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Where to find Ss. Agnes & Pancras

 

   

 

Saint Agnes and Saint Pancras,
Toxteth Park

Brief history and architectural notes.  Click here for Church tour.

 

 

 

 

 


St. Agnes’ Church, Toxteth Park, is justly renowned as one of the great Victorian Churches of the Liverpool Diocese.   It was built at the expense of Douglas Horsfall, a member of a family notable for participation in local affairs (they included two Lord Mayors of Liverpool,  one of whom was an MP) and for ecclesiastical patronage. Christ Church, Everton and Christ Church, Linnet Lane were built at the expense of the Horsfall family, and, in furthering his Tractarian ideals in strongly Protestant Liverpool,  Robert Horsfall built St. Margaret’s, Princes Road. Douglas Horsfall was Robert’s second son and, like him, was a stockbroker and high churchman.   He was the founder of St. Chad’s Theological College, Durham, who remain the patrons of St. Agnes’, and in Liverpool he also built the Chapel of Ease of St. Pancras, Lidderdale Road,  St. Faith’s, Crosby, and acquired the advowsons of St. Catherine’s,  Abercromby Square and St. Paul’s,  St. Paul’s Square.  Proceeds from the ultimate sale of the latter church were used to build St. Paul’s,  Stoneycroft.

 

Discerning in their choice of architects, the Horsfalls may be compared with the Heywards of Manchester or the Wagners of Brighton as noteworthy ecclesiastical patrons.  St. Agnes’ was designed in 1882 and consecrated on St. Agnes’ Day 21st January 1885.

 

The architect was John Loughborough Pearson,  the creator of Truro Cathedral,  upon which he was working when he was perfecting the design of St. Agnes’. Anyone visiting the church who has seen Truro Cathedral would be struck immediately by the similarities between the two buildings.  Among leading exponents of refined and sensitive late Victorian Gothic Pearson was exceptional in favouring a 13th century lancet style, unlike the later mediaeval modes of Bodley,  Bentley,  Douglas or Paley and Austin.   In “Church Builders of the 19th Century”, Canon Basil Clarke wrote that Pearson Churches are almost all instantly recognisable.  If you know one you know them all.   That is not to say that they are all alike: each one has something peculiar to itself.  But similar features are to be seen in all of them,  features which are undoubtedly 13th century, but which in their use and disposition are simply unique to Pearson.  His churches are unmistakably late 19th century in spite of their medievalism.  They remind travellers of churches in France;  but they are in fact not like any others.   They are English,  in spite of certain features borrowed from abroad and they are planned according to the good taste,  common sense and deep ecclesiastical knowledge of one man.

 

The style selected for the church was that simple form of Gothic known as early English or Lancet, a style which first reached its full development in this country in the 13th century.   Six hundred years later,  during the Gothic revival,  the style flourished again.

 

The exterior is of red pressed brick with everything typical of the architect: bold and dignified vertical massing, the unbroken roof line and two west porches.   Both inside and out St. Agnes’ church is an almost perfect example of Early English style and the hard red brick chosen for the exterior is in surprising contrast with the interior, which glows with mellow Bath stone, used alike for both piers and vaulting.   The interior was cleaned in 1985, and it is no understatement to say that the effect on the visitor is breathtaking.  The church is often referred to as a "mini cathedral."

 

The nave is of four bays, crowned with stone quadripartite vaulting,  and similar vaulting is found in the aisles.  There are two transepts,  one at each end of the nave,  and above the narthex at the west end of the church is a stone gallery,  above which rises the great west window filled with colourful glass.  Below the high clerestory windows may be seen a continuous triforium, a very narrow gallery, which forms a passageway right round the church at that level.   Every single moulding bears Pearson’s personal stamp but his hand is above all apparent in the cool clear logic of the whole. It is virtually classical in its concept of rational perfection, and, as elsewhere, Pearson may have used the golden section to govern the proportions.

 

The fine and lofty proportions of the nave culminate in the aspidal  east end of the church.   The tall and complex reredos was carved by Nathanel Hitch, who also carved that of Truro Cathedral.   It is a fine work of its type and was restored in 1985,   Between the triforium and the upper apse windows there is a number of sculpted panels,  depicting angels and modelled on Van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Lamb”,  designed by Pearson. They are of exceptionally fine workmanship.

