Corpus Christi in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, is a classical church, but dressed in Gothic clothes. This seeming architectural aberration is due to its erection at the instigation of Cardinal Edward Henry Manning, Archbishop of Westminster from 1865 to 1892. Like other former Anglicans who had converted from Canterbury to Rome in the wake of the Oxford Movement, Manning felt that English Catholicism should be brought out of its recusant era reserve and up to ultramontane speed with its Continental coevals, in outlook if not always in style. The Gothic spirit – if not the outward vesture – of Augustus Welby Pugin was out of favour. Newly-built Catholic churches had to follow post-Tridentine rules for church building. As Peter F. Anson notes in his book Fashions in Church Furnishings 1840-1940 (Faith Press 1940, Studio Vista 1965):
The interior of a Catholic church might still look Gothic but that was all: the substructure was Renaissance in spirit. To put it differently, it was a Classic body dressed in mock –medieval clothes.
Frederick Pownall was called in as architect. He is probably better known for his work at St Peter London Docks in Wapping (1865) a leading centre of the Oxford Movement’s second phase, with its English Gothic design and interior decoration of red and black stripy brickwork (think Butterfield on downers). At Corpus Christi he also used English Gothic. Building started 1873 and, due to difficulties of space, the floor had to be sunk to nearly three feet below street level, with the foundations sunk to a depth of ten feet. The church was opened in October 1874. For decades it was well-used by office and market workers. It also had literary associations. Ground-breaking lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall and her partner Lady Troubridge worshipped there for a time in the 1920s, it is mentioned in Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair and the well known priest-writer Monsignor Ronald Knox sometimes preached there. The poet Francis Thompson may have worshipped there, too, when he was living rough on the nearby Embankment whilst trying to get a foothold in literary London and conquer his drug addiction. But for many years the church had a cosy but rather neglected feel, rather like the house of a Victorian aunt who had seen better days.
However, recent work under the architect Anthony Delarue has transformed the church’s interior. The ceiling of the narthex is encrusted with gold mosaic tiles, and through it we pass into a church which, when the newly-installed second glass entrance door is opened, is flooded with light. The Caen stone high altar, picked-out in gold, has been retained. The shallow sanctuary is adorned with seven silver lamps, and the higher sections of its wall have been painted dark blue and powdered with gold stars.
To the left of the sanctuary is a chapel devoted to Our Lady of Walsingham. Gold-painted reliefs of the Stations of the Cross stand out against the redbrick walls. The result is splendour, but on a human scale. We are enveloped, not overwhelmed. Like its neighbour, St Paul, Covent Garden, Corpus Christi has links to the stage, being home to the Catholic Association of the Performing Arts.
Nicky Charlish, 2023