Thursday, November 08, 2007

Westminster Cathedral: What Might Have Been

The course of Westminster Cathedral's construction was fraught with political and stylistic debates of considerable magnitude. Proposals submitted ranged from the extravagantly Ultramontane--a shrunk version of St. Peter's, if I remember correctly--to the exotic, such as a replica of the Italian Gothic Monreale Cathedral in Sicily. Some favored Gothic as an appeal to England's Catholic past--though the Gothic of a number of designs were French, or in the case of the proposal of the eccentric Sir Tatton Sykes (a prospective patron and MP known for wearing multiple overcoats at the same time), the German neo-Gothic of the Vienna Votivkirche.

It appears, further, that when Vaughan and Bentley opted for a Byzantine-style basilica, they had only the faintest notion of what constituted the style. Despite such inauspicious beginnings, the results were remarkable and grand, though Baron Corvo, the "spoiled priest" Frederick Rolfe, referred to it as a "streaky-bacon and pea-soup caricature of an electric light station," one of the least charitable but most snarky-hilarious assessments in the entire canon of architectural criticism. The choice of Byzantine was admittedly somewhat strange (if perhaps an intelligent bit of politesse on Vaughan's part) but the finished structure is quite wonderful.

That being said, Msgr. Langham has done a great service by posting some examples of what Westminster Cathedral might have been on his weblog, Solomon, I have Surpassed Thee.

Msgr. Langham does not specify who produced this remarkable if strangely awkward exercise in stripey, eclectic Victorian Gothic, but it is fascinating, if untidy and even schizoid. The stripes on the exterior, similar (probably unintentionally) to the finished product, recall the interest in Italianate color and brickwork expressed by some architects of the period. (Indeed, the now-demolished Romanesque revival Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York was called the "Church of the Holy Zebra" by some wags.) The interior is equally bizarre, but certainly not uninteresting and with a few curiosities to interest the attentive eye.

While the previous design was submitted for the campaign that culminated in Bentley's work, Cardinal Manning had proposed a cathedral be erected as early as 1867. These last two plates were produced by Henry Clutton in 1873, in a distinctly French sort of Gothic. Manning appears to have preferred the Italianate, incidentally, and decided to spend his resources on schools and poor relief. Given the political climate of the era one cannot help thinking a Gothic Catholic cathedral looming close by Westminster Abbey would not have been too well received.

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