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Sunday, 3 August 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: St Peter Gorleston-on-Sea

St Peter Gorleston is, the words of Andrew Anderson writing in 1960 for the Eastern Daily Press, 'a simple church' with 'plain red brick walls and gables, steep curly tiled roofs with the neatest flashings, sturdy well-made buttresses, leaden downpipes and large wooden box gutters with sparrows chirping about.' The tower is 'capped by slanting gables, cross on top and with a steeply pointed three part window in each face of the tower.'

Bill Howell, long-time church member and author of the church guide, explained to me that that is precisely how its designer Eric Gill planned it should be; 'a plain building done by bricklayers and carpenters' without recourse to 'mechanical town methods.' All very much in line with Gill's lifelong belief that workers should be the owners of their own production and not slaves to the profits of others.

Gill's minimalism extended inside his design as well with his intent being 'no ornaments except perhaps a figure of St Peter on the outside and a large crucifix hanging over the altar';. 'the choir and the organ, the vestments and the stained glass windows, the paintings and the statues, all are so much frippery compared with the altar and the service of the altar' ('Mass for the Masses'). Accordingly, his design began with a centrally located altar and worked outwards from there using a cruciform plan. In his essay 'Plain Architecture' he stated that 'a church is there first and chiefly as a canopy over an altar.' Here the altar was 'placed centrally beneath the tower, which was supported on crossing arches; arches are used throughout the church, with little or no lintels spanning doors or windows.' 'Arcades and porch too are arches springing directly from the sub-floor, not supported on piers as is usual in churches' (Church Guide).

What arches they are too! 'Striding about the place,' as Anderson evocatively puts it, intersecting centrally in pleasing geometric interlacings to create the 'roomy space' needed for the altar and to bear on their shoulder the light well that is the tower. Rightly all in white, they remind the viewer of Antoni Gaudi's use of parabolic and catenary arches, particularly at the School of the Teresianas. Gill, despite his own architectural training in the office of W.D. Caröe from 1899 - 1903 and the support of High Wycombe architect Edmund Farrell, must have had concerns regarding the viability of these arches. During one visit he asked the builders to leave the wooden arch supports in place for longer to ensure they had set. When Gill left, the supports were immediately removed without any ill effect.

Gill was asked to undertake the design by his friend Fr. Thomas Walker, who he had got to know in High Wycombe. Gill had moved to Piggotts, near High Wycombe, in 1928: ‘Here he aimed to create a ‘cell of good living’ – a community centred on home and chapel, workshops, farm and a little school on the top of a Chiltern hill. Here he attracted followers: his apprentices, included David Kindersley, sculptor and engraver (and father of Peter Kindersley, co-founder of Dorling-Kindersley, the publishers); the Cribbs and Anthony Foster. Visiting friends included G.K. Chesterton, Stanley Spencer, David Jones and Peter Kapista. Amongst the best known work Gill produced at Piggotts are the figures of Prospero and Ariel on the front façade of the BBC in London (1932); the vast ‘Creation of Adam’ sculpture at the League of Nations building in Geneva (1938); and the large-scale East Wind sculpture that hovers over St James's Underground station’.

Walker had become parish priest to a congregation at Gorleston which had outgrown their original building, a converted malthouse. For Gill this was an opportunity to put his practical and theological ideas about church, which were ahead of their time, into bricks and mortar. Prior to Vatican II, St Peter's was only the second Roman Catholic Church in the country to have a central altar. We can imagine Gill’s excitement at the opportunity as he wrote to his friend George Carey, 'no sooner was the essay ('Mass for the Masses') published then I got a real job, to build a real church with a central altar and all.'

The radical minimalism and focus of Gill's design has been too much for the parish as a whole and some subsequent priests to manage. As he showed me around Bill sadly recounted a litany of changes made over the years to Gill's original design (some thankfully rectified) including the turning of the altar, raising of the crucifix, over painting of the tower mural, introduction of stained glass, hanging of a baldachin, and more. Some of the changes have been done sensitively and by using colleagues of Gill such as Denis Tegetmeier and Joseph Edward Nuttgens, while others were, as Howells makes scathingly clear in the Church Guide, simply crass. The church is now Grade II listed and, while Bill complains about the levels of bureaucracy this involves, the building is protected against the vagaries of individuals exercising their own personal and subjective 'good' taste.

Gill designed the rood, piscina, font, altars and holy water stoups. These were all made in his workshop. The foundation stone and altar inscription are good examples of Gill's lettering. Gill also designed the Entry into Jerusalem mural for the spandrel of the east arch and the low relief carving of St Peter casting his net for the porch. His son in law Tegetmeier painted the mural, while Anthony Foster carved St Peter. Tegetmeier also contributed a set of excellent and original 'Stations of the Cross' in 1962. The stained glass window designed by Nuttgens and representing Christ the King was installed in 1963. While a strong piece of work in its own right, its placement in this building goes counter to Gill's plain design with the window literally obscured by the focus on the central altar and its low slung crucifix.

Malcolm Yorke writes in 'Man of Flesh and Spirit' that today this church seems less remarkable then it once did but that, he concludes, 'is probably a tribute to Gill whose ideas on liturgy and plain architecture have come into their own.' Bill Howells notes several statements to do with more contemporary churches of which Gill would probably have approved. Cardinal Heenan writing about the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool suggested that the 'attention of all who enter should be arrested and held by the altar.' That was because Sir Frederick Gibberd, the architect, realised the brief he was given, 'not to draw attention to the cathedral's own beauty; it was there to shelter the High Altar, which was to be the main focus.' 

Gill, sadly, did not live to see these ideas take hold; he died of cancer two after the completion of St Peter's. He would have been rather less enamoured of the difficulties that the parish currently face in maintaining this splendid and significant sacred space.


Moby - Hymn.

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