My favourite holiday destination has long been Jersey, and suffice it to say that by now, as a family, we have returned repeatedly to explore the many castles, beaches and walks this wonderful island has to offer. This time though, I was determined to abandon the family for an afternoon and go on an arthistorical recce to visit one of Jersey’s true artistic gems, St. Matthew’s at Milbrook (on the main bus line between St. Helier and the airport), and a location probably every visitor to Jersey passes, yet few enter. But inside, there is quite a treat in store for the visitor: a unique church interior designed by Rene Lalique….. Yes, *that* Lalique! The story behind this very special church interior is quickly told: Jesse and Florence Boot lived in Villa Milbrook, and St. Mathew’s was their local parish church. The Boots’ also had a property in Southern France, and their neighbour there happened to be Lalique. When Florence Boot needed some new door panels for her French villa, her neighbour obliged and designed them for her, and Florence was delighted with them. So, when Jesse Boot died, Florence commissioned Rene Lalique (1860-1954) in 1934 to refurbish the old 19th century chapel of St. Matthew’s in commemoration of her husband. Lalique, who is best known for smaller-scale glass work, spent much of the 1930s on monumental glass sculptures and interiors, such as the dining room of the SS Normandie, Orient Express railroad cars and also two churches, La Chapelle de la Vierge Fidele a la Deliverance at Calvados, and St. Matthew’s. With the exception of St. Matthew’s though, most of this monumental glasswork has been destroyed, so this little church in Jersey is unique in rather a lot of ways as it allows a rare glimpse at a completely preserved Lalique interior.
From the outside, St. Matthew’s is a startlingly plain but elegant edifice, and to my Nottingham eyes at least, the simplicity of the church recalls the Art Deco look of the University of Nottingham’s Trent Building (1927), so the aesthetic is definitely one favoured by Florence and Jesse Boot. The origins of St. Matthew’s as a 19th-century chapel required considerable adaptation and remodelling before the exterior and interior spaces were suitable for Lalique’s glasswork, and this work fell to local Jersey architect A.B Grayson who did a masterly job in setting the stage for Lalique’s interior. There are lots of little details outside that speak of what is to come inside; for example, Grayson ensured that the East wall, the wall behind the altar, had no windows as this created the perfect setting for the extraordinary Lady Chapel inside. The church is entered through the Vestibule, which sports exquisite details that give an idea of what the main body of the church holds. Take the glass panels in the door, for example- these are modelled on the angels in the Lady Chapel, and are much easier to study close-up than their monumental cousins inside the church. Also in the vestibule are panels that show the dominant visual motif inside the church proper, the Jersey Lily. Again, its worth lingering in the vestibule to get a proper look, because inside, while the lilies are everywhere, on screens, the glass font, on the glass cross, they are often more abstract and again not as easily seen.
The vestibule opens into the church proper, and what the visitor encounters there is a wonderfully complete interior, with every element designed by Lalique to work together. Its quite a space to enter…
The space is perfectly symmetrically divided between the Lady Chapel on the left and the Sacristy space on the right by a monumental glass cross and two glass pillars, with the spaces divided by monumental glass screens. The space is light and airy and flooded with light, both from the windows and the strip lighting on the ceiling- a perfect modernist, elegant Art Deco space, designed through to take account of every detail.
The monumental illuminated cross ( standing at over 4 m) that dominates the main body of the church though is just an introduction to the contemplative imagery of the Lady Chapel , the space dedicated to Jesse Boot’s memory, with its striking altarpiece.
The four angels that make up the altarpiece are the focal point of the Lady Chapel; they stand as tall as the cross, all of them with wings folded and hands crossed over their chests, and the rhythm of these four tall columnar figures standing next to each other is calm, contemplative and really rather beautiful, especially when framed by the elegant glass screens with their stylised Jersey lily motifs.
The church is definitely worth a visit, and taking time to look at all the little details makes the interior come together even more beautifully; for example, the glass font is actually signed, and proudly displays Lalique’s name. It is certainly an unexpected church interior and recalls the sumptuousness and luxury of contemporary Art Deco spaces.
It also raises a few questions for me to look into on return to Nottingham and access to the library. Clearly, Jesse and Florence Boot in their architectural commissions favoured a clean, elegant Art Deco look, and aesthetic that also appears to have informed Florence’s choice of Lalique as the designer for both her villa in France and importantly St. Matthew’s. But at the moment, I know nothing about any other projects she may have commissioned, or objects she may have possessed and collected. Female patrons often seem to construct an identity for themselves through the objets they surround themselves with and the project they leave behind (often, as in the case of Florence Boot aimed at the education of other women), so my best place to start and to take this further is very close to home: Florence Boot Hall at the University of Nottingham….