This month Jenny Freeman introduces us to the spectacular Armenian Apostolic Church of St Yeghiche, Kensington, London (formerly St Peter’s Church, Cranley Gardens)
The church was originally designed and built by the office of Sir Charles Freake (1814- 84) in 1866-7 using Kentish ragstone and adopting the Victorian “Decorated” Revival style. The surviving tower and prominent broach spire at its north-west corner was Freake’s work, but no-one entering the church in its early days would have imagined the fascinating and successful changes it would undergo in subsequent years.
The church is cruciform in plan with a wide nave, aisles and shallow chancel. The interior was originally faced in brick, now repainted to enhance the effect of the interior.
In 1900, W D Caröe (1857-1938) became involved in enriching the church with new marble on the walls, ironwork screens at the west and south ends and by introducing a clerestory in 1904-6 to let in more natural light. The delicate stained glass was designed by Mary Lowndes. Stained glass by Ward and Hughes (now mainly lost through war damage) was set into the west end.
In 1909, an elegant new organ case and in a new chamber graced the south aisle, supported on four slim clustered columns and enriched with Caröe’s favourite crocketted finials and sculpted figures. A west gallery was added. New vestries and a church hall were built.
With immense sensitivity Caröe inserted a Morning Chapel for Holy Communion at the northeast end next to the sanctuary. It is dedicated to the Holy Spirit and deeply contemplative in atmosphere with a low, almost grotto-like recess filled with delicate timber carving under a depressed arch. The gently restrained stained glass, stonework and carving are all to Caröe’s design as are the low bronze entrance gates and rails. Its ceiling is beautifully proportioned, lierne-vaulted in stone, with bosses carved with doves evoking the Holy Spirit.
It was in 1922 that the pre-existing sanctuary was embellished as a WW1 memorial, introducing a semi-circle of stone-carved seating with lacy carved canopies and light stained glass fenestration above them. In the centre is a white marble Crucifixion with intricately detailed crenellations on slim columns enclosing the war memorial below. The carving was carried out by Caröe’s favourite carver, Nathaniel Hitch. The floor is marbled, Cosmati-style.
Caröe retained a special connection with the church where his Memorial Service was held in 1938, as did his partner, Herbert Passmore, a congregant and office-holder till his death in 1966. But yet further changes were to evolve when in June 1975 the church became redundant.
It was leased, then purchased, by the Armenian community in1998 for their own worship. Its Victorian middle-of-the-road Anglican mannerisms were extinguished in favour of a ravishing refitting that retained and re-emphasised, in a wholly sympathetic manner, the best of past changes, heightening their impact by the addition of magnificent new furnishings and colour. Paintings, elaborate gilded ironwork and lighting were added together with features required by Armenian liturgy. The new congregation clearly responded positively to Caröe’s mingling of varied European styles already evident in the church. Architects for the scheme were Austin Winkley and Associates. An effective colour scheme was created with advice from Patrick Baty.
The paintings introduced by Armenian donors include the altarpiece by the famous Armenian architect,Vartkes Surenyants (1860-1921), a Virgin and Child by living Peruvian artist, Diana Mendoza, and a larger Virgin and Child set against a backdrop of mountains by Andrew Prior.
Some handsome external changes to lighting and ironwork heighten the impact of the building. An intricately carved Armenian Cross is carved into a large stone slab close to the entrance – a feature of Armenian churches.
The result is a triumph of architectural synthesis with a richly devotional atmosphere.
Acknowledgment – Viken Haladjian