future out of the past
Sir Ninian Comper points the way out of the ideological cul-de-sac of modern church architecture, says Anthony Symondson SJ N 6 o English i
architect s architect s better known
in cathedral close or distant rectory than IN Comper," wrote John Betjeman in 1939, "few architects are less well-known in what has come to be called the 'profession' ." What was true then is not true now for fewer still these days have heard of Sir Ninian Camper (1864-1960), whether in the Church, the architectural profession, or the world at large. That is their loss, because no English church architect of Comper's generation had a more assured understanding of liturgical planning and the purpose of a church and his theories have a perennial application. Where Comper differed from many of his contemporaries and successors was the primacy he placed upon beauty as a divine imperative and the essential place it occupies in worship.
I was first introduced to Comper's work when I was 15. During the school holidays one of my uncles, Richard Mellor, introduced me to architecture. He was one of the last pupils of Arthur Beresford Pile, an architect who had a marked effect on the trend of secular architecture and architectural education. In his office my uncle was trained in the best traditions of contemporary architecture as it was then understood. It was entirely uninfluenced by Modernism; Lutyens became his hero and so did architects like Guy Dawber, Arnold Mitchell, and M H Baillie Scott, among others. Fite was aggressively Low Church, My uncle was assertively High Church, and he opened up for me not only the world of early 20thcentury architecture, but also the riches of the Gothic Revival and its continuity in his and my lifetime. He taught me architectural judgment at a time when the cult of Modem architecture was gaining ascendancy and gave me an eye for what it was attempting to destroy. For that I am eternally grateful.
It was in 1955 that he took me to see Comper's London masterpiece, St Cyprian's, Clarence Gate, Marylebone. St Cyprian's is a medievalist vision of East Anglia, furnished with gilded screens, contained within white walls, built in 1903. In those days the wooden floor was highly polished and the chairs were stacked at the back and the sides, leaving the nave and aisles empty, but for a few left for people to pray. The altar was long and low, hung with gilded and painted leather; it had six candlesticks of polished pewter that reflected the light and a gilded polygonal tabernacle, the side altars were hung with rose-red and blue silk that complemented the blue, red and green of the silvery painted glass. In the aisles the windows were filled with German bottle-end glass that cast a diffused light and veiled the world beyond.
Above all, it was the atmosphere that was captivating. Then, St Cyprian had an intense atmosphere of prayer, now gone, that made the presence of God a palpable reality. It was not only beautiful but holy, and embodied, to my susceptible mind, a sense of the numinous hitherto unequalled by any other church. It was my first introduction to Comper's
work and only later did I discover that one of his intentions was that a church should bring you to your knees. At that time one of the objectives of worship was to draw the worshipper into a sense of transcendent reality. St Cyprian's is a church of the Eucharist and Gamper defended the low, wide windows and lightly designed screens for creating a transparent vessel like a lamp with the altar as the flame within it.
Comper began as a medievalist but went on to become a creative artistarchitect, "the best, as many people believe", thought John Piper in 1944, "now working in the Church". Comper's early work was infused by English Perpendicular and German late-Gothic. In 1900 he went to Rome for the first time and was converted to a fuller understanding of architecture. The form and detail of the
When I was a young man, I was urged by John Betjeman to write about Comper and was introduced to his family
Graeco-Roman remains, the beauty of line of Classical sculpture, the planning of the Constantinian basilicas, their solidly gilded coffered ceilings enclosing panels of deep ultramarine, juxtaposed with rose-red hangings, effected a profound change in his work. A visit to Sicily in 1905 to see the mosaic churches of Palermo made Camper realise that Western architectural tradition was dependent upon a fusion of styles — Classic, Gothic, Islamic — that should be welded into a unified whole by the controlling thought of the designer. Thereafter, he combined many startling diversities of style into a harmonious whole, indebting his work to ancient and medieval Greece, Italy, France, Spain, North Africa, Dalmatia, England and, above all, the Mediterannean, accomplished with fastidious artistry in the pursuit of a consistent ideal.
