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Letters from New Zealand 1857-1911


page 343


Timaru, September 2nd, 1909.

My dear St. John,

An eventful year, for we have completed St. Mary's Church. It was most satisfactory to note the personal interest taken in it by all engaged on the work. Contractor, masons, carpenters, all alike proud to have a hand in so good a building. There are plenty of skilled men here who, at present, only now and then get such a chance, as in the case of an old English carver who has put first-rate work into the capitals, and other ornamental stonework. "I don't often out here get such an opportunity of showing what I can do." We have, too, been fortunate in our Foreman, thoroughly capable, and with the gift of managing men. Our Contractor also spares no expense, even at the risk of lessening his own due profit.

At the outset an interesting problem presented itself. Accurate alignment was necessary of the chancel, sanctuary, and transept walls, with the walls of the nave. It seems a comparatively easy matter. Have you been in Lichfield Cathedral? I remember there noticing that the chancel and sanctuary are out of line with the nave, inclining perceptibly a little towards the north. It is the case also, I am told, with other churches. An explanation has been given that page 344the builders purposely arranged the deviation so as to symbolize the attitude of our Lord's head on the Cross; a beautiful legend. But, after watching the careful arrangements needed to secure a correct alignment, I came to the conclusion that in old days the builders had less accurate methods than we possess, and that they simply made a mistake. The only argument I can think of in favour of the old legend is that, when the alignment is incorrect, its deviation is always on the same side, to the left, as you look East from the nave.

Building, no doubt, whether of one's church or house, is fascinating. Without undue waste of time, I think I may say I watched the completion of St. Mary's, stone by stone, till it reached the pinnacles of the tower. The fashioning of the hard dolerite stone for the exterior was straightforward work for men who understand it. It is grey blue in colour, full of minute crystals, working to a very fine finish if needed, with sharp edges, and when left purposely in the rough, most effective in its light and shade. The limestone used for facings and interior walling and moulded work in the arches and windows needs different treatment. I was much interested in the working drawings for all this. First on paper on a small scale, then in full size, and sometimes in zinc patterns to be followed by the mason. The whole work is close jointed, as in the best thirteenth century work at home; unlike the wide joints of Norman work, so close that at little distance the mortar is scarcely visible. "Are these walls plastered?" said a visitor. "No," I replied, "something better than that."

Most interesting, too, it was to watch the carver at page break
St. Mary's Church, Nave, Timaru.

St. Mary's Church, Nave, Timaru.

page 345work on the capitals of the columns which support the inner arches of the lancet windows, and of the shafts which rise to meet the principal ribs of the roof, and the corbels on which the hood mouldings of the arches and doorways rest. The carver has to work on square blocks of stone placed in position. He does not work them out on the bench. Standing on a platform, he has to do his work than and there, trusting to his skill not to make a mistake, for the stone is a fixture. With scarcely any design beyond a slight sketch on tracing paper, he makes a few rough charcoal marks on the stone, and then goes to work with chisel and mallet. A competent artist can be left to himself to produce first-rate work. The Early English carving is chiefly of foliage and flowers, with some figures and heads, not a literal representation of nature, but in conventional style. In later styles of architecture the carver sought to reproduce the exact forms of fruit or flower as seen in nature, but with indifferent success in such a material as stone. Moreover, the conventional style gives the artist a freer hand and more scope for his own inventiveness. It was worth seeing the way in which the stone under his hand gradually grew into lovely shape, every capital and corbel with its own distinctive beauty. "Do you find that visitors take an interest in your work?" "Yes," he replied, "much more so than a few years ago, especially since wood-carving has come into fashion as an amateur amusement, people come in and appreciate the 'undercutting' and delicacy of the work. They've handled carving tools a little themselves, and the spread of Art Education has trained their eyes to see good work." He was quite an enthusiast in his line, and told me that to his great page 346regret, his son, whom he had trained, was going to give up the carving business. "Partly because there is no great demand for it here, but chiefly because he really doesn't care for it; he is a good hand with the tools, as I am, but it's all mechanical with him, he's no imagination." I couldn't help thinking that, in the great building ages, when the Mother Country was covered with such splendid architecture, the craftsman wrought not as a mere mechanic, but for the love of his work. Some seem to think that now-a-days that spirit has died out, and that really competent craftsmen have an eye only for pay. I doubt that. The question of pay, I take it, was always in view, but to-day it has been forced into undue prominence by political agitators. Rightly, every craftsman looks for the best which his skill can command, but I feel sure that he is as proud of his handiwork as his predecessors were in old days, and that he loves it, as all true artists do.

