Thursday, June 17, 2010

Westminster Cathedral and its Architect

William Christian Symons 1845-1911
Portrait of John Francis Bentley 1902
Oil on canvas
50 1/8 in. x 40 1/8 in. (1272 mm x 1018 mm)
The National Portrait Gallery, London

John Francis Bentley (30 January 1839 – 2 March 1902) was the architect who was chosen to bring the dream of a Westminster Cathedral to reality.

Rather than Gothic, the style is Byzantine. Bentley was also a master of the neo-Gothic.

However the choice of style appears to have been the result of a decision of Cardinal Vaughan.

In 1919 his daughter produced a two volume biography of her father. It is available on the Internet Archive.

Both volumes can be found at the following links:

Volume 1 is the volume which principally deals with Westminster Cathedral.

I have also put the links on the Wikipedia  site on the architect as unfortunately the article appears to be only a "stub" with not much information which befits such an important figure.

He was not a self-publicist. His work is not as well known as it should be

In 1894, Cardinal Vaughan asked him to design the new Roman Catholic Cathedral at Westminster, in the Byzantine style.

In November of that year, Bentley travelled in Italy to study the architecture, but was taken ill in Venice. He did not go to Constantinople (formerly Byzantium), as an epidemic of cholera was raging in that city.

His dedication was such that he spent Christmas in Italy in his studies and away from his family and experienced terrible loneliness and homesickness as a result.

From his daughter`s account we get some idea of some proximate influences on his designs.

His daughter described the trip in this way:

"Bentley, as we have said, had decided to study his subject at first hand in Italy and Constantinople before setting to work on the cathedral plans.

During the summer months he laboured strenuously to set his professional house in order, in preparation for an absence of several months. Some time had to be given to the study of Italian, a tongue quite unknown to him, except in so far as Latin might help ; doubtless the knowledge was often needed when travelling, as he did, rather off the tracks of the ordinary tourist.

At length, all was ready, and armed with his " Open, Sesame " — an open circular letter in Italian, couched in terms highly flattering to its bearer, from the Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster to the prelates and clergy of Italy, and others in charge of her architectural treasures—he left London on the night of November 22nd, 1894, travelling by way of the St. Gothard to Milan, the first town in his itinerary.

Here the circular letter speedily proved its potency, and he was conducted over the Duomo, inside and out, by the architect in charge of the fabric, with a minute and untiring courtesy, while Bentley's tongue had much ado to refrain from the pungent criticisms roused by the profusely ornate, Germanic Gothic, on which his guide expatiated in whole-souled enthusiasm for its multitudinous turrets, pinnacles, and statues.

In the brick-built church of Sant' Ambrogio, founded in the fourth century, and as it now stands a Romanesque basilica of the twelfth, Bentley found material more to his taste. The curious galleries over its facade ; the baldacchino, supported by four ancient porphyry columns ; the atrium, in such fine condition ; and the lofty brick campanile of ninth-century construction, alike interested him in a special way, as parts of the first building of its type he had yet beheld.

He passed on to Pavia on December 7th, and was immensely struck with its Certosa — " the most sumptuous church I have yet beheld "— the Carthusian monastery founded by Gian Galeazzo Visconti in 1396, when the first stone of the Gothic nave was laid.

The rest of the church and the cloisters were finished in Renaissance style by various artists in a period extending over nearly three centuries.

Pisa was his next resting-place ; in its cathedral of basilican type he found Byzantine influences ; a Latin cross in plan, it has a single cupola at the intersection of the nave and transepts. The arcade of the gallery continues unbrokenly across the transepts, and it has been thought that the architect, impressed by the feature, utilized the idea in the new cathedral.

Indeed, the Rev. Herbert Lucas, S.J., gives expression to this opinion :

" By continuing the arcade of the gallery across the transept . . . some what after the manner of the cathedral at Pisa, Mr. Bentley had reproduced in a Byzantine building one of the most striking and characteristic features of the older Roman timber-roofed basilicas. This is the convergence, in perspective, of horizontal lines, unbroken by any transept gap, which carry the eye forward to its proper resting-place, the altar and the baldacchino." '

As a matter of fact Bentley never liked the break in the continuity of line caused by open transepts, and for years had in mind the advantage of carrying the nave arcading straight on across the transepts ; this he had previously done, with excellent results, in his Gothic church of the Holy Rood at Watford in 1889, and at Corpus Christi, Brixton, earlier.

The principle on which the architect's journey was planned was to visit and study first the best Romanesque churches of North and Central Italy, before concentrating on those built under Eastern influence in the Adriatic provinces ; unfortunately he kept no diary of his travels, and made but few references in correspondence to the places visited.

It may be supposed, therefore, in the absence of direct evidence, that he next rested at Lucca with its Romanesque churches of San Michele and San Martino, and Pistoia with its cathedral of similar type, before proceeding to Florence. Writing from thence on December 15th (his last day in that city) to an old friend, Mr. Thomas C. Lewis, the organ-builder (for whom in forty years he had designed as many organ cases), he touched, in his wonted fashion, on the subject of most likely interest to his correspondent.

