The New West End Synagogue
George Audsley (1838-1925)
N. H. J. Westlake (1833-1921) and Erwin Bossanyi (1891-1975), windows
George Aitchison (1825-1910), light-fittings
Built 1877-79, with a few later additions
Red brick, Mansfield stone, terracotta, and slate for the roof; inside, marble-covered iron columns, alabaster and marble wall-facings, teak and pitch pine
St Petersburgh Place, London W2 4JT
Photographs and text by Jacqueline Banerjee, 2010. [Commentary continues below. Mouse over the text for links.]
Thanks to Eli Ballon of the New West End Synagogue for his help.
[You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.]
When it was raised to Grade 1 listing in 2007, the New West End Synagogue was hailed in The Independent newspaper as Britain's first "truly Jewish" synagogue. Not so: even apart from the early-eighteenth-century Bevis Marks Synagogue in the East End, with its Renaissance-style Ark, there was the beautiful Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation, completed in 1874. This is now also Grade 1 listed. It had been designed by the Scottish-born Audsley brothers together; the New West End Synagogue, designed by George Audsley alone, is very similar. The later one does mark a milestone, however, by demonstrating that "London's Jewish community had arrived":
by the late 1870s, leaders of the Jewish community in London's West End felt more secure. Most official forms of anti-Jewish discrimination had been lifted. There were about 46,000 Jews in the UK, before the huge influx started by the anti-Semitic riots in Russia in the 1880s. It was 20 years since the law began allowing practising Jews to become MPs, an anglicised Jew, Benjamin Disraeli, was Prime Minister, and most of London's congregations were joined under the United Synagogue. (McSmith)
Commissioning the new house of worship initiated one of the United Synagogue's "first really major projects" (Levy). The style was described in the Jewish Chronicle as "eclectic, although based chiefly on the Saracenic. The sharply cut and channelled foliage ornaments, and both the round and pointed horseshoe arches, point to this origin" (qtd. in "New West End Synagogue"). A Gothic element was also noted, in the building's proportions, and features like the rose windows.
Left to right: (a) The sumptuous interior, looking towards the Ark, with Audsley's impressively large menorahs on either side. (b) The Byzantine cupola and Assyrian minarets above the Ark. (c) The south gallery, with texts along the upper part of the wall. [For these and the following, click on thumbnails for larger images.]
Left to right: (a) Spring flowers against stylised foliage and architectural elements, in one of N. H. J. Westlake's stained-glass side windows, this one with the Hebrew word for "Spiritually Clean," and inscribed, "In Loving Memory of James Henry Solomon." (b) Steps up to the Bimah; note the mosaic flooring here designed by Audsley. (c) The three leather seats below the Bimah for the Wardens, who are the lay readers of the synagogue; like the marble pieces in the arch spandrels, all 49 of the Bimah's capitals (some seen here behind the seats) have individual designs. (d) The seating, which is for about 800 people, uses contrasting types of wood, and rises in tiers from each side of the prayer hall; women sit in the galleries above.
Audsley was responsible for the western rose window, with its Star of David, water-lily and daisy design, as well as the little clerestory windows, while the rose window at the east end was designed later by the Hungarian-born Erwin Bossanyi (1891-1975). Less dramatic than the rose windows but with a lovely cumulative effect are the 40 stained-glass windows by Nathaniel Westlake, installed along both sides of the prayer hall, upstairs and downstairs, in the very early twentieth-century. These are appealing in their freshness and delicacy. The Hebrew words featured by Westlake complement the texts around the walls, and those in brass along the lower edges of the galleries. Using texts as decorative as well as uplifting motifs was by no means innovative, but it was something the Victorians in general particularly liked. The Audsley brothers themselves are an example here: see examples of their designs for medieval lettering. The United Synagogue had, in fact, chosen as their architect one of the foremost "ornamentists" of their age. So the Bimah and the Ark were both designed by Audsley himself and were part of the original fittings. Everything here is plush. The wonderful materials, such as the Cipallino marble from the Rhone valley, look forward to the use of similarly internationally-sourced materials for the panelled walls of the Catholic Westminster Cathedral at a slightly later date. There is the same air of opulence in both late-Victorian houses of worship. The report in the Jewish Chronicle makes particular reference to the kinds of wood used in the synagogue: "the doors and gallery fronts display wood of remarkable richness and rarity. Probably no such wood is to be seen in any public building in London" (qtd. in "New West End Synagogue").
Left to right: (a) The marble and alabaster pulpit from the side (the plinth dates from the 1890s, but the pulpit itself was added in 1907). Notice the Westlake windows behind it. (b) Looking up towards the west gallery, and Audsley's rose window. (c) One of the brass lamps designed by George Aitchison, hanging in the lofty foyer. (d) One side of the entrance door with its ornamental wrought-iron hinges.
Another feature of special interest is the lighting: Audsley himself designed the important Bimah lamps, the Ner Tamid near the Ark, and the large menorahs. Original gas lamp brackets can still be seen by the doors. But the brass light fittings installed for electricity in 1895 were designed by George Aitcheson, noted interior designer, and architect of Lord Leighton's Arab Hall. These fittings too are remarkable: the complete scheme "is believed to be one of the most intact in the country" ("New West End Synagogue"). The Jewish Chronicle also draws attention to the "magnificent doorway deeply recessed and elaborately ornamented" (qtd. in "New West End Synagogue"), with its fine teak doors embellished with dramatically scrolled black hinges. At the time, the rich ornamentation of the new synagogue attracted some criticism as well as praise. One of the texts chosen for the interior seems intended to deflect the criticism: on the gallery to the left of the Ark is written in Hebrew, "The Palace in not for man, but for the Lord God." These are David's words when talking about the plans for Solomon's magnificent temple, in 1 Chronicles 29, 1 (see Shisler).
Levy, Elkan. Lecture on The New West End Synagogue, 1879-2004 (abridged). Available at the synagogue during London Open Weekend 2010.
"Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation" (the Liverpool synagogue's website). Web. Viewed 17 October 2010.
McSmith, Andy. "Grade-1 Listing for Britain's First Truly British Synagogue." 17 August 2007. Web Viewed 17 October 2010.
"New West End Synagogue, Paddington" (City of Westminster Listing Text). Web. Viewed 17 October 2010.
Shisler, Rabbi Geoffrey. Sermon of 30 October 2004 (about the texts), accessed from the useful "History and Architecture" section of the synagogue's own website. Web. Viewed 17 October 2010.
Last modified 10 December 2020
Links added 18 July 2021