Anglican Gothic in the British Empire – By Zirwat Chowdhury

Zirwat Chowdhury on G.A. Bremner’s Imperial Gothic: Religious Architecture and High Anglican Culture in the British Empire, 1840-1870

G.A. Bremner, Imperial Gothic: Religious Architecture and High Anglican Culture in the British Empire, 1840-1870, The Paul Mellon Centre BA, 2013, 364pp., $95.00
G.A. Bremner, Imperial Gothic: Religious Architecture and High Anglican Culture in the British Empire, 1840-1870, Yale University Press, 2013, 364pp., $95.00

Following a visit to Stirling Castle, former East India Company Governor-General Warren Hastings noted the striking visual similarity between its carved oak medallions and architectural ornament that he had encountered near Madras (now Chennai), pondering “how it made its way to India or … from India to Europe.” Hastings’s ruminations were not unusual for his time, and indeed complemented theories about the common origins of Gothic architecture that were especially popular among India-returnees in Britain in the late-eighteenth century. Such theories were hardly new, but their escalating popularity in these early eras of Britain’s colonial expansion in South Asia is a nod to the ways in which Gothic architecture and the British Empire were crucially interlinked. If architecture as artifact could attest to the progresses of mankind, then a comparative architectural discourse could offer a crucial language to the British for comprehending the uneven terrain of cultural convergence and difference that characterized the British Empire. However, as G.A. Bremner informs us, Gothic became a pronouncedly English phenomenon in the latter half of the nineteenth century, as it was in Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott’s lectures on medieval architecture, delivered at the Royal Academy between 1857 and 1873.

Bremner’s Imperial Gothic undertakes a magisterial survey of Anglican churches and cathedrals built in the British Empire from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, from Christ Church in New Zealand to Bombay (now Mumbai) in India to Newfoundland in Canada. One motivation for situating this study in foreign lands is that although significant alteration was done to many existing medieval church structures in England, no new Anglican cathedral was erected between the rebuilding of St. Paul’s (b. 1675-1710) and the construction of Truro Cathedral (b. 1881-1890). Instead, not only was it fervently pursued in the colonies, but, as Bremner fastidiously argues, Anglicanism itself was a “global enterprise.” Prefacing his study with the waning significance of the Church of England in early nineteenth-century Britain, Bremner traces how the Anglican Church fought for self-preservation by contending that rival churches (especially the Roman Catholic Church) were “fraying the loyalty of British subjects and potentially fragmenting the empire,” and that its moral authority alone could ensure the empire’s political stability. He argues that this quest for moral and political ascendancy was, furthermore, mediated through ecclesiological reform that mandated the “‘correct’ liturgical arrangement of space, in a style of architecture that was deemed to reflect true Christian values,” and that was explored diligently in the pages of The Ecclesiologist from 1841 to 1868 in more than 250 articles, notices, and reports. Indeed, faced with localized contingencies such as climate and the availability of materials, the construction of Anglican churches necessitated crucial adaptations that, in turn, challenged or broadened the ecclesiological reforms being undertaken in Britain. For example, Bremner’s careful study of the plans of colonial churches reveals the reincorporation of intermediary spaces like nartheces (previously rare in Anglican churches), as the simultaneous inclusion and seclusion of “idolatrous natives” became significant to the mission of conversion. Although Bremner acknowledges the contingent nature of ecclesiological transformations in Anglican churches, his case studies often rely heavily upon a barometer of “correct-ness” and “truth in ecclesiology.” For example, the two Christ Churches in North Adelaide and Cooma (New South Wales) are meant to serve as transparent illustrations of these attributes. It is almost halfway through the book that Bremner finally forges a material tie between architecture and its ecclesiological aims: “truth to materials and honesty in construction” and the exterior revealing the internal organization of the building.

The choice of Gothic in colonial territories, as Bremner explains, was far from obvious. Early Anglican churches in Australia and New Zealand were built in a stark, Norman style whose sparseness reminded viewers of Christianity’s earliest instances of church-building and thereby invited apostolic comparison. Whereas the model of “muscular Christianity” — the piety, discipline, and physical strength of imperial clergymen and the Church more broadly — elucidates the composition and aims of the Anglican clergy abroad, Bremner often repeats the rhetoric of colonial Anglican clergymen in his own analyses. For example, he argues that the word “primitive” did not function pejoratively when used to describe the Maori, but acknowledged their intelligence and sensitivity at the same time that it recognized the Whiggish values of civilizational intervention by the clergy. Where he acknowledges the use of Maori building techniques and ornament in Anglican churches in New Zealand (as, for example, at the Rangiātea Church in Otaki, New Zealand), Bremner situates such architectural cross-fertilization among conversion efforts that relied upon viewing Maori and Anglican mysticism through a comparative lens. Although he points out that the roof construction that appeared in some Anglican churches drew on that of Maori communal meeting halls, Bremner still speaks of the landscape of these early churches as one void of any pre-existing civil society. Similarly, he challenges historiographical tendencies to dismiss Anglican colonial churches as unsophisticated derivations of metropolitan models, yet retains the language of amateurism in his discussion of one of the only female protagonists in his book, Sophy Gray. Married to Robert Gray, the first bishop of Cape Town, she was a key figure in the transmission of architectural knowledge from Britain to South Africa. And yet, Bremner writes that “Sophy was no originator,” even as he acknowledges that it “required considerable knowledge and skill on her part to adapt these plans [which she had brought from England] to prevailing conditions.” Sophy Gray’s amateurism, in Bremner’s account, is bolstered by his reference to her by first name only, a treatment that he does not extend to the male figures in his book.

