock face and part of the commemorative inscription.

St Peter’s, Hascombe, Surrey

St Peter’s, Hascombe, Surrey (Henry Woodyer, 1863-1864): general exterior view from south
St Peter’s, Hascombe, Surrey (Henry Woodyer, 1863-1864): the north side of the apsidal sanctuary, showing three of the seven figures of Archangels bearing candlesticks. In the quatrefoils adorning the dado, angels are depicted bearing Old Testament types.

Woodyer executed more commissions in Surrey than in any other county and did some of his best work here. Though it is not his largest church, St Peter’s in Hascombe to the south of Godalming is one of his most celebrated and certainly one of his most sumptuous. Again, it represents the fruit of the long incumbency of an enthusiastic, deep-pocketed incumbent thoroughly imbued with the ideas promulgated by the Oxford Movement. Canon Vernon Musgrave (1831-1906) was born into a wealthy, landowning family and educated at Rugby School and Trinity College, Cambridge. As an undergraduate, he became friendly with William Dawes Freshfield (1831-1903) and Edwin Freshfield (1832-1918), who were prominent members of the Cambridge Camden Society and whose sister, Frances, he went on to marry.

St Peter’s, Hascombe, Surrey (Henry Woodyer, 1863-1864): general view of the interior looking east – note the paired cusped rere-arches supported on slender shafts, which correspond to the twin lancets visible in the exterior shot.
St Peter’s, Hascombe, Surrey (Henry Woodyer, 1863-1864): candle-holder with sconce attached to a splay of the nave windows, with part of the decorative scheme added in the 1880s representing the Miraculous Draught of Fishes below.

In 1862, Musgrave was inducted as rector of Hascombe, taking charge of a building that was in a poor state of repair and lacking in capacity (whether this claim was in fact wishful thinking on his part is a moot point). Despite the considerable archaeological interest of a church that illustrations show to have incorporated Anglo-Saxon fabric, the decision was taken to demolish and rebuild. Work proceeded quickly and the new church was consecrated in 1864 – less than a year after the last service had been held in its predecessor, from which only a 15th century chancel screen was salvaged. Musgrave contributed generously towards the cost of construction and the later embellishment of the building, much of the remainder being borne by local landowners. It was perhaps the same Musgrave who, as part of the committee tasked with looking into the establishment of what became Cranleigh School, also helped Woodyer to secure the commission for that complex, which was under construction at exactly the same time.

St Peter’s, Hascombe, Surrey (Henry Woodyer, 1863-1864): the stone pulpit dates from the time of construction, but was not polychromed until the scheme of decorative works carried out in 1883-1885.
St Peter’s, Hascombe, Surrey (Henry Woodyer, 1863-1864): the reredos was introduced at the time of construction, but the wall surface above was originally decorated with abstract geometrical patterning. The painted and gilt panels representing the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb were added in 1883-1888.

At first sight, the exterior appears restrained. The shingled western bell turret and the rubble coursing of Bargate stone both show deference to medieval traditions in the area and only one traceried window is to be seen. But on closer inspection surprising details emerge. The central lancet of the apse pierces a buttress. What appears to be a continuous drip moulding on the flank wall of a side chapel (originally a separate pew for the Lord of the Manor, now a Lady Chapel) in fact marks a change in the wall plane, and the geometry implies the presence of much larger openings than the four small, trefoil-headed lancets over which it runs. The lancets lighting the nave are abnormally narrow in relation to their height, yet the spacing is not quite right for them to read as pairs (the architectural logic for this curious arrangement become apparent only within). The ridge of the chancel roof terminates in a fiddly gablet over the apse, placed there seemingly without any architectural or constructional logic.

St Peter’s, Hascombe, Surrey (Henry Woodyer, 1863-1864): the south side of the chancel, showing one of the seven figures of Archangels bearing candlesticks. In the quatrefoils adorning the dado on this side, angels are depicted bearing emblems of the New Testament. The squint formerly provided views of the high altar from the Lord of the Manor’s pew.
St Peter’s, Hascombe, Surrey (Henry Woodyer, 1863-1864): the spiral stair giving access to the bell turret in the southwestern corner of the nave. To the right is part of the composition depicting Christ commanding the Apostles to go and teach to all nations, to the left above the main door is a list of former rectors of the parish.

