Learning to Read the Victorian Church – By David Frazer Lewis

David Frazer Lewis on Michael Hall’s George Frederick Bodley and the Later Gothic Revival in Britain and America

Michael Hall, George Frederick Bodley and the Later Gothic Revival in Britain, Yale University Press, 2014, 506pp., $85
Michael Hall, George Frederick Bodley and the Later Gothic Revival in Britain, Yale University Press, 2014, 506pp., $85

What do Victorian churches mean? Michael Hall has asked this question before in scholarly essays, but nowhere has he explored it with as much insight and élan as in his new book. For the Victorians, the church building itself was a sort of text. Every aspect of the building was seen to have meaning, from the font by the door representing the beginning of the spiritual journey, to groupings of architectural features into threes to represent the Trinity, down to the hard wooden pews (a Victorian innovation), which faced the pulpit and sanctuary, encouraging fortitude and attention by their very discomfort. There was also a growing movement to make churches look like their medieval predecessors rather than the preaching boxes that had gradually become the norm since the Reformation. The architect George Frederick Bodley wanted an architectural “text” that allowed for the return of ritual to the church: places for glittering candles, flowers, incense and processions. Above all, he wanted the Eucharist to be at the center of worship, as audible and visible as the priest in the pulpit. The church space needed mystery and beauty to encourage religion in the face of rapid social change.

Bodley ultimately decided that the best way to achieve all of this was by adapting the forms of the late medieval English Gothic, or Perpendicular style. He felt that the style’s bright, austere spaces had an appropriate timelessness; he tapped into an ancient tradition to help the congregation sense the presence of Eternal Majesty. Bodley’s greatest achievement was adapting this style to reflect the practice of modern worship. He was no direct copier — plans, furnishings, fabrication techniques, even moldings were new. If when we look at his churches we can only see a convincing imitation of the medieval, it is partly because so many medieval churches as they stand today were reshaped and refurnished by Bodley and his contemporaries. The Victorians remade the Middle Ages in their own image.

Although taking the form of a monograph on the Victorian church architect George Frederick Bodley, the scope of Hall’s book is wide, using Bodley’s life and work as a window into the culture and religion of nineteenth-century Britain. Hall examines a vast swath of Victorian culture. The conservation movement, debates over liturgical reform in the Church of England, Aestheticism and Victorian gender roles, and changing attitudes towards empire — all are covered in illuminating ways. In exclusively architectural terms, Bodley was one of the greatest architects of the Gothic Revival, and he had more influence on the way churches look in Britain and America than any other designer of his era. That Hall recognizes his influence both in the wider British Empire and the United States speaks to the global outlook of his scholarship, which is much-needed in often-insular British architectural history.

Bodley is best-known for ecclesiastical architecture, but his most exciting work was at Oxford and Cambridge. He enhanced the late medieval elegance of a number of the most prominent colleges. In the 1880s, his sharply carved ashlar and battlemented towers brought Magdalen to a fever-pitch of beauty, and in the 1860s and 1890s, his rich paintwork and gilding in Queens College, Cambridge, created festive interiors fit for the era of Robin Hood. At Christ Church College, Oxford, he worked for Henry Liddell (father of Alice Liddell of Wonderland fame) to sweep away the Renaissance features such as balustrades that made the college appear a historical patchwork. In their place, he added crenellation and pinnacles and built the great Perpindicular Gothic tower over the stairs to the Hall in order to make Tom Quad look more purely medieval. The tower, in keeping with Christ Church tradition, was never completed, thanks to an attack by a group of Fellows led by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) on what they considered to be the destruction of the College’s heritage. Bodley’s early critics worried that he was too willing to alter historic buildings. His later critics worried that his churches carried the somewhat snobbish spirit of Oxbridge, calling them cold and condescending expressions of “good taste.”

Bodley’s church work has an eerie, cool precision — with much of the orderly feeling of good fifteenth-century English work — the sort of architecture that should be filled with Sarum chant by a choir of men and boys. Calling a building “English” seems trite — and Hall explores the theme of Englishness in Bodley’s work with great sensitivity — but I think it is fair to say that Bodley’s churches could only be a product of English Anglicanism. They have a restraint often lacking in Ninian Comper, the twentieth-century inheritor of Bodley’s legacy, whose rich gilding and liberal use of cerulean blue paint enriched churches from Westminster to Wymondham. They have an elegance often lacking in the work of Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of the brooding and powerful Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. Bodley’s masterpieces — Holy Angels, Hoar Cross; St Augustine, Pendlebury; and the chapel at Clumber Park — are little known outside of architectural circles, although the latter, encouragingly, is now in the hands of the National Trust. In addition to over fifty parish churches and chapels, he designed Anglican (Episcopal) cathedrals for Hobart, Tasmania; Washington, DC; and San Francisco. The first was built, the second was built but greatly modified, and the last was abandoned for a different design.

