Modern Monasteries and Convents in Britain

This summer the Twentieth Century Society organised a packed tour of modern convents and monasteries, ranging from John Ninian Comper and Leonard Stokes’ architectural designs for the Anglican All Saints Sisters of the Poor at London Colney to Giles Gilbert Scott’s Carmelite chapel in London, Francis Pollen’s 1960s sweepingly monumental church for the Roman Catholic Benedictine community at Worth Abbey, and Maguire and Murray’s characteristically simple and light-filled space at the Anglican Benedictine convent in West Malling.

Some of these places are thriving, some are dwindling, and some – London Colney in particular – are under significant threat. What happens to these places of major architectural, cultural, and religious significance now and in the future remains uncertain in some cases, and the C20 Society day highlighted advocacy and conservation as much as it showcased an array of approaches to crafting holy spaces in new ways.

Led by Kate Jordan and John East with contributions from Alan Powers on Francis Pollen and me on Ninian Comper, the event’s architectural diversity proved the dynamism, innovation, experimentation, and tradition that guided new building projects for these unique religious communities from c.1920 to the present. As 31 July is the feast day of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, it seems apt to focus on monastic architecture for modern Britain which has been done ‘to the greater glory of God’.





Neo-Gothic and Neo-Byzantine: Two Montreal Churches

In 1823, reconstruction of Montreal’s Notre-Dame began. This building dominates the oldest precinct of Montreal; it was the first sacred space I visited when I arrived in the city this June. Approaching it on a Bixi bike (which was the perfect way to get around the city, from Buckminster Fuller’s biosphere for Expo 67 to the Five Roses flour mill), the two towers signalled a transformation in the urban landscape from sprawling business and industry into preserved settings firmly associated with the French settlement’s earliest history. The church’s seventeenth-century foundation building proved too small for the city’s growing population in the early nineteenth century, and the new structure was to be a grand statement of Roman Catholic power wrought in fashionable Neo-Gothic forms. The architect was an unusual choice: James O’Donnell, a New York Irish Protestant. He converted to Catholicism during the building process. The church was inaugurated in 1829, months before his death. The towers rose slowly through the 1840s, and the interior is a mixture of blaring high-contrast jewel-toned polychromy, late nineteenth-century flowing tracery toplighting, and a series of sturdy stained glass windows from the 1920s. The interior was inspired by Ste Chapelle in Paris, but the building couldn’t be anything other than nineteenth century in its detail, materials, and deployment of Gothic features. East of the sanctuary, the Chapel of the Sacred Heart was designed by Perreault and Mesnard in the 1880s. A fire in 1979 destroyed this section of Notre Dame and it was rebuilt in an uneasy (and very, very brown) mixture of postmodern elements, combining Gothic Revival arcades and side chapels with a vast bronze altarpiece by Charles Daudelin. Neither fully embracing the modern possibilities of 1970s architecture nor offering a renewed and innovative historicist view on modern Gothic, the chapel’s stylistic awkwardness suggests anxiety regarding past, present, and future in relation to revivalism and Catholic identity towards the close of the twentieth century.

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A week after my visit to Notre Dame, I went to Mile End for three things: brunch at Nouveau Palais, comparative bagel shopping at the city’s two prime locations for their bulk production (they bake them on long wooden boards, and both shops are stripped to essentials: counter, fridge full of cream cheese, infinite bags of flour, massive roaring open oven. C’est tout.), and a church I spotted while walking over the flyover from the nearest Metro station. This was the last sacred space I visited in Montreal, a few hours before I caught a flight back to London. In 1902, the parish of St Michael the Archangel was founded for the region’s Irish Catholic population. The church, completed by 1915, boasted the largest dome in Montreal until St Joseph’s Oratory surpassed its hefty scale. The Byzantine style was suggested by Aristide Beaugrande-Champagne, the building’s local architect. He was a vocal advocate for reinforced concrete, an archaeologist, and a founding member of the Groupe des Dix. The interior of the church combines searing orange and green floral motifs in stained glass panels with a complex scheme of figural and patterned painting alongside rhythmic structural polychromy. The lighting made it nearly impossible to photograph; the dome’s interior features an aggressive Archangel Michael casting rebel angels from heaven. The rogue divine creatures tumble into the pendentives, falling towards the nave in graceful billowing drapery, surrounded by staunchly upright trees representing fruits of a lost paradise. The artist was Guido Nincheri, whose murals and stained glass are a key element of Quebec’s sacred sites, including the Trois-Rivieres cathedral and Set Madeleine d’Outremont. I’ve been researching twentieth-century murals and religion lately, and am delighted to have been introduced to Nincheri’s work before heading home. London’s C20 churches could have been enhanced by a rogue angel or two, perhaps.