If the exterior tantalises, the interior overwhelms. As completed, it was relatively plain, with the exception of the ingenious reredos. The lower section behind the altar consists of trefoil-headed openings in a slab of alabaster supported on red granite colonettes. But above it ascend tiers of trefoil-headed gilt and painted panels bearing representations of the Apostles and the Heavenly Host, rising up above the wall plate into the roof space and extending into the deep splays of the central window (where they depict the Instruments of the Passion) so that the stained glass window depicting the crucified Christ is made the centrepiece of the whole composition. It has more than a touch of the iconostasis of an Eastern Rite church. The motif of the trefoil is taken up by the braces of the roof trusses and thus extended around the semi-circle of the apse. The organ with its gilt and stencilled pipes appeared in 1869. The wall paintings were executed in stages between 1883 and 1887 by J.A. Pippet of Hardman’s. In the chancel, they extend all over the walls and roof structure. In the nave, they rise only as far as the dado (decorated with a pattern representing the Miraculous Draught of Fishes) with two exceptions: Christ in Glory flanked by the Twelve Apostles over the chancel arch, and Christ commanding the Apostles to go and teach all nations on part of the west wall. In 1898-1899, the same Pippet applied a richly coloured and gilt decorative scheme to the medieval chancel screen. The stained glass, all by Hardman apart from the eastern lancet mentioned above, was installed in increments between 1865 and 1892. A clergy vestry was added in 1873, but a scheme of 1884 by Woodyer to add a two-bay south aisle remained on paper.

St Michael & All Angels, Waterford, Hertfordshire

St Michael and All Angels, Waterford, Hertfordshire (Henry Woodyer, 1871-1872): view from northwest. Note the lean-to vestry visible to the left.
St Michael and All Angels, Waterford, Hertfordshire (Henry Woodyer, 1871-1872): the lychgate

For this small village north of Hertford in the valley of the River Beane, Woodyer produced no less of a jewel box. This church forms part of an ambitious programme of architectural works initiated by Robert Smith, the owner of the Goldings Estate. In 1871 he engaged the remarkable George Devey (1820-1886) to design a replacement for the family’s Georgian seat, which eventually turned out to be the biggest country house that that architect built in his whole career. There was no church in the vicinity, the area falling within the ancient parish of Bengeo, and Smith decided to put up a chapel-of-ease to save local residents the trouble of walking the distance to attend services there (St Michael’s became a parish church in its own right only in 1909). This implies a modest edifice and certainly St Michael’s is modestly scaled, although it is effectively positioned on its site to gain extra presence from the fall of the ground from west to east. It is a two-cell church with a timber bellcote, rising to a small broach spire and clad in shingles, straddling the ridge of the nave roof at its west end – in short, a Victorian evocation of the type of medieval rural church so common in the southeast of England. But, as always with Woodyer, quirky details soon catch the eye: the number of traceried windows, relatively large for a humble building; the dormer breaking through the eaves of the chancel on the south side; the peculiarly emphatic buttresses; the vestry on the opposite side with its grotesquely narrow lancets and tiny dormers. Note also the ingenious lychgate with its hipped roof and Woodyer’s trademark acutely pitched dormers, a tour de force of his skill in packing maximum visual interest into minimum space.

St Michael and All Angels, Waterford, Hertfordshire (Henry Woodyer, 1871-1872): general view looking east
St Michael and All Angels, Waterford, Hertfordshire (Henry Woodyer, 1871-1872): the font cover

The quirkiness continues inside with features such as the extraordinary cusped rere-arches of the nave windows. But the eye is inexorably drawn to the wonderful red, green and gold opus sectile work by Powell and Sons adorning the walls of the chancel. As at Hascombe, the reredos is visually locked into place by making its iconography an integral part of the wider composition: figures of angels, also executed in opus sectile, fill the spaces between its verde antico colonettes with alabaster capitals and bases. All this was part of the original design and executed at the time of construction, but the mosaics filling the upper part of the chancel walls – figures of angels on a dark blue background surrounded by stylised plant motifs – were added in stages between 1901 and 1912, and also executed by Powell and Sons. The sanctuary is paved with dazzlingly patterned tilework by Minton. As if all that were not already enough, the chancel windows and west windows of the nave are filled with superb quality stained glass produced by Morris and Co to the designs of the firm’s leading artists and installed at the time of construction. The scheme was later extended to the south side of the nave; the windows on the north side did not appear until the 20th century and are the work of other hands. Waterford is the only instance of Morris and Co glass being commissioned for a Woodyer church and the choice may well have been that of the client rather than the architect. Amid such colour and splendour, the fittings (in fact all contemporary with the building) rather pale into insignificance, but the fine pyramidal font cover is worth a special look.