Clumber Church, Bodley & Garner, 1886-9. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Clumber Church, Bodley & Garner, 1886-9. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Over his long career, Bodley played an important role in the British art world: he was the first architect to consistently employ William Morris’s design firm, and his patronage in the early years kept Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co afloat. He would later go on to co-found Watts & Co in 1874, Morris’s chief rival in the realm of medievalist decoration. Watts still exists as a supplier of wallpapers and ecclesiastical textiles and recently celebrated its 140th anniversary. The company so often produces the vestments used at royal weddings and state funerals that Bodley’s designs have become a key element of the aesthetic of state religion in the UK. In addition to Morris, Bodley supported second-generation Pre-Raphaelites such as Edward Burne-Jones and J. R. Spencer Stanhope, and helped to encourage stained glass firms such as C.E. Kempe and Burlison & Grylls. He trained with the prominent Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott and befriended G.E. Street, Philip Webb, and Norman Shaw. His pupils included Ninian Comper, who would go on to lead Anglo-Catholic ecclesiastical fashion in the mid-twentieth-century, and C.R. Ashbee, who would be a leading light of the Arts & Crafts and conservation movements. Bodley’s importance as a nexus in the continuous succession of the British Gothic Revival can hardly be overestimated.

Hall also explores the role of Bodley’s shadowy design partner, Thomas Garner. In many ways Garner’s genius was equal to Bodley’s, and he was the primary designer of some of the firm’s best-known schemes, such as St Swithun’s Quad at Magdalen College, Oxford. Just as Adrian Gilbert Scott would be lost in the shadow of his more famous brother, Giles, when designing for his architecture firm in the early twentieth century, Garner’s work was often simply attributed to Bodley. No photographs or portraits (with the exception of pupil’s caricatures) are known to survive. Garner’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1897 led him to depart from the firm out of a fear that his conversion would damage Bodley’s primary business of Anglican church design. His late work included important works for the Roman Catholic Church, such as the choir of Downside Abbey.

Hall covers all of Bodley and Garner’s major projects in detail — perhaps too much detail for the general reader, as the writing can be a bit dense in places and the book is undeniably mammoth and heavy. Such coverage was necessary in order to create the authoritative work on one of England’s great architects, but many readers may wish to skim through the details of correspondence with clients and corporate histories of stone masons’ yards, useful as this information is for architectural historians.

Hall’s writing is particularly strong when exploring Bodley’s design philosophy. Bodley’s aesthetic featured pale interiors with bits of brighter color to draw the eye to important elements such as the altar. He used clear light and sparkling candles to interrupt the gloom; in the countryside he believed in tall towers that formed landmarks amongst the rolling fields, or in the city in high naves that overshadowed the clustered brick chimneys of the Victorian industrial city; and he believed in solid mass dissolving into pierced stone or metal cresting at the top. Hall explains Bodley’s art so well that on completing the book one feels that one could design an entire church in the style of Bodley & Garner. It is rare in architectural history of this type to have an author who understands not only the social and cultural resonances but also the design process. Hall explains every aspect of the churches, from stained glass and floor plans to organ cases and moldings. In addition to its rich historical dimension, the book functions surprisingly well as a crash course in Gothic church design.

Hall’s knowledge of the American context is limited, and his attempts to cover it in the conclusion are one of the rare instances in which he overstretches himself. Inclusion of the word America in the title does not reflect the actual contents of the book; it is an unfair claim on territory. Perhaps the hope is to attract a larger American audience. I warmly recommend the book to American audiences as a way of enriching their knowledge of Gothic church design or of gaining insight into British Victorian culture and religion. But this is not a study of American architecture, nor is it fair to suggest that Bodley was particularly influential here outside of a small coterie of Northeastern architects. Instead, Bodley’s influence in the United States was indirectly filtered via other architects: Giles Gilbert Scott, for instance, was a much greater influence on Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, who called him the greatest living architect. Bodley’s US-based pupil, Henry Vaughan, can hardly be said to have spawned a school of imitators as Hall seems to imply. The dates of Vaughan’s work do not in any way make him a pioneer: his career did not gain traction until the 1890s, when austere, Perpendicular-inspired modern Gothic was already being produced by home-grown Philadelphia and Boston firms. Hall’s biggest error is to state that the Bodley-inspired Gothic Revivalists resurrected American Gothic after the Civil War — completely ignoring the innovative and uniquely American modern Gothic designs of John LaFarge and Louis Comfort Tiffany (who transformed American stained glass by introducing modern chemistry and color theory), the strand of Ruskinian Gothic that produced Princeton’s Chancellor Green Library and Brown’s Robinson Library in the 1870s, and the radical church work of California architects such as the English expat Ernest Coxhead. This is not to mention a vast Gothic tradition in the rest of the country whose partial derivation from contemporary German and Italian work only made it invisible to strict Anglophiles such as Ralph Adams Cram. Hall’s mistake is forgivable, as he is only repeating a stale narrative that he is ill-positioned to challenge from the UK. We have yet to see a good book on the Gothic Revival in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, but judging from the interests of many young architectural historians, we may not have much longer to wait.

George Frederick Bodley and the Later Gothic Revival in Britain and America is beautifully produced. It captures the feeling of Bodley’s own design with its Aesthetic Movement color scheme, the Watts & Co wallpaper pattern printed on the endpapers, good typography, and splendid photographs by Geoff Brandwood. Sophie Sheldrake, its designer for Yale University Press, has created one of the most visually appealing art books of the year. In terms of scholarship, the book stands alongside Andrew Saint’s Norman Shaw and J. Mordaunt-Crook’s William Burges as an important monograph in the study of Victorian architecture. For decades, the lack of a book on Bodley has seemed like the biggest lacuna in the field of Victorian architectural history. That omission has finally been rectified. This book is long overdue and warmly welcomed.