Italian-born Elena Curti, educated in England and trained as a journalist, has long specialised in writing about the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical heritage and its conservation. In 2000 she joined the international weekly The Tablet, serving as Deputy Editor (2004–16); since then she has been a freelance journalist based in London. In 2020 she published her first book on fifty RC churches that should be seen before one croaks. This new volume is about fifty more in England and Wales, including the cathedrals at Arundel, Birmingham, Brentwood, Clifton, Liverpool, Southwark, Westminster, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Norwich, Nottingham and Shrewsbury.
In the aftermath of Vatican II, a huge number of RC churches were vandalised, stripped of colour, fittings, screens and much beauty, in acts of destruction reminiscent of the worst excesses in iconoclasm carried out during the 16th and 17th centuries. For reasons of history, the vast majority of RC churches dated from the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of them Gothic Revival, influenced by the genius of the astoundingly prolific, scholarly and inventive Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–52). They contained wonderful creations by generations of architects and craftsmen, the products of deeply felt faith and painfully acquired skills, disgracefully undervalued during an orgy of wreckage carried out by philistines, ignorant modernists and insensitive clerics. In recent years, Laus Deo!, there seems to have been a growing interest, amongst both priests and congregations, in the restoration, even recovery, of interiors that had been so wantonly uglified.
Many years ago, when I worked as architectural editor of the Survey of London on the vast, largely Victorian part of London covered in the Northern Kensington volume, I discovered the exquisite little church of St Francis of Assisi, Pottery Lane (1859–60), designed by Henry Clutton (1819–93) and supervised by the young John Bentley (1839–1902). Bentley became sole architect for the additions then in progress and designed many of the fittings, including altars, reredoses, etc., as well as the exquisite baptistry where he himself was received (1862) into the RC Church, taking “Francis” as his baptismal name. It was not only the wonderful, tiny, lovely baptistry, with its font and marvellous font-cover, that enchanted me, but the very ingenious chapel of Our Lady of the Seven Dolours, which extended liturgically eastwards in cants around the liturgical north of the chancel. Even though the interior contained much that was extremely beautiful and very moving, some of the colour had been lost. In recent years, gloriously, colour has returned, and the whole ensemble is a magical wonder, capable of bringing one to one’s knees in thanksgiving and joyous acceptance.
Bentley went on to design the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood at Westminster, a stunning amalgam of many architectural themes and sources, with a splendid baldacchino over the high altar, a huge suspended Rood and richly decorated side-chapels. Building commenced in 1895. This was not noticed by the young women on Radio 3, one of whom recently, with the sublime confidence of the ignorant, announced that Haydn was prompted to compose his Creation during a visit to London in 1791 when he heard Handel’s Messiah “in Westminster cathedral”. She was blissfully unaware that not only was there no RC hierarchy established in England, in partibus Infidelium, in the 1790s, but that the cathedral was not a twinkle in the eye of the Cardinal-Archbishop, who then had not even been conceived.
In this world of fragile sensibilities, the Stations of the Cross (1914–18), carved by Eric Gill (who appears to have embraced incest and bestiality with some zest), are not out of danger at the hands of smug, self-righteous guardians of public morals, who would destroy works of art because of some perceived flaw in those who created them.
Not all the big churches grip me the way they do Curti: the Cathedral Church of Our Lady and St Philip Howard, Arundel, for example. It was erected 1870–73 at the expense of Henry Fitzalan Howard (1847–1917), 15th Duke of Norfolk, to designs by J.A. Hansom (1803–82), and it strikes me as singularly unlovable Gothic Revival, uneasily composed, with tediously mechanical detail. On the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool (1960 onwards), designed by the modernist Frederick Ernest Gibberd (1908-84 — a Nonconformist, incidentally, and it shows), I part company completely with Curti. She is far too kind to something which sits so uneasily on the Sublime crypt by Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869–1944).
