Saturday, 26 October 2013

St Paul, Stansted

When the Renaissance arrived in England in the 17th century the old medieval style of architecture was abandoned and derided as 'Gothic', a term intended to associate it with the barbarians who sacked Rome.

In the middle of the 18th century the Gothic style began to creep back, at first as a bit of fun for rich patrons who wanted their country houses to reek with chivalric romance. Horace Walpole, who started the trend at Strawberry Hill, said he aimed for 'gloomth'.
At this point, Gothic was not taken too seriously. Architects did not know very much about it and were more concerned with atmosphere than historical accuracy. Historians now refer to this period as 'Gothick', a spelling made popular by Walpole.
The chapel at Stansted House, dedicated to St Paul, is a lovely example.
It was commissioned in 1812 by the owner of the house, Lewis Way, as a sort of mother church for his life's mission to convert the Jews. The architect is not recorded, but it may have been Thomas Hopper, who was working on the main house at the time and was responsible for several Gothick country houses made to look like castles.
The west wall of the chapel is genuinely old - a fragment of the Tudor mansion that stood on the site. Pass through the Tudor brick arch, however, and you enter a low, dark, vaulted chamber with a forest of columns, like a crypt. 
When you go into the nave, all is light. The big traceried windows and the high vaulted ceiling and the white painted walls combine to maximise the light. So the chancel is another big contrast, with its slender columns holding up delicate vaulting, richly painted in blue, scarlet and gold and illuminated only by a painted east window with Old Testament iconography designed to appeal to would-be Jewish converts. It is jewel-like.
It is all fake, of course. The columns are cast iron and the 'medieval' vaults and carving are plaster. The window tracery is wood, not stone. But it all adds up to a captivating effect.
The chapel made a big impression on one member of the congregation at the dedication service - the poet John Keats. Many details such as the window 'diamonded with panes of quaint device' appear in The Eve of St Agnes.