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

Monday 26 August 2019

Waterford church, Herts: Pre-Raphaelite stained glass and Edwardian mosaics

Waterford church, Herts, doesn't look much from the outside, and it would be easy to pass it by as it's fairly small and unimposing, like hundreds of other minor Victorian churches. However, it would be a serious mistake to overlook it, for its contents are as good as those of any other church of its date and size in the country. 

The building and many of the furnishings owe their existence to Robert Smith, a wealthy merchant banker who also built the nearby enormous Neo-Tudor house known as Goldings,*  in 1871-7. He evidently had an eye for the work of the firms Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co and Powell and Sons, and even after his death in 1894 his successors continued his precedent of employing the best possible designers. I don't know to what extent he was motivated by piety, or by a desire to display his wealth and perpetuate his memory, or by the love of beauty, but whatever drove him the result is a marvel. The church was built to the designs of the prolific architect Henry Woodyer (1816-96), and dates from 1871-2.

The church is deservedly best-known for its collection of Pre-Raphaelite (and early 20th century) stained glass, which I'll come to in a minute, but first I'm going to concentrate on the mosaics in the chancel as they're what struck me most on my last visit. 

Even though the light through the windows is necessarily somewhat dimmed by the designs of Burne-Jones et al, the mosaics glitter and glimmer and shimmer. The background blue is the dominant colour, with several different greens also prominent, gold and red and white adding contrast. The tesserae have been deliberately laid not quite flat on the walls so that they catch the light at different angles in order to maximise the dazzle. The overall effect is quite exhilarating in its peacockery.

The mosaics were installed in three campaigns (all after Robert Smith's death), the east wall in 1901-2, the north in 1909, and the south in 1912. They were designed and made by the firm Powell and Sons, which had made the mosaics in St Paul's Cathedral in the 1890s. Although Powell's order books survive,** the name of the designer of the Waterford mosaics isn't entirely clear; however, he was probably the obscure Gerald Hutchinson, whose  dates don't seem to be known. His work in Waterford must be his masterpiece.

The work on the north side of the sanctuary cost £300 (about £35,000 today), and that on the south 80 shillings (ie £4, the equivalent of about £449 today) per square foot.

The lower parts of the sanctuary walls, which were decorated at the same time as the upper parts, aren't mosaic but opus sectile (which literally means 'cut work'), a technique that was used in antiquity and the Renaissance but was revived in modern times by Powell and Sons. Mosaics consist of very small square (or squareish) cubes of stone, glass or ceramic which together build up a picture or pattern. Opus sectile, on the other hand, consists of much larger sections of material which are cut in the shape of an object or pattern (or part of an object or pattern). 

The shapes outlined in gold against a green background, reminiscent both of Gothic tracery and Art Nouveau leaf-forms, are very effective. The symbols of the four evangelists are a figurative counterpoint to the otherwise abstract decoration. The man/angel of St Matthew is perhaps a little cutesy, which is not I think a charge that can be laid against the mosaic angels above. Altogether the mosaic and opus sectile combine to create an effect of great splendour and richness.

The reredos was an earlier work of Powell's, dating from the opening of the church in 1872. The architectural surround is in 13th century Early English style (while Woodyer's church itself is in his version of early 14th century Decorated style). The figures of saints and angels are in opus sectile, but at this early date the technique had not been perfected and within three years the work needed repairing and repainting, for which Powell's charged £25 (the equivalent of about £2,800 today), half their original fee. Smith might well have been justified in complaining about having to pay to correct mistakes made by the firm, but luckily this didn't sour relations between the Smiths and the Powells, otherwise the glorious sanctuary walls might not have been commissioned a quarter of a century later. The sunflower-like designs behind the central cross are also now badly in need of repair.

The sanctuary tiles and altar rails, with their little quatrefoils at the intersection of the metal diagonals, also presumably date from the opening of the church in 1872.

View west from the chancel.
North door in chancel.
View east from the south door.

I like the steepling Gothic font cover, but I don't know who designed it or when. Could it be by Woodyer?

Now, at last, having covered the main furnishings, it's time to turn to the stained glass. Below are all the windows in the church, starting at the east and going round clockwise.

The east window dates from the opening of the church in 1872 (as do all the other chancel windows). Its central light, depicting the Nativity, is by Burne-Jones, while the surrounding angels are by William Morris.

In the Nativity the sleeping newly-born Jesus looks like a toddler, but I think can fairly be described as 'cute' (rather than the pejorative 'cutesy' I used earlier). Mary seems to be nodding off - and who can blame her, as no doubt she's shouldered the main burden of getting Jesus down for his nap. Her husband has evidently been little help; he reads his book and is perhaps about to ask if his dinner is ready yet. Above them six blonde angels don't look very enthusiastic either, though the symbolic sky they rest on billows dramatically.

The four music-making angels around the Nativity are by Morris. They're rather static, but highly decorative. I especially like the backgrounds of trees against what appear to be woven willow fences.