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Modern English Painters: John Rothenstein, L. S. Lowry and D. G. Rossetti

IMG_1927This weekend I took my laptop and a large stack of paper off to a garden in Lincolnshire to Get Things Done and to Sit in the Sun and Drink G&Ts. On my way up north from Nottinghamshire I stopped at a second-hand bookshop. This is always a dangerous idea. It was a small shop, but despite this within ten minutes I’d found five books I had to have. Among these were two volumes of John Rothenstein’s three-volume Modern English Painters, the British answer to Giorgio Vasari’s classic biographical collection of Italian greats, Lives of the Artists. Published in 1952 and 1956, Rothenstein’s personal and engaging accounts of artists including Paul Nash, Henry Moore, David Jones and Ben Nicholson have their limitations – particularly when viewed through the reflected light of recent art historical methodologies – but these books affirmed what by the 1950s was clear: that British art had a distinctive modern movement of its own, and that its practitioners needed sustained public, critical, and art historical attention. Rothenstein himself was a giant figure in twentieth-century British culture, and his leadership as Tate’s director from 1938-64 is still the longest in the institution’s history. He also, perhaps understandably, and after a lot of provocation, once punched Douglas Cooper in the face.


In Volume 2 of Modern English Painters, Rothenstein’s chapter on L. S. Lowry includes the artist’s recollection of his favourite painters. Lowry, who was born in Manchester in 1887 and whose reputation has enjoyed a recent surge due to the 2013 exhibition at Tate Britain curated by T. J. Clark and Anne Wagner, was inspired – of course he was – by French late nineteenth-century painting, and the classic exponents of European Modernism. But Rothenstein’s frank account of Lowry’s interests and influences offers something more:

The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra 1857 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

D. G. Rossetti, The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra, 1857 (Tate)


Speaking of the effect upon artists of the pictures they see early in life, [Lowry] said to me: ‘As a student I admired D. G. Rossetti and, after him, Madox Brown. The queer thing is, I’ve never wavered; they’re my two favourite artists still.’


‘Yet your admiration for neither of them is even faintly reflected in your work,’ I said.


‘No. I don’t believe it shows; nor, if you were to ask me, could I tell you why these two artists are constantly in my mind.’

As an art and architectural historian for whom the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle are never far from the surface of her own thinking, this declaration of Lowry’s leapt out amidst the modern art dialogues in Rothenstein’s biographical essays. I wondered how many other artists in the book’s fourteen chapters had something to say about the Pre-Raphaelites. With the recent exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art and design at Tate Britain in mind (its London success was followed by an epic tour to Washington DC, Moscow and Tokyo – the Prioress’ Tale wardrobe painted by Edward Burne-Jones as a wedding present for William Morris is much missed at the Ashmolean, apparently) and the surrounding determination by its curators Jason Rosenfeld and Tim Barringer and associated scholars including Elizabeth Prettejohn and Diane Waggoner to re-examine the movement’s modernity afresh, I turned to Rothenstein’s index. Impressionists and Impressionism are mentioned six times. The PRBs get seven page references; Rossetti gets seven too just on his own. Whether loved or reviled, these Victorians were prominent figures in the memories and imaginations of Rothenstein’s modern English painters.

L. S. Lowry, St Augustine's Church, Pendlebury, 1924 (Tate). The church was designed by G. F. Bodley, a leading Victorian Gothic Revival architect with close ties to the Pre-Raphaelites.

L. S. Lowry, St Augustine’s Church, Pendlebury, 1924 (Tate). The church was designed by G. F. Bodley, a leading Victorian Gothic Revival architect with close ties to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Cambridge Aesthetes

blog headerThe 1870s was an important time of major transition for Cambridge. As the colleges transformed their structures, expanded, and (at least in some cases) enjoyed a bit of extra cash flow, there were also numerous instances of Fellows wishing to take on building and decorating projects as patrons. This ushered in a new phase of the Gothic Revival that was richly inflected with the visual qualities of the Aesthetic Movement. The 1860s and 70s were the high point of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’ involvement in Cambridge interiors, especially stained glass and wall painting. In a number of cases that interest me most, Morris and Burne-Jones worked with or added their designs to architectural schemes conceived by George Frederick Bodley, Thomas Garner, and George Gilbert Scott Jr. These three architects were also the founders of Watts & Co., an ecclesiastical and domestic furnishing and decorating firm that opened its doors to a range of elite and clerical clients in 1874. Watts & Co., whose architectural associates, designers and directors included Giles Gilbert Scott, John Ninian Comper (albeit briefly), Keith Murray and Stephen Dykes Bower, is still producing designs and maintaining its Victorian traditions today. A study day at the V&A on Saturday 25 October will highlight Watts and Comper to mark their 140th and 150th anniversaries respectively. Everyone is welcome, speakers include Gavin Stamp, Mary Schoeser and Abraham Thomas, and it promises to be a stimulating day of new research on Victorian design and its legacies.