These influences were given their fullest expression in St Mary's, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire (190431), the most beautiful parish church built in England in the 20th century. Octagonal piers of golden ironstone support a lierne vault with fan pendants containing electrical lighting fittings. Wide aisles flow into eastern chapels. The high altar stands beneath a ciborium (or baldacchino) of burnished gold enclosed within classical screens. From the vanit, above the rood, hangs a figure on a giant scale of Christ Pantokrator, the Almighty, the Ruler and Creator of all, the eternal Christ forever young. St Mary's is not only the fulfilment of the Gothic Revival but takes its heightening from the altar and proclaims the centrality of the Mass as the heart of Christian worship.
In 1937 at St Philip's, Cosham, Portsmouth, Comper built a centrally planned church with an altar standing beneath a ciborium that anticipated the liturgical reforms that took place after the Second Vatican Council. Comper was a solitary figure for whom history was capable of informing architecture at a deeper level than most of his contemporaries could understand, as well as being a passionate advocate of architectural beauty. St Philip's provides a solution to the dilemma of modern church architecture from which beauty has been ruthlessly abolished for supposed liturgical and architectural gains. Comper knew that the Mass combines community with transcendence, and that is why, if his principles of liturgical planning and architectural beauty were combined, church architecture could emerge reborn.
Comper was not a Roman Catholic but from boyhood he was close to the Church and he numbered many Catholics, both English and Continental, among his friends. Twice he almost entered the Church. He was a devout AngloCatholic and had a passionate desire for the reunion of Christendom — Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican — and the modern saint he most venerated was St Pius X. At Downside Abbey he designed some of his best works: exquisite chapels, painted glass, and vestments, and his influence permeates the refined austerity of one of the noblest Gothic Revival churches in Britain. The Benedictines were too nervous to accept his proposals for a towering gilded ciborium which would have linked Thomas Garner's choir with Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's nave and given the altar a focus that would have combined the worship of the school with the monastic offices.
When I was a young man, I was urged by John Betjeman to write about Comper and was introduced to his family; they introduced me to those who knew and worked for him. I have written many articles about him, organised an exhibition of his work at the RIBA which broke all records, lectured widely on the subject, and now a book is about to be published which attempts to introduce his work, theories and principles to a new generation. Comper's great-nephew, Stephen Bucknall, has compiled an exhaustive gazetteer that will take those interested to churches all over these islands and abroad.
Comper saw tradition as a vital, rather than static, force. His thought was analogous to the central features of the 20th-centur7 French Catholic theological revival charactefised in the work of Henri de Lubac, M D Chenu and Yves Congar. Their theory of ressourcement looked back to tradition, expressed in the patristic age, and forward to the social and cultural future. The object of theology and liturgy was to reveal the mystery of Christ, his life, death and resurrection, diversely expressed through the different ages of the Church. The mystery is not approached in a spirit of antiquarianism but in such a way that we can, through tradition, discover Christ in the world of the present time. It is a theory that was embodied in the inaugural Mass of Pope Benedict XVI, for no pope in modern times so fully represents its fruits.
Comper, more than any other English architect of the 20th century, endeavoured with passionate conviction to penetrate the very core of Western civilisation by studying the church art and architecture of Europe to find there spiritual values applicable to his own time. His theories have hardly been tested since his death. The ideological impasse in which modern church architecture slumbers could be broken without compromising the integrity of its liturgical principles by applying Comper's unique understanding of the indispensability of beauty and the legacy of Christian tradition. It won't happen overnight, but his day has yet to come.
Sir Ninian Comper: An Introduction and Gazetteer by Anthony Symondson and Stephen Bucknall is available, priced BO, from Spire Books (PO Box 2336, Reading RG4 5W1. Tel: 01189 471 525).