The movement loved traditional design and revered traditional craftsmanship which they blended with the pre-Raphaelite and Art Nouveau artistic styles of the day.
John Priestman wanted the church to have a whopping capacity of seven hundred worshippers. His Christianity was very much of the Reformation. He insisted that all of the congregation should have uninterrupted views of both altar and pulpit so there were to be no screens. Prior’s response was an enormous nave fifty two feet wide and of five bays. The roof span is similarly huge and the walls are similarly massive in order to support it. Those walls are not built from dressed stone but from of concrete with stone facings. The project just couldn’t support the cost of such a massive quantity of dressed stone. To help with the weight there are arches set into both the north and south walls.
In cross section it is, like Brockhampton Church in Herefordshire elsewhere on this site, shaped like the inverted hull of a ship, the effect being reinforced by the timbers in the roof. This is doubly appropriate: the nave comes from the Laton word “navus” which means ship and, of course, Sunderland was a shipbuilding town. The chancel is the same height as the nave but is much narrower so it is extraordinarily lofty.
Whilst accommodating Priestman’s demands, Prior’s design is very idiosyncratic. It is an extraordinarily well-lit church utilising enormous windows along most the length of both north and south walls. They are divided vertically into five sections. The glass is in small square leaded panes and each section’s glass bows outwards.
There is a repeated use of triangles, sometimes doubled up vertically to produce diamond shapes. The bell turret is punctuated by triangle-headed windows of distinctly Anglo-Saxon proportions so it is a reasonable assumption that this explains his use of triangles throughout the church. Just as Brockhampton Church was clearly designed to be in keeping with Herefordshire’s Norman heritage, so it is reasonable to assume that Prior was anxious to reflect the Anglo-Saxon heritage of the old Kingdom of Northumbria. It is surely no coincidence that the historically important Monkwearmouth Church is within the town of Sunderland (we visited both on the same day) and the even more legendary Jarrow is in nearby Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Arts & Crafts churches are defined as much by their beautiful art as by their avant-garde architecture and St Andrews is no exception. Burne-Jones, that most prolific of contributors to A&C churches, produced the “Adoration of the Magi” tapestry behind the altar. The beautiful painted chancel ceiling is by MacDonald Gill to a design sketched by Prior himself. The main windows – the east window and the south transept windows – are by Henry Payne. There are several other contributors. This is what sets apart churches of the twentieth century: we know the names of those who designed and furnished the churches. It would perhaps be uncharitable to suggest that in these days of falling congregations these A&C churches are primarily galleries of early twentieth century art and bastions of architectural innovation, but we can safely say that these functions will ensure the interest of future generations