Historic Churches 2020

BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON HISTORIC CHURCHES 27 TH ANNUAL EDITION 27 ST PHILIP’S CHAPEL, CAERDEON Rachel Morley H IDING IN the mountains between Barmouth and Bontddu is a church of extraordinary individuality and importance. St Philip’s Chapel, Caerdeon is hard to define. It has been described as rustic Mediterranean, Alpine, of French Basque influence or like an Italian farm building. In 1863 The Ecclesiologist wasn’t complimentary about it, describing it as ‘something between a large lodge gate and a lady’s rustic dairy’. Neither was The Ecclesiologist very complimentary about its architect, the Reverend John Louis Petit (1801–68), labelling him ‘a clever amateur’. The magazine’s disdain for Petit presumably stemmed from his openness to architectural ideas from a range of sources, all recorded in his book Remarks on Church Architecture (1841), which put him at odds with advocates of strict Gothic Revival principles. While not a household name like his contemporary John Ruskin, Petit was one of the leading architectural writers of his age and one of the few who resisted the ‘copy Gothic’ that was so fashionable in the 19th century. From the 1840s when destructive restoration was at its peak, he was a pioneer in arguing for the preservation of ancient churches, and later proposed original, modern designs for churches. In addition to architecture, Petit was an accomplished topographical watercolourist. He painted in a style foreshadowing Impressionism and exhibited his work widely in support of his architectural arguments. His work remained hidden for 150 years after his death, in the attic of a descendant. After his great-niece died, the entire hoard was dumped at auction during the 1980s and 1990s and his works are now widely dispersed in private collections, but fortunately The National Library of Wales holds the largest public collection of Petit’s artwork. Petit painted St Philip’s throughout its construction, so we have an invaluable record of its building process. His artistic talents certainly contributed to the great success of St Philip’s: despite its continental influences, it is in harmony with its North Wales landscape. Petit achieved this through the use of local materials and building traditions. Even The Ecclesiologist had to admit that it has ‘picturesque appropriateness’. The rusty, rubble-slate construction includes a lean-to loggia with stone benches and pairs of round-headed, Romanesque windows. A unique bellcote- cum-chimney holds four bells that could be rung by a large wheel, found in a shelter on the north side of the church. For many years these were rung by Bill Tilman mountaineer and explorer, who scaled Mount Everest twice in the 1930s. Inside, St Philip’s is quite simple. The walls are white-washed and bare. The pews are contemporary with the construction and are plain and not fixed. Decoration is saved for the sanctuary, which has a Byzantine feel, with mosaics and marbles. The east window, a Crucifixion by Kempe, was inserted in 1892. St Philip’s is Petit’s only surviving building. It is utterly unique. In 2018, four years after it had closed, with its future hanging in the balance, Cadw reassessed the church and upgraded its status to Grade I. One of the reasons given was that the building’s ‘special architectural interest as a highly unusual and distinctive church for its period, boldly original in its style and relationship with its landscape… It gives clear expression to [the architect’s] views, which provided a counterweight to the prevailing orthodoxies of the Gothic Revival.” Another justification was that “the building is also of historic interest for its controversial role in Welsh ecclesiastical history”. This was because in the 1860s St Philip’s rocked the Anglican church. The Bishop of Bangor issued a licence stating that, as the church was a private chapel for The Reverend WE Jelf, Censor of Christ College, Oxford, services and sermons should be delivered only in the English language. This was challenged by the Rector of Llanaber in whose parish it lay, as there was a legal obligation to One of the Reverend John Louis Petit’s watercolours showing the construction of St Philips set against the romanticised landscape (Image courtesy of The Rev Petit Society) The entrance and loggia today (Photo: Andy Marshall)