THE CHAPEL OF ST SEPULCHRE
In the undercroft of St Mary Magdalene’s is the Holy Sepulchre Chapel: “a magical place, too hard of access” (Simon Jenkins, England’s Thousand Best Churches), remarkable for its “elaborate and concentrated richness [unlike any other] in the history of the Gothic Revival in Englandl” (A. Symondson).
The chapel is on Historic England’s ‘Buildings at Risk’ register. Damp has caused serious deterioration in its decoration, and the space has been partitioned off for its protection. Conservation is essential to rescue this exceptionally important heritage asset, and to enable it to be shared with local people and the wider public.
When the founder and first vicar Fr West died in 1893 the chapel was created as a memorial to him. Nestled into the south aisle of the undercroft, it is an early work by the architect Ninian Comper who created what is a complete work of art in itself within the larger masterwork of Street’s church.
The enormous amounts of carved stone, stained glass, gilding and ornamental paintwork take us back in time to a 15th century chantry chapel. This was where priests would sing masses for the soul of a dead person (who had usually paid for the chapel). Once completed, masses were said in the chapel for the soul of Fr West, who had done so much to raise the funds to build St Mary Magdalene’s. It was also where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved (kept in a secure container for the Communion of the sick, and as a focus for prayer). Both of these practices were quite different to how things were being done in mainstream Victorian Anglican churches. Those who founded the church and built the chapel believed strongly that the effects of the Reformation on the Church of England had been largely bad. So, they decided to worship as if the Reformation had never happened and they were returned to the late 15th century. Sometimes Anglo-Catholic churches were attacked by Protestant rioters, and so at St Mary Magdalene’s the Sacrament was reserved in a specially designed safe, concealed by the decorated reredos behind the altar.
The chapel is an integral part of the wider undercroft space. Normally, in the absence of the temporary partition, it would be visible and accessible through a pierced perpendicular screen with two doorways, adding to the charisma and atmosphere of the undercroft as a whole.
Over the years the chapel has been a favourite of film-makers – from ‘Les Miserables’ to ‘St Trinians’ via John Betjeman and Miss Marple.
Conservation of the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre
Due to the sensitive nature of the chapel and the need to first arrest damp, works could not happen simultaneously with recent conservation and construction in the rest of the church. As part of that phase of wider works we:
- installed a temporary partition to give protection from construction, dust and debris
- stabilised environment conditions through wider drainage improvements
- undertook investigative trials and environmental monitoring
- installed infrastructure to control and stabilise the environment
Having concluded this phase, we are now in a position to implement a conservation strategy through an iterative approach over 18 months. This will involve:
- appointment of an expert Curatorial and Conservation Panel, as well as a specialist conservator
- establishing a conservation studio in the chapel to test and then implement treatments
- engaging the public through interpretation, tours and talks
Formal decision-making on conservation approaches will rest with the statutory Diocesan Advisory Committee. The format of the C&C panel acknowledges that there will be multiple voices and opinions that can and must be distilled into final conservation proposals. The deliberations of the panel will be open and transparent and the conservation journey will be accessible to the community, students, academics, and professionals through discussions, open day events, formal lectures, online (blogs), exhibitions and work-in-progress tours.
- Oct 2020 – Appointment of Curatorial and Conservation Panel with experts and stakeholders including Historic England and DAC.
- Conservation science investigations commissioned.
- Community engagement in research and ‘conservation design’ commences, alongside C&C panel.
- Jan 2021 – initial findings presented alongside public participation events
- Development of overall design strategy and brief drawing on environmental monitoring reports and further investigations
- Confirmation of and discharge of conditions for consents (which are conditional)
- Feb / Mar 2021 – conservators undertake trial conservation tests; alongside public activity events (i.e. mock-test panel painting).
- Procurement of conservators
- Implementation of remedial work trials
- Mar / Apr 2021 – sign-off final conservation approaches
- Final discharge of conditions
- Validation of costings for implementation
- Conservation studio activity plan, tours, events etc, designed and timings confirmed
- Apr 2021 – establish conservation studio, work commences, with regular tours, presentations, and ‘conservation in action’ exposure.
- Autumn 2021 – conservation works completing
- To April 2022 – monitoring and evaluation of outcomes; final reporting.
- Closing lecture(s) and exhibition
Help save this nationally important heritage asset
Fundraising continues for works to enable the chapel to be opened up to the public.
The project presents an important opportunity for conservation learning and understanding of the Gothic Revival. When complete the protective hoarding will go, letting daylight back in to the undercroft and restoring the full romance of this Victorian masterpiece. The chapel will be available for worship as well as sympathetic non-religious uses including art and performance.
As well as being available for worship and contemplation the chapel can also meet demands for sympathetic non-religious uses identified with the local community and partners, including local Muslim people. They have advised how through an emphasis on its art and history, and on cultural exchange, the chapel can be an inviting, shared environment. It is suited to supervised small group activity:
- story-telling and imaginative play
- non-water based arts and crafts
- gentle therapeutic work, e.g. mindfulness, baby yoga
- learning prompted by the art and history of the space
- music learning, rehearsals, and recitals