Some Brighton Churches – Chapter 5

Herbert Hamilton Maughan (b. 1884)

(author of “Wagner of Brighton : the centenary book of St. Paul’s Church, Brighton
and many other books on church architecture and traditions)


The church of St. Paul, in West Street, built by the Rev. H. M. Wagner, Vicar of Brighton, in 1848 at a cost of £12,000, is one of the most beautiful churches in Brighton and, in view of its history and associations, perhaps the most interesting of all. It was the scene of the labours of the Rev. A. D. Wagner, its first vicar, who came to the new church in 1850 and, although incapacitated by ill-health in his latter years, remained the nominal incumbent of St. Paul’s until his death on January 14th, 1902. A short summary of the history of those early days, when St. Paul’s stood alone as the sole representative, south of London, of the Tractarian Movement, has been given in the preceding chapter; it is important, however, to remember the facts which made this church for more than thirty years the storm-centre of all the controversial agitations and commotions in Brighton. Even before the appointment of Arthur Douglas Wagner as priest-in-charge, St. Paul’s had already excited considerable suspicion. In the first place, it was distinctly a beautiful church, and that could only be regarded as a portent in times when people lavished every kind of costly adornment upon their own houses, but considered the barest, meanest and most barn-like structures good enough to be the house of the Almighty. Moreover, any kind of beauty in connection with public worship had sinister and Popish associations in the popular mind at that period. It was known that there were a few clergymen of the Establishment, probably in collusion with the Jesuits, who were sufficiently misguided to attempt to introduce a little external beauty and dignity into the services of the church. Could it be that something of the kind was to be attempted in Brighton ? It looked very much like it, and when the Rev. A. D. Wagner was placed in charge of St. Paul’s by his father, the outlook became more ominous still. It was true that for some years Mr. Wagner did not even venture to have a surpliced choir, and that he went very cautiously to work; but St. Paul’s soon had a choral service, and as late as 1863 it was still the only church in Brighton which had such a thing. But the part played by St. Paul’s in the Church revival in Brighton has already been described, at least in outline; it only remains to add that many famous men were connected with the early history of this church. Archdeacon Manning was the preacher on its opening day. John Keble himself preached from its pulpit. Mr. Gladstone was a regular worshipper whenever he was in Brighton, and there were few of the leading spirits of the Movement, clerical or lay, whose names were not connected in some way with St. Paul’s.

The architect was Richard Cromwell Carpenter, who was also responsible for the restoration of St. Nicholas’, and for the building of All Saints’ in Compton Avenue. St. Paul’s was opened on October 18th, 1848, and consecrated exactly a year later. It is in the English Decorated style, and is a building mainly of flint with coignes of Caen stone. It has a nave of six bays, without triforium or clerestory, and lean-to aisles. The graceful arcade is supported upon slender and elegant quatrefoil columns. The beams supporting the roof spring from carved stone corbels. Beyond the chancel arch stretches a long chancel, lighted on the south side by windows of generous proportions. The nave and aisles can seat a congregation of twelve hundred.

The fine tower stands at the north side of the chancel, and is one of the landmarks of Brighton. Mr. Carpenter’s plans provided for a spire, quite satisfactory and in perfect harmony with the general design of the church, but somewhat conventional and without distinction. But the base of the tower had been structurally weakened by the making of the organ-chamber on the north side of the chancel, and Mr. Wagner was afraid that the additional weight imposed by the erection of the spire might render the tower unsafe. The architect, apparently, did not share in these misgivings, but Mr. Wagner’s determination not to take the risk prevailed, and the spire was never added. A temporary cap crowned the tower until the present admirable steeple, many tons lighter in weight than the spire originally planned, was designed and added by the architect’s son, Mr. R. H. Carpenter. It is an octagonal lantern of timber and lead, surrounded by four pinnacles and crowned by a short spire The effect of the whole composition is exceedingly graceful and dignified, and it is impossible to regret a change in the original plan which has resulted in the creation of a work of art, undoubtedly one of the chief architectural beauties of Brighton. Whether seen from West Street, from the high ground behind it or from the sea, the steeple of St. Paul’s never fails to please and satisfy the eye.

