For many people the most striking and beautiful window in the parish church of St Nicholas, Chiswick, is the one on the north wall of the Chancel, with glowing colours. It was designed by the distinguished Victorian architect William Burges, and is one of only three windows that pre-date the rebuilding of the entire church in the 1880s.
A design for a window at St Nicholas, Chiswick was commis-sioned from William Burges by the Rev John Mason Neale, the well-known hymn writer, and his sister, in memory of their parents the Rev Cornelius Neale and Susanna his wife. They are buried in the churchyard just opposite the west door of the tower. Neale probably already knew Burges as he was a fellow member of the Ecclesiological Society, the group founded by Neale to advance his belief that Gothic was the ideal style of church architecture, and to bring back the use of music, incense and colour in churches.
Burges visited the church to measure the space for the window in 1860, and made pencil sketches of the interior and exterior of the south wall of the chancel in his notebook. This was where he planned to install the new window, in place of an existing round topped window. His sketch of the interior is of interest in that it shows the Chaloner Monument was then in the chancel in a similar position to where it now is in the Lady Chapel.
In the same note book is a sketch of what was apparently his first design for the left-hand light of the window, very similar to that which was installed. This shows Christ on the cross committing his mother to the care of St John (was there an echo here for John Neale of how his father had died young leaving him as the only son to take care of his mother?). In the right-hand light the angel assuring the centurion Cornelius that his prayer has been answered (see Acts, chapter 10) – Neale’s father’s name was Cornelius. The window was installed in 1860-61, not long after the death of Neale’s widowed mother.
By the time of Burges’s visit the church was falling into disrepair, and Burges drew up plans in 1861 for rebuilding the chancel in 13th century style, but only the Neale memorial window on the south wall and a similarly shaped window on the north wall were built. Some repairs were carried out in the mid-1860s, including the replacement of the fine medieval hammer beam roof by a cheaper pine version, but apparently not enough to halt the deterioration.
By 1880 it had been decided that only complete rebuilding would solve the problems of the deteriorating building and its various extensions added during the 18th and early 19th century. Perhaps more important than the state of repair though was that the church was no longer regarded as suitable for worship. With the development of ideas about the importance of the Eucharist, a more elaborate chancel and altar area was needed, ideas introduced by The Oxford Movement.
The eminent architect John Loughborough Pearson was asked to design the new church, which was built in 1882-1884. The work was largely paid for by Henry Smith, one of the churchwardens, and a member of the Smith family of Fuller, Smith and Turner’s Brewery. In addition a donation of £1,000 was received from the Duke of Devonshire for the work on the chancel.
The window by Burges was incorporated into the new chancel, but on the north side. Pearson extended the window slightly with extra panels of stained glass at the top and bottom to accommodate the increased height of his new chancel. A similarly shaped window was added beside it in memory of Lord Frederick Cavendish, second son of the 7th Duke of Devonshire, who was assassinated at Phoenix Park, Dublin in 1882, and on the south side in the position of Burges’ original window was a new one presented by the widow of Sir Robert Smart in memory of her husband, and her brother Commander Benjamin Sharpe. Sadly, this window was destroyed by enemy action during the Second World War. It is very fortunate that Pearson decided to re-arrange the windows in the chancel and move the Burges window to the north wall since otherwise it would not have survived the War.
Sources and Acknowledgements
William Burges Notebook Number 29 in the RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Chiswick Parish Magazines. The authors would like to thank the members of the congregation at St Nicholas Church who raised the money to purchase the photographs from the Notebook.
Peter Hammond is the Treasurer of this Society, and Carolyn is the Editor of the Society’s Journal; together they have written Chiswick (1994), Chiswick Then and Now (2003) and Chiswick Through Time (2010)