Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Friday, 24 August 2018

"A strange church" - Ayot St Lawrence, Herts

(Apologies for the varying colours and sizes of the text in this post - I don't seem to have any control over it.)

The first sight of Ayot St Lawrence church across the fields from the village is likely to cause the visitor to stop in their tracks. It's like catching a sudden glimpse of a chunk of the Parthenon frieze sitting between the wickets on a village cricket pitch. It's coolly beautiful, and quite, quite unexpected. In Tom Gentleman's 1937 poster, one of the famous series advertising Shell petrol and oil, it's described as 'a strange church', and it's hard to disagree with that.

There are a few neo-classical buildings with porticos in Hertfordshire - Moor Park near Rickmansworth, and St Albans Town Hall, for example - but they aren't common, and there are no other neo-classical churches in the county. Indeed, Ayot St Lawrence is one of only three (1) complete Anglican churches built in Herts between 1626, when Buntingford was finished, and 1837, the date of Chipperfield's construction. (2)

The church of Ayot St Lawrence, built 1778-9, was revolutionary in its day. Churches in England had been designed using classical elements since Inigo Jones' St Paul's, Covent Garden (1631-3), not least Wren's 50 or so London City churches, but they relied chiefly on Roman models (ancient and modern). Palladianism was very fashionable in 18th century England, but this too was chiefly inspired by classical Roman architecture. Ayot St Lawrence was the first church - almost the first building of any sort - in England to go back to the Greeks for inspiration. 

Nicholas Revett
The church was designed by Nicholas Revett (1721-1804); it was one of only four complete buildings he was responsible for. (3) Being a gentleman of private means, he didn't need to work for a living. Together with James 'Athenian' Stuart (1713-88) and others he spent several years in Athens, the Greek islands and Ionia (part of Turkey), studying the  remains of ancient Greek architecture, under the aegis of the Society of Diletantti, an institution founded in 1734 to promote the study of classical art. Four volumes of detailed drawings were eventually published, from 1762-1816, which were immensely influential. 

In the 1770s the inhabitants of Ayot House were Sir Lionel Lyde and his wife (also his cousin) Rachel. He had made his fortune by importing tobacco, grown by means of slave labour, from the West Indies and Virginia, and decided that he wanted to spend some of his ill-gotten wealth by building a new parish church which would serve the triple purpose of place of worship, mausoleum and eyecatcher when seen from his house. (There was already a medieval church near the house; see the appendix below.) Why he chose Revett doesn't seem to have been recorded; maybe he was an admirer of his and Stuart's The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece, or perhaps he had a connection with the Diletanttis. 

I'll deal with the details of Revett's borrowings from ancient Greek architecture later; but before then, I'll take a virtual walk around and into the church. (Note that, as the church was built to be seen to its best advantage from the house, it isn't oriented with the chancel to the east and the nave to the west as medieval churches invariably are. In fact the 'west front' faces roughly east (slightly north of east, to be exact); however, for the sake of simplicity I shall refer to the points of the compass as if the church is traditionally oriented. Incidentally, the church no longer functions as an eyecatcher as it was meant to as its portico is no longer visible from the house, intervening trees having been allowed to grow.) 

The church appears to stand by itself in the fields (in fact, there are a few houses behind it, to the east), and this isolation magnifies its visual effect. The church itself, with a portico of four large Doric columns, is flanked by colonnaded screens with a further four smaller (but similarly proportioned) columns. The screens link the church with two pavilions, each of which shelters a pedestal surmounted by an urn containing a pine cone. (4) These are memorials to Sir Lionel (in the south) and Rachel (north); the story goes that they didn't have a happy marriage, and Lionel wanted their bodies to be as far apart as possible. His will allegedly decreed 'what the church united in life, let it keep separate in death.' (This is one of those stories that seems almost-too-good-to-be-true; is it a later invention? After all, the church has two imposing wings, and it doesn't seem strange that husband and wife should have one each for their burial.)

The inscriptions to Sir Lionel and Rachel (on the west of the pedestals) are all but illegible, but on the east of the south monument is a relatively well preserved inscription recording Revett's achievements (and Lyde's bankrolling of the church).

