Margaretta S. Frederick, “On Frederic Shields’ Chapel of the Ascension, 1887-1910”


On 26 February 1911, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederic Shields (born 1833) died, having spent the last twenty years of his life devoted to the decoration of the Chapel of the Ascension in Bayswater, London. Conceived of in 1887, completed in 1910, bombed in 1944 during the Blitz of World War II and demolished in 1969, the Chapel represents changing Victorian precepts of religion and faith as well as attitudes towards public art and decoration on the eve of the modern age. Designed by the architect and aesthete Herbert Horne (1864-¬1916) and modeled on thirteenth-century northern Italian church architecture, the chapel design was a reflection of the British rediscovery of the Italian Renaissance during the Victorian period. Shields’ use of the marouflage technique, mimicking continental fresco schemes, reflects a national desire to raise public British art to a level of “high art,” which would ensure it a place in the art historical canon.

In May 1882 the Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederic Shields (1833-1911) was introduced to Emelia Gurney (1823-96), who proposed “a commission to paint certain subjects on the walls of a country church” (qtd. in Shields, Chapel 99). The building was designed by the architect and aesthete Herbert Horne (1864-­1916) and based on Italian Renaissance ecclesiastical architecture. The chapel and its decoration were a reflection of the British rediscovery of the Italian Renaissance in the second half of the nineteenth century. The non-sectarian site meant for quiet contemplation and its weighty iconographic decoration represent the mitosis of religious practice and belief taking place in Britain at the time. Non-denominational, but firmly Christian in iconography, the pictorial scheme covering the walls from chair-rail to ceiling, jointly conceived by artist and patron, was devised to “manifest, to show forth, [and] to illustrate” the power of faith (Shields, “Letter to Irene”). Conceived on the cusp of a national revival in public mural decoration, Shields’ choice of the French technique of marouflage (affixing a painted canvas to a wall surface in imitation of true fresco painting) was a result of numerous contemporary attempts to recreate the great age of Renaissance fresco painting and thereby assure England’s place within the history of monumental art.[1]  The Chapel was completed in October 1910, fourteen years after the patron’s death and three months before that of the artist. Bombed on 18 June 1944 during the Blitz of World War II and demolished in 1969, the Chapel of the Ascension existed intact for only thirty-four years.

Frederic Shields was born in 1833 in map iconHartlepool, in northeastern England, but spent most of his working life in map iconManchester and London.  The premature death of his father left Shields responsible for the support of his mother and siblings at a young age. His autobiography describes acute poverty and periods of semi-starvation—circumstances that deeply influenced his life-long religious piety.  Artistic training was limited to apprenticeships in the commercial engraving industry and evening art classes in Manchester and London. Shields’ mature style came into being with his introduction to the Pre-Raphaelite circle, beginning with Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1864. He became life-long friends with Ford Madox Brown, with whom he initially shared the commission (1878) to paint the murals in the map iconManchester Town Hall.

In 1882 Shields was hard at work on the decoration of a private chapel at map iconEaton Hall, outside of Chester, for Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, third Marquis (later first Duke) of Westminster. The chapel had been designed by Shields’ good friend and fellow Mancunian, Alfred Waterhouse, and it was through him that Shields received the commission (Mills 225). The design included both mosaic and stained-glass window decoration, but no painting. The subject was the Te deum or hymn of praise. Shields wrote ecstatically of receiving this commission:

The golden opportunity, for which my life’s longings and aims had been insensibly fitting me, was come . . . I thanked God, and the theme accepted, St. Ambrose’s glorious “Te Deum,” kindled and enflamed my soul. Here I had no more to deal with isolated subjects, but with one grand argument, linked in blessed continuity to keep the heart heated and the mind alive to the completion of its great end, the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ by inspired apostles, prophets and Martyrs, and the Holy Church of all the ages. (“Frederic” 166)

From this we gather a sense of his pronounced piety, but also his desire to work on a large-scale theological program—interests that would play out in the subsequent commission for the Chapel of the Ascension. His idiosyncratic, evangelical visual program employed “symbolic devices, scripturally suggestive of those individual manifestations of the Holy Spirit . . .” (Shields, “Frederic” 168).

