Behind the scenes at Highgate’s St Augustine’s, as church gets frontage restored
- Credit: Polly Hancock
As work continues up on the scaffolding at St Augustine’s Church in Highgate, Harry Taylor speaks to the two people tasked with giving the sculptures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, St John and Jerusalem a clean for the first time in half a century – and the parishioner behind the work
After 50 years, you can hardly blame St Augustine’s for needing a bit of a clean.
The church, which was finished and dedicated just before the outbreak of the First World War, is currently having its evocative frontage spruced up.
Its statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St John have become obscured by weathering since its last clean-up in the 1960s.
But the scene representing the crucifixion against a backdrop of Jerusalem and Golgotha remains powerful.
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Such is the supposed “high church” nature of the sculptures, it’s believed it would have been quite controversial for an Anglican church to feature so many icons in the early 20th century.
Most of the work has been funded by a £200,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant.
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Conservator Sharon Bailey, who is working on the church alongside colleague Tim Smare from Taylor Pearce, said she believes the church is a “great example of 20th century carvings”.
“It’s quite a unique project,” she tells us. “Things of this age are usually much more simple. You don’t get much built after this, really.”
She speaks highly of the statues, and particularly their scale.
“They’re completely lifesize,” she said, “so there is this totality brought about it.”
The church took nearly 40 years to build, with three designers having their input on various facets.
John Dando Sedding designed the main nave of the church, along with the arch and west gallery.
But when Sedding died suddenly in 1891, his pupil Henry Wilson – who had trained at the Kidderminster School of Art – took over. Wilson designed the lady chapel and put forward a design for the Archway Road frontage that is currently being cleaned up.
In a striking composition, he proposed a dark, gothic front. However, it was J Harold Gibbons who eventually designed the west end of the church.
Tim says the purpose of the work isn’t to restore the church’s sculptures to their original state, but to clean them.
“We’re not doing it to make it look as though it’s new, but to preserve it,” he said.
“If this isn’t done at the right time we will lose some of the original features. It’s almost like a rescue mission.”
The Archway Road runs in front of the church, taking thousands of cars past its doors every day.
This is one of the reasons for the black marks that could be seen at the front of the church when the work started. It’s a common feature across London’s historic buildings.
“We’ve had pollution like this in London for centuries,” said Tim. “It does mean that, compared to a church a few streets set back from the road, it will be affected more.”
Both Tim and Sharon are having to compete with the last lot of work done in order to do the cleaning.
Concrete was a common material in the 1960s for patching up buildings like churches and stately homes.
But because it’s impermeable, when rainwater gets into cracks and around the edges of the stone it cannot escape.
Tim said: “Once it’s in, the only way for the water to evaporate is through the stone, and this causes crystals to form. This can cause the stone to decay and break off.
“It can do some real damage.”
Paul Bell, who has been a parishioner for 15 years and is a member of the parish’s church council, has overseen the project for St Augustine’s – which has also included repairs to the roof and guttering.
The parish as a whole is small. There are about 100 people on the electoral roll.
But Tim and Sharon’s work is the end of an important project for the church.
“This is the last bit of what we are doing,” said Paul, 69. “We’ve retiled the roof and repaired the guttering but this is the most interesting bit in terms of what we wanted to do.
“We’re just looking forward to it. It completes the work and it’s going to look great.
“It already looks impressive. Taylor Pearce have done fantastic work, and it’s looking really good already.”
Paul and the rest of the church community are hoping the work will be finished in time to show off the cleaned up statues and carvings on the Open House Weekend on September 22 and 23.