" One comes across singular things. In regard to organs, nearly in all instances when the instrument is not in use, a dropblind covers the pipes, painted sometimes with a scriptural incident, or more frequently with a representation of the pipes behind. What struck me particularly was that, with scarcely an exception, the organ is not boxed up as with us, but placed grandly out in the open. Some of the cases are exceedingly fine, but as a rule the instruments are sorry, very sorry productions. In the great cathedral here, with nave arches of 65 ft. span, I cannot discover the vestige of an organ, although I have heard office sung and made a searching examination of the place. Such, too, was it at the Certosa of Pavia, the most sumptuous church I have yet beheld, but with all its stupendous magnificence there was no organ."

Probably having been familiar with the Duomo at Florence in books and plans, he expected little or no pleasure from a closer acquaintance, and experienced no disappointment when he stigmatized it as " architecturally, the worst large building I have ever seen."

The Campanile and the Baptistery and the many splendid churches and palaces stayed his steps, however and a visit to beautiful Fiesole followed, so it was not till the middle of December that he arrived in Rome, having previously engaged a room at the Grand Hotel. " But," as he afterwards humorously told the story, " I was nothing but a number in that huge caravanserai, and that means of identification being 666, the ' Number of the Beast,' was altogether more than I could stand ! "

He moved very speedily into less magnificent quarters in the comfortable little hotel in the Via Bocca di Leone, then so well known to, and much frequented by, English travellers of the more intellectually interesting type—the Albergo d'Inghilterra. ...

How he entered Rome in the spirit of the pilgrims of old (though that spirit in no way veiled his critical artistic perception), was told in a letter to Mr. Charles Hadfield, dated December 22nd:

" The morning after my arrival I made straight for St. Peter's — that is, as straight as the meandering ways would allow—not looking into any of the many churches I passed on the road, that my first act might be one of veneration to him who is the centre and keystone of Christian unity. I venerate the place more than I can say, and my only regret is that the human part of it is not more worthy of so august a purpose. Architecturally, I think it the worst large building I have seen, excepting, perhaps, the Duomo at Florence, and I cannot conceive that any architect can ' sing its praises.' Of course the effect is fine, very fine, but produced at the sacrifice of scale."

The six weeks Bentley spent in the Eternal City were filled with pleasant and profitable incidents by the numerous friends and acquaintances who hastened to show him attention and kindness.

Writing New Year's greetings to an old friend, Mr. John Montefiore of Streatham (their warm friendship had ripened from acquaintance made at the Exhibition of 1862), he speaks of the splendid welcome received.

" My wanderings until I reached Rome were somewhat lonely. Directly my arrival was announced callers came and invitations followed, so that I have had many pleasant interruptions during my short stay here. The Rector of the Scotch College, Monsignor Campbell, actually spent a whole day with me in the Catacombs of St. Callistus and St. Lucina, describing their history and explaining the many objects of interest which they contain, and as he, now de Rossi is dead, knows more on the subject than any other living man, the treat was a rare one. But this is only a type of the many kindnesses either conferred or promised."

Monsignor Stonor, Archbishop of Trebizond, the true friend of all his compatriots visiting Rome ; Monsignor Stanley, who later became Bishop of Emmaus, and Bishop Assistant to Cardinal Vaughan in the last months of his life, and who, referring to this visit, says : " The time I spent with him in Rome was very delightful ; how tolerant he was of my occasional presumptuous difference of opinion with him ! " ; and Father Douglas, the Father- General of the Redemptorists, figured prominently among the many to whom the architect afterwards acknowledged his gratitude for many courtesies received. ...

In such pleasant ways, intermingled with much serious study of Pagan and early Christian art, the month of January passed.

He remarks in a brief note to Mr. C. Hadfield : " The number of callers during my stay in Rome were many, indeed too many ; all the colleges were open to me, and I had only to express a wish to see the things closed to the public and at once I received an order."

Thus were summed up the disappointing results of this thorough exploration of the city :

" My impression of Rome is that it is almost a modern city like Turin, dating from about the middle of the sixteenth century, with a great number of dreadful churches, mostly filled with accessories and decorations without the least Christian significance. Certainly I saw little, excepting, of course, the earlier work of which there are only a few examples left, that made any impression on me. Italian detail is the most thoughtless, brainless stuff I have ever seen. . . . Indeed the worst building I have ever seen is St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls. . . . Happily the little left of the Early Christian work and the ruins of Imperial Rome more than occupied my attention and thought."

Bentley's stay of six weeks in Rome had been prolonged beyond his intention by Cardinal Vaughan's desire that he should await his arrival.

At the end of January he spent a week in Naples, of course visiting Pompeii and climbing Vesuvius. ... Bentley returned to Rome in the first week of February, to take leave of friends and continue his journey in a north-easterly direction. To the country hallowed by his second patron, St. Francis of Assisi, were his steps first bent. No letters remain to
record his impressions at this shrine of faith and art ; though his moving enthusiasm in speaking of its glories is well remembered.

