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St Benet's Chapel, Tower Hamlets

Description: St Benet's Chapel

Grade: II
Date Listed: 15 May 2014
Building ID: 1419384

OS Grid Reference: TQ3610182308
OS Grid Coordinates: 536106, 182311
Latitude/Longitude: 51.5233, -0.0395

Locality: Tower Hamlets
County: Greater London Authority
Postcode: E1 4NT

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Listing Text


University Chapel of St Benet, and linking section containing the entrance lobby and vestry (now office). 1961-62 by Playne & Lacey. Integral to the Chapel interior is ‘Apocalypse of St John’, a sgraffito mural scheme of 1964 by Adam Kossowski.

Reason for Listing

St Benet’s Chapel, of 1961-62 by Playne & Lacey, containing the sgraffito mural ‘Apocalypse of St John’ of 1964 by Adam Kossowski, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* Authorship: ‘Apocalypse of St John’ is one of the major works of Adam Kossowski (1905-86), a Polish-born émigré artist strongly associated with the post-war Catholic revival; the personal significance which he attached to this late work is suggested by the depiction of St Peter as a self portrait;

* Artistic interest: the mural is a striking and highly distinctive C20 reinterpretation of an apocalypse illustrative cycle, which in its iconography and artistic style has clear affinities with the Byzantine and Romanesque traditions of European Christian art, whilst demonstrating the influence of C20 artists such as Picasso;

* Craftsmanship and techniques: an uncommon example of the post-war revival of the historic decorative technique of sgraffito;

* Planning and interior: the circular plan of the Chapel is of architectural interest as an early example of the influence of the liturgical movement on the Anglican Church; the Chapel interior forms an apposite architectural setting for the mural;

* Exterior: the chapel exterior, with its blind drum, elongated dome and flèche, makes a distinctive contribution to the streetscape; the abstract, classicising idiom is uncommon in post-war church architecture and connotes the inclusive, ecumenical outlook of a university chaplaincy.


St Benet’s Chapel occupies the site of St Benet’s Church (1872-73 by Ewan Christian), which was heavily damaged by bombs in 1940. In 1884 the neighbouring site of Bancroft’s School and Almshouses was purchased by the Beaumont Trust, with the aim of providing ‘intellectual improvement and rational recreation’ for the people of East London. The educational architect E.R. Robson was commissioned to design the People’s Palace on Mile End Road of 1886-92 (listed at Grade II), followed by two adjoining technical schools. The East London College was renamed Queen Mary College by royal charter in 1934, and with the construction of the New People’s Palace in 1936-37 (listed at Grade II) the College gained possession of Robson’s buildings. Minor alterations and additions followed, including a range of 1937-38 by Sir Aston Webb & Son.

After 1945 the College embarked upon a major development programme of expansion, driven by expanding student numbers and the need to upgrade teaching facilities. Many of the new buildings were designed under the supervision of Edward Playne (1907-97), who first worked for the college in the late 1930s as a partner in Webb’s practice. He was appointed architect to the college in 1945, and subsequently worked in partnership with Grey Wornum (1945-57) and John S. Lacey (from 1957). The latter's buildings for the College include departments for Engineering (1956-61), Physics (1958-62), Chemistry (1963-64), Mathematics (1967) and Biology (Playne Vallance Partnership, from 1967).

The ruined Church was demolished in 1949, and in 1951 the College obtained possession of its site from the Diocese of London. As a condition of the covenant, the College was required to provide space on the site for a chapel of ease fronting Mile End Road. Although the London Diocesan Fund effectively represented the client, it was agreed that the new building would ‘form an architectural unity with the […] College extension’. In early 1955 the London Diocesan Fund commissioned Playne to design ‘a small Chapel of Ease with small Hall attached and a Parson’s House’. Construction was held up by protracted negotiations between the College and the Diocese, and the site remained empty until the construction of the Physics building to the north in 1958-62. St Benet's Chapel and St Benet's House followed in 1961-62. St Benet's House, which contains a meeting room with accommodation above, is not of special interest.

The office of chaplain to the University of London was created by the Bishop of London in 1948, but until 1962 was based a number of London churches. The new Chaplaincy served not only Queen Mary College but the University of London as a whole. A chapel for 60, a meeting room, and accommodation for the chaplain with additional rooms for students were the key elements of the brief. The architects consulted the noted church designer Keith Murray (of Maguire & Murray) on liturgical matters. The Chaplaincy opened in October 1962, the first resident chaplain being the Revd. Eric Buchanan (later chaplain to the Royal Household). The dedication to St Benet, a shortened form of Benedict, was an acknowledgment of the earlier Anglican church on the site.

The omission of windows from the Chapel reflected concerns about noise and vibration from the busy Mile End Road. An article of April 1963 mentions that the rough interior walls of the chapel represent ‘a backing for a mural which is not yet commissioned’. Adam Kossowski was formally commissioned in January 1964, and the mural was complete by August 1964. Its cost of £1,800 was funded by the London Diocesan Fund. Each panel had to be executed while the plaster was still wet, and Kossowski reportedly worked from 10:00am until 3:00am the following morning on each panel.

It is recorded that the Chapel was re-ordered by Maguire & Murray in 1966 (Adler 2012). Such a scheme was probably minor in extent and may have involved the removal of the original stone altar and the installation of the present curved lighting rail. In the late-C20 the linking section between the Chapel and meeting room was altered by the enlargement of the flanking rooms. Convection heaters were also installed beneath the mural. These late-C20 alterations are not of special interest.

