Roker's 'cathedral of arts and crafts'

A YEAR of celebrations will mark the centenary of a Sunderland church known as the "Cathedral of the Arts and Crafts Movement." SARAH STONER looks at the history of St Andrew's Church in Roker, and discovers some of the designer treasures sheltered within its walls

WILLIAM Morris carpets, furniture by Ernest Gimson and Robert "Mouseman" Thompson carvings are usually the preserve of the rich and famous.

But fine examples of all three, and much more besides, can be found at St Andrew's in Roker – hence its global reputation as the "Cathedral of the Arts and Crafts Movement."

The Movement, simple artwork developed in the 19th century as a rebellion against elaborate Victorian design, preceded the Art Nouveau period.

"The church is of national and international interest because of the arts and crafts influence, but we also see it as an inspiration to people to be creative today too," said team rector Ian Stockton.

"We had a couple of visitors from Tokyo just last week, who turned up completely out of the blue to have a look round. It was a good job someone was here to let them in.

"The composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber loved our Morris carpet too when he visited. He was very pleased we let people walk on it, because that's what he does with the one he has at his home."

St Andrew's, a handsome stone-built church, was described as "a bold and imaginative experiment which has triumphantly succeeded" by the poet Sir John Betjeman.

Another fan, the famous architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, went as far as saying it was, architecturally, "one of the most interesting churches in England."

It was even named in a best-selling book, published by author Simon Jenkins in 2001, as being among the thousand best churches in England.

But one life-long worshipper, Joan Cook, describes St Andrew's in much simpler terms: "It feels like home here. It is part of you, from beginning to end."

St Andrew's has its roots in the industrial prosperity of Sunderland in the late 19th century, when the growth in shipbuilding led to a huge demand for more housing.

As the town started to sprawl outwards, so the Edwardian seaside resort of Roker grew up around the public park. The need for a new church soon followed.

A public appeal was launched in 1903, but failed to bring in enough money. Wealthy shipyard owner John Priestman eventually stepped in as principal benefactor the following year.

Architect Edward Prior was hired to design the new 6,000 church, with Priestman – a man of "radical taste and strong individualism" – working closely alongside him.

Finally, after several years of planning and some controversy, the foundations were laid in 1906 and St Andrew's was completed and dedicated in 1907.

It featured simple, yet stunning, architecture, designed to ensure worshippers saw and heard everything that happened, plus a nave shaped like the upturned hull of a ship.

Hailed as one of the ecclesiastical gems of the 20th century, it also included many designer objects – from lecterns to carpets, within its walls.

Norman Duncan, author of the St Andrew's guide book, said: "I believe it is a unique early 20th century building in the area, if not the whole country.

"It is a treasure in its own right, but one which is sadly sometimes overlooked locally. It is a living church, not just a monument, and something the people of Sunderland should be proud of."

William Morris carpets, a stone tablet carved by Eric Gill and a mother-of-pearl and ebony lectern designed Ernest Gimson are among the treasures to be found within the church.

It is also home to a Burne-Jones tapestry, a wooden font cover carved by Robert "Mouseman" Thompson, a font by Randall Wells, stained glass windows by H.A. Payne and superb chancel murals by Macdonald Gill.

An arts and crafts-style Lych Gate was built as a War Memorial in 1920, while the mural was painted in 1927, a church hall added in 1928 and a peal of bells in 1948.

But it is people, rather than objects, that will be at the centre of the centenary celebrations for the Roker church.

"It is a celebration of the 100-year history, not only of the building, but of the church and its community," said Rev Stockton.

"We are looking forward to the celebrations very much. We are hoping people will be excited by the programme and opportunities and that they will suit all tastes and ages.

"It is about engaging with the local community and raising awareness of the church, by reminding people of the role St Andrew's has played in the area – and their lives – over the past 100 years."

Among the many centenary events planned for between June this year and July 2007 are art workshops, exhibitions, a concert by Aled Jones and an auction featuring celebrity memorabilia.

Church regular Joan Cook has spent months organising the auction, gathering personal items from Sunderland celebrities and notables to sell off.

"St Andrew's is not just a monument to the arts and crafts movement, it is a very special place too," said Joan. "It feels like home here.

"I was confirmed and married here, my children were baptised here and my daughter got married here too. St Andrew's is a part of your life from beginning to end, which is why it is important to celebrate its centenary."

THE Arts and Crafts Movement developed in 19th century Britain as a rebellion against the fashion for typically over-elaborate Victorian design.

The movement was based on simple forms – taking its design lead from natural materials like wood and stone and nature subjects including animals and plants.

Arts and crafts work could be highly decorative, but was often extremely plain. Women, for the first time, took a leading role as designers and creators.

John Ruskin and William Morris – whose carpets decorate St Andrew's and the home of composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber -– were hailed as the founders of the movement.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones, who designed some of the stained glass windows at St Andrew's, was drawn to the movement after meeting William Morris in 1855.

A tapestry designed by Morris and Burne-Jones, produced by William Morris & Co at Merton Abbey, provides an eye-catching backdrop to the Sanctuary.

Eric Gill, a colourful figure in early 20th century art – despite most of his prints being in black and white, made his name as a sculptor, typographer, engraver and writer.

A plaque engraved by Gill can be seen on the south west porch of St Andrew's. His brother, Macdonald Gill, painted the mural on the sanctuary ceiling.

Centenary programme


June 10-11: Exhibition in the Priestman Hall of memorabilia of 100 years of Parish life

June 16: The Ray Chester Big Band – playing in the church

June 18-30: Exhibition of Fulwell Community Tapestry

July-August: Sunderland Schools Art Exhibition

September 16: Aled Jones in concert with St Andrew's Operatic Society

October 15: Art workshop

November 18 to December 16: Exhibition of Scouting and Guiding

November 25: Centenary Ceilidh with the Cashels

December 15: Christmas Concert with Hetton Lyons Choir and Craghead Junior Brass Band


February 24: Art workshop

February 23-25: Exhibition of St Andrew's Altar Frontals and Vestments

March 10: Inter-generational Drama, Dance and Music Event at Monkwearmouth School.

March 24: Symposium – 10am to 3pm. Interpreting and using an Arts and Crafts Building

April 15 – May 15: Exhibition of work by local artists

May 12: Art workshop

May 19: Plant sale in Priestman Hall

May 26: Organ recital by James Lancelot, organist of Durham Cathedral.

June 22: Traditional Northumbrian songs and music concert

July 13-15: Centenary Flower Festival

July 13: Evensong with Durham cathedral Choir at 7.30pm

July 19: Service of Thanksgiving with the Bishop of Durham at 7pm.

Other activities and initiatives planned include a video about the church, a celebrity item auction, guest preachers plus a centenary book of memories.