Last Thursday I spent the day in Cambridge following up on a few research questions that I first began to explore in my PhD thesis at the Courtauld. I always find that revisiting places and investigating them closely is a great way to formulate fresh thinking about old subjects. The first time I visited G. F. Bodley’s All Saints, Jesus Lane, which includes stained glass by Morris and his circle as well as painting and designs by C. E. Kempe and Frederick Leach, it was 2006 and I was right at the beginning of a long stretch of research. Every time I’ve seen it since I’ve learned something new. On this visit, I was curious about colour and pattern in relation to revivalism and temporality, as two ways of thinking about connections between architecture and sound. The same day I also spent a long time looking at Victorian spaces at Peterhouse and at Queens’. Together, these places form a microcosmic visual lexicon of a tight social network’s art and architectural priorities as they worked together and independently to revive a medieval past and reinvent a modern Victorian visual culture.


Peterhouse – William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, George Gilbert Scott Jr – 1870s

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Queens’ – G. F. Bodley Thomas Garner, Frederick Leach, C. E. Kempe, Philip Webb, William Morris, Ford Madox-Brown, Edward Burne-Jones – 1860s-1890s

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All Saints, Jesus Lane – G. F. Bodley, Frederick Leach, C. E. Kempe, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown – 1860s-1870s


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Utopian Modernisms

Middlesex Guildhall (now the Supreme Court), James S. Gibson with sculpture by Henry C. Fehr, 1912-13

Middlesex Guildhall (now the Supreme Court), James Gibson with sculpture by Henry Fehr, 1912-13


In a few days hundreds of art historians will congregate at the Royal College of Art in London for the annual AAH conference. Those who know me well know I love a good conference – some of the most important work in the field is accomplished somewhere between the papers, the vigorous dialogue surrounding them in focused panels, and the bar. I was last at AAH in 2012, when I co-chaired a panel with Alan Powers on ‘Modernism’s Other’, exploring what else happened in the midst of the rise of Modernism in architecture and architectural criticism. Predictably, a lot happened. Crucially, the dominance of Modernism as the narrative of twentieth-century architecture’s progress has marginalised a lot of other history, and it’s time to recover it. Ornament, historicism, and the perpetual slippages and reworkings of ‘modern’ itself as a category, are all at stake. These themes still preoccupy me in my own research, particularly in relation to the Gothic Revival’s long reach into the twentieth century. This year, my AAH contribution is a paper for a panel investigating ‘dream spaces’ at the turn of the twentieth century. I’m looking forward to offering a talk that considers intersecting priorities and stylistic tropes in two major building projects: Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson’s St Thomas’s Church on Fifth Avenue in New York, and James S. Gibson’s designs for Middlesex Guildhall in London. I’ve spent long periods of time studying both buildings and increasingly feel that they express a surprisingly coherent set of affinities connecting modern medievalist architecture practiced in both Britain and America.


To date, the richest and most thoughtful assessments of the Middlesex Guildhall’s history and features are the chapters by Peter Cormack and Jeremy Musson in Chris Miele’s edited volume celebrating the institutional structures and adopted building of the Supreme Court. The Court moved into the old Middlesex Guildhall building a handful of years ago, and not without serious controversy. The SAVE Britain’s Heritage campaign to stop the Supreme Court from radically altering the interior was ultimately a failure, but it did raise the building’s profile amongst architects and historians. Indeed, within its testimonial report, Gavin Stamp also mentioned that he saw a kinship between Gibson’s design and the American Gothic creations of Cram and Goodhue.


My interpretation of Middlesex Guildhall’s design and impacts in relation to a powerful American ‘Gothic quest’ amplifies its importance in histories of British architecture, and widens the research dialogue from localised and nationalist approaches to a broader sphere of modern cultural concerns. The Middlesex Guildhall is a fascinating site, teeming with sculpture and densely layered with meaning, produced at a time of increasing anxiety regarding empire and political upheaval mere months from the triggers that set the First World War in motion. The building continues to hide in plain sight, relatively speaking; there is much to see, and much to learn. As I research the structure in relation to developments in Gothic architecture a few timezones to the west, it’s increasingly clear that the building deserves more reflection so that we might gain fresh purchase on what is at stake when revivalism – and modern Gothic in particular – is deployed as a progressive strategy for a major architectural statement regarding cyclical patterns of history, the perils and pleasures of nostalgia, the expectations of justice, and the prospect of utopian dreaming. Long after Pugin’s Gothic skin clad the Houses of Parliament across the square, Gothic still remained as a powerful language in which designers and patrons could craft a future in the early uncertain years of the twentieth century.