Exterior of S. Paul’s c.1922
Exterior of S. Paul’s c.1922

The church is entered from West Street by a long covered passage, which eventually emerges into the lane running from the west end of the church into Russell Street. At a point some considerable distance up this passage, a double door gives entrance to the narthex of the church, which is a later addition by Bodley. The door formerly used opened into the passage at a point near the middle of the south aisle wall, and was considerably nearer to the West Street entrance; but this door has been long bricked-up, and the only entrance now in general use is that of the narthex.

On entering the narthex, the charming little wheel window over the doors, and the other windows, containing excellent stained glass by Kempe, will first attract attention. On the west wall are three paintings on zinc, the work of Miss C. E. Boothby. Of these, the Last Supper was adapted from an original by Fra Angelico; but all the figures were painted from living models, the figure of Judas, which is not in the original picture, being also taken from a model. The Crucifixion is also an adaptation from an Italian original, and the figures were painted from models. The Resurrection is a copy of a picture by Fra Angelico. In the narthex there are also an Ecce Homo, a very beautiful St. Sebastian, and an excellent copy of Francia’s Entombment in the National Gallery, in a handsome frame carved by Lady Buchanan Riddell.

From the narthex, the church is entered through a double arch supported by a graceful column. Even on a bright day, St. Paul’s is rather a dark church, and it has been sometimes stated that Mr. Wagner, who was suspected of all sorts of fantastic and Jesuitical designs, deliberately aimed at securing a “dim religious light.” This theory, however, is sufficiently contradicted by the fact that the dormer windows in the roof, which have given the church considerably more light, were added by Mr. Wagner himself, and that he had no influence at all in the designing of St, Paul’s, which was built by his father. The site of the building and the abundance of its stained glass have rendered a rather dim light inevitable.

St. Paul’s, like St. Nicholas’, is a church which “grows upon” one. It is not easy to define exactly the charm which draws one back to revisit this church again and again. St. Paul’s has an “atmosphere” for which its architectural beauty may not be entirely responsible; associations, too, may have something to do with it. It is unquestionably a singularly devotional church. Architecturally, its charm is due to the beauty and harmony of its proportions. The graceful quadruple columns supporting the nave arcade, the sharply pointed chancel arch, the beautiful east window, combine to produce this effect.

On the walls of the aisles are the Stations of the Cross in broad gilt frames. These pictures are the work of German artists. The dim light renders it difficult to appreciate their merits. All the windows are filled with stained glass of harmonious effect, although the colours, especially those of the west window, are somewhat vivid. At the end of the north aisle is the altar of St. Paul. The picture of St. Paul above the altar is the work of the Rev. C. E. Roe, Vicar of St. Mary’s, Buxted, and formerly one of the clergy of St. Paul’s. At the end of the south aisle is the Lady Altar, the picture of the Madonna being the work of the same artist. At the western end is an octagonal font, with canopy, of good design but of no special interest. The treatment of the figures in the stained glass of this aisle suggests a rather laboured attempt to reproduce the mediaeval manner, and the colouring is in some instances a trifle hot. The second window from the east, representing St. Edward the Confessor and St. Edmund, is a memorial to the Rev. H. M. Wagner, for forty-six years Vicar of Brighton, and the founder of St. Paul’s, who died on October 7th, 1870. The small window which breaks the sequence and uniformity of the south aisle windows was so designed to allow for the space required for the old south door, which is now bricked up. Beneath it is a Calvary. The Crucifixion window, designed by Pugin, behind the Lady Altar is particularly pleasing, and has some delightful blue tones. Its colours have been toned down by the Rev. C. E. Roe, and the general effect much improved in consequence; it is now, perhaps, in point of colour the best window in the church.

A short flight of steps behind the Lady Altar leads down to the very devotional little Chapel of the Holy Spirit, which has windows by Kempe.

Interior of S. Paul’s c.1922
Interior of S. Paul’s c.1922

The modest and unassuming octagonal pulpit, of wood mounted upon a stone base, stands on the south side. Perhaps it needs no distinction beyond its memories of the great men of old times who have preached from it. The Vicar of Brighton used to preach frequently at St. Paul’s, although he did not by any means approve of some of the developments introduced there by his son. On one of these occasions, according to an amusing and, probably, true tradition, he preached from the text: Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick and sore vexed.

