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St Mary, Great Warley

Great Warley

Great Warley lychgate (Charles Townshend and Eric Gill)

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  I came to Great Warley at the end of the 2013 Essex Historic Churches bike ride. It had rained pretty much all day, and a number of the churches I'd visited had not been participating. I resolved that next year I'd be back in Norfolk or Suffolk, and I was somewhat surprised to discover afterwards that five of the churches I had seen inside, on what I thought had been a thin day for good churches, were featured in the Simon Jenkins book England's Thousand Best Churches. But I thought that Great Warley would have been worth all the efforts of the day if it had been the only one I'd visited.

Great Warley sits in the suburbs of Brentwood. Its village church was once a typical small Essex church little different from dozens around here, but in 1902 the local millionaire and philanthropist Evelyn Heseltine paid for a spectacular rebuilding of the church in memory of his brother. The architect of the building was Charles Harrison Townsend, but the lavish interior was almost entirely the work of William Reynolds-Stephens. You step into what is arguably the best, and certainly one of the most famous, Art Nouveau moments in England. No expense was spared, and everything is of the highest quality. It is like being inside a dark jewel, the walls and furnishings glimmering with marble, aluminium, copper and brass. As your eyes become accustomed to the dim light the details emerge in shape, colour and light.

the great rood art nouveau: long in suffering
sanctuary roof Art Nouveau organ roof beam detail: roses
wall post detail: lilies peace Art Nouveau pulpit

Were it not for the furnishings, Great Warley would still be a place to come for anyone interested in 20th Century glass. Reynold-Stephens designed a lot of it himself, although only that in the apse remains. The rest has been replaced either by circumstance or necessity. The nave glass was the work of Heywood Summer and Louis Davis. This was mostly destroyed by blast damage from a bomb in 1940, the Louis Davis work in particular a grievous loss. Some of the Summer glass has been replaced in replica, but the other replacements, mostly figures of saints and no doubt worthy and impressive enough for a different church, disappoint. their post-war freshness is out of place here. A wide variety of workshops were used, which doesn't help when one of the features of the church is its unity, and the AK Nicholson glass, though competent enough in itself, stands out particularly as a jarring moment. However, J H Hogan's baptistery windows are in a vaguely Louis Davis style, and the William Morris memorial window to Evelyn Heseltine of 1931 reuses Burne-Jones designs to impressive effect. The best of the later glass is probably the 1970s glass in the lancets by Lawrence Lee and Janet Christopherson.

With the small caveat about the glass, everything is of a piece, and really rather wonderful. It was an exciting place to end the day. Buoyed up, I pushed my bike back through the lychgate, the work of Reynold-Stephens with decoration and lettering by Eric Gill, for the short journey to Shenfield station and the train home.

Simon Knott, May 2020

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Great Warley art nouveau Great Warley
replica glass Norfor Heseltine memorial window (Lawrence Lee and Janet Christopherson) St Michael and St George
war memorial altar high altar Christ in greeting
font Matthew, Mark, Luke and John war memorial chapel
Burne Jones: Devotion, Love, Humility angel baptistery window
the delights of the sons of men as musical instruments (Lawrence Lee and Janet Christopherson) the winter is past, the flowers appear on the earth (Lawrence Lee and Janet Christopherson) I understand by books the number of the years (Lawrence Lee and Janet Christopherson)
roses  (Lawrence Lee and Janet Christopherson) Burne Jones: Devotion replica angel Burne Jones: Humility trumpet  (Lawrence Lee and Janet Christopherson)
Burne-Jones: Love St John the Baptist St Michael St George St Hubert

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