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Chicago Gothic

Chicago holds a special place in the history of American cities. It frequently assumes the role of the great American exaggeration, the place where common characteristics are stretched to their limits. Other cities grew during the nineteenth century, but Chicago mushroomed. Every town had its boosters, but the Windy City’s were obstreperously boastful. Crime and political corruption were everywhere, but in Chicago they seemed to be elevated to an art. More positively, Chicago became a synonym for ‘the new’ and ‘the first,’ leading the way in architecture, literature, and social reform – in part because, as a brash upstart, it possessed few encumbering traditions.
(Perry R. Duis, ‘The Shaping of Chicago’, in Alice Sinkevitch’s AIA Guide to Chicago, 2003)


I’ve wanted to visit Chicago’s architecture for a long time. My interest in the city began with an undergraduate lecture in Victoria BC in which Louis Sullivan’s 1890s designs for tall buildings loomed large and changed my way of thinking (it was pretty fledgling and malleable at that point anyway) about the connections between ornament and structure. Whenever I’ve seen the main entrance of the Carson Pirie Scott and Co. building reproduced in books or on screen, I’ve felt a ripple of wonder.

Chicago has a wealth of modern Gothic architecture, much of it concentrated around Henry Ives Cobb and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue’s contributions to the University of Chicago campus and the details of the skyscrapers, churches, and even an eccentric nineteenth-century water tower that dominate State Street and Michigan Avenue. During my final hours in Chicago after a few intensive days of research and zealous socialising (over zealous? I lost my voice entirely by day three…) at the College Art Association’s conference, I went in search of Gothic gems. Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue’s Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago is a tight late 1920s essay in what my architectural historian colleague Jonathan Mekinda and I decided must be ‘Gothic Deco’, a style Goodhue virtually invented and refined together with the sculptor Lee Lawrie. Ralph Adams Cram, Goodhue’s Boston-based architectural partner for the first years of their prominent design careers, also made his mark on Chicago sacred space. Cram’s Fourth Presbyterian Church facing the Hancock Center combines brightly painted figural carving and Gothic ceilings with soaring height and restrained details suited to a Presbyterian context. Completed on the brink of the Great War, the church is the product of a collaboration between Cram and the local mural painter Frederic Clay Bartlett. Pomegranates, angels, and symbols of the four evangelists are deployed in an array of interlaced combinations over the heads of clergy and laity.

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When I finished my PhD a couple of years ago and turned towards a deep investigation of modern Gothic architecture in America from the early twentieth century, my interest in Chicago grew exponentially. One building in particular captured my curiosity. The Tribune Tower competition in 1922 produced a building that remains one of the most prominent and complex early skyscrapers in the history of architecture.

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Both a beacon of industry and communication as well as a structure that made a tacit link between the success of New York’s Woolworth Building and the growth of Chicago’s own Midwestern quest for height and power, the Tribune Tower is a key part of the story of American twentieth-century medievalism. It’s the subject of a recent and truly brilliant book by Katherine Solomonson, from whom I’ve learned a great deal. The tower, designed by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells, negotiates microcosm and macrocosm with an uncanny historicist sophistication. Small portions of other buildings, from Hagia Sophia and Cologne Cathedral to a tile from the Sydney Opera House and a scrap of twisted metal from the World Trade Center are embedded in its ground floor exterior skin. The cultural memory of each place, filtered through American parlance and experience, clads the Gothic bulk of the building, connecting its architectural heft to human civilizations across borders and periods. Inside the Tribune Tower, material spolia are traded for bold and monumental inscriptions which make their way around the lobby and down the hallways towards the elevators and office spaces. Appropriately enough for a newspaper headquarters, Voltaire’s ‘I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ is the last maxim one can see before the threshold closes in between semi-public and private space.

In the centre of the lobby floor, medieval-style script contained within a thin inlaid circle connects the Gothic impetus of 1920s Chicago and its most powerful newspaper to the Victorian reflections of John Ruskin upon the Middle Ages’ capacity of inspire better architecture for a brighter future by considering the power of cultural legacy:

Therefore when we build let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for and let us think as we lay stone on stone that a time is to come when those stones will beheld sacred because our hands have touched them and that men will say as they look upon the labour and the wrought substance of them, ‘See! This our fathers did for us.’