The layout of the chapel is an early example of the influence of the liturgical movement on the Anglican Church. Of note in this regard is Playne & Lacey's consultation of Keith Murray (1929-2005) on the liturgical aspects of the project. Murray and his practice partner Robert Maguire (b.1931) were founder members of the inter-denominational New Churches Research Group (NCRG). Maguire & Murray are best known for their St Paul’s Church, Bow Common (1958-60, listed Grade II*). The central plan of St Benet's creates a unified, non-hierarchical worship space associated with lay participation. The direct access between chapel and meeting room recalls the NCRG’s interest in the early-Christian house church. The deliberate omission of fittings and fixtures associated with liturgical practices and ceremonies also reflects a reformist or ecumenical stance, whilst allowing the mural to dominate as the sole focus of the Chapel interior.

‘Apocalypse of St John’ is a important late work of Adam Kossowski (1905-86), a Polish-born émigré artist who became strongly associated with the post-war Catholic revival. The majority of his works are located in new Catholic churches in the north west of England and Wales, and the St Benet mural is a relatively rare instance of an Anglican commission. At least two listed buildings contain integral works by Kossowski: the bas-relief ceramic tympanum of the Last Judgement at St Mary’s R.C. Church, Leyland, Lancaster (Grade II) and stations of the cross for St Ambrose R.C. Church in Speke, Merseyside (Grade II). Between 1950 and 1972 Kossowski created a large number of works for Aylesford Priory at Kent. Kossowski’s largest single work was a secular commission, the tiled ceramic mural of 1965-66 at North Peckham Civic Centre, London which depicts scenes from the history of the Old Kent Road.


MATERIALS: white sand-lime facing bricks, with reinforced concrete ring beam, light steel trusses and aluminium cladding and flèche to dome.

PLAN: domed circular chapel, with linking section containing small vestry (now office) and lobby to an entrance from Mile End Road.

EXTERIOR: St Benet’s Chapel comprises a blind drum of white facing bricks, above which is a rendered concrete ring beam and a tall dome faced in aluminium. At the apex of the dome is an oculus and a hexagonal fleche. The entrance from Mile End Road incorporates an oak door with glazing slit, flanking panels and a white-painted timber canopy with a Chi Rho symbol.

INTERIOR: circular room with a continuous wall bench of black Staffordshire bricks. The bench incorporates regular openings, perhaps vents for an underfloor heating system. The floor (now carpeted) is of Staffordshire paviours. The dome has a plastered soffit with a fibreglass oculus. Suspended from the apex is a curved timber rail, cusped in plan, to which the lighting is attached. A folding screen partition originally separated the Chapel from the adjacent meeting room; this has been removed and the intervening space partly enclosed. There are no other fittings or fixtures; a stone altar was removed at an early date.

The principal feature of the Chapel interior is ‘Apocalypse of St John’, the continuous sgraffito mural scheme of 1964 by the Polish-born artist Adam Kossowski (1905-86). The mural is formed of coloured layers of render: a back undercoat and a white topcoat, which was scraped away with various tools to form the design. The execution of the mural recalls Romanesque church art and C20 influences such as Picasso’s Guernica mural of 1937. Above the entrance to the Chapel is the inscription, also executed by Kossowski in sgraffito, ‘+ SURELY I COME QUICKLY + AMEN + EVEN SO, COME, LORD JESUS. Rev 22/20’.

The scheme is divided into seven panels, in a sequence from left to right, which depict scenes from the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament. They are separated by figures of St Peter (a self-portrait of the artist), St Paul and the four evangelists. The first panel, to the left of the Chapel entrance, depicts St John on the island of Patmos, and his vision of the seven candlesticks, representing the seven churches of Asia (Rev.1; perhaps represented here as lighthouses). The second panel represents John’s vision of the throne of God (Rev.4-5). The Lamb of God stands on the throne, bearing the marks of sacrifice. Before the throne are the twenty-four elders casting down their crowns; a codex with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega (representing the beginning and the ending) and the seven lamps of fire. Above are roundels of a lion, eagle, calf and a man, symbolising the four evangelists.

The third panel represents the four horsemen: Conquest, War, Famine and Death (Rev.6). Also shown is the moon, a black sun and buildings devastated by earthquakes, lightning and floods. Martyrs are shown sheltering under an altar, whilst to the right men shelter in caves. To the left, an angel is rolling up a scroll which represents the departure of the heavens. The fourth panel represents the seven trumpets (Rev.8-9). Six angels sound trumpets; a seventh swings a golden censer. At the sound of the trumpets, another angel unlocks the bottomless pit, releasing a plague of locusts with the appearance of horses.

The fifth panel represents the war in heaven, witnessed by the woman clothed with the sun and the moon at her feet (Rev.12). A seven-headed dragon is cast out by Michael and his angels. The sixth panel depicts the Pantocrator sitting in judgement, surrounded by trumpeting angels (Rev.19-20). Before him are the resurrected martyrs and, on the other side, death and hell cast into the lake of fire. The seventh and final panel shows the New Jerusalem, standing upon the twelve foundations which represent the apostles (Rev.21). Light emanates from the Lamb of God at the top of the panel. In the foreground are two angels and below is the new earth, including the river and tree of life.

Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.