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Edwardian London: V The New Westminster Cathedral
Posted on Jul 04, 2005 - 06:18 AM by Bill McCann

In 1905 the Pall Mall Magazine published a "little book [which] will appeal to all who wish to possess what is really a portfolio, in a handy form, of beautiful drawings and photographs of the marvellous New LONDON which is rising up around them day by day." The first part of the guide was effectively a guide book for the Londoner and the visitor alike, but a guide book with a difference, as it includes architect's drawings of the many new buildings and streets which were still at the planning stage. Our guide now takes us into the Byzantine splendour of the still uncompleted new Cathedral for the catholic Diocese of Westminster. He describes vividly its main glories and tells us something of the background of its conception."<p

The New Westminster Cathedral

NO SURVEY OF THE ARCHITECURAL NOVELTIES OF LONDON IS COMPLETE WITHOUT AN INSPECTION OF THE NEW ROMAN CATHOLIC CATHEDRAL OF WESTMINSTER, AND THE FEATURES OF INTEREST IT POSSESSES FOR THE VISITOR ARE ALTOGETHER APART FROM QUESTIONS OF RELIGION OR NATIONALITY.

The west Front.
The ceremonial visit of the king of Spain is the chief public event in the history of the new Roman Catholic Cathedral of Westminster since it was opened on the Christmas Eve of 1903. considering its magnitude, the building operations have been expeditious enough. The foundation-stone was laid in the June of 1895, the main fabric was finished at he end of 1901, and the Divine office was first sung in it on the Ascension Day of the following year.

As for the future, the progress of the mosaic and marmoreal work in the sanctuary and the chapels affords a pretty clear index as to what the giant nave and transept will be when they are complete. But that consummation, a the earliest, can hardly arrive for the next twenty years, even if the necessary funds come in with the desired rapidity.

By the midsummer of 1905 a sum of 280,000 had been expended, and although the building in its present state of development, stands free from debt, another quarter of a million or more may be required to bring it to a finish.

John Francis Bentley, the architect, died a a time when the cathedral was little more than a shell (March 2, 1902, to be exact), and he could only barely indicate the decorative treatment which should best bring out his conception of the interior. Originally, as is well known, his desire was, for a building in the English Gothic style, the one which he had always regarded as his forte, and the one most in keeping with English ideas. But a Gothic cathedral must be built in sections unless there are unlimited funds to draw upon, whereas the need with Cardinal Vaughan and his advisers was a plain building, well within their means, which could be decorated and finished in course of time.

It was either a case of competing with old and famous edifices the Abbey, for a signal instance or choosing a style like the Byzantine, which after all, was identified with Christianity long before Gothic was known, and which is common, besides, to all parts of Europe except the west. Bentley, after an extended tour in the Ease, preferred the earlier and purer style to be found pre-eminently in the ex-cathedral of Santa Sofia at Constantinople, the chief architectural glory of the Western Empire, and in the chapels of Thessalonica and other parts of the Christian East. He ran his ideal so far to ground that he was instrumental in finding and reopening quarries in Euboea which had lain buried for over a thousand years; and in this way he obtained the particular tinted marbles that were necessary to his plans.

The Sanctuary, seen from the nave.

He carried the same thoroughness into his stuffy of the plainer materials. He would have nothing to do with iron, not even in the raising of his four great domes. For months he rested the materials for his concrete according to various temperatures, and he subjected all brickwork to the severest ordeals known to the great testing firms. So he ensured for us a unique example of an interesting and historic style of architecture, destined to endure as long as skill and thought can make it. Mr. Norman Shaw, and we have no higher authority, has pronounced the building as "beyond all doubt the finest church that has been built for centuries"; and the chief professional body bestowed upon Mr. Bentley, in the last year of his life, its coveted gold medal, in spite of the fact that he was not among its members. There has rarely been an instance of a new and alien style of architecture so soon to win favour in this country, and it is not unlikely that we may son see a Byzantine invasion prevailing among our master-builders.

The sanctuary is already so far complete as to make it easy to visualise the result. The central design is a baldachino, roofing the alter over at a height of eighteen feet, the supports being curved lateral rows of eight columns of amber-hued onyx, fourteen feet in length. The first set of these was broken in transit from Marseilles, and this second set had to be insured for the journey at a very heavy premium. The altar stone is a single block of grey Cornish granite weighing twelve tons, and now that it is deposited in its place it makes a worthy centrepiece for the building.

The primitive Christian idea for an altar, and one that survives in Roman circles, was that it should be a tomb, and the new altar-stone at Westminster has been hollowed to contain the relics of St. Thomas of Canterbury and other English saints. But the new altar-block also suggests the memory of three dead Cardinals Wiseman, who conceived the idea of the cathedral in 1865; Manning, who bought the site; and Vaughan, who, after deciding the form it should take, raised so much of the money required.