Like a Medieval Dream

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When the Lincolnshire church historian Henry Thorold described St Helen’s, Brant Broughton as ‘like a medieval dream’, he did so with good reason but perhaps he might have included ‘neo’ as an explanatory prefix. The church is primarily thirteenth and fourteenth-century, but its interior was completely restored from the 1870s onwards. The key exponent in this thorough programme of Gothic Revivalism was its rector, Frederick Heathcote Sutton. Sutton was born in Nottinghamshire, educated at Oxford, and a keen expert on organ design, medieval ecclesiastical painted interiors, and stained glass. Together with the architect George Frederick Bodley and the artist Charles Eamer Kempe, Sutton transformed his already impressive church into a medievalist paradise. The bulk of the work took place between 1874 and 1876, though additions continued throughout Sutton’s . In a small village in Lincolnshire, something of a model church for the second phase of the Gothic Revival took shape. The greatest site of change was the chancel, where Bodley all but completely replaced an early nineteenth-century redevelopment of the medieval fabric with his own take on fourteenth-century form and detail. The Perpendicular ceiling in the nave, painted by Bodley and surrounded by gilt angels holding shields bearing ‘IHS’ and studded with lead stars, feature a frieze of the Creed in Latin. The aisle ceilings have similar decoration, with the key difference that the shields bear an H for Helen, the church’s patron saint. The north chapel’s ceiling is painted with roundels containing crowned Hs – Helen is everywhere, and in this small space the frieze inscription is of Psalm 100, ‘Jubilate Deo omnis terra…’ (Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands…). I was delighted to find two stained glass cartoons here too, framed and in good condition.

The tall font cover in the south aisle, unpainted but embellished by delicate Gothic microarchitecture, was designed by Bodley’s partner Thomas Garner in 1889. The stained glass, full of rich blues and searing reds, was designed with C. E. Kempe but made, unusually, in a kiln near the rectory. For Sutton and his brother, the Rev’d Augustus Sutton, St Helen’s was a site ripe for Gothic Revival experimentation. They were hardly amateurs, however. In the 1860s they had worked on the west window at Lincoln Cathedral, and in 1872 Frederick Sutton published a highly influential book on organ cases. For Frederick Sutton, his clerical vocation was tightly interlaced with his dedication to Gothic Revival art and architecture, not just as a patron, but as a designer, collector, and writer.

At St Helen’s, the decorative pitch is heightened in the chancel. The rood screen, commissioned in 1890 by Arthur Sutton, Frederick Sutton’s nephew and successor, leads to what one might suggest is a dream within a dream. The painted Perp ceiling gives way to wooden and plaster lierne vaults decorated in complex floral motifs in pinks and blues against a blue-green background. The stalls are carved with vegetal forms that respond to the painted details above. As in so many of Bodley’s churches and those by his circle, the intensification of ornament and colour in the chancel and sanctuary contributes to an understanding that these spaces are set apart, not only physically raised on marble chequerboard stepped plains leading towards the altar, but also truly responsive to the sacrament of the Eucharist and the Mystery of Faith. The altarpiece was designed by Sutton (likely in collaboration with Bodley and Garner as their shared aesthetic is so strikingly similar) and Sutton also gave the Ascension panel, which is part of a late fifteenth-century polyptych. The east window is not by the Sutton-Kempe team, but by Burlison and Grylls, a firm established in the late 1860s who regularly provided glass for Bodley and Garner’s interiors. The textiles are unmistakably Watts and Company, of varying dates. The sedilia cushions in Watts’ ‘Pine’ with their delightful tassels are evidently a recent addition, while the altar curtains were earlier, and the three white embroidered orphreys of the frontal I saw were earlier still, and a fairly well-preserved example of the late nineteenth-century Gothic Revival embroidery style outlined in Mary Schoeser’s book on British ecclesiastical needlework. Together with numerous Anglican convents such as the Society of All Saints Sisters of the Poor, the Society of the Sisters of Bethany (J N Comper’s preferred community for embroidery) and the Sisters of St Margaret, Watts and Company (whose workroom in Tufton Street continue to produce textiles by hand) set the standard for the ecclesiastical textile revival. Established in 1874 by Thomas Garner, G F Bodley and George Gilbert Scott Jr at the same time that architectural work was being carried out at Brant Broughton and many other sacred and secular sites in the UK, Watts is celebrating its 140th this year. There are big plans afoot. Watch this space.