St Paul's Anglican church at Kyneton, Victoria. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
St Paul’s Anglican church at Kyneton, Victoria. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Although laudatory of the muscular Christianity embodied by Anglican clergymen in the colonies, Bremner does not lose sight of their élite origins or affiliations. The primary actors in his book are Oxbridge-educated, architecturally-literate clergymen who were the purveyors of Tractarian reforms in the empire. Yet, while Bremner gives his readers details about each clergyman’s Oxbridge pedigree, he does not explore and acknowledge their positioning within broader imperial networks, equally important for a project that spans the British Empire. We are told that the Rev. William Charles Cotton’s father, William Cotton, was “a leading figure in the Incorporated Church Building Society,” but not that Cotton-père was governor of the Bank of England, and Cotton’s grandfather was a director of the East India Company. Such oversights allow Bremner to argue that an uneasy relationship existed between church and state. Although one of the many important contributions of this book lies in his discussion of Anglican clergymen’s critiques of British military violence in the colonies, Bremner also points out “the correlation of piety with national prosperity… [that] this was in essence a zero-sum game, in which piety equated to profit.” Bremner describes the tensions between piety and “savagery” superbly in his succinct and incisive analysis of the Patteson Memorial Chapel in Norfolk Island, New Zealand, completed in 1880:

… [t]he memorial chapel was a truly a “savage” construct — the ultimate perhaps. In mediating, at the point of intersection, between two worlds, between two opposing but essentially equal states of savagery, it at once collapsed these perceived states of being and monumentalized their apparent relativity.

This is arguably one of the most poignant and nuanced sections of the book, as Bremner situates the chapel’s “primitive” style between Patteson’s critique of the death tolls exacted by the British military and the complex circumstances of the clergyman’s death. Bremner, however, does not extend similar analysis to All Soul’s Memorial Church in Kanpur (India). There he praises the “Ruskinian” naturalism of the church’s architectural ornament. Yet he makes no mention of John Ruskin’s denunciation of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the event memorialized by the church.

Bremner’s introduction and bibliographic essay echo a now-frequent call in British and British imperial studies to interweave the histories of Britain and the British Empire. But, his polite dismissal of the “disabling dichotomies” of post-colonial critiques of empire is both flawed and reveals some of the limitations of his own project. He disregards the importance of “alterity” and the disavowed intimacy of colonizer and colonized that have been central to post-colonialism’s interrogations of imperial power. In his rich account of the Rangiātea Church, he pronounces that:

The church cannot be really described as a genuine amalgam or hybrid. Instead, it had the strange effect of two buildings in one – a kind of architectural schizophrenia of interior and exterior. This disjunction is perhaps representative of the efforts made by CMS missionaries to reconcile the cultural and religious differences within colonial society without allowing the church to lose its identifiable Christian character.

The “architectural schizophrenia” to which he nods is not distant from Homi Bhabha’s formulation of the hybrid. Bhabha speaks of hybridity as the insertion of suppressed knowledge. Whereas Bremner is committed to re-inscribing the architectural efforts of colonial clergymen to the canon of British architecture, such projects remain inveterately Anglocentric. In this vein, Henry Conybeare and H.G. Wilcox are identified as the chief designers of the Afghan Memorial Church (b. 1850-7) in Bombay, and its interior decorative tiles attributed in the text to William Butterfield. The Indian students of the J.J. School of Art are only nodded to in the illustration caption of the tiles and a passing footnote, even though a wide scholarship has excavated crucial ties between colonial art schools and architectural practice in the period. Here, for example, some dialogue with Tim Barringer’s account of the J.J. School of Arts students’ architectural ornaments at the Victoria Terminus (b. 1878-87, now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) and Preeti Chopra’s study of architectural patronage in nineteenth-century Bombay (the first of these books is noted in Bremner’s bibliography; the second is not) would have enriched Bremner’s analysis, and elucidated the specificity of his intervention in a terrain most well-known for the railway station’s genre of “Bombay Gothic.”

Imperial Gothic is formidable for the sheer breadth and scope that it introduces to the study of architectural history, especially British architecture. The adroitness with which Bremner navigates a dense web of clerical networks and puts into dialogue buildings across a wide geographical terrain injects a much-needed “globalism” into British architectural history, a field that has often been reluctant to recognize that the boundaries of Britain were drawn neither at those of England, nor of the British Isles. As scholars expand these boundaries, attention needs to be paid to those mechanisms that allowed people, ideas, and objects to circulate, what accessibility to global networks entailed, and the ways in which new identities and forms of belonging were forged at the same time that others were homogenized and erased.