Nairn’s Addiscombe: Obsession

St Mary Canning Rd #2 (2)

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years. 

Who would have thought that Addiscombe – modest, unpretentious Addiscombe – would contain a church as wonderfully weird as St. Mary Magdalene and St. Martin? (Which, for brevity, I will refer to simply as St. Mary Magdalene). But it does, and it attracted Ian Nairn’s attention back in the 1960s.

The architect was Edward Buckton Lamb, who in the 1850s and 1860s designed three eccentric neo-Gothic churches: Christ Church, West Hartlepool in 1854; St. Martin, Gospel Oak in 1865 (shown here);

St Martin Gospel Oak

and the Addiscombe church in 1868. All were commissioned by unconventional clients: at Christ Church, the West Hartlepool Dock and Railway Company; at Gospel Oak, a wealthy evangelical philanthropist. But Addiscombe was the most unusual of the lot: here, the guiding spirit was the Reverend Maxwell Macluff Ben Oliel.

Ben Oliel was a fascinating figure, a Jewish convert to Christianity who embraced  Anglicanism, landed the post of curate at a church in Croydon, built up a personal following with his dazzling preaching, and in 1866 led his followers out of the Church of England to found their own independent evangelical congregation. The church in Canning Road was the result: Lamb was engaged to design it, and the money came from Ben Oliel’s wealthy brother-in-law. While this independent congregation survived, the church was named for St. Paul, but before long Ben Oliel had fallen out with his own followers. After the inevitable period of mutual recrimination during which the building stood empty, he sold it to the Church of England which promptly consecrated it as the Anglican church of St. Mary Magdalene.

Given his record of building deviant churches for unusual clients, Lamb has acquired a reputation as a “rogue architect”. In fact, much of his work, and many of his clients, were entirely conventional. But his three churches, and above all the Addiscombe church, are proof that although he knew how to play the respectable architectural game, he also had a gleeful hankering to ignore its rules and do his own thing.

The eccentricity of the Addiscombe church derives from two of Lamb’s great architectural obsessions: roofs, and timber. These obsessions figure at West Hartlepool and Gospel Oak, but it was at Addiscombe, which he completed just one year before his death, that he pushed them to the limit.

St Mary Canning Rd #5

In Nairn’s London in 1966, Ian Nairn had this to say:

“… (Lamb) was obsessed with a huge timber roof … what he was after was a colossal cruck construction with no walls at all … in the transepts there is open war … “.

St Mary Canning Rd #3 (2)

Given that Nairn celebrated architectural boldness, and delighted in seeing rules successfully broken, I interpret terms like “obsession” and “open war” to signify praise, not horror.

And yet, just four years earlier, St. Mary Magdalene had been described in rather different terms:

“ … this east front … cannot be sufficient preparation for the nightmarish interior, a debauch of High Victorian inventiveness … purposefully composed cacophony … ruthless individualism … “.

St Mary Canning Rd #1 (2)

This is from the 1962 Surrey volume in The Buildings of England series, written jointly by Nikolaus Pevsner and … Ian Nairn. In the ‘Foreword’ Pevsner briefly summarises their division of labour, but without clarifying which of them would have visited St. Mary Magdalene. However, judging from the language, I think it must have been Nairn. Pevsner’s entries are clipped and constrained, sometimes little more than lists of architectural features, whereas Nairn always seeks to convey an overall impression, his language expansive and florid. Phrases like “nightmarish interior” and “debauch” are definitely Nairnian rather than Pevsnerite. But, unlike the 1966 commentary, they  hardly sound like praise.

It looks as if Nairn changed his mind about St. Mary Magdalene between 1962 and 1966, and shed his earlier nightmarish vision. If so, then he was right to do so. I’m backing 1966 Nairn against 1962 Nairn. I think St. Mary Magdalene is just great.

As 1966 Nairn says, there is a certain restraint in the relation of stone to wood at the west end, and in the apse at the east end.

St Mary Canning Rd #7 (2)

But it all breaks loose across the nave and transepts where there is a glorious chaos of timberwork, magnificently gloomy, overwhelming, great beams leaping from far down near the floor to far up in the high roof, crossing and clashing with each other. But it is chaos with a purpose, because its effect in daytime is to draw the eye through the dark web of timbers to the lantern, a single, high, concentrated source of light poised above the centre of the church. As 1966 Nairn says:

“ … the timber lantern, the real centre of the church, looks down, unwinking, on it all … ”

St Mary Canning Rd #6 (2)

This focus on a high, central point was a Lamb trademark, represented at West Hartlepool too by the lantern, and at Gospel Oak by the crossing. Whether Lamb intended this as an aesthetic effect, or whether it had some spiritual significance for him, I cannot say. But at the magnificently eccentric St. Mary Magdalene in Addiscombe, it’s rather wonderful.