[In preparing the following text for reading on the web, I have tried to place images of Reynolds-Stephens's work as close as possible to their location in the orginal article in The Studio, which the Internet Archive has made available online. Clicking on images will produce larger pictures. — George P. Landow]

It is a common cause of complaint among decorative artists that they are not given sufficient opportunities of exercising their capacities. With some justice they resent the manner in which they are forced into conformity with schemes of ornamentation with which they may quite possibly be entirely out of sympathy, and they protest logically enough against being compelled to accept as the basis of their own designs things more or less immutable, which often hamper seriously the freedom of expression that they rightly regard as essential for the display of proper originality. The justification for this complaint is to be found in the almost universal practice of making the decoration of a room, or a building, a kind of afterthought. The decorator is not called in until the architect has finished, and he is allowed no voice in the preliminary ordering of structural arrangements which can make or mar his efforts. This would, perhaps, not matter so much if the modern architect had habitually any serious knowledge of the subtleties of decoration. But in his training these subtleties are apt to be almost entirely disregarded: he is taught the rules of his craft sufficiently to enable him to produce a piece of compilation which will not depart unduly from what is customary in the particular style selected, he is given various stock ideas which he can adapt and modify up to a certain point if he has naturally inclinations towards originality, and he is provided with a number of safeguards against committing any serious breaches of taste.

General view of the chancel screen. St. Mary the Virgin, Great Warley, Essex. Architect: Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928) Designer: William Reynolds-Stephens (1862-1949).

All this, however, does not necessarily help him to discriminate between what is good and bad in those forms of decorative art which are not so susceptible of being controlled by hard and fast rules. For one thing he does not learn how to prepare his own design so as to give the decorator legitimate chances, or how and when to make the necessary concessions to the decorative scheme by which his structural devisings are to be enhanced and completed. For another, a knowledge of the use of colour is not expected of him by his teachers, and he is not trained to understand what an important part colour can be made to play in the perfecting of an architectural arrangement. It would be easy to multiply instances of the failure of the architect to realise what would be the effect of adding ornamental details to a building which he has constructed, and of what may almost be called his selfishness in so narrowing the scope of the artist who has to apply the finishing touches to the work that the difficulty in arriving at a harmonious result has been practically insurmountable. In these instances the fault obviously lies with the architect, because, misunderstanding as he does the capabilities of the decorator, and unconsciously resenting the implication that his own original design can be improved by anyone else, he has carried his part of the undertaking further than was either prudent or aesthetically correct.

But that these disadvantages can be avoided by more intelligent and efficient collaboration between the architect and the designer is evident enough. An admirable proof ot this is afforded by a church which has just been erected at Great Warley, in Essex, by Mr. W Reynolds-Stephens arid Mr. C. Harrison Townsend. This church, as the joint production of two men of exceptional ability, shows most significantly what can be accomplished by agreement at the outset as to the parts which the designer of the main facts of a building and the decorator who supplies the many necessary adornments by which these facts are made fully effective should play in the whole undertaking. Here, at all events, it is not possible to feel that there has been any conflict between the people concerned, or any attempt on the part of either of them to score an advantage over the other. The architectural and decorative features are correctly adjusted, the construction of the building is neither concealed nor stultified by added ornamentation, and there is no sign of rebellion on the part of an earnest and enthusiastic decorative artist against limitations needlessly imposed upon his freedom of action by an unsympathetic or antagonistic architect. The whole achievement is, indeed, in its happy welding together of many interesting details, well worthy to be taken as a model for future works of the same order, and its admirable completeness testifies eloquently to the loyalty with which the collaborators have fulfilled their respective obligations.

(a) St. Mary the Virgin, Great Warley, Essex. Architect: Charles Harrison Townsend (1851-1928) Designer: William Reynolds-Stephens (1862-1949). (b) Detail of chapel screen: Trees in brass with mother-o'-pearl flowers. Figures in oxidized silver. (c) Chancel screen.

The purpose of this church is to serve as a memorial of the late Arnold Heseltine, by whose brother, Mr. Evelyn Heseltine, it has been built and given to the parish. The donor placed in the hands of Mr. Reynolds-Stephens the responsibility for the whole scheme, and made him general adviser with large powers oi control. To Mr. Harrison Townsend was then entrusted the task of designing the building, with the accompanying duty of supervising the progress of the structure itself; and there are ample evidences of his picturesque fancy in the quaintness of the exterior, and in the scholarly taste which dignifies many of the interior details. As an architectural effort the church bears plainly the stamp of his individuality and of that personal intention which counts for so much in his practice. It is perfectly sincere, thoroughly studied, and, with all its simplicity, wholly free from any archaic affectation; and it provides an absolutely appropriate setting for the intricate piece of ornamentation which it enshrines. He was responsible, too, for such accessories as the pews, the choir stalls, the litany stool, and other objects which can be reckoned among the furniture of the church.

