The highly decorated East Wall is one of the glories of St Michael’s. The magnificent window by Evie Hone (1954) replaces an earlier window blown out by blast from a flying bomb in 1944. The window is flanked by four figures of saints, set in decorative niches. The reredos, with its coloured and gilded chequer board motif presents a striking backdrop to the altar.
Above the reredos, a carved and gilded cornice, rich with grapes and vine leaves, stretches the width of the sanctuary. Below this cornice is oak panelling; above it the entire wall is covered with coloured stencil patterning. Chief among the repeating elements is a black letter M with a coronet floating above it. Pineapples, fleurs de lys and the letter-group IHC are among the other features in this decoration.
This part of the church was built in 1880, when architect G E Street extended St Michael’s by one bay – but this decoration is not by Street. In 1903 another notable Gothic Revival architect, Temple Moore, was responsible for the embellishment, indeed recreation, of the East Wall.
In 2010 the whole of this decorative scheme was in a poor state, with flaking paint, and such a layer of dirt that the whole effect was gloomy and the patterns scarcely discernible. Advised that cleaning and conservation by specialists would cost £25,000, St Michael’s applied for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The eventual outcome was receipt of a grant for £49,900 one half of which was to restore the wall, the other money being for a programme of education about the wall, and for all the materials and aids appropriate to such a programme.
The restoration work was successfully completed, with the beautiful outcome that we now enjoy. The work was done as a part of the overall project of redecoration and reordering in the first four months of 2011. Since that time a programme of opening the church for visitors, with a knowledgeable guide on hand, has been implemented. We also welcome group visits.
Another major benefit springing from the Heritage Lottery project is that we now have two beautiful, fully illustrated, guidebooks. One of these, East Wall, tells the whole story of the East Wall: its history, its interpretation, the restoration project. The other, Guidebook, is a history and guide for the church overall.
An exciting discovery from the research for the writing of these volumes was that the extension of the church by one bay in 1880 was by the famous architect, G E Street, and not, as had been widely promulgated, by a C H Mileham. It also became clear that the iconography of the wall reflects the Oxford Movement, a powerful force in the Church of England in the latter part of the nineteenth century, with a theology which looked back to the days of the undivided church – the time before the split between Roman and Orthodox churches. Thus, of the four saints set in our wall, two are from the Latin Doctors of the Church (Augustine and Jerome) and two are Greek Doctors (Athanasius and Chrysostom).
The few pictures shown here convey the artistry and the spirit of the East Wall. The only way to appreciate and understand it properly is to go and visit the church, talk with the guides and collect your copies of the two guidebooks, available at no charge. To make a personal visit, or organise a group visit, contact the office.