The closer you get to the church the more you notice that it's no longer the pristine white it was presumably intended to be. (However, see the final paragraph of Christine Stevenson's comment below.) It's stained, lichened and chipped, but this is only a minor distraction. We might also notice some (cost-cutting?) anomalies in the design. The triglyph frieze, present in the portico and pavilions, doesn't continue across the screens, and peters out on the north and south of the nave after the first few yards:

Nevertheless, the overall impression of the west front is mightily impressive. The detailing of the portico is especially fine. I don't know if the deep blue of the west door is original, but I think it's just right (and matches the tiles around the external font). Originally only the Lydes and their social equals would have used this door, while lower ranks would have had to make do with a small, purely utilitarian door on the south (now internal).

Although the details of the west front are derived from Greek sources, the overall conception isn't. As Pevsner points out, 'the whole composition with side colonnades and little outer aedicules [the two pavilions] is not at all Grecian. It is a purely Palladian composition, that is the type of composition which was customary for English country houses right through the 18th century. To have churches really copying Greek temples another fifty years had to go by.' The church is often spoken of as being Palladian, including on the village's website (even though the text admits that this is to some extent a misnomer), which just goes to show that categorisation is fraught with difficulties, and often not very useful.

What surprises, and even shocks and disappoints, many visitors, especially on first realising it, is that nearly all of the church not visible from the house - that is, almost all of it except the west front - is built of exposed brick. (5) The west is mostly brick too, but stuccoed; presumably it wasn't considered worth the expense of similarly treating the rest. We can guess that Revett would have preferred to have had the building gleaming white from every angle, but that he had to compromise. (The stucco on brick, rather than stone as the Greeks would have built with, is of course a compromise in itself.) I confess that on my initial visits I was of a similar mind. However, over the years I've come to appreciate the uncompromising starkness of the brick. If the west front harks back to the 5th century BCE and the Golden Age of Athens, the brick forcefully reminds us that the church was built as the Industrial Revolution was forging ahead, and Britain was building its status as the world's superpower. (6)

I particularly like the east end, which consists of a tall apse (a semi-circular adjunct to a building) enclosed by a lower one, only this latter apse has the middle third sliced out of it. There are two strainer arches on the sides of the main apse. All this creates complex and intriguing geometries, which change as you walk round. Altogether it looks like a building designed with some industrial process in mind - a blast furnace or a pottery kiln, perhaps. Notice that the apses are built almost entirely with headers - that is, bricks placed with their short sides exposed. This is because it's easier to build curved walls in header bond.

We began in contemporary rural Hertfordshire, were transported to classical Greece, then caught a glimpse of distant dark satanic mills. (7) Once we’re through the west (and only) door, we’re back in Greece. Only at first sight, however, for as in the west front the overall design of the body of the church isn't Greek at all, and neither are some of the details. Greek temples are, in plan, simple rectangles. The interior of Ayot St Lawrence is a rectangle with short extensions on all four sides, in other words it's basically a Greek cross, (though rectangular rather than square). (Greek cross is an ironic name, in this context; here the 'Greek' refers not to the classical era but to the later, Christian, period.) Byzantine churches are typically Greek crosses, and post-Renaissance architects often adopted this shape. For example, one of Wren's early (1672) designs for the rebuilding of St Paul's after the Great Fire was a Greek cross in plan, as is James Paine's Gibside Chapel, County Durham, begun 1760.

You can call the interior Greek, Palladian, Byzantine, classical, neo-classical, or what you will - who cares when it's this good? Entry is into a kind of narthex, with store rooms on either side, one of which must contain a staircase leading up to the west gallery. The gallery is supported by two Ionic columns, which adds drama as your first view of the interior is through this screen. Stepping through it the space is revealed. There are short transepts north and south, and in the east a shallow, semidomed apse, with what looks at first as if it's going to be an ambulatory (a passage behind the altar). However, if you've walked around the outside first you'll remember that this can't be the case. 

The north transept contains the pulpit, like a lecturer's podium, the south the organ and clerk's desk, all of which are I think original. The pulpit still has its candleholders, which look as if they're still used for their original purpose.