The easternmost south window of the chancel is a relatively rare solo work by Morris himself. It's an Annunciation; once again the poses of the figures lack drama; Gabriel seems to be listlessly waving to Mary as if she were an acquaintance he's embarrassed to bump into in the street. The backgrounds, however, are gorgeous: fruit-laden trees and roses set against quarries of stylised foliage.

The next chancel window is by Burne-Jones and depicts King David singing and playing his harp.

Miriam is the subject of the third south chancel window, also by Burne-Jones; it's justly the most famous of the Waterford windows. Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron; she is depicted clanging cymbals together, presumably as she leads the Israelites in a song of celebration after they've escaped captivity in Egypt, and the Pharaoh's army has been drowned in the Red Sea. She is vigorous and spirited, her body twisting while she turns her handsome profile to her right, her hair flying. She's a great contrast to Morris's unanimated figures (and to many figures in some other Victorian windows).

The easternmost south nave window is another design by Burne-Jones; it depicts the angels of the Ascension flanking Christ displaying his stigmata as he's carried to Heaven by bodyless angels (they have only heads and wings). It's very different in style from Miriam, which isn't surprising as it was made nearly of a quarter of a century later, in 1896. It commemorates Robert Smith, the founder of the church, who had died in 1894. (Burne-Jones died in 1898.) 

The mood of the window is subdued rather than triumphant; as in other works of the Aesthetic Movement, the atmosphere is semi-somnolent, which works fine in a picture of  Pre-Raphaelite stunners looking sultry, but maybe not so well in this context. (Compare it with an earlier, and somewhat more dynamic, Burne-Jones stained glass Christ in Easthampstead, Berks.) Nevertheless, the window, with its seductive colours, is beautiful.

Another Burne-Jones, this one from 1876, commemorating Charles Deedes, the rector of nearby Bengeo. It depicts St Peter holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Yet another Burne-Jones is to be found in the westernmost south nave window. It commemorates Isabel Smith, the wife of Robert, who died in 1913, though the window wasn't made until 1917. Burne-Jones had been dead for nearly twenty years by then, so of course an old design of his was used (adapted by J.H.Dearle). 

A very good-looking Mary is in the left light, accompanied by lilies. Christ is in the right, holding a cross made of sprouting branches; he gestures towards a chalice. They both stand in front of draperies.

There are three west windows, all dating from the church's opening in 1872. From south to north they are:

Noah by Ford Madox Brown. He looks suitably patriarchal, wears a beautifully textured robe and clutches a model of the Ark. As in the other two west windows, the mostly white quarries in the background lessen the visual impact. The small light above shows a hand raised in blessing. I hope the spiders that have been at work around it feel blessed.

Philip the Deacon, an early preacher who features in the Acts of the Apostles, by Ford Madox Brown. He is walking through shallow water, and hitches up his robes to keep them dry, a charming detail. The small light shows the stigmata.

John the Baptist, wearing his camel hair tunic beneath other, finer, clothes, by Burne-Jones, with the dove of the Holy Spirit above. This the least instantly recognisably Burne-Jones window of all his in the church.

The westernmost north nave window is the most recent in the church, dating from 1929. It was designed by Karl Parsons (1884-1934), and depicts St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, though direct references to music in the window are sparse. In the small light at the top there's a harp, and a scroll of music (though unfortunately the latter is indistinct in the photographs); apart from this there's no indication that Cecilia is the subject. Presumably she is depicted in the act of 'hearing' music, which is perhaps being 'sung' by the angel leaning over her.

Although the St Cecilia window is attributed to Parsons, it's based on designs by the Irish Arts and Crafts artist Harry Clarke (1889-1931). It was commissioned from Clarke by a Mrs Prentice, in memory of her daughter Rachel who had died aged nineteen in 1919 (hence the initials 'RP' in the small lights near the top). Five years later (I'm not clear why there was such a delay) he wrote to her to tell her that his designs had been rejected by the Diocesan Advisory Committee, on the grounds that they were too unlike the Morris and Co windows. He revised and resubmitted them, but without changing the minds of the committee members. Another four years later Parsons used Clarke's designs as the basis for the window as it was then installed, though why the committee relented, and why Clarke was no longer involved, is also unclear.***

It's an extremely eye-catching window, and not only because it's the first thing you see when you open the door. It's fabulously rich. All the Morris and Co windows in the church were produced by the traditional method, using only white and coloured glass and black paint (and silver sulphide or nitrate for the yellows). Parsons, however, uses many more techniques to achieve the effects he wants, including etching (abrading the glass with acid to give it texture) and plating (using two or more layers of glass of different colours). Consequently there is far more detail than in a traditional window (though not everyone will agree that this is necessarily a good thing). 

