The Restoration of the Lady Chapel

When Fr Dolling’s basilica opened in 1895 the only part of the church to be decorated was the eastern end of the Lady Chapel. The decoration of the apse, semi-dome and flanking wall in sgraffito, mosaic, coloured glass, marble and wood was intended to be a glimpse of glory yet to come when the whole of the interior would one day be covered with murals proclaiming the glory of God.

Designed and executed by Heywood Sumner, a disciple of William Morris, the chapel scheme centred upon a mosaic of the Blessed Virgin with the Holy Child set upon a blue ground in the semi-dome which was punctuated by five windows showing SS Simeon, Elizabeth, Zacharias, John the Baptist and Anna.

Below, on the drum wall, a broad band of sgraffito depicted three panels portraying the Annunciation, the Salutation and Christ with the Doctors of the Temple. The remaining section of the drum wall, to pavement level, was panelled in oak. High above the semi-dome, Sumner depicted the Nativity, with the Holy Family in the stable, approached on either side by the Magi and the Shepherds. A black and white marble pavement covered floor of the apse. More oak was used to line the walls either side of the apse; these were inscribed in gold leaf with the names of the first communicants of the parish. Additional oak was used to line the walls to dado level in the sanctuary of the chapel.

Following the closure of the church 1954, the oak was removed to St Mary’s Hospital Chapel, Portsmouth. Ten years later the greater part of the eastern end of the chapel was destroyed by Portsmouth City Council for road construction. Today the road across the site of the apse no longer exists and has been designated as the site for the reconstructed apse.

In 1994, following a twenty five year campaign to prevent the demolition of the church, St Agatha’s was restored and the dream of rebuilding the lost apse became a possibility.

There are a number of sound reasons why the mutilated chapel should be restored to its original appearance.

The following elements required for a rebuilding survive:

  • The architectural plans and drawing for the Lady Chapel
  • Sumner’s colour wash cartoons for the murals and mosaic
  • Approximately one third of the sqraffito mural showing the Adoration of the Magi
  • Samples of the missing mosaic and terracotta window decoration
  • Photographs showing the interior and exterior of the Chapel in its original form
  • Oak panelling removed in 1954, has been returned to the church
  • The original foundations

The proposal to rebuild the Lady Chapel is planned for two stages.

Stage 1: The rebuilding of the apse and semi-dome estimated at some £500,000

Stage 2: The reworking of the sgraffito mural and mosaic which will follow as funds become available

There is now the possibility that the area around the church will be redeveloped with St Agatha’s as the centrepiece of a new urban landscape. The restoration of the architectural integrity of this Grade II* basilica has now taken on a new urgency. Righting the wrong of the past should surely be a matter of civic pride as well as a growing understanding of the legacy of the Arts and Crafts Movement in a hitherto forgotten part of Portsmouth.