What came to be known informally (at least between Gareth and me) as 'The Church Job' is another collaboration that came out of the Bodging Project. On the recommendation of Heal’s Design Director Carmel Allen (now Creative Director at LINLEY), Gareth Neal and I were introduced to Monsignor Jim Curry, the parish priest at Our Lady of Victories church in Kensington, who was looking for a new design for the Sanctuary of his church. At our first meeting with him, Monsignor Curry explained that the Sanctuary had gone through several partial re-orderings since the 1970s, and following the major refurbishment between 2010 and 2015 it had become apparent that the reconfigured space lacked visual cohesion; it was now time to address the disparate collection of ecclesiastical furniture currently in place.
Initial meetings went well, and Gareth and I were jointly awarded the commission to design the new furnishings. These include an Ambo (pulpit) and Tabernacle pedestal, along with ceremonial candle holders and all the necessary furniture including principal chairs, choir benches, and credence tables. The designs were to take consideration of the new Reredos, which had recently been completed by the artist Stephen Foster, and is central to the vision for the new Sanctuary.
From there began an amazing journey following in the footsteps of a traditional commission for the improvement of this beautiful parish church. Over the last two years we have worked on the creation of fifteen original pieces, collaborating with the UK’s leading craftsmen in wood, brass, and stone.
This unique opportunity has involved in-depth historical research and the result, we hope, is a carefully considered solution to the needs of church furnishings for a modern church and contemporary congregation.
The three pre-eminent items within any Sanctuary are the the Ambo (or pulpit), the Tabernacle containing the Holy Sacrament, and the Altar. From our early briefings, Monsignor Curry explained to us the religious and liturgical significance of each of these. Adrian Gilbert Scott had never provided Our Lady of Victories with an Ambo; the old brass Tabernacle (rescued from the Victorian church during the Blitz) was sitting on an out-dated wooden pedestal; and the Altar, which had been modified (and lowered) at various points, needed raising and improving.
We took the view that these significant items, including a new Pedestal for the Tabernacle, should be made in stone as a symbol of permanence.
Initially we made very many scale models and drawings, followed by the construction of a full-size plywood Ambo and Pedestal, which were installed in the church to allow everyone to get a feel for the functionality and the look of the new designs. With the designs finalised, we visited the ancient stone quarries of Lincolnshire to find a supplier able to supply blocks of ‘Ancaster Hard White’ in the sizes needed. We met and discussed the work with several masons, before deciding on Stone Art in Gloucestershire - a team led by master-mason Sebastien David.
In our early talks with Monsignor Curry we put forward the idea that instead of making the wooden furniture large, grand, and heavy, we should make it modest, humble, and light. In the background was our shared love of simple 'bodged' (i.e. greenwood) furniture which had been forged from several projects arising from Bodging Milano in 2010, and then developing this classic English vernacular.
The choice of timber proved difficult, with many views being expressed, however we were keen to use home-grown timber, For a long time, impressed by its ‘green’ credentials, we pushed the idea of using English Ash from Herefordshire. However, due to the size of the Sanctuary it was felt that the designs would be lost and that a deeper colour was required to stand out within this large space, In the end we settled on English Oak from a managed plantation in Suffolk.This was given an ebonized finish with the application of a black stain made from vinegar and rusty nails, which reacts with the natural tannin in the Oak. We felt that this itself had religious significance - referencing the Crucifixion - and at the same time seeming a wonderful solution to help the pieces stand out, and to give them a richness and authority.
The Warwickshire workshop of Sitting Firm Chairmakers was our choice for the making of all the wooden furniture. Having worked with them previously, we both knew that they have the craft skills, the equipment, and the facilities for steam-bending, adzing, and turning, that are needed for this type of furniture.
The final part of the brief was to design a pair of tall ceremonial candlesticks to stand either side of the Tabernacle steps, plus some smaller for use on the Altar. Gareth and I developed a geometrical design that has a family resemblance to the stone Pedestal. Although normally only a pair of candles is used on the Altar, for special occasions more are needed - known as the 'Big Six' Several scale models were made and then a prototype in wood, before the design was approved. At this point we decided to have the final candlesticks cast in solid brass.
Many months were spent looking for a foundry capable of producing these pieces to the required standard, Eventually, after a site visit to the very impressive FSE Foundry in Essex, we knew we had found the right craftsmen for the job.
The new Sanctuary was formally opened at a celebration concert which took place during London Design Festival 2017.