Church of Notre Dame de France

Overview

Heritage Category: Listed Building

Grade: II*

List Entry Number: 1376623

Date first listed: 25-Sep-1998

Date of most recent amendment: 19-Oct-2016

Location Description:

Statutory Address: Leicester Place, Leicester Square, London, WC2H 7BX

Map

Ordnance survey map of Church of Notre Dame de France
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Location

Statutory Address: Leicester Place, Leicester Square, London, WC2H 7BX

Location Description:

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Greater London Authority

District: City of Westminster (London Borough)

Parish: Non Civil Parish

National Grid Reference: TQ2986680820

Summary

The Church of Notre Dame de France, a Roman Catholic Church, of 1953-5 by architect Hector O. Corfiato.

Reasons for Designation

The Church of Notre Dame de France of 1953-5 by Hector O. Corfiato, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:

* Artistic interest: the church contains several artistic works of high and exceptional quality, an early example of the influence of the Art Sacré movement on post-war church architecture, and commissioned by the French Embassy as a showcase for French spiritual art;

* Artist: containing a trio of frescoes by internationally celebrated French artist Jean Cocteau, of exceptional significance as his only British commission and highly representative of his signature style;

* Architectural interest: rebuilt following war damage by respected French architect, Hector O. Corfiato, best known as Professor of Architecture at the Bartlett School, and architect of a small number of highly regarded churches;

* Historical interest: representative of the international development of Catholicism in London, and retaining tangible links to the history of use and development of the site since the C18.

History

The church stands on the site of Leicester House, built in the 1630s for the first Earl of Leicester. It lies to the north of Leicester Square, laid out in 1670 by the second Earl, and originally called Leicester Fields. Leicester House was demolished in about 1790 and Leicester Place laid out across the site. Here was constructed in 1793-94, from designs by Robert Mitchell, a large rotunda, used as a panorama. In 1865 this building and two adjoining houses were acquired by Père Charles Faure, of the Marist Fathers, for use as a church for the French Catholics population of London, which was concentrated in Soho. The panorama was converted to a church in 1865-68 by the French architect Louis Auguste Boileau, and was notable for its iron construction (Boileau later worked with Gustave Eiffel on additions to the Bon Marché store in Rue de Babylone, Paris, which also had much decorative and structural use of iron). The church was opened on 11 June 1868, with Mass celebrated by Bishop Grant of Southwark, and the sermon preached by Archbishop Manning. The church was of Greek cross plan, formed within the circular shell of Mitchell’s panorama. Its chief internal furnishing was the statue of Our Lady on the altar of Notre Dame des Victoires, a copy of a statue in the Paris church of that name.

In 1940 Boileau’s church suffered from bomb damage, but was repaired in the following year by architects Hall, Easton & Robertson. The statue of Our Lady of Victories was destroyed, but the head was salvaged and parachuted into France in 1942, where it was restored and incorporated in a new figure by the sculptor Henri Vallette (1891-1962), returning to London in 1945.

In the early 1950s, a decision was taken to completely rebuild the church, authorised and managed by the new Superior, Father Laurent. With the encouragement of the Cultural Attaché René Varin, this was to become a showcase of Art Sacré, or modern French sacred Catholic art of a generally left-leaning and progressive sort which sought to legitimise artistic Modernism, particularly after its denunciation by Pope Pius XI in 1932. The architect was Professor Hector Corfiato, a graduate of the École des Beaux Arts de Paris and practising as Corfiato, Thomson & Partners. The contractors were C P Roberts & Co of Holborn. The foundation stone (brought from Chartres Cathedral) was laid on 31 May 1953 by Maurice Schumann, French Foreign Secretary, and the church was opened on 6 October 1955 by Cardinal Feltin, Archbishop of Paris. Preserving the French influence of the former church, which had been based on the Panorama, the new church was circular on plan with twelve Tuscan columns supporting a domed roof, and with an ambulatory and galleries around the central space. Le Chavallier (2015) points out that a more audacious plan by Corfiato was abandoned, due to cost, and that some of the design (including following the classical tradition of twelve columns) should be attributed to Jean-Charles Moreux, the supervising architect from Paris. On 6 October 1955, the church was consecrated by Cardinal Feltin, Archbishop of Paris.

Artists employed in the fitting out of the new church included the Benedictine monk Dom Robert de Chaumac (1907-1977), who designed the large tapestry behind the altar on the theme of Paradise on earth, woven in Aubusson (1954); Professor Georges-Laurent Saupique (1889-1961) and his students at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, responsible for sculpture and other carved stonework on the exterior (1953); the Russian-born artist Boris Anrep (1883-1969), an altar front with a mosaic of the Nativity, covered for many years and only recently revealed (dating from 1954, before his major work at Westminster Cathedral); and, most famous of all, Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), a friend of Dom Robert’s, who painted the murals in the Lady Chapel between 3 and 11 November 1959.

