The “Catholic architect” is in danger of extinction. It has now been 20 years since a Catholic church of note has been built in Britain. But for over two centuries previously, the tradition flourished. Prior to that, from the Reformation until the early 19th century, the notion of an English Catholic architect did not exist.
Catholic places of worship began discreetly to be built in the last half of the 18th century, an age when artists’ imaginations – in particular the architectural visionary Joseph Gandy – were awash with the rich possibilities of neo-classicism. These were mainly chapels of Catholic embassies or of Catholic noblemen; among the latter were the 9th Duke of Norfolk (Arundel), the 9th Lord Petre (Thorndon) and the 8th Lord Arundell (Wardour), and all in fact used the Anglican James Paine.
The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1791 allowed Catholics to build churches openly, albeit without steeples and bells. This caused a considerable outpouring of Catholic architecture. These buildings were almost all in classical style. Two examples are The Assumption, Warwick Street, London by Joseph Bonomi the Elder and Hassop in Derbyshire by John Ireland (with the young JJ Scoles). Catholic confidence grew during the first three decades of the 19th century.
The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 allowing full Catholic emancipation unleashed a flood of Catholic church building by a variety of architects mainly in the classical style but also in a pre-Puginian Gothic. St Charles Borromeo Hull (John Earle with JJ Scoles) is an example of the former, St Peter Stonyhurst (JJ Scholes) of the latter.
In spite of Catholic emancipation the religious divide in England in architectural terms remained firm
Catholic numbers in England and Wales increased vastly, from c 70,000 in 1781 to c 452,000 in 1840 when 457 Catholic churches had been built.
In spite of Catholic emancipation, the religious divide in England in architectural terms remained firm. Catholics almost exclusively tended to employ Catholic architects and Anglicans Anglican architects.
The first Catholic architect of real note was Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52). In his short dynamic life he transformed how the English, both Catholic and Anglican, saw ecclesiastical architecture. Inspired by his love of medieval Gothic architecture he became a Catholic in Salisbury in 1835. He wrote to a friend: “I can assure you after a most close & impartial investigation I feel perfectly convinced the roman Catholick church is the only true one – and the only one in which the grand & sublime style of church architecture can ever be restored.”
In 1836 he wrote Contrasts in which he argued for “the wonderful superiority” of medieval over modern architecture. His first Gothic church (in the neo-Perpendicular style) was St Marie’s, Derby in 1839 for the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury. Nicholas (later Cardinal) Wiseman remarked: “It marked the real transition from chapel to church style architecture among us.” By 1840 he was convinced that “Middle Pointed” ie the English Decorated style was the zenith of ecclesiastical architecture. He built his favourite church, again for Lord Shrewsbury, St Giles Cheadle (“the first really good thing I have done”) in the Middle Pointed style. Pugin was also a decorator of genius as demonstrated here and elsewhere. Pugin was prolific – four cathedrals (Birmingham, Newcastle, Nottingham, Southwark), two monasteries (Mount St Bernard and Ramsgate) and numerous churches and chapels in both England and Ireland. He always (except at Cheadle and Ramsgate, which he paid for) complained of lack of funds. He died, exhausted, at the early age of 40.
Pugin had a large number of Catholic architect heirs in the Gothic tradition. A few of them can be briefly mentioned here. Joseph Hansom (also the inventor of the eponymous cab) built St Walburge’s Preston, the Holy Name Manchester and St Aloysius Oxford for the Jesuits, JJ Scoles (now building in “correct Gothic”) built Farm Street, London and St Francis Xavier Liverpool again for the Jesuits, and William Wardell built Our Ladye Star of the Sea, Greenwich and St Michael and St Mary, Commercial Road, Tower Hamlets.
Pugin’s eldest son, Edward Welby Pugin (1834-75) took over the practice on his father’s death and designed more than 100 Catholic places of worship including Shrewsbury Cathedral and Belmont Abbey.
Another distinguished architect who became a Catholic in 1880 was George Gilbert Scott, the son of the Anglican Sir George Gilbert Scott. His major Catholic work was the Church (now Cathedral) of St John the Baptist in Norwich. Scott died in 1897 of cirrhosis of the liver in the Grand Midland Hotel at St Pancras, designed by his father.
In the Church of England, Gothicism reigned supreme from the middle of the 19th century. The same was not true in the Catholic Church. In spite of Pugin some still had the temerity to build in the non- Gothic style. He described the neo-Romanesque St John the Evangelist, Duncan Terrace, Islington as “the most original combination of modern deformity that has been executed for some time past”. St John Henry Newman (and the Oratorians) had a distinct bias towards Roman architecture. The first Birmingham Oratory built in 1853 under his supervision was accordingly neo-Lombardic in style. It was replaced after his death by a neo-Baroque building by Doran Webb. The magnificent London Oratory on the Brompton Road (completed 1880) was in the Baroque style; its architect (whose sole work it was) was the rather amusingly named Herbert Gribble.
The main architectural Catholic issue at the end of the 19th century was to determine the style of Westminster Cathedral (to be dedicated to The Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ). Cardinal Manning had acquired the land and his successor Cardinal Vaughan was left to start and complete the building. It was decided to build the Cathedral in neo-Byzantine brick to distinguish it from the stone Westminster Abbey nearby. The architect chosen without competition was the convert John Francis Bentley. His previous magnum opus had been the wonderful Holy Rood, Watford built in Gothic style. The building commenced in 1895 and the main fabric was completed in 1903, the year after Bentley’s death.
A considerable number of Catholic architects built in traditional rectangular style in the first six decades of the 20th century. FA Walters designed in what was now the traditional Gothic style buildings such as Ealing Abbey and the Sacred Heart Wimbledon. More imaginative architects included Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (Ampleforth Abbey), Father Benedict Williamson (St Ignatius, Stamford), WC Mangan (St Boniface, Southampton) and Harry Goodhart-Rendel (Holy Trinity, Dockhead, Bermondsey). The most interesting of all was FX Velarde who was heavily influenced by the German modernist Dominikus Böhm; his masterpiece is St Monica, Bootle.
At the end of World War Two there was a hiatus in the building of new churches because of the shortage of materials. The builders of churches in the 1950s tended to fall under the influence of the Liturgical Movement and wanted to build rather brutal modern churches. Both Liverpool Cathedral (Frederick Gibberd) and Our Lady of Fatima, Harlow (Gerard Goalen) were circular in shape, concrete and built in fact before the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal Godfrey (Westminster 1956-63) was a traditionalist in church architecture but Cardinal Heenan (Westminster 1963-75) was not. Modernism was given a tremendous boost by the liturgical reforms required by the Second Vatican Council. Many churches were built in the new idiom. Most are now showing their age. Two modernist churches worth mentioning are however Worth Abbey (Francis Pollen) and Our Lady Help of Christians, Birmingham (Richard Gilbert Scott).
New church building has declined since 1975, mainly because of reduced congregations. The only current Catholic architect with a predominantly ecclesiastical practice is Anthony Delarue. He concentrates mainly on restoring churches vandalised by ignorant priests and parishes in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. His recent reinstitution of the Bentley altar at St John, Brentford is a revelation. His only new church is Corpus Christi, Tring, built in 1998-9 as a traditional building.
It seems unlikely that the Catholic church in England will be building many new churches in the immediate future. It is sad to think we may be at the end of a tradition of over 200 years. Perhaps it is time for a revival?