Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fr. Anthony Symondson on The Holiness of Beauty

In The Catholic Herald this week, a piece by a frequent commenter and friend of the NLM, and more importantly, a noted authority in the gothic revival and Sir Ninian Comper in particular, Fr. Anthony Symondson, SJ:

The Holiness of Beauty

Anthony Symondson SJ
Friday November 30, 2007

On October 21, 1907, George Frederick Bodley, the leading English church architect of the Aesthetic Movement, died in the Elizabethan manor house at Water Eaton, Oxfordshire, and in doing so fulfilled a romantic wish to die looking through a lattice window. Bodley was a townsman and only lived in the country at the end of his life. For much of it the scene of his activities was in London and he worked in a drawing office in Gray’s Inn, Holborn. In 1941 a bomb destroyed South Square and in doing so effaced the corpus of Bodley’s correspondence and drawings. This was a major loss and partly explains why Bodley’s life and work has been left in relative obscurity during the revival of interest in Victorian architecture of the last 50 years.

Michael Hall, the editor of Apollo, has done more than anybody to research Bodley’s achievement and this is encapsulated in a small exhibition, The Holiness of Beauty: G F Bodley and his Circle, mounted in the narrow space of the architecture gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Despite the physical limitations and scarcity of material, this is a rich and illuminating tribute to one of the greatest church architects of the 19th century.

A lifelong Anglo-Catholic, Bodley was at the spearhead of the leading art movements of the mid-Victorian period. The first pupil of Sir George Gilbert Scott, he was also the first to commission Morris & Co to decorate his churches and provide them with stained glass designed by Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Holman Hunt. Edward Warren, one of his pupils, said that nobody fulfilled Pre-Raphaelite ideals in the church interior better than Bodley. But that is only part of the story. After a precocious start in the Ruskin-inspired north Italian and French Gothic styles, Bodley moved away from 13th-century continental precedents and returned to the point where Pugin left off when he designed All Saints, Cambridge, in 1863 in the English Decorated style and brought the Gothic Revival full circle.

In 1869 Bodley formed a partnership with Thomas Garner, a later pupil of Scott. This was broken in 1897 when Garner became a Catholic, but in the intervening years they designed a sequence of noble churches that transcended most of their contemporaries. Among their most lavish works is Holy Angels, Hoar Cross, Staffordshire (1871-7). Scholarly, softly radiant, and refined, it is as exquisite in execution as design. In contrast, St Augustine’s, Pendlebury, Manchester, (1870-4) is one of the most monumental by virtue of its severe simplicity. Decorated with diaper patterns in muted half-tones, it has passages through internal buttresses instead of aisles – a motif once thought to derive from Albi and Spain and often repeated by the next generation, but now attributed by Hall to the Dominican church in Ghent. But perhaps the noblest of all Bodley’s churches, and his favourite work, is at Clumber, Nottinghamshire, designed in 1886 for the seventh Duke of Newcastle. It now stands isolated and forlorn in the park of the demolished mansion.

Bodley’s drawings, backed by wallpaper which he designed for Watts & Co, the firm he founded with Garner and George Gilbert Scott Jnr, have been gathered from many sources. They show Bodley’s designs for furniture and fittings for church and domestic interiors, stained glass, fine embroidery and church plate. He abandoned collaborative design for complete artistic control. Bodley established the stained glass artist, C E Kempe, whose centenary also falls this year, and, under Garner’s influence, the firm of Burlison & Grylls, whose matchless work marked the apogee of Victorian stained glass. His metalwork was executed by Barkentin & Krall, the most finished silversmiths of the period. These works are conspicuous for freshness, abiding beauty and taste rather than innovation, and it was beauty that guided Bodley’s principles more than originality.

Bodley was led by the traditions of the past. He told his pupils that there is no virtue in being original and taught them to follow beauty, to seek it wholeheartedly and never deviate from it. None carried out these principles more than those who comprised Bodley’s school: Comper, Ashbee, F C Eden, Tapper, Hare, Dykes-Bower. His influence continues in Warwick Pethers’s sublime Gothic tower at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Suffolk, the stateliest and most permanent of the recent millenium projects.

Yet, unexpectedly, perhaps Bodley’s greatest legacy lies at Downside Abbey where Garner built the choir in 1906 and Giles Gilbert Scott the nave in 1926. Pevsner said that Downside represented the dream of Pugin’s English Catholicism at last come true. Pugin was fulfilled in Bodley and the work of the late Gothic Revivalists and his nationalist ideals, liturgical and aesthetic, permeate the abbey church in a form that would have been impossible in his lifetime. The recovery of beauty as a divine imperative is one of the most urgent needs of our time and Bodley’s principles demonstrate how the quest can be resumed and continued.

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