The power of grav­ity

The Chapel of Christ the Redeemer, Cul­ham, Berk­shire A newly com­pleted chapel in the form of a Clas­si­cal tem­ple cel­e­brates in its nu­mi­nous in­te­ri­ors the qual­ity of the best 21st-cen­tury con­tem­po­rary crafts­man­ship, art and sculp­ture. John Robin­son re­ports

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Will Pryce

John Robin­son lauds the newly com­pleted Chapel of Christ the Redeemer in Berk­shire

Ded­i­cated to Christ the Redeemer, a chapel in the park at Cul­ham, Berk­shire, was con­se­crated on de­cem­ber 9, 2015 by the Car­di­nal Arch­bishop of West­min­ster emer­i­tus. the new chapel, com­pleted at the end of 2015 by the ar­chi­tect Craig Hamil­ton, won the Ge­or­gian Group Award in 2016 for the best new build­ing in the Clas­si­cal tra­di­tion and is one of three chapels that he has re­cently de­signed.

each of these free-stand­ing build­ings shows his skills and orig­i­nal­ity as an ar­chi­tect. they also im­plic­itly cel­e­brate the qual­ity of the best 21stcen­tury con­tem­po­rary crafts­man­ship, art and sculp­ture.

the chapel is sit­u­ated on a wooded em­i­nence in the park over­look­ing the thames and forms an or­na­ment in the land­scape. in this re­spect, it is rem­i­nis­cent of such churches and chapels as West Wy­combe and Lul­worth built in parks by 18th-cen­tury landown­ers. At Cul­ham, the thames-side land­scape is pro­tected by Na­tional trust covenants, which partly dic­tated the site of the chapel.

it oc­cu­pies the foot­print of a brick post-sec­ond World War house. this had been built on land sold off from the es­tate in the 1950s, but it proved pos­si­ble to buy back the prop­erty and de­mol­ish it as part of a gen­eral restora­tion of the 18th-cen­tury de­signed land­scape un­der the di­rec­tion of Colvin & Mog­gridge.

Work to the chapel be­gan on the site in Fe­bru­ary 2013 and a foun­da­tion stone was laid in May the fol­low­ing year, af­ter the com­ple­tion of the vaulted crypt of the build­ing. to en­able the work to pro­ceed seam­lessly all the year round and re­gard­less of the weather, a large steel shed like an air­craft hangar was erected over the whole site.

the Ox­ford builder Symm was re­spon­si­ble for the build­ing and the com-

ple­tion date was set for De­cem­ber 2015. This fe­lic­i­tously co­in­cided with the 200th an­niver­sary of the firm’s es­tab­lish­ment and the con­struc­tion of the Le­ices­ter Wes­leyan Chapel in 1815. Woody Clark, the project direc­tor, was cru­cial to its suc­cess, act­ing on be­half of the pa­trons as the mas­terly over­seer of the project.

Cut stone was used for fin­ish­ing both the in­te­rior and ex­te­rior, where it is com­bined with knapped flint. There is stone from the Port­land, Kilkenny and Bal­li­nasloe quar­ries in the walls and Hop­ton Wood stone was used for the floor and al­tar. The com­bi­na­tion cre­ates strik­ing con­trasts of colour and fin­ish through­out the build­ing.

Ket­ton Ar­chi­tec­tural Stone of Stam­ford was re­spon­si­ble for the ma­sonry con­tract with An­dre Vrona and James Tay­lor, the lead­ing ma­sons. It is ex­act­ingly worked through­out and the ar­chi­tect pro­vided de­tailed large-scale draw­ings for all the ma­sonry. Flints dug from the foun­da­tions were also used in the con­struc­tion of an en­cir­cling ha-ha wall.

The chapel is a highly so­phis­ti­cated es­say in con­tem­po­rary ab­stract Clas­si­cism (Fig 1). It is con­ceived as a Clas­si­cal tem­ple with a western en­trance por­tico or pronaos at one end ris­ing from a stepped plat­form or sty­lo­bate and an apse en­clos­ing the high al­tar at the other. Ex­ter­nally, the walls are faced in knapped flint with Port­land dress­ings. There are large Dio­cle­tian win­dows light­ing the side el­e­va­tions.

In the de­sign are to be found ref­er­ences to such fa­mil­iar Greek sources as the Tem­ple of Apollo at Bas­sae, as well as de­tails and ideas drawn from the Man­ner­ist-clas­si­cal work of Michelan­gelo, Bent­ley, Plec­nik and Lu­tyens.

The por­tico façade is flanked at each cor­ner by Bas­sae Doric col­umns and in­cor­po­rates two rec­tan­gu­lar pi­lasters with pro­ject­ing cor­bels. These are in­tended for flank­ing bronze stat­ues of St Ce­cilia and St Sabina. A sculpted frieze, yet to be ex­e­cuted, will also dec­o­rate the in­te­rior of the por­tico. Above the ped­i­ment is a bel­fry with four small Ionic col­umns (part of a man­nered pro­gres­sion of orders used in the build­ing) sur­mounted by a gilt orb and cross.