(a) and (c) Two views of chapel screens in walnut and pewter. “[A] screen, separating a side chapel from the nave; it is of carved walnut with pewter enrichments, and is not only exceptionally elegant in its lines, but also especially happy as an example of correct wood construction. In both these instances the artist shows a consummate sense of craftsmanship and a true understanding of the use of particular materials.” (b) The Sanctuary.

But though the attractiveness of the building as a sound and original exercise in architectural invention must not be overlooked, it is naturally in the display of Mr. ReynoldsStephens' rare gifts as a decorator that the chief interest centres. He has given in the past many proofs of his admirable ingenuity and of his artistic resource, but, probably because he has not before had quite so complete an opportunity, he has never shown such a grasp of large essentials as can be discerned throughout the whole of this production. It can easily be appreciated that in a decorative scheme which does not admit of simple uniformity, and which requires the closest attention to a number of small and carefully elaborated details, there is always a danger that unity of effect may be lost. It is not less intelligible that the temptation to arrive easily at the final result by merely repeating certain salient features is one to which even the comparatively conscientious designer is not unlikely to succumb. But Mr. Reynolds-Stephens has not spoiled the quality of his work either by lingering too long over interesting parts or by using too frequently the same type of motive. Although the impression made by the interior of the church is at the first glance one of quiet and restful elegance, although there is nothing which immediately asserts itself and insists upon attention, the more the details are analysed the more satisfying is the revelation of his inexhaustible variety and of his cleverness in contriving fresh ways of expressing his ideas.

Embroidered altar Frontal designed by William Reynolds-Stephens and executed by the Clewer sisters.

Indeed, it would be difficult to find an example of modem decoration which will better repay examination part by part and detail by detail, so as to see by what thoughtful combination the whole harmonious effect has been built up; and it would be still more difficult to discover one which shows more clearly what an amount of varied invention is possible in the filling out of a scheme which has been largely conceived and broadly planned. What makes the artist's success in this case more notable is the fact that by the very conditions of the work he had to execute his choice of decorative motives was circumscribed in a very perceptible degree. Considerations of symbolism and association would clearly be more active in an ecclesiastical building than in one devoted to ordinary and everyday purposes, and the field in which he would be free to gather what he wanted to use as ornamental accessories would necessarily be hedged round by very strict limitations. But these considerations — though he has closely respected them — have not in any way that can be detected hampered his imagination or affected his resourcefulness. He seems to have had at his disposal all that he needed for the elaboration of his design, and the most priestly prejudices could not question the appropriateness of the ornamentation which he has lavished upon the church. To satisfy artistic exigencies without running counter to religious conventions is not always an easy matter, and that Mr. Reynolds-Stephens has been able to do so is a very definite proof of his sound judgment and intelligent perception of his responsibilities.

(a) Electrolier in galvanised iron with enamel plates. (b) Altar rail designed and executed by Reynolds-Stephens in brass, oxidized copper, dark Irish green marble, and dark-grey Belgian fossil marble. “The bronze altar rails resting upon wreaths of flowering briars, typifying the crown of thorns, are extremely well conceived.”

One of the most interesting points in the work is the happy manner in which a number of materials have been used not only without discordance but actually with much assistance to the general harmony. By juxtaposing surfaces of stone, wood, and metal, by relieving salient features in the architectural design with overlaying of metal and with subtle touches of colour, and by contrasting different coloured marbles one with the other and with details in brass, steel, or copper, a charming shimmer of delicate tints has been produced in which nothing is out of tone or right relation and in which the necessary accents tell at their full value. Moreover, by this use of natural materials the permanence of the whole scheme is assured. There is no fear that time or wear and tear will change certain parts of the decoration, and so upset a carefully devised arrangement by establishing unexpected colour relations or by dulling into invisibility what were intended to be the keynotes of the harmony. The practical knowledge of the designer has in this matter served him well: it has guided him in the choice of things appropriate, it has enabled him to enhance the charm of his colour combination by setting off one against the other textures which are in themselves of decorative value, and it has aided him to look forward with some degree of equanimity to what will in the future befall his ingenious contrivings.