The tower is about one hundred feet in height, but looks much higher, owing to its position on an eminence which rises considerably above the adjoining streets. It is a conspicuous landmark to vessels making for the entrance of the harbour. From the top a magnificent view is obtained of the Southern Alps, fully one hundred and twenty miles of snowy peaks, which bound the Province of Canterbury westwards. It fell to my lot to place the last capstone on one of the pinnacles at its north-east corner. A special function was arranged for the occasion. The Vestry and others mustered on the top floor of the tower, where the parapets rise to a height of eight feet in pierced stonework, and the four corner pinnacles twenty-four feet. On the top of the pinnacle, where its point was ready page 347to receive the capstone, a wooden platform, just four feet square, was fixed, mid-air, without any protection at its sides. A ladder led up to it. The foreman and a mason went up, and I followed. We stood there, the three of us, with just room for foothold, and together lifted the heavy cap, a fleur de lys, and placed it in position. "Don't look up," said the foreman to me, "nor look round; we never do at a height; look at the work." It was a ticklish position, but I felt fairly secure with my two supporters. Then, with a few words of prayer and benediction, I laid the stone, the assembly below responding; and came down. There are four minor pinnacles clustering round the lower part of the main one; arrangements had been made also for these, and their capstones were laid by Mr. J. Craigie, the Mayor of Timaru, Mr. M. J. Knubley, churchwarden, Mr. R. W. Simpson, vestryman, the Secretary of the Building Committee, and Mr. W. Panton. A large number of people below watched the proceedings. As I stood there in mid-air, and, as happens on any great occasion in one's life, when in a moment long years of work pass in monotonous review and challenge your own verdict on them, and as I was uttering the formal words of benediction on what we were doing there, it was as it were, I believe, a direct inspiration, in assurance that the work had been and would be Divinely ordered, which stirred in my heart the echo of the words we had sung at the laying of the foundation stone of the church, years ago:

"The heads that guide endue with skill,
The hands that work preserve from ill,
That we who these foundations lay
May raise the topstone in its day."

page 348

The tower is, I may say without fear of criticism, not unworthy of comparison with the best examples at home. It has four stories; well defined buttresses, giving depth of light and shadow to the structure, lead the eye upwards to the pinnacles. Externally, the lateral divisions of the tower are so arranged that they increase in height as the structure rises. The lower divisions are without ornament, which increases in richness gradually to the top. The eye is thus led upwards, and the apparent height of the structure is enhanced. Nor do the horizontal lines of moulding, which mark the division of the stones, interfere with the general vertical lines of the building. It is in the Decorated style. An experienced judge of architecture said to me, "The whole church is a fine piece of work, both in plan and execution, but it is the tower which compels my greatest admiration."

In the chancel, sanctuary and transept there are marble and stone shafts, attached to the walls, which lead up to the corbels on which the main ribs of the roof rest. Marble columns also divide the double and triple lancet windows, and rise to support the hood arches of the window recesses. The walls are thick, and the openings of the windows are widely splayed, so as to admit plenty of light. Marble is also used for the small columns in the reredos, credence, and piscina recess, and the pulpit. In the nave Peterhead red granite is used for the pillars, but for the rest of the building it was decided to use Australian marble. It comes from New South Wales, and is various in colour, mottled red and yellow, rose tinted, grey, and violet and black. We used it also for the panels of the arcading on either side of the altar. There is plenty of marble in New Zealand, but in rather inaccessible page break
St. Mary's Church, Timaru.

St. Mary's Church, Timaru.

page 349places at present, and so far no machinery for marble polishing has been available, but no doubt, as time goes on, the necessity for importation will cease. Rich as Australia seems to be in coloured marbles, I am told that at present the white marble of commerce, such as the Italian Carrara, has not been found.