The en­trance has a mas­sive stone sur­round and doors of pati­nated bronze. These in­tro­duce us to a dec­o­ra­tive mo­tif that is en­coun­tered through­out the build­ing: a long, thin strip of cloth worn as a vest­ment over the shoul­ders of a priest or dea­con, termed a stole. De­pend­ing on its con­text, this can be read in many dif­fer­ent ways. Some­times, for ex­am­ple, it sug­gests the shroud of Christ, a sym­bol of his vic­tory over death. Emerg­ing over cap­i­tals in the ar­chi­tec­ture of the build­ing, by con­trast, it evokes the idea of the church as a tent of the Covenant. Hung from the stone stand for the Easter can­dle, it be­comes a litur­gi­cal cloth fos­silised in stone; the ephemeral trap­pings of cer­e­mo­nial made eter­nal. The idea that the same mo­tif can be read in many ways ac­cord­ing to its par­tic­u­lar con­text is a theme of the chapel’s dec­o­ra­tion.

Be­yond the doors is a small in­ter­nal porch or narthex. It is en­closed to ei­ther side by screens in­cor­po­rat­ing bronze balus­ters with fac­ing doors. Their de­tail­ing is partly in­spired by the ex­am­ple of Bent­ley’s work at West­min­ster Cathe­dral. One leads to the exquisitely cut crypt stair­case (Fig 3), the other to the bap­tis­tery. The bap­tis­tery doors are of gilt bronze and the base pan­els em­bossed with fish and fig leaves. They lead into a sump­tu­ously em­bel­lished and in­ti­mate space dom­i­nated by a spe­cially com­mis­sioned whitemar­ble font carved by Alexan­der Stod­dart, with a sup­port­ing an­gel.

Over the al­tar is a gold-ground trip­tych of St John the Bap­tist flanked by the An­gel Gabriel and Zacharia, painted by the ar­chi­tect, with a carved and gilt dou­ble frame (Fig 4). A semi­cir­cu­lar

‘The vis­i­tor is struck by the use of space and the rich­ness of the fit­tings’

lunette win­dow in the bap­tis­tery con­tains the only stained glass in the chapel; it de­picts St John and was de­signed by the ar­chi­tect and painted by Jim Budd’s stained-glass stu­dio.

Di­vid­ing the narthex from the up­per chapel is a pair of wal­nut doors by Houghtons of York, in­laid with another re­cur­rent dec­o­ra­tive mo­tif: a sprig of lau­rel leaves tied with S-shaped rib­bons, a sym­bol of Christ’s vic­tory over death. Cut into the re­veals of the door­way is a vine pat­tern grow­ing from a Greek chal­ice sym­bolic of the Eucharist.

Af­ter the re­strained ge­om­e­try of the ex­te­rior, the grandeur of the chapel in­te­rior be­yond comes as a sur­prise

(Fig 2). The vis­i­tor is struck by the mon­u­men­tal use of space and the rich­ness of the fit­tings and dec­o­ra­tion. An el­e­vated tier of Dio­cle­tian win­dows pro­vides clerestory light­ing with plain glaz­ing in bronze frames. Above is a shal­low-cof­fered stone vault.

The same treat­ment, in­clud­ing the frieze and cor­nice, is car­ried round the apse of the sanc­tu­ary, ex­cept that, there, the col­umns are Corinthian. The exe­dra is lined with gold mo­saic.

At the west end is a mu­sic gallery over the narthex sup­ported on con­sole brack­ets. The or­gan was com­mis­sioned es­pe­cially from Man­der Or­gans. It has a case of pol­ished wal­nut and gilt bronze. The pews of the chapel are of wal­nut carved with the lau­rel­sprig de­vice.

Whereas so many con­tem­po­rary build­ings de­rive their in­ter­est from the il­lu­sion of rear­ing up ef­fort­lessly from the ground as cages of trans­par­ent glass, here, this aes­thetic is ef­fec­tively re­versed. The grand mon­u­men­tal­ity of the chapel seems to con­vey the power of grav­ity. El­e­ments within the struc­ture, more­over, are part re­vealed and part swal­lowed up within lay­ers of ma­sonry. The treat­ment expresses in stone the idea of the par­tial hu­man grasp of over­ar­ch­ing di­vine or­der, as well as of mys­tery.

Dom­i­nat­ing the in­te­rior of the chapel is the mon­u­men­tal seated fig­ure of Christ the Redeemer by Alexan­der Stod­dart, Sculp­tor Royal in Scot­land. It sits be­hind the high al­tar in a gi­ant niche lined with red Swedish stone at the east end be­hind the al­tar. Here, it has the im­pact of a work by Thor­wald­sen or Canova (or, we may imag­ine, per­haps, Phidias’s lost statue of Zeus at Olym­pus).

