St Giles’ church Cambridge appears on the list of churches on a surviving tradecard for the Cambridge firm of F R Leach & Sons as being a building ‘where examples of our work may been seen’. Recent research is revealing that the buildings included in this list are not only places where the Leach firm carried out the decoration but where they specifically designed the scheme as well.
The chancel ceiling and screen at St Giles are in many ways typical of Leach work in the Gothic Revival style – rich reds and deep greens predominate, studded with gilded paterae – and so it was with some confidence that the church records were first searched, hoping to find an invoice from the firm or at least some reference to their being responsible for the painted decoration.
There was only one: a reference in the churchwardens’ accounts to the copper panels in the rood screen being painted by Frederick Leach’s son in 1902: ‘Jan 24th 1902 8 pictures on rood on copper done by B McLean Leach’. Further research in local newspapers revealed that this may have been the final flourish in what had been a long job since an article in the Cambridge Chronicle for 1 January 1897 commented that the chancel screen at St Giles was not adorned with the usual flowers or greenery in any way ‘as it is being re-painted by Messrs F R Leach & Sons’.
But, why no reference in any records to the painted ceiling in the chancel? Returning to a clutch of letters from the Leach archive that were deposited at the William Morris Gallery in the 1960s, a possible answer became clear.
In 1875, a new vicar arrived at St Giles – Rev Francis Slater. He moved into the vicarage with his wife Ann and his daughters, Mary and Margaret. This marked a return to Cambridge for Francis as he had been a student at Queens’ College in Cambridge. Perhaps on his return to Cambridge he visited his former College and saw the work just completed by the Leach firm for Bodley in the Old Hall? Or perhaps, being aware of the newly built church of St Giles, Frederick Leach first wrote to the new vicar himself. Whatever circumstances led up to this point, on 10 January 1876 Rev Francis Slater wrote a letter to Frederick Leach to pursue his “most kind offer to decorate the roof of St Giles church”.
In this letter, the vicar recounts that he has shown Frederick Leach’s tracing to the Bishop who “liked it very much” and also to the architect, Mr Healy of Bradford, who had some comments about the pattern. Rev Slater also asked, “without at all desiring to ask you to modify your plan”, whether a more conventional flower or other design might be added as he would prefer this to “the repetition of the sacred symbol”, i.e. ‘IHS’. The design as painted shows that Frederick Leach did modify his plans and included flower motifs in addition to IHCs.
The scaffolding must have been hired and set up and the work completed without much delay as the William Morris Gallery archive contains a second letter from Rev Slater to Frederick Leach dated 8 March 1876 which might explain why no trace of this work survives in the church or any other public records. Having confirmed payment of £5 for the scaffolding, Rev Slater continues, “I will respect your desire not to be thanked for the work on the roof and will not bring forward in Vestry any proposal for a Vote of Thanks – as I should have done – I will not even add any expressions of gratitude on my account”. Although he cannot resist adding in the letter that “the decorated roof is to me a daily pleasure”.
And so it appears that Frederick Leach designed and completed the decoration of the chancel roof at St Giles in early Spring 1876 on his own account at no charge (excepting for the cost of the scaffolding) and expressly wished for this not to be publicly acknowledged.
The two letters in the William Morris Gallery are WMG J850 and J850a.