Christopher Wren is one of the England’s most renowned architects, best known for his masterpiece St Pauls Cathedral. He was extremely prolific during the 17th and 18th centuries, rebuilding 52 London churches after the great fire of 1666.
Polesden Lacey has a reredos which was salvaged from a Christopher Wren church, and so as an architectural historian with a specialism in churches and cathedrals, I jumped at the chance to study the reredos for this month’s object focus blog post. One could argue that the reredos is not technically an object but it has a fascinating history and is certainly worthy of its own blog post.
A reredos is an altarpiece found in churches behind the altar. The word reredos is derived from the Anglo-Norman word areredos with arere- meaning behind and –dos meaning back. Such altarpieces can integral to the structure of the church or mobile and made from a variety of materials and often decorated with religious iconography. In some churches tapestries textile hangings are used for the same purpose and these are often still known as a reredos.
Many country houses contain fixtures and fittings which have been salvaged from other locations and Polesden Lacey is no exception. In c.1906-09 Mrs Greville employed White Allom & Co. to decorate the interiors of Polesden Lacey and it is believed that they were responsible for bringing in the reredos as well as other pieces of furniture and the tapestries also in the hall as detailed in the 1948 inventory.
St Matthew’s, Friday Street was though to have been the least impressive of all of Wren’s city churches rebuilt after the great fire. The church plan consisted of one uneven hall-like space reaching just 60ft long and 30ft wide. It was described as being Wren’s usual Baroque style but it only had a plain flat ceiling with no decoration to speak of. Its lack of architectural significance and small size may have been the cause of its parish’s migration to a new location and its subsequent redundancy. The church was demolished in 1883 and all of St Matthew’s furnishings were put up for auction and it was later acquired by White Allom & Co. for installation in the hall at Polesden Lacey.
The reredos is made purely of oak and is elaborately carved by the craftsman Edward Pearce. Pearce carved all of the woodwork for St Matthew’s in his signature style which is often likened to the work of Grinling Gibbons. The paneling as we see it today was cut and altered to fit its current location and as a result has lost much of its original decoration. The altarpiece still has is segmental pediment resting upon the 2 Corinthian fluted columns. The cherub and fruit and leaf decoration remain, but the panels have lost their gilt framed Commandments and Lord’s Prayer. According to Edward Hatton’s New View of London (1708) the Commandments were originally illustrated with gold letters on a black background and the Lord’s Prayer and Creed done with black lettering on a gold background. The entire piece was reduced in height by 20cm at the column plinths and then widened to include the 2 flanking double doors. The space where the altar table would have been was filled with a new 17th century style marble chimney piece.
Many architects would build up a relationship with particular craftsmen and use them again and again in their buildings. The link between Edward Pearce and Wren could be seen much before St Matthew’s completion in 1682 with Pearce having carved a marble bust of Wren in 1973 (pictured below) which can now be found in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
This week, as part of the ongoing winter clean, the house team will be climbing up high (with the aid of scaffolding ) and gently cleaning this beautiful reredos in situ. If you’d like to see the reredos for yourself the house is open for tours at the weekend 11-3 and will reopen for free flow on the 28th February.