Each of the niches in the side walls of the nave, cur­rently blank, is in­tended for a life­size statue of the 12 Apos­tles in white mar­ble by the sculp­tor. The 12 niche frames are draped with stoles carved in Port­land and di­vided by an or­der of half-buried black Kilkenny mar­ble col­umns.

The crypt of the chapel is a mor­tu­ary chapel and ap­proached through a lower an­techam­ber laid out like the narthex above. Un­der the bap­tis­tery is the Lady Chapel with a gilded bronze screen adorned with pan­els of lilies and an al­tar sup­port­ing Mr Stod­dart’s gilded and painted bronze fig­ure of the Vir­gin and Child. It stands in a gilded retable with clos­ing doors (Fig 5). There is also a large bas re­lief by him of the Holy Fam­ily in the same ma­te­ri­als.

On the west wall is carved the Mar­ian prayer, the Me­morare, by Lida Car­dozo Kin­der­s­ley, who, with her work­shop, has been re­spon­si­ble for all the beau­ti­ful let­ter­cut­ting in the chapel.

The mor­tu­ary chapel is en­tered through mon­u­men­tal stone doors, an idea bor­rowed from the tem­ples and mau­soleums of An­tiq­uity. In the door­frame are two urns, another mo­tif

en­coun­tered in dif­fer­ent parts of the build­ing. Here, the urns can be read as fu­ner­ary urns. Up­stairs near the al­tar, how­ever, the same de­tail refers to Christ’s first mir­a­cle of turn­ing wa­ter into wine at the mar­riage of Cana. Again, we have a mo­tif that changes its mean­ing as the vis­i­tor pro­gresses round the build­ing.

By con­trast to the rich up­per chapel, the crypt strikes a more som­bre note, ap­pro­pri­ate to its pur­pose as a mor­tu­ary chapel. It is lined with grey stone and the six burial cham­bers in the floor are sealed with large grey slabs (Fig 6). In the vault above each slab is a small block that can be used as a hoist for the weight of the stone.

It is not only the ar­chi­tec­ture of the build­ing that has been thought through with such care. Vest­ments in green, red, pur­ple, white and gold are in the process of be­ing cre­ated. These are the prod­uct of a re­mark­able col­lab­o­ra­tion.

The fab­ric de­signs in two ma­te­ri­als —damask and silk tis­sue—were cre­ated by Craig Hamil­ton and wo­ven by Humphries Weav­ing. They in­cor­po­rate the mo­tif of sprigs of lau­rel. Watts and Co tai­lored the vest­ments and cre­ated the em­broi­dery for them. In ad­di­tion, the Royal School of Needle­work has ex­e­cuted the em­broi­dery on the al­tar frontals.

In the same spirit, the chapel has been fur­nished with litur­gi­cal sil­ver, the bulk made by Tim Gibbs in Here­ford­shire, but also in­volv­ing Hamil­ton & Inches in Ed­in­burgh. This in­cludes can­dle­sticks and cru­ci­fixes for all al­tars and an of­fer­ing bag on a stick (Fig 7).

The com­poser Sir James Macmil­lan was com­mis­sioned to write 20 min­utes of mu­sic for the con­se­cra­tion cer­e­mony, en­ti­tled the Cul­ham Motets.

Al­to­gether, the chapel at Cul­ham is a breath­tak­ing cre­ation. The thought­ful and orig­i­nal de­ploy­ment of the Clas­si­cal lan­guage is com­ple­mented by the rich­ness of pol­ished stones and mar­bles and gilt bronze and the in­tri­cate carv­ing, fine let­ter­ing and crafts­man­ship. It forms a re­mark­able unity as ev­ery­thing has been de­signed by the ar­chi­tect him­self, in­clud­ing the fur­ni­ture, al­tar plate and vest­ments.

With the re­mark­able ar­ray of stat­ues and re­liefs by Mr Stod­dart, it con­sti­tutes per­haps the most com­plete artis­tic cre­ation of its kind in modern Bri­tain.

Fig 1 be­low: The chapel over­looks the Thames val­ley. Fig 2 right: The in­te­rior of the main chapel by can­dle­light look­ing to­wards the al­tar

Fig 3 above left: The narthex screen and stair be­yond, with its ex­act­ing stonework. Fig 4 above right: The bap­tis­tery, with its new al­tar retable

Fig 5: The Lady Chapel. Or­na­ment­ing the al­tar is a beau­ti­fully em­broi­dered frontal of lilies. The can­dle-stands take the form of ionic col­umns, with cap­i­tals copied from the Tem­ple of Apollo at Bas­sae

Fig 7: Some of the litur­gi­cal plate cre­ated for the chapel. The chal­ice to the left is un­ex­pect­edly large, stand­ing about 12in high

Fig 6: The vaulted crypt with its ar­cades of free-stand­ing doric col­umns forms a strik­ing con­trast to the chapel above

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