Not far away in the small village of Laughton, Bodley and Garner would return to Lincolnshire for another medieval church restoration some two decades later. This time their patron was the wealthy Anglo-Catholic Emily Meynell-Ingram, who had also collaborated closely with the architectural firm on Holy Angels, Hoar Cross in Staffordshire. Like Hoar Cross, Laughton was a memorial to her husband, Hugo Francis Meynell-Ingram. I first learned about Brant Broughton during my PhD research at the Courtauld. I knew it was an important example of Bodley and Garner’s 1870s interior decorative work, but I had no idea what a revelation it would be. My patient husband and in-laws watched me spend a happy hour photographing every detail (the floor in the nave is pretty chilly, but the view is absolutely worth it). I’ve not yet been to Laughton, but am determined to do so while Brant Broughton is still fresh in mind…

Sacred Spaces in Modern Britain

J N Comper, high altar, All Saints, London Colney, 1924-28, 1945-47 (image: John East)

J N Comper, high altar, All Saints, London Colney, 1924-28, 1945-47 (image: John East)

Earlier in November, the National Churches Trust announced the winner of the best post-1953 church in Britain. Maguire and Murray’s St Paul’s, Bow Common, has taken the top prize. With its subtle use of glass, brick and concrete, its deceptively simple geometrical masses, and its light-suffused high altar surrounded nuanced ripples of threshold spaces forming concentric zones of intimacy, the church is one of the most interesting and innovative in Europe. The congregation is welcomed from the street into a renewed unity with God and one another. St Paul’s was designed with local specificity and international theological and architectural change simultaneously in mind.

This event felt timely to me, as it took place in the run-up to a major London conference on church architecture I’ve been co-organising for nearly a year. Very few days have gone by where I haven’t thought about the minor and major elements of the event, from numbers of photocopies and tea bags to how the day might be shaped and shepherded to sustain both broad and focused dialogue between scholars and the public on why modern churches look the way they do, the diversity of theological and architectural positions sustained and developed in the twentieth century, and how a microcosmic case-study might sit alongside a more macro theoretical epistemological view.

On 30 November, Kate Jordan and I convened Sacred Spaces in Modern Britain, a conference supported by the Twentieth Century Society, DOCOMOMO UK, and the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. This event that drew together eminent and emerging international experts on church architecture in Britain post-1900 as  part of a series of activities Kate and I work on together that generate collaborative events and research publications focused on monastic and convent art and architecture, ecumenism, gendered religious spaces, and community-focused design in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain. The  project has included a conference on art, architecture and material culture for the Histories of Women Religious in Britain and Ireland group (2013), a Society of Architectural Historians annual conference session on architecture for modern religious communities (2013), an edited book with Pickering and Chatto developed from the SAH session (forthcoming 2014), a research initiative with partners at Kent University and Royal Holloway and advisory support from English Heritage, the V&A, and RIBA, and a study day on nineteenth-century monasteries and convents from Pugin to G. F. Bodley hosted in collaboration with the Victorian Society (2012). Sacred Spaces in Modern Britain was a sold out event and it is clear that a demand for continued research, education, campaigns and publications on modern religious architecture in the UK is very high.

The day opened with David Lewis on Giles Gilbert Scott and experimental traditionalism, Alan Powers on Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel, and Judi Loach on George Pace’s designs in Wales. Robert Proctor reflected on flexible church spaces in relation to the technical culture of laboratories, circuitry and cybernetics in the 1960s and 70s, and Otto Saumarez Smith explicated the problematic siting of churches within and outside modern city precincts. The day also included reflections on heritage from Linda Monckton, the UK in a European context from Adrian Forty and Karla Britton, Flora Samuel’s assessment of Le Corbusier’s impact on British churches (and on George Pace in particular, who really ‘got it’), and a duo of papers by Kate and me exploring a Vita et Pax movement monastery in Cockfosters and a convent church in London Colney. The latter is, unfortunately, under threat; as a conference audience of over 100 people discussed the importance of studying and preserving religious architecture, many of the buildings we focused on remain in need of further research, advocacy, and attention.

The day’s tone shifted with architect Niall McLaughlin’s presentation of the design process for Bishop Edward King Chapel at Cuddesdon near Oxford. Its intricate mathematics interlaced with a candid, open-hearted overview of how the building came to be and how the firm responded to the brief. Gottfried Semper, Rudoph Schwarz and Peter Zumthor’s ideas and structures helped to sustain this new building’s vision. Images emerged, rotated, mutated, stretched, and cohered: an ellipse, an eye, two cupped hands, a chalice, and a building sensitive to the deeply sacramental theology of the Anglican nuns who gave it and use it daily as well as the theological college’s students whose own spiritual practice is especially engaged with the Word.

Louise Campbell’s keynote lecture focused on the Second World War and differing responses to conflict at Coventry and Canterbury. An array of solutions to the prospect of ‘England lapsing into spiritual blackness’ in the face of grief, confusion and loss made for provocative and uncannily beautiful images. John Piper’s abstract burst of hopeful light in Coventry’s baptistery window contrasted starkly with a 1939 photograph of the nave of Canterbury Cathedral covered in heavy heaps of earth as a preventative measure to save the medieval crypt from bomb damage.