Over the archbishop's throne are shown the new arms of the See, comprising the Westminster symbols with the private arms of Dr. Bourne. The throne itself is a handsome and well-shaped mass of white marble, encrusted in a rich mosaic pattern, and inscribe in black marble with the name of Cardinal Vaughan, in whose memory it has been presented. It is a replica of the Papal throne in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and was made in Rome. The pulpit is similar in style and origin. A gigantic carved and coloured crucifix of oak, twenty feet in length, hangs by massive chains from the chief dome; and while it corrects any lingering echoes in the roof, its stern outlines lend a graceful effect of contrast to the shapely arches of the building. On one side, and on an enormous scale, of course, is represented the agonised Saviour; on the reverse is a figure of the mater dolorosa, with an inscription from the "Stabat Mater" at her feet. The work is in high colour, with a foliated edge in gold; but artistically considered, it has defects of outline which stamp it as rather to barbaric, perhaps, to be an incentive to devotion.

There will be no other rood-screen, except a balustrade of marble, where the sanctuary rises from the floor of the nave, and where, again, it leads up to the apsidal choir. A statue of St. Peter, in black marble, is a facsimile of the famous one in the basilica of that name at Rome, and stands on a handsome pedestal in the narthex, or vestibule. But these details of furniture and equipment should not distract us from considering the building as a whole.

If it be true that a church should serve for spiritual rather than bodily comfort, then this new cathedral of St. Peter and St. Augustine fulfils its purpose. An old maxim with ecclesiastical architects is that a true church should be "as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land." The notion of a desert is very far from our secular life of to-day; the world is too much with us, and our solitude is the solitude of the crowds. Yet who would deny the consolation of leaving the dust and whirl of the city streets behind, and entering into the cool sepulchral silence of the Abbey or St. Paul's? Without the rugged cloisters of the one or the Italian graces of the other, Bentley has contrived to endow his fane with the elements of simplicity, tranquil grandeur, and amplitude in proportion, all directed to the central idea of divine worship. The Byzantine style was invented for countries rich in the sunshine that we generally lack, and this accounts for one marked defect of the edifice at least.

The windows are small and remote, especially for a building which is surrounded by others nearly as high as itself; and the present effect is a dimness of light which age, and the continual encroachment of buildings on the south side, must seriously deepen. When the bare walls, however, are covered with marble, and the expanses of the roof with mosaic, this "fairy coat of splendour," as William Morris called it, will use up the light to more advantage, and the original motive in subduing it may prove to be justified.

The Brampton Memorial Chapel.
( Dedicated to SS. Gregory and Augustine.)

There is incontestable evidence in the side chapels that the dead architect was a master in both these modes of decoration. The mosaic roof already laid in the Chapel of the Holy Souls represents the passing of a soul through purgatory, and quells the beholder with a mystical and descriptive power that cannot be gainsaid. The chapel of SS. Gregory and Augustine is a beautiful tribute to the men whom Rome always credits with the conversion of this country; it is endowed by Lord and Lady Brampton, and is now completed by the addition of a mosaic panel (to the left of our photograph) illustrating the judgement of Solomon, and appropriately so, considering the legal and judicial fame of the donor.

The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament on the north-east recess has been provided by Spanish money, and it was there that Don Alfonso received so warm and loyal an address from his subjects of the Spanish colony in London, during his visit to the Cathedral. It cost 15,000, and is rich in Numidian and Siena marbles of amber, grey and green. The Lady Chapel, which is being largely used for the ordinary parochial services, perpetuates the memory of Baroness Weld. Lady Loder has given a fine marble font, built according to Bentley's design; and before his death the late Marquis of Bute ordered a copy of Thorwaldsen's statue of St. John the Baptist to be placed in the baptistery.

The sacristies are panelled and furnished in oak, and the chapel of St. Peter in the crypt is to contain the archbishop's tombs. It was the architect's wish to pave the whole floor with marble and mosaic, and the marble framework beneath the arches of the aisles affords a clue as to the magnificent effect this would have had; but comfort has dictated in this matter, and this only, and the Acme wood pavement now laid down satisfies the utmost requirements.

Archbishop's House, as rebuilt in character with the cathedral, is simply and wisely ordered, without much pretension to comfort; but the library and main apartments are all handsome and spacious, and when, in time, the plain scheme of decoration is carried out, the building will be worthy of its neighbourhood. Altogether, the total pile must be accounted as the work of a great and devoted master of his craft.

Mr. Bentley worked as a true artist should, inside the limitations he could not hope to surmount, and he abandoned the æsthetic passion of his life in order to work out a new vein and a new method. It is but just to him, seeing how he deferred in this matter of style, that the authorities to whom the building is committed for the future should preserve above everything the spirit and tenor of the original scheme. Cardnal Vaughan was a masterful man; but he has left word to sho ho deeply Bentley's quiet and intense personality left its mark on him, and a line or two of his tribute is worth reproducing:

"Mr. Bentley was not ambituious to get on; he was not self-assertive, but he coveted to do well. It seems to me that it will be necessary for the perfection of the work Mr. Bentley has left behind him to retain his mind as a guide to its completion, as far as we can know it. Let us maintain the idea and the unity of his work to the end."


The Apse, from the roof of Archbishop's House.


 

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