It was undoubtedly his work at Eaton that brought Shields to the attention of the wealthy widow of a powerful conservative Member of Parliament and judge, Mrs. (Emelia) Russell Gurney. He was introduced to her in 1882 by Georgiana Cowper-Temple, a patron and confidante of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, during one of her regular visits to Shields’ studio. Gurney was a devout Quaker, feminist, and active reformer. As she grew older, she was particularly influenced by aspects of mystic Christianity championed by the Cowper-Temples at gatherings or “Conferences for the Higher Life” held at their home, Broadlands in map iconKent. Her entrance into Shields’ life was described by his life-long friend Charles Rowley as “a godsend” (85). The two were of like spiritual mind.

When her husband died in 1878, Gurney was looking for new work to fill the void. At the time of their initial meeting, Shields was still completing the decorations at Eaton. With the passing of time and continued discussion between patron and painter, the project was refined until it became “a desire to plant in some great highway of London a place of rest for wayfarers, and for prayer and meditation, wherein body, mind, and spirit, oppressed with the hurrying roar of the city’s life, might find repose and a refreshing feast ever liberally spread upon its walls, for whosoever willed to enter” (Chapel 138). A series of false starts in the discovery of a suitable location delayed the project until 1888 when a plot was finally approved at the old St. George’s burial ground in map iconBayswater, London, across from map iconHyde Park (Gurney 275).

Shields suggested Herbert Horne as the architect for the building—a recommendation undoubtedly brought about through mutual participation in the Century Guild, a collaborative of artists and craftsmen active between 1883 and 1892 and co-founded by Horne, Arthur Mackmurdo, and Selwyn Image. While Horne made important designs for the Guild, his most important contribution lay in his editorship of the associated publication, the Century Guild Hobby Horse, a publication to which Shields contributed. The Chapel of the Ascension is probably Horne’s most substantial architectural commission. Shortly after its completion he moved permanently to map iconItaly where he became more focused on art historical and critical writing. His writing during this period included what was considered the definitive publication on Sandro Botticelli, reflecting the author’s lifetime interest in Italian Renaissance art and architecture.[2]

Gurney had been inspired by a chapel she had seen in map iconFlorence, and from the beginning she envisioned the architectural design to be early Renaissance in inspiration.[3] In the fall of 1889 she sent Horne and Shields to northern Italy to study the architecture of the region. The church of Santa Maria della Grazie in map iconPietrasanta in the map iconCarrara district was the eventual model for Horne’s design (Saxl 334), with some modifications to accommodate the plot shape and preexisting structures on the London property. The design had also to be tailored to allow ample wall space for the proposed decorative program.[4] Shields was adamant that windows should be placed high enough so as not to interfere with the narrative scheme. He wrote with some vehemence to Horne in December of 1889:

There is a foundation principle which I desire to lay firmly down, i.e. that the paintings are not for the building, but the building for the paintings. That I am not to be cramped into the bed, but the bed made to my measure, with room to stretch myself a little. This was why I endeavored to begin at the end, to see before me, and to formulate a settled plan of the division of the wall into three main quantities or tiers.

1. The lowest to be of subjects with many figures.

2. That above to be mainly of single figures in divided niches.

3. And the uppermost of a narrower line to receive angelic figures which Mrs. Gurney much sets her heart on. (“Letter to Herbert”)

The exterior of the building was finally completed in the winter of 1894 under the direction of W. H. Burke, the same builder with whom Shields had worked at Eaton.

Exterior, Chapel of the Ascension

Figure 1: Exterior, Chapel of the Ascension. Reproduced by permission of English Heritage. NMR.

