Page 9, 16th November 2007

16th November 2007
Page 9
Page 9, 16th November 2007 — The Westminster Cathedral that never was

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Organisations: Trinity College, Army
Locations: London, Rome, Cologne


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The Westminster Cathedral that never was

Philip Fowke on his great grandfather's attempt to build a Catholic cathedral that would surpass even Westminster Abbey in its grandeur Visitors to London will all know the familiar outlines of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. The majestic contours of Westminster Abbey rise up in gothic splendour as the tourist bus trundles by, only to enter the concrete corridor that is now Victoria Street. Two stray buildings, the Prince Albert pub and Artillery Mansions, survive to recall an age of greater style and character. But then, as the bus continues its way past the aluminium cubes of the Army and Navy stores, the panorama on our left unexpectedly opens out into a piazza revealing an eruption of red brick nestling incongruously amid the Victorian apartment blocks. A profusion of galleries, arcades and domes jostle together, culminating in a kind of soaring funnel. One might be forgiven for mistaking Westminster Cathedral for one of London's more eccentric power stations.

And yet how different this might have been. Imagine the same tour passing Westminster Abbey, admiring its elevations and flying buttresses, the bus ambles down the bleak wastes of Victoria Street. Suddenly two gothic spires peak out above the department stores and we see to our left another mighty church almost equal to, and in some ways even surpassing, its medieval neighbour. The bus briefly slows down, and we can now admire this imposing cathedral of a 14th century, distinctly French style. In size and scale it is not unlike Cologne Cathedral and we might notice how new it looks. In fact, begun in the 1870s and only recently completed, this would have been the Westminster Cathedral that my great grandfather designed for his cousin Cardinal Manning.

Henry Clutton (18191893) was a notable architect who, in 1856 and in partnership with William Burges, won the competition for Lille Cathedral. His many commissions included the restoration of the Salisbury Cathedral Chapter House (1857), the Clock Tower at Cliveden (1867), the Sacred Heart Chapel at Farm Street (1863) and the memorial chapel at St Mary's Chislehurst (1874), commissioned by Eugenie, the last Empress of France, as a memorial to her husband. He had also produced plans for the proposed Brompton Oratory in 1878, coming second in the open competition which Herbert Gribble won. Significant to our story was the commission to design St Francis of Assisi, Pottery Lane, but more of that later.

Clutton had been contacted by Manning as far back as 1867 to prepare drawings for the future cathedral and these were sufficiently advanced by 1868 for the cardinal to take them to Rome for the approval of Pope Pius Dc. The brief had been that the new church be in "the earlier period of the English Style... in favour of grandeur, stateliness, solidity, spaciousness and majestic elevation". The fact that there was no open competition, coupled with Clutton being related to Manning, paved the way for a predictably hostile press. The Tablet being particularly strident.

However, in 1875 the plans were published in the Building News, receiving a favourable review. It was felt that Clinton's cathedral "bore a striking resemblance to that of the Cathedral at Cologne both in the general proportions and length".

It was estimated that this design would be costly and take as long as a century to complete The first portion of the nave would be built up to triforium height and roofed over. The cost of this alone would have been in the region of f80,000, and it became clear to Cardinal Manning that the enterprise could not be undertaken without substantial funding guarantees. He had got himself into an awkward situation by appointing a cousin without due consultation and for allowing the plans to reach such an advanced stage.

Into the breach stepped Sir Tatton Sykes, with good and bad news. The good, a promise to underwrite the costs. the bad, that he choose his own architect. Manning rather disgracefully agreed. Clutton must have felt betrayed by this action, for not only had he given six years to the project but he had also asked for no fee. Manning was unable to resolve the impasse, and so the project had to wait some years until Archbishop Vaughan succeeded him in 1892. Clutton's death a year later must have eased any lingering embarrassments.

As I sit in the Byzantine spaces of the present-day Cathedral. I sometimes think of my great grandfather and imagine being in his unbuilt masterpiece. It would be fitting that his contribution be acknowledged in some quiet corner.

Oh yes, about that commission to design St Francis of Assisi Pottery Lane. Clutton's young assistant, an articled clerk in his practice, was a certain Francis Bentley.

Philip Fowice is Senior Fellow of Keyboard. Trinity College of Music, London

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