St Stephen's Church, South Dulwich, is dedicated to the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death in Jerusalem a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Stephen's martyrdom is commemorated in a famous fresco on the north wall of the chancel opposite the organ. The church was built in the late 1860's on land given by the former Governors of Alleyn's College of God's Gift (now The Dulwich Estate). Five of the present trustees are Patrons of the living. It was consecrated on 28th November 1868 and the architect was Charles Barry junior, the Surveyor of the College and son of the architect of the Houses of Parliament. A painting of the exterior of the church from College Road by Camille Pissarro in 1870 shows what a handsome building it was in its leafy and tranquil setting.
It was painted, like a number of other local views, while Pissarro was staying in Norwood with his family for a few months during the Franco-Prussian War; "a charming suburb" where he "studied the effects of fog, snow and springtime". He was accompanied to London by Claude Monet who stayed in higher class accommodation at the Savoy Hotel where he painted a number of memorable views of the River Thames at Westminster. The painting of St Stephen's by Pissarro formed part of the Cargill collection and was put up for sale by auction at Sothebys in l963. The then vicar of St Stephen's, the Revd. Harold Little, did his best to persuade the purchaser to keep the painting in England but, having paid what now seems the modest sum of £27,000 for it, he removed it to the USA where it has remained ever since.
A charming water colour on the south wall of the church also shows the exterior of St Stephen's in the late nineteenth century with affluent parishioners descending from their carriage, the ladies in their finery which made other residents refer to them going to "The Butterfly Ball". In those days no collections were deemed necessary and it was not until after the First World War that the church had to look beyond the generous few who saw that it was properly maintained. Now, of course, things are very different!
The church as originally built ended without the present west end, with a virtually freestanding tower surmounted by its slated spire at the south-west corner. This is odd as a drawing by Barry at the back of the church dated l865 clearly shows that it was intended to build the church out to include its present west end and with a gallery over it. Whether it was a question of funds not being available to complete the church as originally planned is not known but the church was extended a few years later in about l875 due to the increase of residents in the area, though without the planned gallery, as appears from another drawing on the same wall. The junction between the original building and the extension is marked by the rather unsatisfactory juxtaposition of piers and angels, the first of the new angels which decorated the internal walls being squashed up against the one that marked the end of the original building. There are over 20 angels guarding the church, each of a slightly different design
The interior of the church when built was flamboyant with its rich colours and decoration. The surfaces below the clerestory windows were painted with beautiful designs as can be seen from a water colour painted in l870. The whole of the interior of the church was decorated in one way or another, typical of the High Church movement to which St Stephen's and other churches in the area belonged. The chancel ceiling, painted today as it was at the time of the church's consecration, shows what the church must have looked like in those days. Note also the beautifully painted organ pipes in the chancel and the attractive wall tiling made at the Doulton factory nearby. Following war damage from flying bombs in l944 the interior of the church was left totally plain until the Centenary in l968 when it was once more adorned with attractive designs but more modestly than before. The patterns on the ceiling are still in good order but the walls are in need of urgent redecoration for which an appeal is presently under way.
In the chancel, on the south wall, is the fine and famous fresco of the The Trial and Martyrdom of St Stephen, painted by Sir Edward Poynter PRA in 1871-1873. Fresco is the art of painting on fresh lime plaster in water based pigment which sinks in and becomes part of the surface. The painter needs to work quickly before the plaster dries as corrections are almost impossible and he needs a sure hand and steady purpose. It is remarkable that bomb damage (to which reference will be made in a moment) and subsequent shocks to the fabric coupled with the south Dulwich climate has left the fresco intact and unblemished. It is one of very few frescoes to be found in an English parish church and its recent renovation has left it as vivid and striking as it was when Sir Edward painted it.
As Sir Edward himself described the fresco, the upper panel depicts the trial of St Stephen and the amazement and horror of the High Priest of the Council at the "blasphemy" of Stephen with two false witnesses behind him. The treatment of the architecture of the colonnade of oriental alabaster is regarded as particularly fine. The lower panel shows the martyrdom of St Stephen. The populace is eager to stone him before they reach the execution ground outside the city and Saul (subsequently Paul the Apostle) is to be seen at the left hand corner holding the clothes of the false witnesses. The Roman soldiers represent the temporal power, keeping order. The movements of the mob, soldiers and Stephen make the lower panel an exciting contrast to the static grandeur of the upper panel. A cartoon of the lower panel is to be seen on the north wall of the nave.