There are scant contemporary photographs or descriptions of the exterior structure. Fritz Saxl recalled, “[m]any of us when passing by have looked on it as a strange unworldly little building, quite out of touch with the busy life around it” (334). Given its purposefully retardataire design, it must have stood out as unique amidst the modernist buildings of early-twentieth-century London.

Gurney was in poor health, and there was a great deal of pressure to bring the project as close to completion as possible with all speed. With this in mind, Shields obtained permission from the Duke of Westminster to re-use some of the Eaton Chapel designs to accelerate the process (Chapel x). This circumstance has led to some present-day confusion as to which preparatory drawings relate to Eaton and which to the Chapel of the Ascension. The identification process is additionally clouded as the Eaton Chapel is private and only rarely open to public view.

Work on the ceiling and upper level of the walls was completed first, with the aid of scaffolding. The ceiling decoration consisted of geometrical designs in a manner similar to that of map iconSan Miniato in Florence. Shields took on an assistant, Innes Fripp, for this portion of the project, which included the frieze of angels around the arch of the south wall over the organ-loft and, it would appear, everything above the window line. The upper portion of the decoration was completed and scaffolding removed by February 1895.

Below the window level the painted program consisted of large scenes arranged in two broad horizontal bands flanked by two narrower bands of smaller panels above and below, with Old Testament imagery on the south wall and New Testament scenes  opposite. These narratives were separated by depictions of individual saints, which were iconographically associated.

Interior, Chapel of the Ascension

Figure 2: Interior, Chapel of the Ascension. Reproduced by permission of English Heritage. NMR.

There is no question that the theological program depicted in the chapel was mutually agreed upon by patron and painter. The following two passages, composed by Gurney, were carved into the stonework on either side of the entrance:

[Left] Passengers through the busy streets of London,

Enter this sanctuary for rest, and silence, and prayer.

Let the pictured walls within speak of the past

Yet ever continuing ways of God with man.

[Right] Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?[5]

Come and rest awhile.

Commune with your own hearts, and be still.

Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. (v)

Shields shared the evangelical mission of his patron. He referred to these scenes as “faith settings,” correcting a critic’s use of the term “decoration,” explaining, “I could have painted the place decoratively in one fourth the time spent on its lavish thoughts and invention” (“Letter to Irene”). The frivolous connotation of the concept of “decoration” was considered by Shields to trivialize the powerful experience the chapel provided for visitors. Shields considered his decorations as “illustrations” (a term with which the artist was more comfortable) that reflected or inspired spiritual edification.

Public mural painting experienced a revival during the nineteenth century, as illustrated in numerous schemes including George Frederick Watt’s School of Lawgivers at Lincoln’s Inn (1859) and the extensive decorations of the map iconSouth Kensington Museum executed throughout the 1860s. Shields’ scheme shared with all of these projects a desire to educate and provide information to the intended audience. The images on the walls of the Chapel of the Ascension, however, take this concept to another state in the intensity of the moral and spiritual exegesis on display.

Shields’ guidebook to the Chapel, first published in 1897, prior to the completion, recounts the artist’s interpretation of the iconographical message of the interior. Shields describes Gurney’s vision of the program as “express[ing] the eternal purpose of God’s redeeming love, developing through successive dispensations” (Chapel vii). Shields’ own mission, however, included his displeasure with contemporary religious decoration. He was adamant that the images in the Chapel of the Ascension should stand apart from religious programs of the day, which he found “destitute of the inspiration of faith” (viii). He described his work as “an art begotten of such consecrated aim, saying ‘Amen’ from the walls” (ix). The juxtaposition of the dogmatism of the somewhat relentless evangelical message expressed in the visual program with the more liberal welcoming of all denominations for “rest, silence and prayer” is puzzling and may be attributed to the subtly differing perspectives of patron and painter (Gurney paraphrased in Shields, Chapel vi).