The Liverpool saga is one of loss of nerve, for Lutyens’s design, if realised, would have resulted in one of the noblest ecclesiastical buildings in the world. Begun in 1929, the completed crypt gives some idea of the grandeur and power of what the realised building would have been, with its massive vaults, inventive Mannerist detail, stunning scale and supremely confident handling of mass, especially in relation to its confident interweaving of huge triumphal arches reappearing on several axes all at once. In the post-war era, with a bankrupt Britain having lost all confidence, it was decided the Lutyens scheme would be too expensive. More importantly, the Modernist lobby, by then not only in the ascendant, but wielding dictatorial powers in matters of style, insisted on something drearily predictable “of our own time”. Lutyens was dumped, and Gibberd, whose triumphs include the seedily incoherent Ulster Hospital (1953–61 — crumbling badly), Didcot Power Station (1964–68) and Heathrow Airport (1950–69), got the job. It very soon started not only to leak but, like many modernist buildings, structurally fail. In the 1980s the Archdiocese took Gibberd and the builders to court with a vast claim of millions. It was eventually settled out of court, but a huge fundraising campaign still had to be mounted, and leaks proved very difficult to stop. It would have been far more sensible in every way, not least economically, to have proceeded with Lutyens’s scheme. After all, Giles Gilbert Scott’s magnificent Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool was completed without modernist interventions, and it succeeds as architecture on every level. It is one of the grandest buildings of the 20th century anywhere, of breathtaking scale and overwhelming numinous beauty.
There is one late 20th century RC cathedral that does actually have everything such a building should possess, and that is the Cathedral Church of Sts Mary and Helen, Brentwood, Essex (1989–91), by Quinlan Terry (1937–). It has allusions to the works of great architects such as Brunelleschi, Wren, Gibbs, Pietro da Cortona and others, and it is constructed of traditional materials, handled with skill and taste. Sneered at by modernists when first unveiled, it has already proved itself superior in every way to expensive failures like Gibberd’s work, and it has just been Listed Grade II*. Furthermore, it shows how a sensitive architect can respond in a positive way to the liturgical requirements post-Vatican II, for the church is planned with accessibility both in visual and physical terms to the altar. It is a triumph.
A few years ago I had the unhappiness to have to attend a Requiem Mass in the Cathedral Church of St Barnabas, Nottingham (1841–44). Not only was the Mass very indifferently celebrated and the congregation sloppily dressed, but I could hardly bear to see the terrible way in which Pugin’s great First Pointed building had been denuded of everything lovely, colourful and conducive to spiritual health and dignified worship. It seems there are now moves afoot to reinstate at least some of Pugin’s marvellous colour to what is now a distressingly bleak interior, which would have driven the architect to paroxysms of rage and vitriolic invective had he had the misfortune to see what had been done to his creation. I reflected, as I sat uncomfortably and miserably through that undignified send-off (ending in an appalling crematorium, with the accompaniment of a canned performance of Grieg’s Morning from Peer Gynt), that the puritans had got at the very vitals of the Church and done immense damage as destructive as anything seen a few hundred years earlier.
I hope that a slight trend in the RC Church towards repair and reinstatement of lost features will help to restore the numinous, for our contemporary society urgently needs just that and much more besides. It would also help to give back some dignity to the words used in worship, for attempts to make the language “accessible” have only made it banal and without anything uplifting or noble in any sentence. Those responsible for creating the Rocky Horror Service Book, in all its manifestations in many denominations, have contributed to a severe malaise that may now be endemic and perhaps even irreversible. To observe what has happened in the Anglican Church should be a warning: pews, choir-stalls and many other things are being thrown out in order to create spaces for appear to be largely secular uses. Meanwhile over-stretched clergy, trying hopelessly to serve several parishes at once, all with dwindling congregations, see themselves as a branch of the social services, abandoning altogether that which is sacramental. Without a mellifluous dignified language, surroundings conducive to appreciation of visible beauty, music that elevates and puts us within earshot of the divine, and an architecture that gives us glimpses of heaven, what is the point? All too often, one feels the Churches and especially the clergy have lost the plot.
Curti’s useful book, decently illustrated, sensibly priced, and with useful information regarding location of buildings and contact details, is to be warmly welcomed. She should brush up on her terminology, however: she should not confuse “pillar” with “column” or “pier”. There are a few other quibbles I have on definitions and language, but on the whole it is an excellent, intelligent publication, though an index would have made it more useful.
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