Friday, August 20, 2010

Sir J. Ninian Comper and the Sisters of Bethany

[I recently came across some of the vestment work of the Sisters of Bethany in the U.K., which was pursued in conjunction with the eminent gothic revival liturgical artist, Sir J. Ninian Comper. I asked Fr. Anthony Symondson if he might write an article on the matter of Comper and the Sisters of Bethany, and he was, thankfully, only too happy to do so. Here is that article.]

by Fr. Anthony Symondson, S.J.

Church embroidery and convents were once inescapably associated in the public mind. In Victorian and Edwardian England it was the Anglican convents that established some of the finest needlework rooms and schools of embroidery in Northern Europe and their work reached a standard unequalled since the Middle Ages.

It was, however, men who were responsible for this revival. A. W. N. Pugin started the recovery of technique by using the theatrical embroideresses of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, to make the splendid vestments for St George’s Cathedral, Southwark in 1841. None other could be found until he trained Lucy Powell and her daughters at John Hardman’s Medieval Manufactures. He never used religious sisters but the Anglican architects and designers of the Gothic Revival – William Butterfield, George Edmund Street, Ernest Geldart, Charles Eamer Kempe, the brothers Edmund and John Sedding, George Frederick Bodley, Thomas Garner, J. Ninian Comper, F. C. Eden and Geoffrey Webb – all directed and used convent work rooms to a matchless standard of execution. Not a stitch or spool of silk was left to chance, they had to work under supervision from annotated, real-size drawings, and for a period England assumed ascendancy in the field.

The leading English school of embroidery was run by the Sisters of Bethany who lived in London at Lloyd Square, Clerkenwell. Their apostolate was retreats, spiritual direction and parish work, centred on Sedding’s masterpiece, the church of Our Holy Redeemer, Exmouth Market. But their involvement in embroidery was largely a matter of chance and was subordinate to their main work. Embroidery was a female accomplishment and it would be rare for women of a middle-class background to remain untutored in the skill. Most nuns would know how to embroider and in 1873 a small work room was opened.

In 1885 the young J. Ninian Comper, aged twenty-one and completing his articles with Bodley & Garner, became a lodger of Fr George Hollings SSJE, a Cowley Father and noted spiritual writer and retreat director, who was chaplain to the sisters. Word came that they wanted to make a mitre for use by Frederick Temple, Bishop of London, at vow ceremonies but they did not know how to proceed. An introduction was effected by Fr Hollings and a magnificent pointed mitre of white silk of medieval shape, with long, fringed lappets embroidered with figures of saints, was designed,. It was the first piece of embroidery designed by Comper and still exists in the Order’s sacristy at their present mother house in Southsea, Hampshire.

One of the principal lessons learnt by Comper from Bodley was the principle of complete artistic control. Bodley designed his churches as unified works of art and this quality characterized the work of his contemporaries and pupils. Comper became not only an architect but was proficient in designing painted glass, precious and base metalwork, church furniture, textile design and embroidery, skills shared by his master. This introduction to the Sisters of Bethany enabled them to found a school of embroidery that came under Comper’s direction. Fee-paying pupils were accepted and local girls taken from the age of fourteen were to be trained to execute work commissioned directly from the school to Comper’s design.

Comper’s aims were clear. His association with the Sisters of Bethany began when he was at the start of his enthusiasm for late-medieval English Gothic art and architecture, reinforced by a love of c15 Flemish panel paintings and, for a brief period, late-medieval German church art. A prospectus issued by the school of embroidery declared that the school’s work was to be based on opus anglicanum, the best English ecclesiastical embroidery of the c14-c15, and that the dedication of the church for which it was to be made should be provided. This enabled Comper to choose suitable iconography rather than neutral floral symbolism. On average every commissions was individually designed by Comper and stock designs were discouraged.

Within a short time Comper’s standards were achieved and by 1900 orders were being received from all over the world. Vestments of all kinds, altar frontals, hangings, alms bags, missal markers, and red, white and black work on altar linen were provided on a wide scale. The school’s chief accomplishment of these early years was made for St Mark’s, Philadelphia, for Dr Alfred Mortimer, the influential Anglo-Catholic incumbent, in whose time the church was richly furnished. In 1900 Fernanda, the wife of Rodman Wanamaker, the department store owner, died and in her memory Wanamaker built a lady chapel and richly endowed St Mark’s with magnificent furniture and vestments designed by leading English artists such as Comper, Kempe and Barkentin & Krall, the best silversmiths of the time; he also gave much antique church plate and vestments.

