Monuments in St Luke's Church, Sydney Street, Chelsea

St Luke's Chelsea, shortly after it was put up.

Situated in central Chelsea, in Sydney Street off Fulham Road, St Luke's is an extremely large church in brick surfaced with Bath stone, set in a large graveyard which has been set to lawn with lots of monuments against the edges. The size of the open space helps to show the church’s massiveness, 130 ft long, 60 high, and as wide as it is high, with a great tower of just over 140 ft. You could almost fit a small village church in the space under the portico.

The architect was James Savage, and this is his most important work. It was one of the first Commissioners’ Churches, and was erected between 1820 and 1824. It was much admired when first put up, yet Eastlake, who wrote an important work on Gothic architecture half a century later, did not approve:

‘Its cost, size and construction place it in the foremost rank of contemporary Gothic examples… In examining such a structure as this, which includes in its design every feature necessary and usual for its purpose; which is ample in its dimensions and sound in its workmanship; on which an exceptionally large sum of money was expended, but which is, nevertheless mean and uninteresting in its general effect… [it has a] cold and machine made look.’

He goes on to try and praise it, but cannot quite bring himself to do so:

‘…There are, however, some redeeming points about St Luke’s Church. The upper part of the tower, though foolishly over-panelled, is good in its general proportions… the groining of the nave is really excellent, for its time,… the reredos, though designed on a principle which would render it unsuitable for the present requirements of church architecture, is, for its date, by no means contemptible; and as for the galleries – fatal though they are to any attempt at internal effect – and redundant… we must remember that many churches of later date and far more pretentious in character, have maintained such features…’

An 1880s guidebook gives a more neutral account, but takes the castigation as gospel:

'The new church of St Luke, situated between King's Road and Fulham Road, was built by James Savage, in imoitation of the style of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and has a pinnacled tower, nearly 150 ft high. It is, however, a poor specimen of modern Gothic. The most remarkable feature of the building is the roof of the nave, which is vaulted with stone, with a clear height of sixty feet from the pavement to the crown of the vault. The porch extends the whole width of the west front, and is divided by piers and arches into five bays, the central one of which forms the lower storey of the tower. The large east window is filled with stained glass, and beneath it is a fine altar-screen of antique design. Immediately over the altar is a painting, "The Entombing of Christ," said to be by Northcote. The church will seat about 2,000 persons, and was erected at a cost of about £40,000 - the first stone being laid by the Duke of Wellington. '

Today, it feels rather emptier than it should be; we can imagine that at the time, the sense was that gradually the huge interior space would fill up with monuments and woodwork and accoutrements, and perhaps side chapels would be added, and so on; and this was not how it developed.

For the interest of these pages, a significant monument, by Chantrey, to Lt-Col Henry Cadogan, d.1813 and moved to the church from the old church, is not on display. While the remaining monuments inside are generally humble, they show an interesting sequence from when the church was built through to the 1860s, with a couple of later examples, and provide an introduction to several of the monumental masons of the time. In date order:

What a change then to the monument to Walter Gordon Arrowsmith, d.1964(?), Prependary of St Paul’s and chaplain to George VI and Elizabeth II until his death, and Rector. A plain panel of speckled marble, as if for a kitchen worktop. We can understand why the move away from ornament, but still regret it.

Aside from the monuments, we may note the font, a crisply cut marble affair of an octagonal design, with little Gothic windows on the shaft and the pilasters at each edge, and broad shields on each face. Information on the walls notes the association of Charles Dickens with the church, where his marriage was held in 1836 to a Chelsea resident, Miss Catherine Hogarth.

Outside, a wander round the edges of the green space shows a wide range of headstones and a few chest tombs, mostly with their inscriptions lost to the weather; I could not find any memorial for the architect, James Savage, who was buried here outside his foremost church.

Casket chest tomb and gravestones in a corner of the former graveyard.

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