The exceedingly handsome brass lectern, by Powell, stands on the north side. It is a private memorial, and cost £1,000, the donor having stipulated that it should cost no less. The Angels of the Apocalypse afford the general theme of the design. Four angels with their emblems surround the base, upon which rests a drum-like capital of fine workmanship, also surrounded by angels bearing their emblems. This is crowned by two more angels supporting the book-rest. The observant visitor will notice that the thurible in the hand of the Angel of the Incense is a complete “working model,” which illustrates the thoroughness of the workmanship. It is strange that none of the adversaries of St. Paul’s in the old fighting days ever applied for a Faculty to deprive the angel of his censer, or for an Injunction to restrain him from using it.

The two lanterns, mounted upon tall and slender brass poles, which stand beside the lectern and the pulpit, are an old feature of St. Paul’s, and it is to be hoped that they will never be removed. They date from the old times, like the heavy leather, mattress-like curtain which formerly hung across the main doorway when the doors were open, and had to be pushed aside as one entered the church. This curtain became the worse for wear in course of time, and disappeared some years ago.

The Rood-screen, of admirable design, dates from the earliest days of St. Paul’s, but has received some modern additions. The figures painted upon the lower panels are by Mr. S. Bell, who also painted the fresco, representing Christ in Majesty attended by angels, above the chancel arch. When the Rood itself was added, the necessary reconstruction of the upper portion of the screen was entrusted to Mr. Ingram, formerly one of Mr. Bodley’s pupils, who carried out the work with the artistic collaboration of the Rev. C. E. Roe. The figures of this singularly successful Rood are the work of McCulloch, of Kennington.

The long and stately chancel contains Miserere stalls on each side, with return-stalls for the clergy. On the north side is the organ, an excellent instrument by Hunter. The work of Mr. Bodley will be recognized in the mural painting, which has replaced some earlier work, and the panels of the roof are also painted. The south wall is pierced by windows of fine proportions, filled with stained glass of rather crude and glaring colours.

The east window, together with most of the windows in St. Paul’s, was designed by Pugin and executed by Hardman. It represents the Genealogy of Christ in a “Jesse Tree.” Its proportions and design are admirable, and the colours, subsequently toned down by Mr. Bodley, are considerably more mellow and pleasing than those of the windows in the south wall.

The altar-piece behind the high altar is of great interest, being an early work of Burne-Jones, replacing a still earlier one by the same artist. When Mr. Wagner was considering to whom the execution of this important work should be given, Mr. Bodley recommended that it should be entrusted to “a rising young artist, Mr. Burne-Jones,” and this work of art is now one of the greatest treasures of St. Paul’s. It is in triptych form, the side panels representing the Blessed Virgin and the Angel of the Annunciation, the central portion the Adoration of the Magi. Although the chancel has considerably more light than the nave, it is often very difficult to see and appreciate the beauty of this superb altar-piece; but on a bright day and in certain lights the painting seems to spring to life, revealing all its details and a glorious feast of colour. It is unfortunate that this can only occasionally be seen, and that at other times the visitor is only aware of a sombre and indistinct painting which gives scarcely a hint of the rich and beautiful colour which it really possesses; but he will be well advised to visit St. Paul’s again and again until he happens to catch the right light. He will be amply repaid for his trouble.

The high altar has six beautiful silver-gilt candlesticks of an exquisite Renaissance design, the work of Messrs. Barkentin and Krall, and an excellent example of their admirable design and workmanship. St. Paul’s possesses several fine altar-frontals, that which is used on great festivals being especially beautiful.

Possibly more than one visit to this church may be necessary before its curious fascination will begin to assert itself. It has the same sort of atmosphere and indescribable charm which is characteristic of the old churches of Bruges and other ancient Belgian cities. The visitor who likes a dignified ceremonial, correct to the minutest detail but entirely free from any suggestion of stiffness or fussiness, will probably find that St. Paul’s will become his favourite church in Brighton, although there may be, on the whole, little to choose in that respect amongst the “Wagner churches.” But the church which was the mother of them all, and the centre of the life-long work and devotion of Arthur Douglas Wagner, must have a pre-eminent and unique attraction for all who revere the memory of the great men of former days; and this, together with its own architectural beauties, will always give St. Paul’s a foremost place amongst the churches of Brighton.

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