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  • Writer's picturePeter Berthoud

Less is More in Pimlico

The church of St James the Less stands on Vauxhall Bridge Road, just a short distance from Pimlico Tube.

This month it will celebrate its 150th anniversary, the publicity surrounding this milestone may help to bring it some well-deserved and much needed attention.

Ask any London buff to name a major work by G.E. Street or G.F Watts and I'll bet within moments you will get the reply "The Royal Courts of Justice and Postman's Park". Yet both men share this other major example of their work in central London, but it is one that rarely features in the guidebooks and is visited very rarely.

St James the Less
St James the Less

The Grade I listed church was built between 1858-61 as a tribute to Dr James Monk, by his daughters. The land, in what was then one of the poorest areas of Westminster, had been donated by Westminster Abbey. It was referred to at the time as a 'lily among weeds' and also 'one of the most remarkable and beautiful of modern Gothic churches'.

St James the Less Church, Vauxhall Bridge Road
St James the Less Church, Vauxhall Bridge Road

The architect was George Edmund Street. This was his first church in London and he really went to town on the detailing. The interior is a heady mix of polychromatic brickwork, decorative ironwork, ornate stone carving, stained glass and marble columns all set beneath a painted ceiling. It is like walking into a jewel box. The exterior is treated with the same attention to detail. The distinctive campanile style tower is set with semi-precious stones and even the iron railings are rendered as works of art. More details on the architecture from Victorian Web.

But the most distinctive decoration in the church is this work by artist George Frederick Watts.

St James the Less interior decoration by George Frederick Watts
St James the Less interior decoration by George Frederick Watts

The glowing image above chancel arch is often referred to (even by Pevsner) as a wall-painting or as a fresco but in fact it is a mosaic. G.F. Watts did complete the work, The Saviour in Glory or The Doom, as a mural in 1861. It was his very last mural. However the mural quickly deteriorated and it was replaced with a Venetian glass mosaic to the original design, under Watts' supervision, in the 1880s.

If you have not visited the church, before the upcoming celebratory weekend might be an ideal opportunity to do so. On Sunday, 31 July 2011, it will be 150 years to the day since the consecration of St James the Less Church in 1861. On Saturday 30th, the church is holding a community fete. There will be a variety of different things going on, including food and drink, musical entertainment and children's activities. On the Sunday there will be a celebratory service, followed by yet more food, drinks and entertainment.

If you can't make the weekend celebration, the church is open to visitors everyday between 9am and 1pm, though you may have to ring the bell at the church office.

The church, whilst still very beautiful, is beginning to show its age. A long backlog of repairs and cleaning work is required to return it to full glory. The total cost of restoration and cleaning is estimated at £438,000 including £16,000 just to clean and conserve the Watts mosaic. In the grand scheme of things this is not a fortune to spend on a Grade I listed masterpiece. If you would like to get involved in the church's fund-raising do contact them.


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