The forthcoming beatification of John Henry, Cardinal Newman has led to some significant architectural commissions from the English Oratorian houses in Birmingham, London and Oxford.
The Birmingham Oratory
In Birmingham, St Philip Neri’s chapel on the south side of the high altar is to be re-dedicated to Newman and contain his relics. These consist of a lock of hair, a drop of blood and secondary relics retrieved from his grave. A new floor is to be laid and the chapel re-decorated by the International Fine Art Conservation Studio, of Bristol. IFACS is experienced in working in historical interiors, sacred and secular. A copy of Walter Ouless’s portrait, hung in the Oratory house, will replace one of St Philip above the altar. The decoration will be in keeping with the church’s Baroque architecture and retain existing with new decoration. The overall ornamental effect will be buff and stone, decorated with stencilling and heraldic cartouches, and the conservation of surviving figurative panels by John Hungerford Pollen, Newman’s friend, fellow-convert, favoured decorative artist and father of ten children.
The Oxford Oratory
The Oxford Oratory has major, long-term plans to include a new chapel designed by Anthony Delarue in their extension to the north-west end of St Aloysius church. Delarue is a noted church architect who works in the historic styles, Classic and Gothic, as a living architectural language. His subtle proposals for Oxford combine Roman Baroque elements, drawn from Borromini, and English Classical drawn from Soane. The scheme includes a baptistery and parish centre built round a central cortile with a fountain open to the sky. Facing south, the chapel will include sculpture and be permanently bathed in sunny light created by yellow glass; but it is estimated that it will be some years before it is built.
In the meanwhile, IFACS has recently restored the Relic Chapel at Oxford, containing the collection assembled by Hartwell de la Garde Grissell, and formerly kept in his private oratory in Oxford, augmented by other collections, including a donation from the Jesuits.
They have designed a temporary shrine dedicated to Newman to go into the chapel, with a reredos in the form of a copy of the Ouless portrait, contained in an elegant Classical aedicule. It promises to be a fitting anticipation of a permanent memorial to Newman in Oxford.
The London Oratory
The London Oratory has commissioned a new chapel to be dedicated to Newman, designed by Russell Taylor, one of the most distinguished Classical architects currently working in Britain, to be situated beneath the organ loft in the south aisle, and replaces the Calvary chapel. Taylor has already refurnished St Joseph’s chapel at the west end of the north aisle.
The focus of the altar in the chapel will be a copy in oils of Sir John Everett Millais’s portrait of Newman, currently hanging in Arundel Castle. It will be positioned in the centre of the reredos, divided by small Corinthian pilaster-shafts. These help resolve the portrait’s dimensions with the square space of the reredos. The mensa of the altar will be supported on paired volute consoles aligned with the reredos. These will give necessary vertical movement because the ceiling of the chapel is exceptionally low and the emphasis on a higher scale becomes necessary.
The gradine of the altar will be inscribed with Newman’s motto from his grave cross: Ex Umbris et Imaginibus Veritatem (Out of the shadows and images into reality and truth) and on the foot of the altar, below the mensa, there will be Newman’s arms and his motto: Cor ad Cor Loquitur (Heart speaks to heart). The altar rails, returned at the sides, are in a baluster design and made of timber, with a pair of gates of wrought iron and brass in the centre. The furniture is to be executed in wood, and marble will only be used for the mensa and altar steps.
The walls and ceiling of the chapel will be painted light stone. But the altar-piece and rails will be marbleized in scagliola and their colours have been chosen to enhance Millais’s portrait. Imitation marble is a compound of marble fragments, plaster of Paris, colouring matter and glue. It has been known since Classical Antiquity and the secret of its manufacture was rediscovered in north Italy in the seventeenth century and was used there for intricate coloured inlay work for columns and pilaster-shafts. In the late-eighteenth century English architects such as Adam and Wyatt, who had little access to true marbles, used it for surfacing columns when they were working in the Roman manner.
Scagliola has had 500 years of continuous use and is a proper material in its own right. Taylor used it successfully in St Joseph’s chapel. The reredos and rails will have simulated Italian marble panels of black and gold (Poroto); white and light pink (Calacata Borghini); dull yellow (Travertino Dorano); while the flanking walls will be decorated with red (Travertino Rosso). The glare coming from the two side windows will be reduced by trellis screens that will diffuse the light and enable the chapel to be used as a whole.
Taylor and Delarue are both insistent that their work is not pastiche. Neither is trying to make it look as though it might have been designed in, say, the eighteenth century. People who make that criticism only betray their own visual illiteracy. For the last 2000 years all Classical architecture has relied upon precedent; architects looked back from one age to another and taken elements from the language of their predecessors to enrich their own. In this way the principles of Classicism are developed as an evolving expression of traditional design and these new works demonstrate the process.
These Oratorian projects are emblematic of Catholic architectural patronage at its most enlightened and provide a model of how to set about commissioning new work in historic churches. But, above all, they will delight the eye because they are beautiful. Newman was a lover of beauty in nature, art and architecture and no better commemoration of his beatification, memory and cult may be found than that.
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It is estimated that the Newman chapel at the Oxford Oratory will cost £1.5m, comprising five gifts of £300,000. Donations should be sent to the Rev’d Provost Robert Byrne Cong. Orat., The Oratory, 25 Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6HA.
Donations for the Birmingham project should be sent to the Rev’d Provost Richard Duffield Cong Orat, The Oratory, Hagley Road, Birmingham, B16 8UE.
Donations for the London project, which has an estimated cost of £109,020, can be sent to the Rev’d Provost Ignatius Harrison Cong. Orat., The Oratory, Brompton Road, London, SW7 2RP, United Kingdom. Cheques payable to: “London Oratory Charity”
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