The method for applying the murals to the walls was the subject of a great deal of discourse prior to the start of the project. Earlier experiments with fresco in the cold damp English climate generally met with disaster. New techniques, including that developed by Thomas Gambier Parry in 1862, were celebrated, if somewhat complicated in execution.  Shields had some experience in this technical dilemma through his involvement with Ford Madox Brown in the early work on the Manchester Town Hall decorations (begun 1878). The first part of the Manchester program was carried out using the Gambier Parry method, but Madox Brown switched to the French technique of marouflage for the last five murals begun in August 1885 (Treuherz 179).

Shields too finally decided on marouflage for the Chapel of the Ascension, based on the success of the mural programs of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.[6] The method encompassed riveting blocks of slate to the walls, leaving an air chamber behind, to keep moisture from the exterior wall from affecting the interior decoration. The paintings were executed on canvas and affixed to the slate using a composition of white lead, a popular adhesive at this time, as it was considered to be inert to moisture and unattractive to insects, unlike traditional glue (Bell 345).

The subjects were executed in a style that is clearly indebted to the high Renaissance, an approach that causes some visual incongruity with the architectural scheme, based on earlier Italian models. The emotional fervor of Shields’ personal spiritual proclivities is apparent in the somewhat overly dramatic posing of figures, swirling drapery, and vivid color. This is visible, for instance, in the oil study for Man Hearkens to the Appeal of Conscience.

Shields Oil Study

Figure 3: Oil Study for Man Hearkens to the Appeal of Conscience, Hartlepool Cultural Services

In March of 1896, a special public opening of the chapel was held, preceded by a series of lectures presented by the mystic Reverend Roland W. Corbet, a favorite of Gurney. At this time the decorative program was still incomplete, but the public presentation was deemed necessary because of the patron’s poor health. Indeed, Gurney died in the fall of that year. After her death, the project moved more slowly. It had been her support and extreme faith in Shields that kept the project afloat during the already protracted process. Her enthusiasm was not shared by the estate executors, who were unhappy with the slow progress.[7] Payments were made grudgingly and not without heated exchange. Completion was additionally hindered by Shields’ poor health, and the work was not finished until late in 1911, just a few months prior to his death.

The extended passage of time from concept to completion produced a structure and mission that were no longer relevant to the originally intended audience. The Victorian nostalgia for the past generated by a concern for the pressures of the industrial age had by this time been superseded by different societal issues.  There was no fanfare celebrating the conclusion of the project. With Shields’ death the interest of the executors of the chapel was almost entirely suspended. The chapel was not even consecrated until September 1913. Deterioration began almost immediately, caused by leaks and improper heating. In February of 1938, the map iconPaddington Borough Council declared the crypt of the chapel a public air raid shelter (“File”). On 18 June 1944, the chapel was listed as “destroyed by enemy action” (Victorian Church Art 135). The remains were completely demolished in 1969 during the clean up after the war.

Shortly after the chapel was bombed, the artist and mural painter Frank Brangwyn (1867–1956) discovered what he believed to be Shields’ cartoons for the Chapel stored in the YMCA on map iconTottenham Court Road in London (Horner and Naylor 74).  A decorative painter himself, Brangwyn enthusiastically recognized their importance and began a campaign to place them in the collections of museums throughout the United Kingdom, including the map iconBritish Museum, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, and the map iconWilliam Morris Gallery.  Some of these cartoons, primarily works on paper, appear to be original designs for Eaton Hall (examples can be seen in the British Museum and at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery). Others are specifically for the Chapel of the Ascension project. Additional preliminary work can be found in numerous public and private collections in the United Kingdom, map iconCanada, and the United States, including the map iconDelaware Art Museum.

The Chapel of the Ascension was a significant architectural undertaking driven by extreme piety on the part of patron and painter. The design, both interior and exterior, was incontrovertibly inspired by ecclesiastical programs of the Italian Renaissance, much of which were newly discovered during the Victorian era. It was conceived and executed during a period of particular interest in monumental public architecture and design. This nationwide building program was directly related to a national desire for creative status and was fueled by the expanding British Empire and the economic growth of the Industrial Revolution. By the time of its completion, however, the rumblings of the First World War signaled a change in the country’s colonial, military, and economic status that rendered the chapel’s intended mission incomprehensible. Today this monument to a fleeting instant of faith and prosperity exists only in a few tantalizingly cropped photographs and scattered painted images in varying degrees of finish.