Opposite the fresco is the organ case built by JW Walker and Sons in l877 and rebuilt by William Hill and Son in l905. The decoration of the pipe work is in keeping with the richness of the decoration elsewhere in the church. In recent years the organ itself has sadly become unplayable but, in view of the huge cost of restoration and other demands on the parish's limited funds, (eg the liturgical reordering in 1992, the construction of a new hall in l999 to replace the temporary one erected after the Second World War and the need to re-slate the spire in its entirety in 2003), the question of restoration must be left to a future generation. Instead an attractive but smaller organ has been constructed by Roger Pulham of Woodbridge in Suffolk at the west end of the church with a fine organ case of American oak, the new organ being dedicated on Advent Sunday 2005. In any event the original organ case remains an important feature at the east end of the church.
The other notable feature in the chancel is the east window which miraculously escaped damage when the church was subject to bomb blast during the Second World War. The stained glass was made in the studio of the famous glass designer Charles Kempe and was installed in l924 in memory of Sarah Baroness Vestey who died the year before. It can be identified as a Kempe window by the presence of his "trademark", a wheat sheaf borne by the figure of Christ in Majesty in the upper light. The other figures represent the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John standing at the foot of the Cross.
Although there is no sign of it now, save for the steel ties across the nave, the church suffered considerable damage during the Second World War on no less than three occasions. The first disaster occurred in September l940, during the Battle of Britain, when the church suffered considerable blast damage. Thereafter services were conducted in the vestry, the only inhabitable part of the church, which was given the title Chapel of St Paul. After the building was pronounced safe and the damage had been cleared up, the congregation was able to move back into the chancel in July 1941, a huge screen, made from long strips of wedding carpet, blocking off the rest of the church. With the removal of the choir stalls, there was room for nearly 100 worshippers but, owing to black-out restrictions on the use of light, Evensong had to be held elsewhere in parishioners' houses. In l944, with the arrival of the V1 flying bombs, disaster struck again twice in quick succession. On July 3rd blast from a nearby flying bomb resulted in the north aisle losing its roof and all the glass in the windows on that side of the church, masonry being scattered all over the garden. The interior of the church was "a catastrophic picture of destruction" as the then vicar, the Revd Lionel Hart, put it. Somehow order was restored to enable worship to continue in the chancel until August 6th when another flying bomb landed at the back of the church which caused substantial damage to the roof of the nave. For six weeks services were held in the vicarage study and thereafter in what is now The Cheshire Home at the top of College Road. Thus things remained until Palm Sunday l945 when it was possible to move back into the church. With the end of the war that summer, it might have been thought that St Stephen's troubles were over but it suddenly transpired that the walls of the church were moving outwards, no doubt because the roof had shifted in the blast the previous year. The walls had to be pushed back straight and it was then that the steel ties were used to keep them in position. The church was to suffer other indignities during the next few years, including the failing of the heating system and the organ being "stricken with illness" and it was not until September 20th l952 that it was possible to hold a Thanksgiving Service for the church's eventual restoration. Hart's account of the church's history during the war is entitled "The Second Stoning of St Stephen".
The glass in the west window had of course been lost during the war and a memorial window by Moira Forsyth was installed in l952 and paid for out of the War Damage claim. It depicts St Stephen and St Paul, St Stephen being shown as at the time of his martyrdom; the stones used lying at his feet. St Paul is illustrated in his maturity as preacher and teacher rather than as the young man then called Saul who witnessed Stephen's death. The window also contains the coats of arms of the three dioceses in which the parish of St Stephen's has been and there are also the arms of Alleyn's College of God's Gift at Dulwich. Finally there is an interesting depiction of what is known as the pelican in her piety which, rather than see her fledglings starve, fed them with her own blood, just as Christ shed his blood for mankind on the Cross
Turning back for a last look up the church, one is struck by the beauty and symmetry of the building, its glorious decoration and openness for worship, not to mention the exciting presence of the new organ at the (liturgical) west end!