Words Kirk Truman
Photography Marcus Ginns
“London is rarely gifted a new venue; rarely is that venue dedicated to its own neighbourhood and rarely is £2m lavished on its restoration. The newly renovated Fitzrovia Chapel is dedicated to the people of Fitzrovia.”
Quietly, in the harsh January snow some 2 years ago I spied through a gap in the hoarding that once surrounded the former site of The Middlesex Hospital. What greeted me was the lonely image of a chapel standing carefully on a concrete pillar above a blanket of snow. Like the many residents and transient Fitzrovians in our region I have wondered and questioned endlessly the story and future of the chapel that lies on the former Middlesex Hospital site.
Following the closure of The Middlesex Hospital in 2005, until now the future of the grade II* listed chapel looked uncertain. With the completion of Fitzroy Place by property developer Exemplar now approaching, the chapel has been incorporated into the design of the structure. Having benefited from £2m spent in restoring and preserving the chapel, a charitable organisation has been created to ensure a strong community-based future for its legacy.
Having been given a tour of the site last month I can now report that the results are stunning. Whereas at one time the chapel sat hidden away from the public, and was only regularly accessed by visitors to the hospital and its staff, the chapel will from next year take pride of place in a new London square and be accessible to all Fitzrovians.
Whereas once the chapel was jammed down a hospital corridor, it will now be celebrated, for the first time free to be enjoyed by the community rather than to the few who knew it as a hidden gem.
And what a time for the wraps to come off, with the £2m spent on the chapel’s restoration ensuring that it is in the best condition of its near 100-year history, with gleaming new gold leaf and a meticulous attention to detail throughout. The Exemplar-led development team has also made the important gesture of retaining `The Middlesex Hospital’ signage on the Nassau Street façade, even though the developers had secured planning consent to replace this.
The chapel was built and designed by one of the greatest Victorian architects, John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897), and was originally developed as a memorial to Major Ross (MP), former Chairman of the Board of Governors. Having been awarded the RIBA gold medal in 1880, Pearson worked on some of Britain’s finest building’s including Truro Cathedral, Bristol Cathedral and Westminster Hall.
Also designing St Augustine’s Church in Kilburn, he went on to add the eastern and western porches to St Margaret’s Church within the grounds of Westminster Abbey, later being buried there after his death in 1897. With work having begun in 1891, after Pearson’s death the chapel was completed by his architect son, Frank.
Two great surgeons of The Middlesex Hospital, Lord Webb Johnson and Sir John Bland Sutton were appointed as benefactors towards the decoration. Built in red brick, decorative marble and mosaics were later added. Structurally completed in the mid-1920s, the chapel was not formally opened until 1929 after much of The Middlesex Hospital was demolished and rebuilt around it.
Inside this long hidden chapel the attention to detail is spellbinding. The chapel has a simple rectangular nave with a small ante-chapel at the west end. The ante-chapel is also lined with memorial tablets of white marble with incised inscriptions, which have been restored and retained in a sensitive gesture to important hospital memories. These provide an invaluable record of the chapel’s past.
In a final acknowledgement of the powerful history of the chapel a plaque dedicated to its past will be added prominently in its entrance hall. Retaining the inscriptions, the Nassau Street façade and the plaque are important moves to ensure that the chapel is dedicated not only to Fitzrovians but to all the others who have benefited from it and contributed to it over the years.
Seventeen different marbles are used, such as rare green Irish bog marble fronting the organ gallery. Inspired by St Mark’s in Venice, the mosaics are Italian having been produced with imported materials. Windows in the Baptistery depict four soldier saints: Joan of Arc, George, Alban and Martin forming a memorial to the dead of WWI with other windows commemorating those who died in WWII. The window directly opposite the baptistery is a memorial to Lord Webb Johnson, governor of the hospital and dean of its medical school, dedicated by the Bishop of London in 1964. The font is carved from a solid block of green marble and is copied from the font in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Newly restored, the regilded lettering is a Greek palindrome which translates as “Wash away my sin and not only my face”.
Established with the support of local ward councillors, the new foundation will take over the running of the chapel within the Fitzroy Place development. Never having been officially named or consecrated, reflecting its key role in a resurgent Fitzrovia, the chapel shall from here on be referred to as the Fitzrovia Chapel. Having always welcomed people from all walks of life, the Fitzrovia Chapel will continue this tradition, without discriminating on grounds of philosophy, sexuality or belief, in a renewed celebration of Fitzrovia’s diversity in the 21st century. This foundation will solemnly have the duty to conserve the fabric and contents of the chapel, with the new venue opening to the public in summer 2015.
The trust has been created for the benefit of the residents, communities, voluntary organisations and visitors to the Fitzrovia area. The initial trustees of the trust are Edward Turner, chairman of Fitzrovia Community Centre and local resident for 19 years; architect and founding member of the Fitzrovia West Neighbourhood Forum, Wendy Shillam; fellow Fitzrovian, Claire-Louise John, an experienced arts administrator and events organiser, and Kim Southgate, the development’s Estate Director.
The objectives of the charity include providing access to the public for quiet contemplation as well as using the chapel for lectures, exhibitions, performances and celebrations of life events, such as weddings and baby namings. Seating 50 people comfortably, the chapel will also be used for chamber performances of music, song and speech.
Edward Turner of the Fitzrovia Chapel Foundation says: “London is rarely gifted a new venue; rarely is that venue dedicated to its own neighbourhood and rarely is £2m lavished on its restoration. The newly renovated Fitzrovia Chapel is dedicated to the people of Fitzrovia – traditionally a home to society’s experimenters and artists. The trustees will seek to preserve this proud tradition, welcoming all to celebrate and contemplate in their own way. We will be recruiting additional trustees in the coming months, and we look forward to hearing the local community’s ideas for future uses for the Fitzrovia Chapel. We are also very keen to hear from potential volunteers to help with events, ideas and the running of this exquisite space for Fitzrovia.”
Today the newly restored chapel externally and internally glows better than ever with the £2m put into the project visible throughout the entire structure from the brickwork to the gold ceilings which are truly magnificent. The focus in creating this new trust has been to establish a balance between what is right for the chapel and the local community, while sensitively reflecting its past and continuing its founding ethos.