I must tell you something of the stained glass in the nave. Except on the south side, which is our sunless side here, all the windows are filled with glass given as memorials. Most of it came from the Whitefriars Glass Works of Messrs. Jas. Powell and Son, London, and is worthy of their great reputation. The Western Rose window, in memory of Edward Elworthy, and the Clerestory lights, in memory of Philip Luxmoore, are filled with glass in the style of the thirteenth century, in rich, deep, glowing colour, sapphire, ruby, green and gold. The nave windows are in later style, not quite so richly coloured, but very beautiful, one of them having been given by the parishioners as a memorial of the first Bishop of Christchurch, H. J. C. Harper. The funds for this were raised by Mr. Melville Gray. In all the work the artist has not forgotten that the special glory of stained glass is in luminous colour, not laid on the surface, but burnt in and filling the whole substance of the glass. It is colour which no picture on which light falls can produce. It is due to light which passes through colour in the body of the glass; and yet they are all story windows, not merely gems of colour. Their story is that of the Bible. This was the object of glass makers in old days. The people generally were illiterate. Few, if any, possessed a missal, or had they one, could read it. They knew the Services by heart, but could not read the Bible, even had they page 350the chance. So the old glass makers set themselves to provide picture stories,—beautiful, no doubt, but the beauty was not their only motive. "Art for Art's sake," a modern theory, found no place in their plan. They desired to instruct. As an old writer puts it: "Picturae fenestrarum sunt quasi libri ecclesiarum,"—"Pictured windows are as it were the Church's books." In those days the eye learnt, as it fell on glass and fresco, and mosaic work on the walls of the church, as we learn to-day from print and paper.

I was reminded of this lately. Going into the church one day—a public holiday—I came across some visitors from the South. One of them, an old man—a Scotchman—with his son and daughter-in-law, of the type of Presbyterian which used to regard stained glass as a mortal offence in the House of God. I took them round and explained each window. "Eh!" said the old man, "but ye can read your Bible in yon windows."

The total cost of the church has been £20,697, exclusive of many valuable gifts, such as reredos, marble panelling, pulpit, lectern, altar rails and font. Of this some thousands remain as debt, but it is all taken up in debentures by parishioners, and we have every reason to think that in a few years it will be wiped out. Nearly every penny of it has come from St. Mary's people, and their generous liberality has not crippled their annual contributions for the maintenance of the ministry and the general upkeep of the church.

The day of Dedication of the completed portion of the church was a red letter one in the annals of the parish. The Bishop of the Diocese and forty visiting Clergy were present. At 11 a.m. the Dedication took place, followed by a Choral Celebration of Holy Com-page 351munion. The church will hold, with extra chairs, nine hundred, and was filled in every part. Nearly all the ministers of the various denominations in the town were present in the congregation, having received a special invitation from myself and the Vestry. No one left the church during the Celebration; a large number communicated. I myself took no part in the service, leaving it to the Bishop and some of the visiting Clergy. The day was our weekly half-holiday, Thursday. The choir mustered in full strength, the processional and recessional hymns aided by four cornets, to supplement the organ. In the vestry, after service, you can understand that I could scarcely find words to respond to the hearty congratulations from Bishop and Clergy, given to the Churchwardens and Vestry, for the completion of such a building. In a few happy words, with special allusion to Archdeacon Averill's eloquent sermon, the Bishop spoke of it as a monument for many a generation of the devotion of St. Mary's people, and as a witness to every passer-by of the Faith in which we live and die.

Then followed a luncheon in a large hall, attended by many guests, the Mayor of the town presiding. Himself a Presbyterian, he spoke of the pride which all citizens of Timaru took in the building, and with well-chosen words touched on the pleasure he felt, with others, of having such an opportunity of meeting together in friendly sympathy, whatever may be the differences which keep us apart in our respective Church life. Afterwards there was a large gathering at the Vicarage for tea and talk, partly in the Parish Hall, and in the Vicarage grounds; and in the evening a glorious concluding Service. Some of the visiting

page 352

Clergy remained to take part in the services during the rest of the week, and on Sunday.

I should like to add that, amongst the full and careful reports in our daily papers of the proceedings of the Dedication Festival, and a description of the building, nothing pleased me more than words of this sort: "In these days it is often said that the Church is losing hold of the people and she needs to adapt herself to modern ways of thought and modern conditions of life. There may be something in this. But looking to the work which is being done in St. Mary's Young Men's Society, and the Sunday Schools, and the evident interest which the young take in their Church and its progress, there is every reason for the happy anticipation of the future which marked yesterday's proceedings. The day outside the church was overcast; inside it was full of sunshine."

I am,
Yours ever,

H. W. H.