The architect’s regret

The architect’s regret

A photograph of the south front of St George's Chapel prior to the restoration and modification of the south transept. The porch is in its original position and there are no buttresses on the transept.
The south front of St George’s Chapel c.1920, prior to the restoration.

In the 1920s, the Restoration of St George’s Chapel was underway. Every effort was made to repair the structure with as little visible alteration as possible. However a significant change to the south porch, the main entrance used by worshipers and visitors to the Chapel today, proved unavoidable. The image shown above predates this change – it shows the Bray chantry with no buttresses and the south door in its original position.

In the early twentieth century the Chapel was in need of major restoration. From its initial construction, the width of the nave and narrowness of the aisles, combined with the extreme flatness of the roof, weight of the timber roof and stone vaulting, and ineffectiveness of the flying buttresses, was a source of danger. The roof and vault pushed the walls down and out causing them to lean. The brackets which should have supported the stone vault were not securely bonded to the walls. The flying buttresses, which should have provided supporting pressure from outside the walls to hold the roof up, were not sufficiently sturdy to do so. As a result, cracks had gradually formed from end to end in the vaults.

In December 1920, the restoration of the Chapel began. Sir Harold Brakspear, an architect and archaeologist with the experience needed for such complicated work, led the project. The firm of Thompson & Sons Ltd was contracted and managed on site by their foreman William Hopkins and Robert Burns Robertson, the Chapter Surveyor and Clerk of Works for the Dean and Canons of Windsor. Together, these men endeavoured to secure the building from ruin.

In 1925 work moved from the quire to the north and south transepts. Brakspear found that the walls were unable to support the stone vault and roof because they were constructed of thin masonry and large, high windows. Furthermore, there were no buttresses at the transepts to offer the much needed support! They were required to counteract the thrust of the vaulting, but required alterations to the appearance of the Chapel which Brakspear had hoped to avoid.

The addition of these buttresses is virtually the only portion of the works that has not been repaired on the exact lines of the original work, and no one can regret more than I do the necessity of their erection. ­– Sir Harold Brakspear, October 1926

The new buttresses were started in January 1925; both the north and south transepts were completed in the summer of 1926. The western-most buttress of the south transept (Bray chantry) covered more than half of the entrance to the Chapel. As a consequence, the south porch, built in eighteenth century in Portland stone, was removed and rebuilt at an angle. By building in this way, Brakspear was able to maintain the original archway of the inner doorway.

A photograph of the south front of St George's Chapel in the late-twentieth century
The south front of St George’s Chapel in the late-twentieth century

As worshippers made their way to the thanksgiving service to mark the end of the restoration on 4 November 1930, they followed a new pathway to the south porch. Nearly every feature of the Chapel had undergone some form of restoration or conservation, but this was one of few that were immediately obvious to the eye.

Kristen Mercier, Assistant Archivist

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.