Chapel of the Month – May 2015

The Dutch Church in the City of London

The site, in Austin Friars, is that of the church of the Pre-Reformation Augustinian Friars. Its nave was retained at the Reformation and in 1550 was given for worship to London’s large Dutch Protestant community. The congregation was allowed to use “their own rites and ceremonies” by the ardently protestant Edward VI. Dutch presence in the City was much welcomed. “I wish that we could collect together such valuable persons in this kingdom; it would be a means of securing its prosperity”, opined Hugh Latimer, Edward’s adviser.

Dutch Church  - ExteriorThe Dutch Church thence became the oldest Nonconformist church in England, even preceding the founding of Protestant churches in Holland. But this building was not to last, being badly damaged by fire in the 1860s and completely destroyed in 1940 during the Blitz. The present Dutch Church, designed by architect Arthur Bailey (1903-79) , was reopened in 1954 by the young Princess Irene of the Netherlands.

Externally it is clad in Portland stone, applied over a system of concrete boxframes that step up in a pattern of cubes, rectangles and geometric forms, all with restrained classicising detail. At the apex is a slim bellcote and weathervane with ball finials. Tall windows and doorways emphasise the verticals.

Dutch Church  - East EndInside, the east end – with its lofty light oak tester presiding over the minister’s bench – makes a unequivocal statement about the nature of Dutch Protestantism, emphasising the Supremacy of the Word, insisting on restrained adornment, unswervingly asserting distinct beliefs. The main body of the church is one large space ; no aisles; a shallowly coffered roof curving over.

The aqua colour of the coffering is reflected in the subtly painted banisters of the main staircase. Pilaster strips model the walls and reinforce allusions to the classical style.

Dutch Church 2Gentle humour is unexpectedly evidenced in the metal spiral stair against the north wall. This ascends to the organ where decorative stair risers and decorative gold balls (again!) playfully connect themes from musical notation and contemporary furniture.

Glance around and other themes emerge – notably those of Kin and Kingship, powerfully expressed in some of the City’s most ravishing C20 stained glass. On the main stair is Max Nauta’s (1896-1957) stained glass commemoration of the Glorious Revolution of 1689, when the Catholic James II of England was defeated and succeeded by his Protestant daughter, Mary II, and her Dutch husband and cousin, William III.

Dutch Church  - Glorious Revolution 2Both are depicted in sparkling stained glass that has a jewel-like, three dimensional quality, owing to Nauta’s use of small pieces of differently coloured glass as a substrate before painting. The huge west window is Nauta’s work also, with vivid royal portraiture, saints and heraldry.

There are handsome, traditional-style brass chandeliers and wall candelabra. On the south wall is a large tapestry depicting the ‘Tree of Life’ by Dutch artist Hans van Norden (b. 1915). It is a remarkable work, recombining traditional Biblical imagery with modernist/ classicising forms in pastel, not pale, colours.

Dutch Church  - Tree of LifeThe depiction of the stairway to heaven references the stair to the organ against the wall opposite.

The church houses an important library, paintings and historic documents of great interest. It has a lively programme of services, social events and activities and is clearly well integrated into London’s City life. The relationship with the House of Orange also remains a strong one. Former Queen, Princess Beatrix, made a visit on April 24th 2015.

This article was kindly written and illustrated by Council member Dr Jennifer Freeman.

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