In 1956, Jean Cocteau was awarded an honorary Doctorate from Oxford University. Present at the ceremony was Mr Rene Varin, cultural advisor at the French Embassy, who, with the agreement of the French Ambassador, asked Cocteau to come and paint a mural in the church of Notre Dame de France, in the style of those recently completed at Villefranche-de-Mer. This was his first and only commission in the United Kingdom. Preparatory drawings were prepared in 1958, completed in October 1959, for approval. It seems that some minor changes were requested during this preparatory stage, including Mary’s position in the Crucifixion scene, and her attire in the Assumption, which was originally deemed to be too revealing. Princess Margaret liked the drawings, and they were offered to her as a wedding present.

Cocteau was also commissioned to design a crucifix and two candelabra for the altar, which were crafted by ceramicist Madeleine Jolly, but these appear to have been lost in transit, and were never installed. There was some discussion surrounding the installation of a new altar, presumably to complete Cocteau’s scheme. The cost was prohibitive, and so it was decided at this time to retain the existing altar, decorated with Anrep’s mosaic, in situ, and to cover it with a painted panel. Costings for the decoration were estimated at 502,450 francs, which was an excessive expense, and beyond the means of the church at that time. Cocteau, who was in London to make comments for the BBC on Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, agreed to execute the work without remuneration, and to cover his own accommodation costs, asking only that his assistants be paid. A screen was erected to hold back the public and the press while Cocteau worked, such was his fame.

The execution of the murals took eight days, of which parish priest Father le Creuer gave a detailed account: “He arrived each morning around 10am, dressed in a big grey cloak with a short cape, and the first thing he did was to stand before the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, light a candle and recollect himself for a few minutes before starting his work again…It was quite astonishing to hear him questioning his characters while he was working out the lines, colours and nuances. It was a real dialogue that he carried on with the wall of the chapel, using poetic words that seemed to spring from a sort of intense interior excitement” (quoted in Le Chevallier, 2015, 55). While he painted The Annunciation scene, Cocteau is said to have spoken to the Virgin whilst working, saying “Oh you, the most beautiful of women, God’s most beautiful creature, you are so beloved. I want you to be my best work. At the time of the Annunciation, you are still an unfinished beauty. I draw the angel looking strong and powerful because he is already real, the reality of the invisible, the only consistency. You, Marie, you hardly emerge in our world of fog. I draw you in light lines; you are still the unfinished work of grace.” (Translated from Hubert: Rapport d’Intervention which references archival material held by the church.)

In 1998 the church was listed Grade II. Apart from the removal (at some point not determined) of the large original pulpit, the church was largely unaltered at the time of the listing. However, in 2001 plans for liturgical reordering were advanced (architect Gerald Murphy), which involved the removal of the two polygonal and incised ambos on either side of the sanctuary, Corfiato’s high altar and the marble communion rails. The final scheme saw the creation of a new elliptical sanctuary raised on a dais, with the relocated and slightly reduced original altar at its centre, with the paired ambos relocated to the back of the sanctuary. It was planned to move the communion rails to a new position in front of the Lady Chapel, however this has not occurred, and the altar rails are no longer present.

In March-April 2012 the Cocteau murals were conserved, with later overpainting removed (estimated cost £24,000) by the team who had previously conserved the Cocteau murals in the chapel of S. Pierre at Villefranche-sur-Mer, near Nice. In the course of this work the Boris Anrep mosaic on the altar frontal in the Lady Chapel was uncovered beneath a painting attached to the frontal. The mosaic has been cleaned, repaired and left on display, and both artists have their work on display, with the altar in situ with its original mosaic, and the painting relocated to an adjacent recess. The chapel is now enclosed by a glass screen for better protection.

Details

The Roman Catholic Church of Notre Dame de Paris is a circular church built 1955 to designs by Hector Corfiato, to replace an earlier church. The main body is screened by a façade of six storeys, set progressively back behind a double-height slightly concave frontispiece. It contains works of art by several notable artists including murals by Jean Cocteau.

MATERIALS: walls are of narrow red brick with raked joints and stone dressings to the exterior. The roof covering is not visible.

PLAN: the church is on a circular plan with an ambulatory having a gallery over. The altar is placed at the east side, on an oval platform. The Lady Chapel is located to the north and the baptistery to the south. A large porch gives access to the main body of the church, and the presbytery, which occupies the upper floors.

