‘This little gem of a church’

Googling Theodor Kern’s name yesterday, I came across a work by the artist that I’d never seen before. In his biography of Kern, Karl Heinz Ritschel mentions that, in the post-war period, the artist was often commissioned by leading British architects to decorate the new churches they were building. As Ritschel writes (my translation), ‘the breadth of his work resulted in these commissions, because Theodor Kern was able to paint the churches, create the stained glass windows, and even sketch the furniture, and could make sculptures from stone, artificial stone, alabaster, bronze and wood.’ Among the architects for whom Kern worked were some famous names, most notably Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, best known for iconic works like Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral, Battersea Power Station and the ubiquitous red telephone box.

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (via en.wikipedia.org)

In his catalogue of Kern’s public works, Ernst Ziegeleder includes under ‘sculptures’ (‘Plastiken’) a reference to a ‘life-size Madonna in wood, gilded’ that the artist created for a church in Bath in 1955. This is the sculpture that I came across in my online search. It is a gilded wooden statue of the Virgin that forms part of the reredos of the Lady Chapel in the Catholic church of Our Lady and St Alphege in Bath, for which Giles Gilbert Scott was the architect. Apparently Kern executed the commission from a design by Scott. This is the second gilded carving of Our Lady by Kern that I’ve come across: the other is in his home parish church of Our Lady Immaculate and St Andrew, here in Hitchin, and I included a photograph of it in this post on the anniversary of the artist’s death last year.

Our Lady and St Alphege, Bath

The church of Our Lady and St Alphege was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in an early Christian style based on the basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. Although begun in the 1920s, and originally a commission from the Benedictines of Downside Abbey, the church was not consecrated until 1954. Scott described St Alphege as ‘one of my favourite works’ and as ‘this little gem of a church’. From the photographs that I’ve seen online, the church is indeed austerely beautiful, and I’m disappointed that I didn’t know of its existence, and of Theodor Kern’s association with it, when we were visiting the Bath area last summer: though pandemic restrictions would probably have frustrated any attempt to visit the building. The Lady Chapel, and the reredos that Kern created for it, are particularly attractive:

Lady Chapel at St Alphage’s, with reredos by Theodor Kern

Close-up view of Kern’s gilded wooden statue of the Madonna and Child

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s original design for the reredos

Coincidentally, this blog gained a new follower just last week in Richard Barton, whose own website includes some helpful information about this very church. I emailed Richard yesterday and he replied almost immediately, informing me that he was in fact the former parish priest at St Alphege’s, and helpfully attaching the photographs which I’ve included above. Richard notes that, during his time as priest, ‘we used the Lady Chapel for weekday Mass and I remember commissioning someone to re-gild areas of the head that were flaking as well as the supporting angels.’ He also adds this little anecdote, which I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing:

I was in the church alone late one night veiling Kern’s statue in readiness for Passiontide. Standing on a chair positioned on the altar I lost my balance, fell to the floor and brought the heavy wooden chair crashing down on my head.  I still have a small indentation!

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