Two items were of particular note. The first was a white High Mass set designed by Comper and made by the Sisters of Bethany. It is composed of embroidered scenes from the Gospels contained within embroidered winding rose briars, modelled on the early-c16 cope of gold tissue designed by Torrigiano for the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey. The sole surviving cope from the set, which was worn on the Field of the Cloth of Gold, belongs to Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. These briars, containing the Tudor badge, became one of Comper’s favourite motifs for altar frontals, painted glass and sculpture but nowhere were they employed more sumptuously for vestmemts than in the set for St Mark’s. It marked the highest achievement of the school’s early work. The vestments were widely illustrated and a photograph of the chasuble was published in The New Catholic Encyclopedia (1966) illustrating an entry on the chasuble.

Comper Chasuble, St. Mark's, Philadelphia.
Photo copyright Davis d'Ambly (Image source)

Comper Dalmatic, St. Mark's, Philadelphia.
Photo copyright Davis d'Ambly (Image source)

St Mark’s has a cope hood designed by Comper, representing the descent of the Dove at Pentecost, a set of red High Mass vestments but, finest of all, an embroidered altar frontal made for the silver altar in the lady chapel. This is composed of a central subject of the Virgin & Child. Kempe designed black vestments and altar frontals, made in the embroidery room of the Community of St John the Baptise, Clewer, Windsor and they make an instructive comparison with Comper’s work.

Comper altar frontal. St. Mark's, Philadelphia.
Photo copyright Davis d'Ambly (Image source)

Comper cope. St. Mark's, Philadelphia.

Perhaps the most poignant piece of embroidery retained by the Sisters of Bethany today is a cope hood representing the Virgin and Child, her mantel being held open by flanking angels. This was not a commissioned piece but was made by the embroideresses engaged by the sisters to keep them in work during the Depression of the 1930s rather than dismissing them. It is different in technique from Comper’s early work at Philadelphia because he had moved on from opus anglicanum to the or nuéé method of embroidery. The pupils of the school were upper-middle to upper class ladies, the women permanently employed were local girls from working-class families, members of the congregation of Our Holy Redeemer.

Of these, one who achieved exceptional standards was Winifred Peppiatt, an embroideress whose work achieved the highest level of Comper’s art. She became a Catholic shortly before the Second World War, left but later joined the staff of Watts & Co. Here, years later, Comper rediscovered her and said, ‘So this is where you are!’ She worked on the Coronation frontal designed by Comper for Westminster Abbey, given by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937; and for the frontal designed by S. E. Dykes Bower for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The sisters also made banners and copes for the Abbey, designed by Comper. Their work is to be found in many English cathedrals, parish churches and private chapels throughout the world, including Notre Dame, Paris; and it is fully represented in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The Annunciation panels from the Southwark Cathedral Festal High Altar frontal. The frontal is red and gold brocade, originally made by the Sisters of Bethany to a design by Sir Ninian Comper circa 1906.

Comper did not like the school to work for other architects and, when they did so, it had to be hidden so that he would not see it. Foremost among those who used the school were F. C. Eden and Geoffrey Webb, whose work was analogous to Comper’s in design, colouring and technique. The school used exclusively the textiles – silk-damask and tapestry – designed by Comper for his work, woven by Perkins & Sons, of Spitalfields. No others were allowed and, if any were discovered, they were ordered to be disposed of.

Comper was an exacting designer who insisted on perfection. This was not merely an expression of neurotic perfectionism but a sign of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. If stitches were not perfectly laid he would not hesitate to cut them and order the work to be started again. This also included back-stitching. He once noticed a fault on the reverse of a chasuble and wanted it to be corrected. Sister Doris Mary SSB, the sister-in-charge of the school, said that it would be seen by nobody. ‘You forget, Sister,’ said Comper, scissors poised, ‘that it will be seen by the angels’.

* * *

Further Details

Detail from Comper Chasuble
Photo copyright Davis d'Ambly (Image source)

Detail from back of Comper Chasuble, St. Mark's, Philadelphia
Photo copyright Davis d'Ambly (Image source)

Detail from Comper Cope, St. Mark's, Philadelphia
Photo copyright Davis d'Ambly (Image source)

Detail from Comper Cope, St. Mark's, Philadelphia
Photo copyright Davis d'Ambly (Image source)

Detail from Comper Cope, St. Mark's, Philadelphia
Photo copyright Davis d'Ambly (Image source)

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: