“George…..don’t do that…..”*

*comic monologue “Nursery School” by Joyce Grenfell. Joyce was born at an address in Montpelier Square, Knightsbridge. As an adult, she used to visit Walter de la Mare at his home in Montpelier Row, Twickenham.

Q: where in London can you find:

a) the cathedral of the Moscow Patriarchate diocese for the islands of Great Britain and Ireland

b) a facade which is a very close copy of that (12th Century, Lombardic) of the Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore, Verona

c) an Anglican Church which was made over – first by lease in 1955-6; then, in 1978, by freehold – for the use of the Russian Orthodox parish?

A: 67, Ennismore Gardens, Knightsbridge.

If you wish to see a glimpse of the exterior of the “Eglise Russe de Londres” within an episode of the David Suchet “Poirot “, and are content with the French dubbed version, you can go online to “Comment donc poussent vos fleurs?”, at the 38:35 – 39:32 point.

The clocks went back very early this morning, and I am using the stolen hour to visit the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints. (The Byzantine liturgy states: “in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life”.) I head from the Prince of Wales Gate of Hyde Park, across Knightsbridge to Ennismore Gardens. Although my short walk down this street is purposeful, it’s still a pleasant surprise to see the warmth of the sandstone facade appear through the drizzle, at the end of a short cul de sac to my left.

The Parish of the Dormition in London existed from 1716 as the Russian Embassy Church. The Diocese of Sourozh (named in a spirit of tact towards the Church of England) was created in October 1962, led by Archbishop Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh.

The building was consecrated as an Orthodox Church in December 1956. An iconostasis was installed at the eastern end of the nave. The Royal Gates in the centre of the screen were rescued from the old Czarist embassy chapel in Welbeck Street after the 1917 revolution. The icons on the screen were painted by pupils of the Russian iconographer, Leonid Ouspensky.

The organ, made redundant because Orthodox services are sung unaccompanied, was reinstalled at St John’s, Mare St, Hackney.

The first architect of this building as the Church of All Saints, in 1849, was Lewis Vulliamy (also responsible for the neo-Gothic, Arts and Crafts church of St John the Divine, less than eight miles away in Richmond). The church was reconstructed in 1891-2. There was a first attempt at interior decoration by Thomas R Spence, but it was sacrificed between 1896 and 1903 for the work of the Arts and Crafts designer, George Heywood Maunoir Sumner, who carried out the surviving stained glass windows and sgraffito.

In the 1890s, Sumner helped to set up the Fitzroy Picture Society, a group of artists dedicated to producing boldly coloured prints that could be sold cheaply to liven up the walls of public institutions such as schools and hospitals.

The sgraffito decoration was conceived and executed as a unity though it divides into two sequences, one a cycle of scriptural scenes and the other a sequence of saints. As part of his scheme, Sumner designed new stained glass for the clerestory and for the new west front. The small windows of the west front include angels’ heads peeping out from folded wings with the words of the Trisagion, a standard hymn of the Divine Liturgy in most of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches.

The only external sgraffito is of the Good Shepherd, in the tympanum over the west door. The west wall remains undecorated, as the Jesse tree intended to embrace the wheel window failed to materialise. The cartoon for the wheel window (its equivalent at San Zeno Maggiore is described as a rose window in the shape of a Wheel of Fortune) was exhibited at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition of February 1903. The window is executed in Prior’s “Early English” glass.

While sgraffito is an artistic technique in which a top layer is scratched off in order to reveal a layer of a different colour underneath, it is distinguished from graffiti by its very specific way of decorating a surface. As the son of the Rev George Henry Sumner, Anglican clergyman, and Mary Sumner, nee Heywood, founder of the Mothers’ Union, Heywood Sumner must surely have enjoyed a sense, as he covered intervening wall spaces with a design of trailing foliage, of licence to scribble all over the walls of his parents’ study.

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