Themes of flexibility, innovation, tradition, and the Liturgical Movement’s importance in Britain were brought home in a final reflection on modern sacred art and architecture by Frances Spalding. From Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral to Ronchamp, we were asked to think again about how bodies move through space, how light is sculpted, why materiality matters, and how architecture brings us closer to the divine in ways both subtle and bold.


John Piper (designer) and Patrick Reyntiens (maker), Baptistry Window, Coventry Cathedral, 1962

My introductory remarks at the conference included a claim made by Karsten Harries in a recent book on contemporary religious architecture, Constructing the Ineffable: ‘architecture needs the sacred if it is not to wither.’ When the painter William Townsend witnessed Canterbury Cathedral’s service of thanksgiving following WWII, he positioned himself in the triforium. The painting he produced recalled the sensation of what it was like to ‘sit up there in the world of architecture.’ The twentieth-century buildings discussed at Sacred Spaces in Modern Britain are unique architectural worlds, all responding differently to the same sacred impulse.

Pasadena Victoriana

This past weekend I was a speaker at the North American Victorian Studies Association conference in Pasadena, CA. Hundreds of specialists in Victorian literature, art, and architecture filled the town for three days of lectures, seminars, and art workshops. I’d never been to the Huntington or to the Gamble House, so I knew that even if every paper were terrible (this could never happen, obvs) spending 20 hours on a plane in the space of four days would be worth it. The conference’s quality was extremely high, with presentations by Martha Vicinus on agnosticism and women writers in the 1890s, Lorraine Janzen-Kooistra on the Yellow Book in a digital age, and Lesley Higgins on close editorial readings of Walter Pater’s works. The ever-energetic Dino Felluga gave a rousing tenth anniversary speech reminding us how Victorian studies continue to grow in sophistication and breadth. It made me realize that when I wrote my essay on Watts and Company’s foundation in 1874 for the BRANCH project, which Dino runs, I was part of something vast and exciting in global academia. Carla Yanni’s keynote at the closing banquet flew the flag for architectural history in a venue dominated by (very friendly and brilliant, mind you) literature specialists, and it was refreshing to see images of Pugin’s Contrasts and even Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool in the midst of so many papers firmly rooted in Victorian texts. Much as I love Eliot, Hardy, Gaskell and Newman, the reliance that many lit scholars place on an audience’s prior knowledge of plot and character detail means that as an art historian some of these presentations struck me as – in the immortal words of my co-presenter Jongwoo Kim – ‘Coles Notes: Live!’

My own paper, which argued for a distinctive framework of 1890s medievalist culture, focused on a sanctuary restoration by John Ninian Comper, G F Bodley’s church for the Society of St John the Evangelist, and a clavichord painted by Edward Burne-Jones. The panel considered the body, desire, and historicism; co-presenters Keren Hammerschlag discussed Frederic Leighton, Venus and the erotically charged classical fragment, and Jongwoo delivered the goods on Beardsley’s Lysistrata illustrations and the question of queer futurity. There were tons of productive overlaps, stimulating audience questions, and moments in my own writing and thinking that sparked further transformations in my research about revivalism and gender. As Keren and Jongwoo are both friends, the dynamic between us was a balance of affection and intellectual rigour. In other words, I had a pretty decent time. The atmosphere was helped enormously by a bonding experience a couple of nights before which involved liquor, cake, an enormous gay bar, and a frolic on the beach at Santa Monica. Art historians were upon the town.

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The Huntington’s collection of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones material was revelatory. As I’d never been to California, the combination of Aesthetic movement furniture and palm trees in the surrounding gardens was amusingly novel. At the Gamble House, local Arts and Crafts architects Greene and Greene meticulously demonstrated wood’s potential to shape space and express social bonds through intricate material details. Walking through these spaces has made me think differently and more deeply about what vernacular eclecticism did for modern architecture. After a brief tour of the house’s sleeping porches, allegorical dining room carved panels, stained glass features, and inlaid furniture in sages, pinks and russets, hopping in a car with Victorianist curator Jo Briggs to head back to the conference hotel was difficult. Each year two architecture students from USC stay in the house as part of their studies. I found myself wondering why I didn’t study architecture at USC, just to be closer to Greene and Greene territory.

