The Renatus Harris Organ

Ray Crocker, St James’s congregation historian, shares some of the history of the organ including its royal origins.

Background Shape
Church Window Mask

It may surprise people that our rather ornate Baroque organ, proudly but sadly perched on the lower and upper galleries, has not been heard for at least forty-five years.

Our current digital organ, the speakers of which are artfully sequestered at each side of the 17th-century masterpiece, produces sound which fools many. It could be called a trompe l’oreille.

The magnificent acoustics complete the deception.

So….whence the Renatus Harris in its Grinling Gibbons case? It started its life in the private Roman Catholic chapel of King James II in Whitehall Palace. When James was outed as a Roman Catholic, he was exiled to France and the chapel was hurriedly dismantled by his successors, his daughter, Queen Mary and her partner in ruling, King William. She was anxious to prove her Protestant credentials and stripped the Baroque chapel bare, sending the organ round to St James’s Church in 1691.

Who knows where all the other furnishings and artefacts went: vestments, candlesticks, the monstrance, the tabernacle, altar frontals…?

The organ served us well for around 280 years, with Handel playing it and with Leopold Stokowski at its console at the beginning of the 20th century. It is an interesting link that he left us to go to be Director of Music at St Bart’s, New York, with which we now have a lively and developing partnership.

The case was carved by Grinling Gibbons, as was the reredos and font. However, a crucial difference is that the former was commissioned by a client requiring Catholic iconography and the latter insisting on only Protestant iconography. So, we have the fruits of Creation at the East end and putti, angels blowing trumpets, the crown of Mary, Queen of Heaven…all gilded and showy at the West end.

There is a happy ending to this story. If the organ had remained in Whitehall Palace, it would have been reduced to ashes because, in 1698, a fire swept through and destroyed the largest palace in Europe. The Banqueting Hall is the only part which was saved.

The Renatus Harris has served us well and will speak again and be visually restored as part of the soon to be activated Wren Project.

Click here to read The Revd Peter Thompson, Vicar of St Bart’s NYC, as he shares some of the connections with St James’s including Leopold Stokowski.

Leopold Stokowski

1905 Choir with Rector and Stokowski

Organ at St James’s. Originally constructed for King James II