EXTERIOR: the building is abutted on all sides, with only the façade visible from the street level. It is of six storeys, with the upper three set progressively back, fronted by a double-height concave centrepiece. There is a Serlian arch to a triple entrance, which is surmounted by a carving of Our Lady of Mercy designed by the architects and carved by Professor Saupique of Paris. The central door is flanked by deep bull-nosed piers, carved in relief by pupils of Professor Saupique, and depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin. There are square-headed casement windows above and to the sides with metal frames (2-leaf 3-pane opening lights with a light over).

INTERIOR: the present church replaces a C19 church on the same site, which incorporated a former panorama – its distinctive round shape is repeated in the present building. The result is an idiosyncratic, powerful and attractive church, showing the influence of the Liturgical Movement. The circular interior is surrounded by an ambulatory, divided from the central space by an arcade of stone Tuscan columns. The ceiling is coffered, with columns embracing a central roof-light. The altar is located to the east side of the space, raised on a dais. A pair of original polygonal stone ambos carved by a sculptor from the École des Beaux-Arts sit to either side of the sanctuary, lightly incised with depictions of the Evangelists (north) and Prophets (south). Seating is provided by plain timber pews. At the centre of the chapel is the Lady altar, with Mosaic of the Nativity frontispiece by Russian artist Boris Anrep. The font is located in the baptistery to the south side, drum-shaped with relief decoration on a semi-circular step against a fluted apsidal backdrop. There are screens to the north and south of the altar and in the baptistery, pierced with circular and cross motifs. The Lady Chapel is located to the north of the main altar, and is enclosed by a glass screen. It is oval on plan, and top-lit, and the three walls are decorated with murals by Cocteau; to the west is the Annunciation, to the rear north wall is the crucifixion (signed and dated by Cocteau), and to the east wall is The Assumption.

Details of the murals (from left) are as follows: * The Annunciation: the scene is from the Gospel of Luke (1, 26-28) depicting a disproportionately large angel standing to one side of a vase containing lilies, to represent purity, and a delicate rendering of Mary, who stands with eyes closed; * The Crucifixion: a unique representation of the scene, showing only the legs and feet of Christ. To the right is Mary with the holy women, whose combined cloaks form the letter M; Mary cries tears of blood, which mingle with the blood of Christ. The figure to the extreme right was identified as both Joseph and Judas; the fish-shaped eye represents the Icthus, an early Christian symbol. The black sun represents Mark’s Gospel (14, 33). To the left are St John and the Roman soldiers, with the dice they used to play for Christ’s tunic. In the foreground is a self-portrait by the artist, turned away from the scene, with a falcon, which may represent Horus, falcon-god to the Egyptians, who represents chaos and violence. The precise meaning of the rose has not been ascertained, but has been interpreted as a Rosicrucian symbol by some who think that Cocteau was a member of the enigmatic Priory of Sion; * The Assumption: Mary is depicted ascending to heaven with a choir of haloed angels with trumpets. The group is surrounded by a system of complex lines of red, yellow and blue, emerging from Mary’s unravelling shroud; * The signature of the artist is shown on the central panel, along with the date of 1960 and D.D.D: Delineavit (drew), Dedicavit (consecrated), Donavit (donated as a gift).

Other fixtures and fittings include: * The font is of Vosges sandstone, made by Les Ateliers de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame de Strasbourg, with the relief carvings by Emile Stoll of Alsace (not visible at the time of survey in 2015); * The statue of Our Lady of Victories, by Henri Vallette, carved in the 1940s based on the surviving head of Our Lady, which was salvaged following bomb damage in 1940, currently (2015) located in a first floor gallery on the south side of the church; * The organ was built by August Gern in 1868, and enlarged by J W Walker & Sons in 1938. It was dismantled during the Blitz in 1940 and rebuilt by the same company in 1955, subsequently modernised and refurbished by B C Shepherd & Son in 2010; * Carved timber statue of St Joseph, also carved by Georges Saupique’s students at the Ecoles des Beaux-Arts.

Legacy

The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 470629

Legacy System: LBS

Sources

Books and journals
Evinson, D, Catholic Churches of London46
Pevsner, N, Bradley, S, The Buildings of England: London 6 Westminster, (2003), 392
Other
Architectural History Practice; Westminster Taking Stock report; 2012
Hubert, M et al: Restauration des Peintures Murales de Jean Cocteau, Notre Dame de France, Londres; 2012 (unpublished report in church archives)

End of official listing