The moulding of the west gallery is continued all round the church, and is supported by pilasters with egg and dart capitals. Above this, that is well above eye height, are the windows, of clear glass, offering views of sky and clouds. The stately coffered ceiling presides imperiously over everything.

There are a few monuments, of no great aesthetic significance, but I'll pick out one that's of some interest. It commemorates  Major Eustace Crawley, who died in the fourth month of the First World War; it's by (his brother? his father?) Geo. A. Crawley, and is in baroque style. This makes it unusual for its date; 20th century monuments, except simple lettered tablets, aren't at all common, and when they do occur they're generally in what might be called minimal classical style. The Crawley monument is sufficiently convincingly baroque from a distance to make you think that it's been imported from the earlier church. However, a standard feature of such monuments is symbols of mortality - hourglasses, skulls and the like. This monument has none. It seems strange that just as the century was about to embark on industrial-scale killing artists should come over all squeamish about death.

Although all the glass in the windows is clear, there is some heraldic stained glass in the church. However, having tried your patience too long already, dear reader, (and I'm afraid I'm not done yet), I shall leave that for another post another day. (You can read it here.)


Revett made use of his study of Greek buildings, basing several features of his church on ancient models (though not precisely copying them). 

The Doric Order of the Temple of Apollo, Delos, from Stuart and Revett's The Antiquities of Athens, vol III, 1794.

The Doric columns of the portico are based on those of the Temple of Apollo, Delos (426 BCE), including the (to me peculiar) device of having them fluted only for the top and bottom few inches. However, Revett's columns are slimmer and more graceful than the originals. 

Detail of the Temple of Apollo, ibid.

On the front of the portico beneath each triglyph (the tablets with two vertical grooves, forming three vertical projections, as seen in the top middle of the above photo) are six small guttae (decorative stone 'pegs', just about visible on the middle far right), as in the Temple of Apollo and other Doric buildings. However, on the sides of the portico these become simply one long strip (as seen in the centre of the photo). Whether this was a deliberate variation of Revett's, or a result of cost cutting or a lazy builder, I don't know.

The northern screen colonnade from the east, with a glimpse of the house.

Terry Friedman (8) claims that Revett's inspiration for the colonnades was the Propylaea of the Athenian Acropolis, 'where the lower wings are placed at right angles on either side of the central portico'. I find this a not entirely convincing suggestion, but I should point out that Dr Friedman is an authority on the subject, whereas I'm most certainly not. I really wouldn't recommend that anyone should listen to me rather than him. I'm much happier to accept his statement that the Propylaea is also the inspiration for the interior of the church's 'deep upper cornice subdivided by multiple string courses and repetitive geometric ceiling compartments at the west and east ends and along the north and south borders.'

The Temple of Bacchus at Teos, Antiquities of Ionia, published by the Society of Diletantti, Part the First, 1821    

The Ionic columns supporting the gallery are based on those of the Temple of Bacchus, Teos, near Smyrna. However, as Friedman points out, many of the details of the interior are derived from Roman rather than Greek models. In particular, the hexagonal and octagonal coffering of the ceilings (except the main, nave, ceiling) is taken from the Temple of Peace in Rome, and the centrepiece of the nave ceiling is from the Temple of the Sun in Palmyra. What's more, 'The Ionic column screen separating vestibule and sanctuary, and the continuous range of single and double Tuscan pilasters round the lower part of the walls probably rely on Palladio's reconstruction of Roman baths.' The building is far more of a hybrid than it first appears when seen across the fields.

Apart from being not so pristinely white as it was when first built, and having acquired some new furniture and a few monuments, the church is much as it was in 1778. However, there's one major exception to this.

The Choragic monument of Lysicrates, commonly called the Lanthorn of Demosthenes, from Stuart and Revett's The Antiquities of Athens, Vol. 1, 1762
Originally the two pavilions were crowned by small round towers, known as tempietti, loosely inspired by the Choragic Monument to Lysicrates in Athens. Among  many other variations spun by Revett, he uses Doric columns (to harmonise with the portico) rather than Corinthian, and tops his towers with domed cupolas. The tempietti were removed in 1832; no one seems to know why. Perhaps they'd become too difficult to maintain. They were replaced by the simple pediments that remain today. (The drawing of the church above isn't completely accurate; it shows the triglyph frieze continuing across the colonnades, which it doesn't in the church. Partly for this reason there have been some doubts expressed as to whether the tempietti were ever actually built, or merely projected, but it does seem that they did once exist. It's unfortunate that they've disappeared: with them the composition of the west front would be even more imposing.)

