Parish Church of All Saints, St. Alban’s Road, Babbacombe, Torbay, Devon (1865-74).
One of the key works of the architect William Butterfield (1814 to 1900) that sticks in my mind is that of Keble College, Oxford. The overall shape of the building appears as a sober, Gothic-revival building. However, moving closer one encounters the curious, somewhat eccentric multi-coloured brickwork. It is this polychromatic work that Butterfield is renowned for.
I was surprised to come across a building in Devon that evoked the same approach. It was unknown to me that All Saints Church in Babbacombe near Torquay was considered one of Butterfield’s finest creations in his later life. It was immediately distinguishable as Gothic-revival from the outside. The clean ordered lines and geometric work of its design was a giveaway (normally medieval churches are of different phases). I did notice the designs on the outside of the tower being obviously ornamental but no polychrome at this particular stage in my advance.
Notice from the external photographs the variety of window tracery.
Once inside the polychrome ornamentation and different polished marble colours provide a different experience.
Notice the banding on the columns of different colour marbles.
In his formative years Butterfield had made a serious study of medieval churches and absorbed the ideas of Pugin’s True Principles of Gothic Architecture (1841). In the 1840s his direction and career began to take off. He moved to 4 Adam Street, Adelphi, which was his office for the rest of his life.
He became an Anglican (he had been brought up in a non-conformist household) and directed his attention towards the Cambridge Camden Society. From 1845 it was known as the Ecclesiological Society, when it moved to London. The society sought to bring together the ideas of worship and architecture. It looked back to the Middle Ages when religious buildings connected to this ideal. Butterfield was elected to the Ecclesiological Society in 1844.
The turning point in Butterfield’s career was his design of All Saints, Margaret Street, London, built between 1850-59. It became the model church of the Ecclesiological Society. It marked a key stage in the development of the Gothic Revival in England. This was the high-Victorian Gothic Revival style that dominated architecture from 1850 to 1870.
All Saints was started in 1865 and is an Anglo-Catholic church. Around 1868 he received the commission for Keble College, Oxford (completed 1886). Keble College was a monument to John Keble, a leading member of the Oxford Movement (a 19th C High Church movement that developed Anglo-Catholicism). The design and ornamentation of Keble College is made up of red, white and blue bricks.
One of the key characteristics Butterfield introduced to the high-Victorian Gothic was polychromy and All Saints is no exception. Cherry & Pevsner describe All Saints as:
‘One of Butterfield’s most important churches, and especially in its interiors extremely characteristic of this most wilful of High Church architects. Structurally quite simple, broad in the proportions, the interior with a surface treatment both fascinating and repellent.’ (Cherry & Pevsner, p. 848).
For me the church is a masterclass in Butterfields design and techniques. I could spend days analysing each type of structure, material and ornamentation. He didn’t just confine himself to the design of the building and fixtures. He extended his skills to the fittings. At All Saints he designed metal objects, including the lectern, large free-standing candle holders, altar cross and, I presume, the 7 hanging altar lamps.
He made the Devon marble work for a number of different elements. There is the polychromatic openwork, marble pulpit with tiers of diverse arcades and colours. It stands in front of the marble altar rail. In the west of the nave stands a polychromatic font with arcading, resting on terracotta, decorated tiles. The pavement approaching the altar is constructed of a colourful, inlayed marble design. The columns of the aisles are in 5 sections of different coloured polished marbles.
Cherry, Bridget and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Devon, 2nd edn (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004)
Hill, Rosemary, ‘Butterfield, William (1814-1900)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sep 2004, <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/4228> [accessed 1 October 2019]