St Lawrence’s, Brentford

Architects & Memorials at St Lawrence’s Church, Brentford by Matthew Saunders

from Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 2 (1981)

No building in Brentford is more expressive of the history of the town than St Lawrence’s Church.

St Lawrence's Church, New Brentford, about 1760

St Lawrence’s was erected over four centuries. The original section of the Church is the Great West Tower built in the 15th century, during the Wars of the Roses, in Kentish ragstone. It is the earliest structure in Brentford and remains virtually unaltered. The stair turret, door and blocked windows over it are the most obvious feature. The body of the Church, or nave, dates from 1764 and was designed in London stock brick by Thomas Hardwick (1725-98), of whom more later. The extraordinary wooden columns inside date from 1889. These tall, slim features, modelled on the Corinthian columns of the great Roman temples, are unique in the country. The only other building to possess wooden arcading on this scale is the former Roman Catholic cathedral at Clifton in Bristol which is closed, and may soon be demolished.

Let us return to Thomas Hardwick for a moment. He carried on the business of a mason and later an architect in New Brentford having come from Herefordshire and he was also responsible for the rebuilding of Hanwell Church, although this structure was demolished in 1841. He was the founder of one of the greatest architectural dynasties of the 19th century, especially renowned for his son Thomas Hardwick Junior (died 1829) who is buried, like his father, in St Lawrence’s, and his grandson Philip Hardwick (died 1870).

Thomas Junior won the Silver Medal for Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1769 at the age of 17, and was a student friend of Sir John Soane, the great architect of the Bank of England. His works include St. Marylebone Parish Church in the Marylebone Road and Christ Church, Cosway Street, Westminster, two glorious classical designs. He also designed the ‘Evidence Room at Syon House for the Duke of Northumberland. From 1810 he held an important position as Clerk of Works at Hampton Court and in 1815 his responsibilities were extended to Kew Palace and its gardens. It is especially fascinating that the man regarded by some as England’s greatest painter, Turner, used to be a pupil of Thomas’s until the latter told him to give up architecture in favour of painting. Perhaps Turner knew St. Lawrence’s.

Philip Hardwick, 1792-1870, was Thomas Junior’s youngest son. His greatest work was the celebrated Euston Arch of 1836-40, tragically destroyed in 1962. His enormous St Katherine’s Dock Warehouses of 1827-29 adjacent to the Tower of London have also been demolished but fortunately his City Club in Broad Street and Goldsmiths’ Hall in Foster Lane, both in the City, of London, survive. His son, in turn, Philip Charles, enjoyed a successful architectural career, his most famous work being Charterhouse School. St Lawrence’s still contains a moving Neo-Classical monument with two tall Greek urns to Thomas Hardwick Junior, who died on January 16th 1829 aged 78. The same memorial also records the sad death of Thomas John Hardwick, Philip’s eldest son who died tragically in 1836 at the age of 16.

The Church contains the vaults where all the Hardwicks were buried between 1725 and 1853. How poignant that in exactly the year that Philip was to design the Euston Arch, the most famous symbol of early railway architecture in the world, he also had to attend the heart-breaking funeral in St Lawrence’s of his eldest son.

St Lawrence’s also contains the burial plaque of John Redman who died in 1528. He was one of the principal architects to King Henry VIII and designed most of the first Hampton Court for Cardinal Wolsey, Lupton’s tower at Eton, and parts of St Margaret’s Westminster in the shadow of the Abbey. William Noy (died 1634), the lawyer who played an important role in reinforcing the stand of King Charles I during the crisis over Ship Money just before the Civil War broke out, is also buried In St Lawrence’s.

Between 1760 and 1773 the curate was John Horne Tooke, the radical politician who championed the American cause in the American War of Independence. He was in fact imprisoned for criminal libel against George III. It was while he was curate that the Church was rebuilt.

In the first year of the 19th century the Church provided the setting for occasional services attended by pupils of the school at Syon Park House – these included the poet Shelley and John Rennie, the great civil engineer, who designed the last London Bridge.

St Lawrence’s was an art gallery of the best of monumental sculpture. All but a few of the monuments have been removed for safekeeping but they will be returned. The single most important dates from 1805 and commemorates William Ewin. Its principal feature is two 3 foot high mourning female figures. It was carved by England’s Michelangelo, John Flaxman, on whom there was recently a major exhibition at the Royal Academy, a man in whose hands solid stone became as malleable as putty. The Ewin work came when he was at the height of his career, designed and carved when he was exactly 50, five years after he became a full member of the Royal Academy and five years before he became the Academy’s Professor of Sculpture.

The beautiful tomb to John Middleton and his wife of 1628, depicting them kneeling facing each other, has been removed for safekeeping to the Museum of London. There are several monuments in the chancel to the Clitherow family, who acquired Boston Manor in the 1670s. The single oldest piece of sculpture is of the 14th century, a coat of arms of the Berkeley family.

The people of Brentford have every right to be proud of this building. Architecturally it contains the hallmarks of all the great ages of Church design, the medieval (the tower), the Georgian (the nave) and the Victorian (the unique arcading). In its five centuries it has had many associations with the great – Redman, the Hardwicks, Shelley, Rennie, Tooke and Turner. It contains the ashes of several. It contained, and will contain again, a sculpture by John Flaxman which any American collector would give his right arm for.

We must preserve this building but also bring it back to life again, to make it in every sense “living history.”

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