This seems a good moment to mention Mistley Towers, all that's left of Mistley church, Essex, which has, or had, several similarities to, as well as some significant differences from, Ayot St Lawrence. 

In 1776, two years before work started on Ayot Lawrence, Robert Adam was commissioned to augment an existing plainly rectangular church of 1735, partly to attract visitors to the town and partly as an eyecatcher. He added Tuscan porticoes north and south, and towers topped with domed, smaller round towers, very like those on Revett's tempietti, east and west. Adam's work is Roman in inspiration, not Greek, but nevertheless the whole composition is reminiscent of Revett's church. The church, except for the towers, was demolished in 1870, and the two towers now stand at an awkward distance from each other, like siblings who've had a terrible row but can't quite bear to storm off.

Ayot St Lawrence was the first or second Hertfordshire church I visited, in 1982, and I've been back many times; I've always found it open. As I said at the start, it's unique in the county, and it's hard to think of many churches similar to it in the whole country. It may be strange, but if so it's wonderfully strange.


Almost every description of the two churches, old and new, includes the story (Pevsner keeps his head and calls it a 'tradition') about how the old church came to be a ruin. The story goes something like this: Sir Lionel wanted a new church to be built which would serve as an eyecatcher from his house, which would mean that the old church would no longer be required. So, while the new church was being built, the demolition of the old church was begun. However, the bishop got to hear of this before the demolition was complete and ordered that it be halted. It was, but too late, and the old church was never repaired and remains a ruin today.

However, the truth is obscure. The Gentleman's Magazine for July 1804, in an obituary of the architect Nicholas Revett, states: 'The old church at the back of the mansion being dilapidated, though not incapable of restoration at a far less expense, it was determined to erect a new one fronting the house at the Western extremity of the park, in a style of architecture not confined to any one Grecian model . . . After the new church had been consecrated, and made use of, Bishop Thurlow refused his licence to take down the old one, which still remains, with the monuments of its patrons and benefactors, a beautiful Gothic ruin.' (You can read the whole of the obituary here.)

James Dugdale's The New British Traveller, published in volume form in 1819 but written earlier, gives more details: 'The new church was erected at the expense of Sir Lionel Lyde, under the expectation, that he should be permitted to add the site of the ancient one to his park; but, when the roof of the latter had been destroyed, and the building otherwise greatly dilapidated, an injunction was issued by the bishop, on the principle, that ground once consecrated, ought not, without evident necessity, to be converted to secular purposes.' (I'm loving the proliferation of commas - ten in this sentence, plus a semicolon. This must have been a result of that well-known historical phenomenon, the Great Regency Punctuation Glut.) (You can read the whole of Dugdale's entry on Ayot St Lawrence (he spells it 'Ayott') here.)

These two narratives don't agree. The second one conforms more or less to the standard narrative as related today, though it implies that Lyde's main motive in demolishing the church was a land grab. The first states that the church was already in a poor state of preservation and implies that no demolition took place, time and indifference having already reduced the church to a semi-ruin. This is entirely plausible; many churches were badly neglected during the 17th and 18th centuries, which is why so many of them had to be rebuilt in the 19th. Which account is closer to the truth? We can't know, but I'm inclined to accept the magazine's version - after all, it is the word of a gentleman.

The ruin was consolidated in the 1920s, and again in 1999. The tower and some of the walls stand scenically to their full height, and are open to the public. We can be grateful to Bishop Thurlow for thwarting Lyde's plans.

(1) The others were Markyate (1734), and Totteridge (1790). Totteridge has been part of Barnet, Greater London, since 1965. It would take a mighty effort of will to describe its church as 'neo-classical', however. For Markyate, see (2) below.

