Penge’s church of St. John the Evangelist on the corner of St. John’s Road and the High Street, built in 1849-1850, was designed Edwin Nash & J.N. Round.
It was one of Penge’s landmark buildings erected from the 1830s as it made its transition from semi-rural hamlet to railway suburb.
Although Round is credited as joint-architect, he never seems to have had a substantial career. His only other project that I can identify was in the 1860s, again working with Nash. More of this below.
Edwin Nash on the other hand, although never a great architectural name, was active for nearly forty years in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. These were the years of the Gothic Revival, and to understand his career, we need to understand what the Gothic Revival was all about.
Whimsical buildings reminiscent of the Middle Ages, with ‘picturesque’ pointed arches, cropped up occasionally from the mid-eighteenth century, and insistently by the 1820s. Then, in the 1830s, Augustus Pugin burst on the scene. A devout Catholic and talented designer, he published a manifesto arguing that the medieval ‘Gothic’ (i.e. non-classical) style was the authentic expression of Christendom; that its revival was a religious duty; and that new Gothic buildings should faithfully follow medieval practices and designs. Many agreed, including power-brokers in the Anglican Church, and the 1830s and 1840s saw a fashion for historically-correct churches built in close imitation of the ‘Early English’ and ‘Decorated’ styles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
By 1850 the Gothic was triumphant, but some architects were feeling constrained by Pugin’s historical correctness. They started to mix styles and motifs from different medieval moments; designs became less predictable, clearing the way for soaring asymmetrical masses of brick and stone; there was a passion for colour, pattern, mouldings, and contrasting textures; and the Gothic look, already seen in schools and colleges as well as churches, was now thought appropriate for hotels, offices, railway stations, warehouses, statues … This eclectic style, with its free-wheeling elaboration of the omnipresent pointed arch, is known as the High Gothic and it dominated architecture in the second half of the century.
Edwin Nash’s career began in the 1840s, in the era of historical correctness, and his early jobs reflect this. In three busy years from 1849 to 1852 he worked on three churches in north-east Surrey and north-west Kent: St. John’s, Penge; St. James, North Cray; and All Souls, Crockenhill. St. John’s and St. James were in the fourteenth-century Decorated style, while All Souls was thirteenth-century Early English.
The features that define St John’s as ‘Decorated’ include both its overall design – nave and transepts, tower at the west end, a striking ‘broached’ spire
– and its detail, such as the stone tracery within its windows, which allowed bigger window-spaces and more light while still providing secure housing for the glass.
The south windows facing the High Street suffered bomb damage in the War, but two of the original windows survive on the north side, complete with Nash’s stone tracery and stained glass from William Morris’s works at Merton.
But the single most striking internal feature is the roof. An open, high, timber truss runs down the nave, reminiscent of medieval hammer-beam roofs such as that in Westminster Hall.
And in the transepts, timber beams leap from the corners to meet in mid-air.
These beams impressed the architectural historian John Newman as “especially provocative” when he visited in the 1960s. They are not strictly historically accurate – they are not a typical fourteenth century feature – but it seems to me that they are apt. The Gothic style in all its variations aspires to height and space and light. It seems to me that Nash’s airy timber roof, and his flying timber beams, respect that aspiration.
His career from the 1850s, once his first three churches were complete, settled into a different pattern. Most of his work involved assisting with restorations and re-buildings, rather than taking overall responsibility. He contributed to medieval restorations and re-builds at St. Martin of Tours, Chelsfield; St. Mary, St. Mary Cray; and St. Nicholas, Sutton. And he added to or enlarged newer nineteenth century churches at St. Bartholomew, Sydenham; and All Saints, Beulah Hill. His particular specialism was in restoring, rebuilding or adding the chancel, the area around the altar which includes the choir and sanctuary.
But in two busy years in 1863-4 he did take on two complete projects. Firstly, he returned to Penge to design and build St. John’s Cottages at the bottom of Maple Road.
Just across the road from St. John’s church, these modest, secluded (and now highly desirable) homes were originally built as alms-houses, presumably connected with the church.
Secondly, together with his former collaborator J.N. Round he designed the nearby church of St. Philip in Taylor’s Lane, next to Wells Park in Sydenham. Their work here reflected the dominant High Gothic approach, combining elements of Early English design with an unusual, short and contained overall plan. St. Philip’s was badly damaged during the War, grappled with continuing structural problems, and was finally demolished in the early 1980s. (More information at http://southwark.anglican.org/downloads/lostchurches/SYD05.pdf).
Edwin Nash was a safe pair of architectural hands in South London’s Gothic Revival, He left his mark on Penge and many other places, with variations on the Gothic theme which defined the Victorian city.