Red-haired Cecilia looks up as if in a trance, her hands raised as if ready to catch something. An angel hovers over her, apparently about to crown her with a floral tiara. Her golden halo seems to be made of flames, which ascend (perhaps a visual representation of inspiration creating music). Her robes are lavishly embroidered, and she stands amidst trees and flowers. At her feet are snowdrops, presumably a reference to March, the month in which Rachel Prentice died. The inscription 'The first fruits unto God' is a quotation from Revelations; I suppose it is Mrs Prentice's message that she regards her daughter as a willing offering (a common trope on children's memorials; see for example GilstonFlamstead and Ardeley).

Continuing our clockwise journey, the next window is another from the early 20th century, 1928 to be precise. It's a memorial to Robert Smith's daughter-in-law (d.1920), and by Douglas Strachan (pronounced 'strawn') (1875-1950), the Scottish Arts and Crafts artist, and shows the Supper at Emmaus, with the Walk to Emmaus in the small panels below, and a dove of the Holy Spirit at the top.

The story of the picture starts bottom left, with two disciples walking to Emmaus after the death and Resurrection of Christ. They pass him on the road, but fail to recognise him. He seems to be hailing them after they've gone by. In the bottom right, one disciple is knocking on the door of a house, and the other invites the stranger in. The main panel shows the moment when, over dinner, they finally realise who they're talking to. I like the backgrounds - the night scene behind the seated Christ, for example - but I think on the whole this is one of Strachan's less successful windows as it lacks drama. The main scene looks like two stern teachers giving a naughty student a good ticking off.

The subject of the next window is the Wise Virgins meeting the Bridegroom. It's by Selwyn Image (a great name for an artist) (1849-1930), an important early Arts and Crafts figure, and made by the firm Heaton, Butler and Bayne, in 1888. There are only three wise virgins (rather than five, as in the original parable) who have come prepared with oil for their lamps, probably simply because three fits the shape of the window better. The bridegroom has a halo as he symbolises Christ. Everything about the window is luscious - the youthful bridegroom, the ripening fruit and virgins, the thickly-textured flowers. 

Finally, we're back in the chancel, and another William Morris design from 1872. It shows the Archangel St Michael, a splendid if androgynous figure with a feminine head and hair, bare feet definitely not standing to military attention, with right shoulder high and weapons held rather casually. He/she looks equally well prepared to fight Satan and to attend a fancy dress ball.

Memorial to Robert Smith

West end
Quarries in the west gable

Original fabric by Archibald Knox, designer for Morris and Co.

East end

Henry Woodyer, the architect of the church, was, thanks to his parents, a wealthy man. He owned a steam yacht, which he berthed in the Mediterranean, and lived the life of a rich eccentric. Apparently he carried his architectural plans rolled up in his umbrella. I can't say I'm especially fond of those buildings of his that I know, but one of his churches in Berkshire did play a small role in my early life, so I suppose I should be somewhat grateful to him. My primary school was a C of E establishment, and occasionally we were taken down the road to the nearby Woodyer church, not for services so far as I remember, and I think I was vaguely impressed by the scale of the building. In my late teens I was involved in a theatrical production which was staged there, and that was the first time I started to look with semi-informed interest at a church and began to think that this might be something worth pursuing. I've been pursuing it for forty years plus so far.

Until a couple of years ago Waterford church was generally locked, though a phone number was supplied, which, if rung, brought a charming older gentleman over from an adjacent bungalow. His pride in 'his' church was evident, and he took great delight in showing it off to visitors. Once he played the organ for me. He also told me of the occasion when the east end of the church (much higher above the ground than the west because of the slope of the land) had to be rescued from collapse by having hundreds of gallons of liquid concrete pumped into its foundations. 

In 2018, initially as an experiment, the church was left unlocked during the day. Presumably the experiment was a success, because on my most recent visits it has indeed been open. It's one of my ten best Hertfordshire churches.

* Goldings was a family home for less than half a century. It was sold in 1920, probably because of death duties and changing fashions. It became a Dr Barnardo's orphanage (see here) (it features strongly in Leslie Thomas's first book, This Time Next Week, (1964), a marvellous memoir of his childhood). In 1967 Barnardo's moved out and it became the County Surveyor's Department of Hertfordshire County Council, but must have been vastly too big for the purpose. I believe that it spent some years disused and with its fate unknown until 1997 when it was turned into apartments. 

** You can read extracts from the order books here (transcribed by Dr Dennis Hadley, who also supplied the notes about the sanctuary decoration displayed in the church). Oddly, the 1901-2 campaign doesn't seem to be mentioned. The 1909 campaign is featured on page 27 (which is where Hutchinson's name is mentioned), and that in 1912 on page 30. 

*** Strangest Genius; The Stained Glass of Harry Clarke, by Lucy Costigan and Michael Cullan, The History Press, 2010, pp 65-6.


  1. Thank you. Quite remarkable.

  2. Extraordinary...I'm breathless

  3. Thank you so much for the explanations I am going to visit as soon as I can with all this acquired knowledge. I always feel overwhelmed at the amount of work put into our beautiful ancient buildings and wonder how the builders managed. A friend suggested it was aliens!