(2) This statement requires some clarification and qualification. Parts of some churches in the county were built or rebuilt during this period; for example, the chancel of Offley was remodelled in c.1777 and the west tower built in 1800, but the nave essentially dates from c.1230. 

Markyate's nave was built in 1734, but the aisles were added in 1811, and the tower is of indeterminate date (though clearly post-medieval and pre-Victorian). Its chancel, like that of Totteridge, was completely rebuilt in the later 19th century; we must assume that the original chancels were Georgian (rather than medieval survivals from earlier buildings). 

Rickmansworth seems to have been built in 1630, though only the tower now survives, but it's not certain (as far as I know) if a complete church was built at that date, as it was rebuilt in 1826 and again in 1890, destroying the earlier structures.

Nettleden was built at the early date of 1811, except for the late medieval tower. 

So few churches were built between the reigns of Henry VIII and Victoria because there were already sufficient medieval churches to serve most of the needs of the parishioners. It wasn't until Hertfordshire's population started to grow rapidly in the 19th century (it roughly doubled in this period), and with the encouragement of the Victorian religious revival, that church building started to intensify.

(3) The others are the Music Temple, West Wycombe, Bucks (1770s), Mere House, Mereworth, Kent (1780), and the Temple of Flora, also West Wycombe, which has been demolished. He also designed additions to a few other buildings, for example the Ionic portico of West Wycombe Park in 1771. This was based on the Temple of Dionysus, Teos, Turkey, which Revett had measured in 1764-6. This could be said to be the true beginning of Greek Revival architecture in England.

(4) Pine cones feature in Greek art as emblems of Zeus, Artemis and Dionysus. Despite trawling though my library of church books, I can't find anything definitive about any particular Christian significance they may have. Perhaps Lyde, or whoever commissioned and paid for the monuments, was concerned only with their decorative, rather than symbolic, effect. Or do the urns contain stylised flames, a common symbol of eternal life, or, just possibly,  pineapples? 

(5) For example, C. P. Canfield's website English Church Architecture, which I admire very much and refer to frequently, finds 'no mitigating features of interest' in the plain brick of the church.

(6) 1779, the year the church was finished, also saw the start of construction of the world's first major iron bridge, at Ironbridge, Shropshire, perhaps the most iconic structure of the Industrial Revolution. Maybe I should point out that although it's broadly true that Britain was at this time becoming the world's dominant country, it's also the case that it was in the process of losing the American Revolutionary War.

(7) Blake’s phrase has become the standard way of evoking the cruelties and injustices of the Industrial Revolution. It’s possible, however, that he wasn’t primarily thinking, or perhaps thinking at all, of factory mills. The mills are, probably, at least partly metaphoric. Mills are intended essentially to grind and crush, to break down into indistinguishable particles, to create conformity. Thus mills are an effective metaphor for a culture, including education and religion, which is dedicated to crushing individualism and imagination, and promoting uniformity. It might, or might not, be relevant to mention that in 1803 Blake was charged with high treason for allegedly uttering phrases such as ‘Damn the King.’ The consequences had he been found guilty could have been serious. He was acquitted. In 1804 he started to write Milton, the long poem of which the poem now known as Jerusalem is part of the introduction. In another part he writes ‘Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental and prolong Corporeal War.’

This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to use the phrase 'dark satanic mills' to refer to literal mills (as in factories). Authors don’t have an eternal veto over their works’ meaning; once a poem (or novel, or whatever) is in the hands of readers, it becomes theirs as much as it’s the writer’s. The poet’s intended meaning is important, but it’s not the last word on the subject. As the fictional novelist X. Trapnel says in Anthony Powell's novel Books Do Furnish a Room, 'Reading a novel requires almost as much skill as writing one.'

(8) The Georgian Parish Church: 'Monuments to Posterity', Spire Books, Reading, 2004. I'm indebted to Friedman not only for details of Revett's Grecian borrowings but also for pointing out the references to Ayot St Lawrence in the Gentleman's Magazine.


  1. Awesome article, it was exceptionally helpful! I simply began in this and I'm becoming more acquainted with it better! Cheers, keep doing awesome! St. Lawrence Dentistry

  2. Wonderful article. I picnicked in the field by the church in the 1960's. A memorable summer's day.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Glad you enjoyed my article (and the picnic!).

