Report on visit to Kentish Town on 05/07/2008 - David Sutton
When Daniel Spencer, CLESO member, asked the society to visit St Luke’s it was with some excitement the date was put into the diaries. The “redundant” church of St Luke’s – and there is a whole untold story here for the church is still apparently consecrated but sadly unused for regular worship since the early 1990s – houses a three manual Willis organ from 1896 (or thereabouts) of 30 speaking stops in its original state apart from a refurbishment by Walkers in the mid-20th century. We were told it is very similar to the St Dominic’s Priory Willis fairly close by. Henry Willis lived nearby and possibly played this instrument as this was his parish church. However the provenance and provision of this instrument is shrouded with some degree of mystery as it seems there is no note of the organ in the company archives.
Due to an unfortunate series of events leading to the closure of the church about seventeen years ago, the organ got into a very bad state and became virtually unplayable. At that point Daniel came on the scene as a lad and, because he could still hear (just!) and imagined what could be, he vowed he would become an organ-builder in order to make it right again. To cut a long story short, he did fulfill his ambition with Bishop’s, and it is due to his dedication and dogged determination we now have this magnificent instrument singing again. It is also very helpful to be living just down the road!
The Basil Champneys architecture (with its William Morris stained glass) compliments the organ with its warm acoustics and the organ was ably and sensitively demonstrated by Maurice Merrill of Bishop’s and a long-time friend of Daniel. The strong bright diapason chorus – typically Willis (and hated by Rothwell we are led to believe!) - really sang. But, for the writer the stars of the sound spectrum were the chorus reeds. The Swell has three (16+8+4), the Great has two (8+4), and the Pedale (as per the Willis label on the stop-jamb) boasts a gem of a 16’ Ophicleide. These coupled together, without the benefit of the Swell/Great super or Swell/Great sub, produced such a rich yet fiery sound which seemed to include the diapasons as well! If you added the sub and super couplers – well, the effect was beyond description! The flutes and strings are of the superb quality one expects from a Willis of this vintage. The Swell box, controlled by a trigger, is very effective, shutting the sound of the flute and strings down to virtually nothing. In fact, when Maurice opened his demonstration with the 8’ flute it was difficult to make out the actual time when it did start! The Choir, with its collection of flutes/strings and two lovely solo reeds (Orchestral Oboe + Clarinet), is unenclosed.
Considering all that the instrument has gone through over the years – ravaged and “attacked” by neglect, careless builders and dirt - it really gave a thrilling account of itself, and the six members who got there were privileged to have been party to an experience not to be missed. The occasion was topped by a generous provision of wine, soft-drinks and food provided by our hosts - Daniel, his parents and Maurice.
A huge “thank you” to all who made the evening such a memorable one.