Wight Life

St Lawrence Church

Well Behaved Debutantes and a Peaceful Cow

by R Bowyer

Picture of St Lawrence Church

THE VISIT OF HER ROYAL HIGHNESS the Queen Mother in May to attend the dedication of the Pre-Raphaelite windows in the parish church of St Lawrence lent a little colour to the claim of their village to be 'an Island Mecca', (the place, presumably, of the pilgrimage, not the ball- room.) It has the oldest, smallest and loveliest church in the Island in the Old Church; and many would think, too, that this is the holiest spot on Wight for its stark stone walls carry a sense of the numinous unusual in this crowded Island. St Lawrence has, perhaps, the most advanced of all the art societies and was, until recently, a centre for some of the best chamber music concerts. But the distinction so recently thrust upon it had a quite different origin.

In 1868, Thomas Hellyer, that prolific Ryde architect, who had already built 10 churches, five of them in the Isle of Wight, began work on the Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest. The site was well- chosen along the south-facing, warmly-sheltered cliffside and to give every patient the best sunshine and air it was divided into separate pavilions, connected only by a central corridor over a quarter of a mile long with iron balconies facing seawards. The hospital was finished in 1870, the chapel added in 1871-2, the grounds laid out and Ventnor provided the numerous victims of the 'consumption' epidemic with a tranquil place in which to die. Famous all over Britain and responsible in a large measure for the growth of Ventnor as a particularly fine example of Victorian seaside resort, the great hospital served the country well until, retired and squabbled-over, it finally died in 1969. With the cure of tuberculosis it had worked itself out of a job and so had no place in this modern world. The chapel, an acceptable piece of neo-perpendicular, had an undistinguished interior with a visual impact that seemed to extinguish hope; too much grief had hung about its walls for too long, or perhaps it was that when I knew it well -- in the late fifties and early sixties - the whole place already had a dying fall, paradoxically at a time when the few patients still lingering on were in little danger. This air of gloom was redeemed by two of the stained glass windows.

The one attracting most immediate attention was the three-light window of Sir William Reynolds-Stevens, inserted in memory of Or GJ Shaw who died in 1892 and of his wife and son. Reynolds-Stevens, who died in 1943, was sculptor, painter, craftsman; a late product of the by then decaying pre-Raphaelite school. Mr Nicholas Taylor, writing in the Architectural Review in 1967 says of him: After his Morris-cum-Art Nouveau period (of which this window is a rare example) he degenerated into sculpture and painting of a sentimentally crafty kind, thick with symbolism and history. The merits of this window, however, were recognised by the inclusion of its central panel in the special exhibition held in the Victoria and Albert Museum in the winter of 1971-72.

There is no doubt in my mind that the window looks more at home in the Gilbert Scott church than in the old Hellyer chapel; perhaps because the Victorians were, like Eliot's Webster, 'much possessed by death' and this is a lively window with strong colour. Even today it is strangely modern: the bearded doctor taking the girl's pulse in the bottom right hand panel, supposed to be Dr Shaw, is amazingly like his namesake George Bernard, demonstrating to his actors how to play in 'Doctor's Dilemma'; the little children in the centre panel are too naturally care-free to be Victorian; the angels with their graceful flowing robes have hats on.

The central motif: 'Angels of Glory, Angels of Light, Singing to Welcome the Pilgrims of the Night', a quotation from another Victorian, FW Faber, is interpreted in a modern almost humanistic sense, the doctors and nurses representing the angels. As the Architectural Review says: 'The winged bull seems like a peaceful cow, and the angels like well-behaved debutantes.' This window has been inserted in the south wall of the parish church. The other window was on the north side of the old chapel placed there in 1873 in memory of three brothers; Robert John and William Hamilton. The two outer main panels, St Peter on the left, St John on the right were made from cartoons by Burne-Jones, St Peter having been originally designed in 1871 for a window at Peterhouse, Cambridge and the St John in 1869 for the Savoy chapel. The middle panel is a repetition of a cartoon designed in 1869 by Ford Madox Brown. It is these that form the present window in the south wall of St Lawrence.

Picture of windows in St Lawrence Church

The St Luke, with its wide-brimmed straw hat, purple cloak worn over a patterned blue and gold dalmatic, is much the strongest: the head has an arresting shape; and shape and firm outline is a stronger constituent in stained glass than in some other visual arts.

The panels which were below these in the original window are now in the 'light box'on the north wall. Both the outer panels are by William Morris representing the raising of Jairus' daughter on the left, and the raising of Lazarus on the right, and were originally designed about 1866. The centre panel is the only one commissioned specially for this window in August 1873, and is by Ford Madox Brown depicting the 'woman with the issue of blood'; it is thought to be the only instance of this subject in stained glass. The offer of these windows to the church by the Ventnor Urban District Council presented some formidable problems. Mr John Hayward reporting in 1969 cast some doubt on the authenticity of the 'Morris' panels: 'I would suggest that the whole window has been made to fit this chapel by some quite different hand.' He suggested that the Reynolds- Stevens window be re-housed in the parish church and that he store the glass of the 'Morris' window until a more appropriate home be found — the Ruskin Gallery at Bembridge School had already been suggested. But the Rector, the Reverend AA Woolley who had spent some years as secretary of the Cambridge University Appointments Board and was well used to administration, launched a national appeal, attracting such supporters as Sir John Betjeman and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. The subscription list was opened by the last royal patron of the hospital, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and the Reynolds-Stevens window dedicated in the presence of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Governor of the Isle of Wight, in 1973. When the window was unveiled by Mr GRR Bray, the nephew of Sir William Reynolds-Stevens, gave a portrait of the artist by John Young Hunter (1878-1955) and this is also on the west wall, restored as a memorial by Mrs Donald Ross to her father, the late AE Payne sometime chairman of the old Ventnor Urban District Council. It was a further gift by Mr Donald Ross that enabled the construction of the 'light box' to be started.

When Mr Woolley retired last Easter he had achieved one half of his ambition for this scheme: the installation of all the lights from the two hospital windows in St Lawrence parish church. The other half of the ambition: 'Our great joy now would be to see Her Majesty the Queen Mother here when the work is finished: may that be soon;' will have been realised by the Queen Mother's visit.