 

To the south of the choir is the Lady Chapel, which contains an interesting wooden music gallery,  and which is an architectural entity in its own right.  The  Lady Chapel has its own aisles,  one of which leads into the ambulatory running behind the High Altar. The entrance is closed by a splendid set of wrought iron gates,  designed by G.F. Bodley and erected in July 1903.   In April 1904  the reredos to the Lady Altar,  also designed by Bodley,  was erected.   There is further spatial delight north of the chancel, where the organ is supported by a forest of elegant black Purbeck marble columns.

 

The church contains a number of very interesting carvings in the mediaeval manner, and many visitors like to tour the church  looking for these unexpected little grotesques that peep out at one in angles and corners of the building.

 

In conclusion let us listen to the words of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner and once more to those of Canon Basil Clarke.   Pevsner wrote,  “St. Agnes’ is one of the three most thrilling Victorian churches in the country,  As you enter, the first impression is of soaring height,  the second of vaults throughout.  The climax is the east, where the subsidiary elements are gathered. Standing in the church you will see at once the wonderful variety of vistas.   Yet every element is of the same exquisite nobility.”  Canon Clarke has the last word:  “There were never churches quite like this before, nor will there ever be again. We have neither the money nor the desire to build grandly to the glory of God; indeed the very idea is strange to some modern churchmen whose thoughts are mostly of the value of sites, and Pearson’s intention to design ‘what will bring people soonest to their knees’ is not appreciated by those who would have us kneel as little as possible.”

 

The following article was written by Douglas Horsfall and published in the Parish Magazine

“The New Corbels”

From the St Agnes’ Parish Magazine August 1912:

THE NEW CORBELS – Those of our new readers who are interested in the question of architectural detail may perhaps remember that in September 1909 a Vestry Meeting was held at which a resolution was unanimously passed, approving the proposed substitution of “grotesques” for some of the corbels in the transepts. These ornaments are quite characteristic of that period of architectural art of which the late Mr Pearson RA has given us so fine an example in St Agnes’s Church. It is interesting to know that although he professed himself entirely unequal to the designing thereof, he entirely approved this quaint expression of mediaeval art, specimens of which have survived in many of our Cathedrals. In the Font transept, in its correct position, that is to say as near the West door as it could be conveniently placed, is a fine carving of a Fish, one of the earliest symbols of Christianity. On the opposite wall, the centre corbel has given place to a simple Latin Cross with a sweet little Cherub’s Head complementary to it on the other side, whilst a short distance on the other side is a superbly carved representation of the Devil, grovelling at the mere proximity of the symbol of our salvation.

In the South-West transept the corner corbel on the East wall has been replaced by a quaintly humorous Monkish Face , with one eye closed, and the other very wide open, looking down upon the young people in the seats beneath. (The placing of this “reminder”  in this particular position was not accidental and may possibly serve its purpose). Further along is a genuine grotesque, a weird beast in pursuit of Some Animal of which the hindquarters alone are visible as it disappears safely into the solidity of the wall, a suggestion maybe that sanctuary is ever to be found within the walls of the church. (It is said to be the tail of my mother’s little dog, with the head appearing out of the wall the other side of the nave.)

On the other side is the representation of an Ark, copied upon the familiar lines of childhood’s plaything, with a dove emerging from it, whilst around it circles “that Leviathan”, of which the head alone is to be seen at one end of the ark whilst the disappearing tail is in evidence at the other.

In the Lady Chapel above the arch over the communicants’ rail is another beautiful Cherub with extended wings, whilst at the end nearest the choir boys (ahem) is another wakeful and watchful eye. Into all these ornaments one likes, if possible, to read a meaning or a lesson, and the presence of that eye may point to a moral even if it does not tell a tale. Opposite the Cherub are useful reminders of our mortality, a Skull and a Skeleton. The latter is perhaps the cleverest piece of work that Mr Thompson has done for us, and though to some it may perhaps seem too gruesome and realistic, it has been thoughtfully placed in a position where none need be disturbed by its presence, while its elimination altogether from the Building, one cannot but feel, would have been regrettable. For some reason, within the Sanctuary but almost out of sight, in the corner, behind one of the great piers, lurks a cynical little Imp: there he is, hardly noticeable, but a silent witness that in this world, even in the Holy of Holies, perfection is not to be found, and the beauty of holiness is marred by an unsuspected blot.

Close to the organ is a Great Ear, an undemonstrative though an ever open and receptive listener to the talent in its vicinity. A grotesque of a Choir Boy’s Face and a Dog’s Head complete the series, with the exception of one other, which must be sought for by anyone who cares to look for it: of no present interest, its permissibility may be apparent one hundred years hence, when those who are now associated with St Agnes’s are dust and ashes, buried and forgotten.

                                                                                                          H.D.H.


 


 

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