(a) Pulpit designed and executed by Reynolds-Stephens in copper with blue pearl ornaments on dark grey fossil marble and trees of green bronze with brass flowers. (b) Bishop's Chair in walnut and pewter. (c) Organ front in various metals designed and executed by Reynolds-Stephens. "Very characteristic, too, is his treatment of the organ-case in hammered steel with low-relief copper panels of subjects from the Benedicite."

Correctly enough, all the adornments which he has intreduced symbolise and illustrate a particular idea — that of the Resurrection. His purpose is set forth in an explanatory leaflet which was issued to the parishioners when the church was dedicated:

The primary object of Mr. Reynolds-Stephens in his designs has been to lead the thoughts of the worshippers onward through his decorations to the glorified and risen Christ, whose form in the centre of the reredos is to be the keystone of the whole scheme. He has made free use of floral forms throughout the decoration, emblematical of progressive growth in the earthly life, but still more of the glorious hope which year by year is emphasised at Eastertide, the time of floral recrudescence.

This idea is consistently expressed throughout, and its elaboration gives coherence and completeness to the manifestation of the aesthetic instincts of the designer. It is practically the story he has to tell through the medium of his art, the dramatic motive of which he must never lose sight.

The charm of the colour harmony which makes the interior so fascinating can be conveyed but inadequately in words. The dominant notes of grey and green, with only the warm brown of the woodwork as a contrast, are played upon with infinite resource, and yet with a perfect simplicity that can scarcely be made intelligible by mere description. In the nave the plain wagon roof is divided by broad ribs filled with a pattern of lilies and conventional rose-trees in low relief and overlaid with silvery aluminium. These ribs spring from bases of walnut-wood, between which are wall hangings ot green material with stencilled patterns in shades of dark blue and buff. The chancel is separated from the nave by a screen in brass and bronze on a base of green marble, and the apse beyond, which strikes the highest note in the whole scheme, has walls and dome of aluminium above a high dado of pale green marble. On the vault of the dome is a great vine, in low relief, which rises from behind the reredos and breaks the plain surface of the dome with an exquisite play of light and shade. The reredos has in its central panel a figure of Christ with hand raised in blessing and feet set upon a writhing serpent, and around are placed the symbols of the Evangelists with triple-stemmed flowering trees on either side. Even in this reredos the colour, though fuller than in other parts of the church, is free from insistence, and is kept studiously in right relation to its gentle surroundings.

Two windows designed by Reynolds-Stephens and a sketch for another.

Perhaps the best display of the wonderful ingenuity in design, which is one of the most distinguished characteristics ot the whole of the work that Mr. Reynolds-Stephens has accomplished during his career, is to be seen in the chancel screen. The slender-stemmed trees of which it is composed rise from the marble base, and their crowns of foliage interlacing above make a rich mass of admirably treated detail. On each tree is placed a symbolical winged figure, and above, in the centre, is a cross flanked by two angels typifying "Gentleness" and "Goodness." There is another screen, separating a side chapel from the nave; it is of carved walnut with pewter enrichments, and is not only exceptionally elegant in its lines, but also especially happy as an example of correct wood construction. In both these instances the artist shows a consummate sense of craftsmanship and a true understanding of the use of particular materials. Very characteristic, too, is his treatment of the organ-case in hammered steel with low-relief copper panels of subjects from the Benedicite; and the bronze altar rails resting upon wreaths of flowering briars, typifying the crown of thorns, are extremely well conceived. There are many other details which add most helpfully to the general impression — the graceful and exquisitely proportioned electric-light pendants in grey metal with plaques in blue enamel; the dignified pulpit, with its hammered copper front in the shape of a large cross, flanked with triple - stemmed flowering trees, emblems of the Trinity; and the sanctuary seats, severely strong in character and yet not wanting in grace and delicacy of form. The windows also, of which those in the nave and the rose window at the end were designed by Mr. Hey wood Sumner, those in the sanctuary chancel, and side chapel by Mr. Reynolds Stephens, and those beneath the rose window by Mr. Louis Davis, are in excellent taste, and are decoratively of no little value. Only one thing is at present lacking to complete the work. The font, which in such a well-planned scheme should certainly be made a feature of especial prominence, offends by its bareness and poverty of form, and seems altogether out of place amongst its worthier surroundings. That a more suitable design is in contemplation is suggested by the leaflet already quoted, and when this design is carried out the church will be freed from its sole defect. But even as it is, it ranks emphatically as a notable achievement, and as one which in all respects deserves to be taken as a model for future attempts to unite architecture and decoration in the right relationship.

References

Baldry, A.L. "A Notable Decorative Achievement by W. Reynolds-Stephens." The Studio. 34 (1905): 1-15. Internet Archive. Web. 31 January 2012.


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Last modified 31 January 2012