St. Martin-le-Grand, 1961-69, et al.
Furniture by George Gaze Pace

Furnishing Modernity

Organ being inspected by man on ladder
Fig. 1: organ builder Arthur Cooper at work on the new organ installed in St. Martin-le-Grand which was designed by Pace and made by J.W. Walker & Sons, photographer unknown, 1968, image courtesy of York Press.

York is full of beloved churches and places of worship whose architecture conveys grandeur and value to the city. Sadly, there is no extensive literature regarding York’s twentieth-century churches and their twentieth-century furnishings and interiors. Post-war architecture and design, and particularly the 1960s, were a decade rich in ground-breaking and innovative ways of imagining clever yet convenient and functional architecture and design through times of significant socio-economic change. The integration of C20 furnishings in buildings of a different style or context is regarded as a sensitive matter, however; yet churches and estates, and their furnishings, were constantly evolving to mirror innovations, fashion trends, and historic and political changes, York Minster being a perfect example of this long process. The church furnishings of George Gaze Pace (1915-1975) in and around York are illustrative of this hybrid heritage. Pace, known mostly as an ecclesiastical architect, devoted his life to the construction and renovation of churches and their contents, designing hundreds of church furnishings around Britain, and especially in Yorkshire. 1 In fact, Pace settled in York in 1941, when appointed Lieutenant for the Northern Regiment. As well as an architect, he was a prolific writer; particularly significant was his unfinished Worship and Architecture, a valuable record of his thoughts on the changes that churches needed in order to satisfy the needs of post-war society, detailing his vision. 2 He also wrote about fittings. For instance, he delivered a paper titled Ironwork at the Wrought Ironwork Exhibition at the King’s Manor in York in May 1970, gave several lectures to the York Georgian Group and wrote, amongst other articles, an article on early nineteenth-century Gothic vestry safes quoting heavily from the works of nineteenth-century architect A. W. N. Pugin, for the Architectural Review.3

In York, his work can be found, amongst others, at St. Martin le Grand, St. Olave’s, Holy Trinity, St. James the Deacon and York St. John’s University Chapel (the subject of a vignette on this website by Samuel Kennedy). He also built one of the first modern parish churches in York after WWII, literally integrating a third of the demolished St. Mary’s Bishophill Senior into the modern Holy Redeemer church, Acomb (1959-65), an unprecedented occasion in York’s modern history.4 As with all his buildings, the design of furniture was a key consideration, an essential part of the whole vision.

Designer's scale drawing of lighting system
Fig. 2: design for electroliers at the Church of the Holy Redeemer in Acomb, by George Pace, 1964, Borthwick Institute for Archives: PR_Y_HR_16a_75.

Pace’s professional ability spanned the construction of churches, their renovation, and the design of their interiors and furnishings, and encompassed all aspects of the building, organically.  From him, we inherited buildings and furnishings, some harder to categorise, such as church pieces, functional liturgical objects, organs, tomb headstones and more. His designs were all realised using wood, glass, and cast iron moulded by highly skilled craftsmen from nearby workshops, with whom he had established life-long collaborations.5

One of his most demanding tasks was probably the restoration of the medieval church of St. Martin-le-Grand on Coney Street, which had been severely damaged on 19 April 1942 due to an air raid.6 Pace undertook the work between 1961 and 1969.7 He had a strict policy about the work that had to be done: everything that could be conserved had to be conserved, because of the inestimable value of the heritage site. In addition to this, his projects had to be completed with a very low budget, due to the economic crisis.8 St. Martin’s was creatively restored with a symbolic reminder of the former church nave left open to the air within an enclosed corridor. St. Martin’s glass, removed from the tracery to be salvaged from the war devastation, was put back into place with distinctive newly designed tracery, and became the pivot around which the whole of the new work revolved.9 The restoration of the church took seven years due to the precision and the high standards of the work. Pace also designed the cast-iron railings, light fixtures, and candleholders that had traditional references, yet looked modern, like the decorative cast-iron chapel railing. Visiting St. Martin’s, at first glance, these modern objects don’t seem out of place, but rather blend in, as they hold an intrinsic mediaeval charm.

Metal gate to stone courtyard
Fig. 3: wrought iron courtyard gates by Pace at St. Martin-le-Grand. Photo: © Stephen Craven, 2018.

Most memorable at St. Martin’s is the idiosyncratic organ, immediately recognisible as a Pace design. It is a stunning glass-framed organ, suspended in the air, which in the architect’s own words was (thanks to its glass) “conceived to be seen through rather than seen.”10

His take on organ design, then, may be his most avant-garde endeavour, as his son Peter recounts in his monograph of his father:

“The country was evolving and furnishings too, especially organs that all had the same tedious appearance previously. Nobody seemed capable of breaking out of the standard arrangements, but Pace had an innovative idea. To revive organs he put a large screen in front of the existing facade. These new materials allowed practical, economical and artistic approaches, and let the sound free while the eye was adapting to a new way to see an object that they already were used to.”11

Pace regarded architecture as an individual form of art and his influences can be found in the medieval and the Gothic Revival (especially the Perpendicular Gothic style), the Arts and Crafts movement, and the modern movement (especially its Continental pioneers and its early prophets in William Morris, C. F. A. Voysey and W. R. Lethaby). He felt estranged from the modern architecture represented by Walter Gropius and others that took a radical break with the past. Rather, he believed that modern architecture alone was not fitting with the aura and purpose of churches, and said he found his inspiration elsewhere, in the past, eventually founding a style that he regarded, and that we came to appreciate, as his own.12 Peter Pace explains:

“The philosophy behind the concept of his [George Pace’s] avant-garde church furnishing was that they had to be C20 in basic conception even though the details might not evidently convey that message to the visitors and the new work had to be designed to increase the architectural qualities of the original part retained.”13

Pace’s long and successful career as an ecclesiastical architect, and his vision as a whole, did face obstacles, aside from money constraints. Peter Pace mentions an instance in which his contemporaries dissociated themselves from his ground-breaking plans in fear of a public rejection of his avant-garde approach.14 Nonetheless he was granted support and approval by the Dean and Chapter of York who thought of him as the best person to realize their architectural plans. In his lifetime, Pace was known as a truly innovative ecclesiastical architect in his way of considering and altering space and objects in terms of both structure, design, and concept. His furnishings – scattered throughout his churches in York – speak for the power of design to unite past and future.