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Pasadena’s modern Gothic was an unexpected discovery. Three blocks apart, the Methodist church and the Episcopal church in central Pasadena were both designed and completed in the early 1920s. The Methodists opted for a sweeping arc seating plan under a fan-vaulted canopy. The stained glass relies on a mustard-yellow-candy-pink-robin’s-egg-blue palette I always find a bit bilious but that, via Tiffany and La Farge and their followers, Americans seemed to genuinely enjoy. The 20s Gothic forms align into rhythms that define zones of activity around the central church and smaller hammer-beamed chapel, reminding me of the best of James Gamble Rogers or Charles Collens. The 20s Gothic at the Episcopal church felt more constricted and ossified, though I saw it at its functional best during a Sunday service attended by at least 300 people. This surprised me – I found myself wondering how different the High Anglican churches in London I know best would feel if they were so full so regularly. The choir alone had almost 50 people in it, and the sermon railed against the military industrial complex and the dull yet dangerous theology proffered by right wing politicians. When I left the rector insisted – and I mean really insisted – on giving me a ‘welcome hug’. Oh, California. The Episcopal church opted for hammer beam rather than stone vaulting, and both its simple screens remake the rood screen tradition in a typically early twentieth-century broad American medievalist modernism, using text and a garlanded cross rather than the imposing crucifixion attended by the Virgin and St John. Here, the glass in the transept is infused with milky pearl tones which roil in lilies and angel wings. My palm tree enthusiasm was at its height noticing how pleasantly they frame the 20s Gothic tower against a cloudless sky. I wrote this blog post somewhere over the Atlantic wondering about how St Jude’s storm is treating England, and wondering how Giles Gilbert Scott’s Liverpool Cathedral or G F Bodley’s St Michael’s Camden Town would look surrounded by palms and bathed in sunshine 300 days of the year. Maybe a fellowship application to the Huntington Library is a sensible way of working on late Victorian medievalism and working on a tan simultaneously…

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Lasts and Firsts: Ruskin Across Continents

‘There is no wealth but life.’

After a summer of easing back into London’s rhythms, writing articles, preparing to take up a lecturing position at the University of Nottingham’s art history department, getting married, and some other stuff, I found my way back to New York and to Yale for a few days in mid-September. On Metro North from Grand Central to New Haven for a quick spin through the Yale Center for British Art and the Beinecke, I remembered what my first days in New Haven had been like in January 2013. When I started my Fellowship at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale, I was keen to get to know New Haven as a city as swiftly and as richly as possible. I didn’t just want to stick to the triangle between the Divinity School, the Art History department and my East Rock apartment. Like most sociable people who are used to spending long periods of time away from home (maybe ‘home’ is more accurate – this is a concept that’s more mutable and self-propelled than the Ikea catalogue would have us believe), I work better when I’m well acquainted with where to get the best pizza and the best coffee, where to make music and hear it, which book shops have the coolest stuff, which rooms in an art gallery are most conducive to a long contemplation session, which church has the most intricately embroidered vestments, and which bar staff are friendliest and wittiest when pouring the best single malt I can find.

On my second day in New Haven I walked past the Green, turned left, and popped into a shop run by a recent Yale College graduate. Chairigami’s minimalist interior makes it feel like what it is – a workshop full of clever people folding cardboard. I talked to the shop’s director for a while and figured out that one of his main motives for instigating the project was a course he took with Karla Britton on sacred space and Abrahamic traditions. He’d produced a project that focused on portable holy spaces, like an inflatable chapel or a dress that could be transformed into a prayer rug in seconds. Holy places and innovative flexibility were starting points for well designed lightweight heavy duty put-it-together-yourself-and-paint-it-fuschia-if-you-wanna furniture. Chairigami are not in the altars and processional crosses business (and a thurible would be a seriously bad idea) but that’s not the point. And how far is the concept from New Zealand’s cardboard cathedral? The parallels reach beyond the basic medium. Like all good design, the cardboard couch at Chairigami looks decent anywhere. The sidetables, chairs and shelves are based on origami folds, though executed on a large scale in tough materials.

The principle and the shop’s sparse aesthetic reminded me of Unto This Last, a furniture shop that uses 3D printing technology to make bespoke and catalogue objects, from beds to coffee tables. This in turn recalled Fabsie, a 3D design firm established by the sparky James McBennett. It’s no surprise that these kinds of design approaches are in the air and growing fast. The Ruskin connection is just beneath the surface across the board. Ever the enthusiast for examples of Victoriana revival, when the Ruskin expert extraordinaire Robert Hewison told me about Unto This Last in East London I was thrilled that an innovative designer had taken Ruskin’s principles of simplicity, productivity and materiality into account as a kind of hipster starting point. When feeling a little New Haven nostalgia this September and thinking back to my conversation in Chairigami, I remembered that I’d snapped a photo of one of the cardboard bookshelves on the shop floor. Yale’s Bass Library copy of none other than John Ruskin’s Unto This Last leans casually against a stiff cardboard surface amongst the origami menagerie. Ruskin revivalism links Yale and London. Spotting Ruskin in early January gave me an instant glimmer of home. I hope no one’s recalled Ruskin’s slim volume back to the open shelves at Bass – let it hang around at Chairigami as a slim Victorian beacon pointing the way into New Haven and the way back to London.



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