  3. I came across your interesting piece about the Revett church at Ayot St Lawrence this morning. In this piece you say that the tempietti were removed in 1832. However, the Yale Center for British Art has an undated water colour by Samuel Davis, 1757–1819 showing the pavilions without tempietti - see: . The artist's dates suggest that if they had been part of the original construction they were removed a few years before 1832. Can I ask where you learnt that the tempietti were removed?

    1. Good morning John. Thanks for your interesting question. I wasn't aware of the Davis watercolour, so I'm particularly glad to have that brought to my attention. This certainly does seem to prove (assuming that the picture is by Davis) that the tempietti were removed before 1819. The most authoritative source suggesting that there were once tempietti is Pevsner's 'Hertfordshire', the 3rd edition revised by James Bettley (2019), which states unequivocally that 'The wings originally carried domed tempietti, removed by 1832.' (I'm not sure why I said 'in 1832 rather then 'by'; probably just my carelessness.) There's also a website dedicated to the church (, which states: 'Carola Oman's book, "Ayot Rectory", includes a sketch by H.G. Oldfield, from Volume 1 of his "Views of Hertfordshire", showing the additional feature of "tempiettes" above each lateral pavilion. Until very recently I was unsure if it was actually built like this; the triglyphs also do not run right across the front of the church as pictured by Oldfield. .Recently, however, I came across a sketch by Thomas Clutterbuck, apparently from 1807, which does show the church looking like the Oldfield image; given that this sketch is more naturalistic, we can assume that the original building did indeed look like this! The reference in the circular towers is, we believe, to the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, in Athens, and was a frequent source of inspiration to neo-classical architects. For copyright reasons I am not including either of these sketches here but hopefully both will be in the new guidebook that is being written and will be available in 2020.' This seems to suggest that they were removed after 1807. Why they were taken down remains a mystery. Best wishes, David

    2. Thank you David. I think the Samuel Davis water colours have only quite recently been made available online - I undertook some research on the church only about 4 years ago and they weren't available then. Thank you for the useful references to other depictions of the church. In the absence of any other information I suspect the tempietti were taken down because the load they imposed on the structure below (or the foundations below that) was too great. Removal would have been much cheaper than remediation. On another matter, one thought I had had when doing my research was whether the angle at which the church sits is significant. It points west and is odd for this reason alone, but is not due west, but more WSW. One thought was that it was intended that at sunrise on Easter Day the dawn light would travel straight down the middle of the nave to the alter and cross. This is fine in theory, but with Easter being a movable feast it would need to be more specific and so it might have been orientated to align with the rising sun on Easter Day 1779. I seem to recall reading that 1778 was exceptionally wet and this may have delayed construction and consecration of the church until after Easter. This would have been a disappointment if this almost miraculously accurate beam of sunlight had to be missed during divine worship.

    3. Thank you, John, for another very interesting post. Your theory about the tempietti sounds very plausible. I'd always assumed that the west front of the church was designed to align with the house, but a glance at the satellite image via Google maps shows that the alignment is only very approximate. Maybe, as you say, a solar alignment was intended. Or maybe the church was built facing in that direction simply because geology determined that that was the most convenient way to lay out a long, thin structure, and it was good enough to act as an eye-catcher from the house. In the absence of documentary evidence we'll never know.

    4. There are two aspects to this - positioning and orientation. It is noticeable that one of the watercolours shows a gothick style building behind the church, where Church Cottages are now. The cottages are shielded from view by the church so I suspect they predate the church and were an eye catcher from the driveway (and possibly the house too). Given the stylistic discordance between the stiffly classical church and the gothick building behind I suspect the gothick style had fallen out of favour with the owner and the new church took the place of the gothick structure visually and was converted into a pair of cottages - assuming they weren't already. Another watercolour of the same series shows a cottage which might be of the side away from the view. The orientation aspect of the church could be checked - I recall at the time I did my research that it seemed to align with Easter day sunrise of 1779 to within a degree or so, but I was aware this might be subject to a number of potential inaccuracies and didn't take it further.