Above: View in the chapel looking towards the altar from one of two entrance doorways.
The chapel is situated within the King’s College London campus, adjacent to Somerset House, on the south side of the Strand. While the college itself has a fascinating history, this article will concentrate on the chapel and its history. However, it might be helpful to get some idea of the background to the college and so some of its early history will be described.
King’s College London (KCL) was founded by King George IV and the Duke of Wellington in 1829 as a university college in the tradition of the Church of England. You may be surprised to learn that it was founded as a rival to London University, in Gower Street, which had been founded in 1826 with the backing of Utilitarians, Jews and non-Anglican Christians, as a secular institution. London University was intended to educate ‘the youth of our middling rich people between the ages of 15 or 16 and 20 or later’ – giving it the nickname of ‘the godless college in Gower Street’. It later became known as University College London (UCL).
KCL was founded to run along the lines of the Church of England. It was not until 1903 that the King’s College London Act abolished all remaining religious tests for staff, except within the Theological department. While KCL is open to all students of all beliefs today, it is unusual among British educational institutions in that its Dean is an ordained person, responsible for overseeing the spiritual development and welfare of all students and staff.
The Chapel was part of the original design of the buildings at KCL. It was completed in 1831, designed by Robert Smirke, and situated on the first floor of the college, above the Great Hall. No prints or illustrations exist to show what that first interior looked like but it was described as being ‘low, broad and plain’.
The original chapel was considered to be unworthy of KCL and, at the suggestion of the College Chaplain, it was agreed by the College Council to have it redesigned in 1859. The architect appointed was George Gilbert Scott and the work cost about £7,000. Because the chapel was on the first floor, there were weight considerations which meant that the columns in the chapel was kept narrow to reduce their weight and therefore avoid having to strengthen the floor. At the altar end a semicircular apse was added, with external supports in the form of large iron brackets.
To overcome the weight problems, a lightweight construction system was employed for the arcade and upper nave walls that concentrated the loading above the iron columns on the floor below. The wall is fabricated in iron with paired ornamental cast iron columns and an applied timber frame facing above. The original roof was lightly built in order to reduce stress on the wall framing. The apse, which forms the chancel and gives direction to the interior, projects beyond the original east wall of the Chapel. As it stands approximately four storeys above ground, Scott supported it on a curved wrought iron beam and a pair of cast iron columns, which in turn stand on an arcaded brick support structure. Framing out a section of the east wall also added apparent depth to the apse without the need for additional structural support.
In the 20th century the original pitched roof was covered with canvas decorated in bays with large star motifs. These were lost when the present coffered flat ceiling was substituted in 1931-32 to allow the construction of the Hambleden Building of Anatomy above.
The low level windows were originally embellished with stained glass in the same style as the mosaics in the three blank windows. In 1948, following damage in the Second World War, including the loss and damage of most of the stained glass, architect Stephen Dykes Bower was asked to produce proposals for the Chapel. Under his direction, the remaining stained glass was removed and tinted cathedral glass substituted. The arcade columns were painted green and the original designs on the aisle and apse walls were also painted out at this time so that until the recent renovation work these were plain whitewashed walls.
From 1996 plans were put in place to restore and refurbish the chapel so that Scott’s original design could be recreated at the same time as developing a space that would have flexibility and relevance to the current generation of people using it. The new architect was Duncan Wilson of Inskip and Jenkins. New stained glass was also created by Joseph Nuttgens.
In the apse is a painted copy of a mosaic by the Renaissance artist Salviati, depicting Christ in majesty flanked by angels symbolising the Spirit of God. The painted walls now have their original design and include the symbols of the gospel writers. The Reredos includes at its heart an intricate mosaic whose central feature is the Lamb of God.
One feature that should also be mentioned is the organ by Henry Willis, originally dating from the 1860s. The original Willis organ was placed several feet higher than it is now, with the console under the front pipes. Major rebuilding and alteration had to be undertaken in the 1930s when the chapel’s pitched roof was replaced with the present flat ceiling. The reconstruction was carried out by Henry Willis III, the grandson of the original maker. After another refit in 1976, further work was carried out 2000-01 when the organ pipes underwent major restoration. That work revealed the beautiful angel designs on the largest front-facing pipes. A new console was designed and installed by Bishop & Son and was located in its present position in the North Aisle adjacent to the choir stalls.
The chapel is still used for its original purpose with morning prayers being said each day. On Wednesday there is a Church of England communion service. On Thursday Roman Catholic Mass and Orthodox Vespers take place. The choral tradition is very important to the chapel and the choir sings at evensong each Tuesday and at the Communion on Wednesday. As well as these regular services the Chapel is used for weddings and memorial services.
Although the chapel is situated within the college buildings, it is open to the public who may visit it at any time. This article is the first part relating to the chapel. It will be followed by further details of the new stained glass that was installed in 2003.