Excerpted with permission from Reformation, Revolution and Rebirth: The Story of the Return of Catholicism to Reading and the Founding of St James' Parish by John Mullaney and Lindsay Mullaney (Reading: Scallop Shell Press, 2012), pp. 112-146, and reformatted for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee. Omissions of references to earlier chapters, or of more specifically local history material, are marked by [...]. All images come from the book, and reproduction rights belong to the authors or to those indicated in the credits. Click on these images for larger pictures. For more information about the book, please visit the Scallop Shell Press website.

The Abbey Ruins

There had been a number of drawings, etchings and engravings made of the Abbey Ruins during the 18th century. Most contained inaccuracies or were written in a spirit of early Romantic sentiment rather than with any concern for archaeological or historical accuracy. In 1776 Sir Francis Englefield undertook a more scientific survey of the Ruins. He was an antiquarian of some note and [...] played a significant role in the return of Catholicism to England and to Reading. His paper was published in the journal Archaeologia and contains accurate sketches and descriptions of the Ruins. He gives the dimensions of the Abbey buildings but is careful to say where these are estimates. For a fuller analysis of this work see Dr. Cecil Slade's book The Town of Reading and its Abbey.

In the preceding chapter we looked at James Wheble's interest in, and purchase of, the Abbey Ruins. It would appear that James wanted the new church to be a sign of the re-establishment of Catholicism on the "sacred site" of the old Abbey. Not only was his new Church to be built in the Norman Romanesque style, reminiscent of the Abbey, but its name was to be St. James', recalling the ancient Abbey's dedication to that saint, a name which coincided with his own, his father's and that of his eldest son.

According to one contemporary newspaper account, the Church was constructed, "as far as the mason's art allowed," with flint and stone from the old Abbey. Apart from the use of these materials to build the Church, there is still evidence of other remnants from these excavations in the walls of the Church and Presbytery and in the wall separating the Forbury Gardens from St James'.

The main "find" was the column capital which Wheble had converted into a Baptismal font and which still stands in the Church, though not in its original position. At the time there was some speculation as to the nature or purpose of this intricately carved block of oolitic limestone. One likely explanation is that it is the remains of a carved capital from the columns of the cloister of the old Abbey.

As the following late-nineteenth-century photograph shows, the font was originally placed at the entrance to the Church, set on tiles which look very much as if they too had been excavated from the Abbey Ruins. One in particular has the appearance of a medieval encaustic tile, namely a fired tile with an inlaid pattern.

Fig 1. The font in its original position.

Another detail to note from this photograph is that we can make out two doors, a large one directly behind the font and a smaller one to its right, with a holy water stoup in between. One assumes that to maintain symmetry there would have been a third door to the left. But these are not outside doors.

If we look at photographs of the exterior of the church (figs. 2 and 3) we see that the original frontage had only one main entrance. It was this that was moved forward by [Wilfred] Mangan in 1926. The whole of the interior wall, with its three doors and two holy water stoups, was then placed in the position of the original outside wall. Standing inside the main body of the church today, one can see a cased beam stretching the width of the nave supporting the choir loft. It is reasonable to assume this was the position of the interior entrance to the church.

Left to right: Figs. 2 and 3. Photographs courtesy of St James' Church

If these assumptions are correct there was in fact a narthex, or entrance area, the width of the church and 10' deep, with three doors giving access to the nave where the font was placed. The narthex is just about discernible in Fig 3.

The Norman Romanesque Style

Returning to the question about the overall original design, there have been many comments made to the effect that St James' is Pugin's only church, in England, in the Norman Romanesque style. In fact Pugin employed this style on only three occasions: at St James', for the crypt of St Chad's Church (later Cathedral) in Birmingham, and for the church of St Michael the Archangel in Gorey, Co. Wexford, in Ireland.

Almost without exception, commentaries about Pugin refer to his dictum that the only true form of Christian architecture was the "pointed" style. It seems surprising, therefore, that he should agree to undertake a commission employing Norman Romanesque features. Although the explanation may lie, as seen, in the new Church being built in homage to the old Abbey, perhaps we should look deeper and examine what Pugin did, as opposed to what he wrote.

In works such as his Apology, Pugin stresses the need for consistency of style and that design should flow from the nature of the building and not be imposed by some preconceived foible of the architect or patron. Pugin might well have justified his design for St. James' on the basis that he was being consistent with the style of the period for which he was designing; hence a Norman style to reflect a Norman Abbey. Wheble's association with the Talbot family and the Earl of Shrewsbury, alongside his acquaintance with Dr Rock, may have been another incentive for Pugin to bend to James' preferences. For an architect who had not to that date built a church, these were indeed powerful and influential people, whose patronage must have demanded serious consideration.

St James' was Pugin's first church design and, although he does not follow his dictum about the "pointed style," it is arguable that he did not in fact abandon his architectural principles. Following the publication of Contrasts, which attracted the attention of Dr Rock, Pugin worked on his theory about the principles of Christian architecture. These are famously contained in his lectures delivered at Oscott in 1841 and published under the title The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture. Remembering that Pugin at this early stage of his career was still developing and refining his ideas, it is possible, in examining the details of St James', to discern how many of the principles are in fact embedded in the design.

Pugin was a complex character, as reflected in his writings. His views and opinions altered over the years. He himself acknowledged that, as he matured, his ideas had changed. For instance he is capable, in retrospect, of condemning his own work in no uncertain terms. In the True Principles he writes: "I have perpetrated these enormities in the furniture I designed some years ago for Windsor Castle. At that time I had not the least idea of the principles I am now explaining."

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Last modified 22 December 2012