St Michael and All Angels, Waterford, Hertfordshire (Henry Woodyer, 1871-1872): the north side of the sanctuary
St Michael and All Angels, Waterford, Hertfordshire (Henry Woodyer, 1871-1872): the east window by Morris & Co installed at the time of construction – the central panel depicting the Nativity was designed by Edward Burne-Jones, the angels by William Morris.


Woodyer is known only to have had four pupils, none of whom achieved particular note. His practice was apparently dissolved on his death (no personal papers and little professional correspondence survives) and, in any case, his idiom looked distinctly old-fashioned by the 1890s. Perhaps it was the most fitting outcome for an architect who walked by himself. A wealthy, privileged man, he had made a career largely out of indulging the pre-occupations of his even more wealthy, privileged peers, providing them with intricate, expensive toys. It was a world that no doubt seemed at the time as though it would last forever, but its days were numbered. After World War I, many of the big landed estates would be sold off and broken up, and the mansions turned over to institutional use. Goldings, for instance, became a Barnado’s Home. As the 20th century wore on, Anglo-Catholic triumphalism faded and the religious houses that Woodyer designed have in two cases been closed and converted to residential accommodation.

St Mary, Stratford St Mary, Suffolk: finial to one of the uprights of the wrought iron railings and gates surrounding the main north porch
St Mary, Stratford St Mary, Suffolk: tracery of Woodyer’s invention in the west elevation of the north porch

In the 21st century, we are no strangers to extreme affluence and conspicuous consumption, but in a largely secular society the notion of a wealthy individual directing means into a display of piety seems very foreign. The tradition is not entirely dead – witness, for example, Craig Hamilton’s splendid neo-classical Roman Catholic chapels at Williamstrip Park in Gloucestershire, Culham in Oxfordshire and at an unnamed site in the north of England, all built during the last decade. But, exquisite though they are, they feel more like a retreat from the modern world than the product of religious fervour convinced that, in town or country, the truths revealed by the beauty of holiness will redeem the body and soul of all who behold them. They exist for initiates, not to proselytise. 

The former Convent of All Hallows in Ditchingham, south Norfolk was first established in 1854 as a penitentiary Anglican convent for fallen women known as the House of Mercy, just like the Convent at Clewer, illustrated above. Soon afterwards it moved to purpose-built accommodation erected to Woodyer’s design shown here, viewed from the southeast. The ground plan is a Latin cross, and the composition and massing are masterfully handled. Though the budget was limited and economies forced Woodyer to simplify his design in execution (construction was a protracted affair, beginning in 1856 and not finishing until 1864), he successfully avoided the dullness and grimness that dog so many Victorian religious houses. The window with reticulated tracery – subdivided by a latticework grid composed of straight rather than ogee lines – marks the location of the first-floor chapel. The community seems to have outgrown this and a larger, free-standing chapel was subsequently erected a short distance away in the grounds.
View from southwest of the former House of Mercy at Ditchingham – note the Woodyer trademark of the rows of acutely pointed dormers. Though not quite as extreme as those at St Michael’s College in Tenbury Wells, they encapsulate his wilfulness, which is carried into perversity with the extraordinary asymmetrical oriel in the angle of the two wings. The nuns left the complex at Ditchingham for new accommodation in 2018 and the future of the complex, none of which is currently statutorily listed, is not altogether clear.

The more beauty there is, the greater the redemptive power. It sounds like a simplistic equation, and it may be unfair to impute such a motive to Woodyer’s clients. All the same, as I pondered in my post on John Middleton’s church in Llangynllo, to do excess well requires a great deal more than a taste for expensive materials and piling on ornament, and what is true of that church is also true of Hascombe or Waterford. Given Woodyer’s own sartorial preferences, the comparison perhaps invites itself too readily, but there is an element of dandification in his treatment of Gothic, which conveys sophistication and luxury every bit as effectively as lavish display. Just as a common garment can be made visually arresting through, say, the use of an unconventional cut, a boldly coloured lining or bright stitching to the buttonholes, so a familiar architectural language is subjected to subtle transformations, underscored with bolder treatment of the detailing, that tease and intrigue. I see no need to draw any further conclusions, beyond pointing out that Woodyer’s work, like that of so many other architects featured in this blog, shows yet again just how dramatically the Victorian age broadened and deepened the range of expression of Gothic.

St Michael and All Angels, Tenbury Wells: stained glass in the west window by Hardman of 1856 depicting the Last Judgment, part of the firm’s superlative scheme of glazing for this building supplied at the time of its construction.

Published by Edmund Harris

Heritage professional and architectural historian residing in Suffolk. All views expressed here are my own and do not represent my employer.

2 thoughts on “Dandified Gothic: the architecture of Henry Woodyer (1816-1896)

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