Margaretta S. Frederick is the Chief Curator and Curator of the Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art at the Delaware Art Museum (Wilmington, DE). Dr. Frederick received her PhD from Bryn Mawr College in 1996, with a specialization in British nineteenth-century art. Dr. Frederick has been tangential to the Museum’s Bancroft Collection for over ten years, achieving full curatorship in 2007. She organized Waking Dreams, the two year tour of the Delaware Art Museum’s Pre-Raphaelite Collection as well as the reinstallation of the collection (fall of 2007).


published May 2012

Frederick, Margaretta S. “On Frederic Shields’ Chapel of the Ascension, 1887-1910.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Bell, J. Hyslop. “A Shrine of Sacred Art: Its Origin and Artists.” Windsor Magazine 7.3 (Feb. 1898): 338-46. Print.

“File of Fire and Burglary Insurance Policies for the Chapel of the Ascension.” 1 May 1917-3 May 1950. MS 2520/15. City of Westminster Archives.

Gurney, Ellen Mary, ed. Letters of Emelia Russell Gurney. London: Nisbet, 1902. Print.

Horne, Herbert. Alessandro Filipepi Commonly Called Sandro Bottiecelli, Painter of Florence. London: Bell & Sons, 1908. Print.

Horner, Libby, and Gillian Naylor, eds. Frank Brangwyn 1867-1956. Leeds: Leeds City Art Gallery, 2006. Print.

Mills, Ernestine, ed. The Life and Letters of Frederic Shields. London: Longmans, Green, 1912. Print.

Rowley, Charles. 50 Years of Work Without Wages. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911. Print.

Saxl, Fritz. “Three Florentines: Herbert Horne, A. Warburg, Jacques Mesnil.” Lectures. Vol. 1. London: Warburg Institute, U of London, 1957. 331-345. Print.

Shields, Frederic. The Chapel of the Ascension, Its Story and Scheme. London: Stock, 1897. Print.

—. “Frederic Shields: An Autobiography.” Ed. Henry C. Ewart. Toilers in Art. London: Isbister, 1891: 153-68. Print.

—. Letter to Herbert Horne. 1 Dec. 1889. MS. Hartlepool Museums and Heritage Service.

—. Letter to Irene Langridge. 18 June 1903. MS 1981/70. Pressmark 86. WW.1. Special Collections, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Treuherz, Julian. “Ford Madox Brown and the Manchester Murals.” Art and Architecture in Victorian Manchester. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1985. Print.

Victorian Church Art. Exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 1971). Print.

Willsdon, Clare A.P. Mural Painting in Britain, 1840-1940. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.


[1] For an overview of the revival of mural painting in Britain, see Willsdon.

[2] Alessandro Filipepi Commonly Called Sandro Bottiecelli, Painter of Florence.

[3] Unfortunately, we do not know which building inspired Gurney’s vision for the chapel. Shields recalled only, “[l]ong ago the hope of building such a place had been aroused by a small chapel she had seen in Florence, where few services were held, but simply set apart for meditation and prayer, and always open” (Shields, Chapel 138).

[4] Horne’s initial plans for the chapel are in the Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum, although some significant alterations were made in the final structure. Prints and Drawings Department, Victoria and Albert Museum, E.1146-1920 through E.1157-1920.

[5] This passage from the KJV, Lamentations 1:12, is often paired with New Testament readings during the Tenebrae.

[6] Puvis de Chavannes died in 1898 just as the Chapel of the Ascension project was being launched. His work was considered in numerous contemporary journals in Britain and was a source for much of the broader discussion regarding mural application.

[7] See correspondence and papers located in the City of Westminster Archives Centre.