Thence on to Perugia, the city in the hills of Umbria, in the bitterest winter weather within the memory of its oldest inhabitant, the snow being piled six feet on each side of the streets. Although the traveller suffered severely from the cold, in unwarmed churches and comfortless hotels, he pursued the journey and continued to study with unabated ardour. Here there was much to interest him, from the fourteenth and fifteenth century Gothic cathedral of San Lorenzo to the sixth-century circular church of S. Angelo, containing sixteen antique columns in its interior.

From Perugia he pushed on to the Ravenna district, " a flat, low, marshy plain, then covered with snow from two to four feet deep, but a most interesting part of the country." The ancient and splendid churches of the Adriatic seaboard, prototypes of the cathedral that was to rise in a northern city in that they alike emanated from the first phase of distinctly Christian architecture, were now to delight Bentley's aesthetic sense, weary of the meretricious tinsel from which it had so frequently hitherto suffered.

In the sixth-century church of S. Vitale, completed by Justinian, regularly octagonal in plan, with a small apsidal choir extended on the eastern side ; and in that of S. Apollinare-in-Classe of similar date and history, he began to study the problem of adapting the Byzantine idea to modern congregational requirements.

The latter stands in the lonely marshes outside Ravenna, and has nave and aisles carried out by the Byzantine artists on Roman models. This atmosphere of the long-past ages of the great period of Ravenna's constructive activity into which he seemed to be transported was expressed by the man who drove him out to S. Apollinare-in-Classe—supremely reverent for the churches and tombs of these far-away centuries, his scorn for later productions was withering.

The architect, as they drove along, was carrying on a conversation as well as his rather halting Italian would permit ; and pointing out a church near the road he inquired its name. " Ah, signor," came the reply, " that would not interest you ; it is not worth your while ; it is quite modern." A further question elicited that it dated from the eleventh century !

Returning to Ravenna on this occasion Bentley had an unpleasant experience. Midway the horses stopped and refused to proceed ; and he had almost resigned himself to the idea of walking three or four miles through two feet and more of snow, by the time that they were at length induced to move.

He reached Bologna by February 18th, where the brick church of S. Stefano and the unfinished Municipal Palace of the sixteenth century appear to have interested him most.

Ferrara was visited en route to Venice, to see its important twelfth-century cathedral ; and he arrived in the city of the Doges, at length, utterly exhausted with cold and travelling.

Writing home on March 4th he said :

" I cannot tell you how thankful I am that I have passed through my recent journeyings without the least ill results, though on my first arrival here a little more than a week ago, I don't think I ever felt so tired in my life."

In another letter he spoke of being in a semi-frozen state, and implied that a serious chill had probably been averted by the hot bath and fourteen hours of uninterrupted sleep taken on reaching Venice.

A minute study of the basilica of St. Mark's was begun as soon as the necessary repose had refreshed him in mind and body. Professor Lethaby and Mr. H. Swainson's book on Justinian's great church of Sancta Sophia, then just published, was his companion at this time, in preparation for the projected visit to Constantinople, when his studies in St. Mark's should be completed.

News came that cholera was very seriously epidemic there at the moment and he was at length prevailed on by the urgent representations of friends in Venice to realize that the risk was too great and to abandon the idea. It was a disappointment, but when condoled with, on his return, at not being able to finish the itinerary, he remarked :

" San Vitale at Ravenna and Lethaby's book really told me all I wanted."

The intimate knowledge of St. Mark's then acquired was increased later, but only about a year before his death, by the purchase of Ongania's detailed and monumental work.' Torcello, with its Early Christian foundations of a bishop's throne in the cathedral apse, and some early mosaics ; and Padua, now bustlingly commercial, the city of the ancient famous university, with its seven-cupolaed basilica of the thirteenth century dedicated to St. Anthony, were both visited from Venice, which he finally quitted, turning his face homewards, on March 7th.

Verona marked the first stage, to examine San Zenone, an important and interesting example of Lombardic construction of the twelfth century, with severely simple facade and detached square campanile, finished with a pyramidal roof.

At Turin, reached the following day, his stay was of the briefest, since this modern commercial city had little of interest to offer him. The journey to Paris was broken at Dijon, probably as much to see the church of Notre Dame, typical of good Burgundian Gothic of the thirteenth and early fourteenth century, as the Romanesque crypt beneath the thirteenth-century cathedral of St. Benigne. A few days were spent in Paris, to renew the recollections of twenty years before, and on March 19th he arrived in London, safe and sound and none the worse for his many journeyings.

Immediately plans and sketches of the cathedral as it was already matured in his brain were prepared and submitted to the Cardinal—and preparations went forward apace for the laying of the first stone.

The Feast day of the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul being chosen for the event, two committees were formed to carry out the necessarily heavy preparations, one composed chiefly of churchmen to take charge of the liturgical portion, another chiefly of laymen to arrange for the seating accommodation, the issuing of tickets, and the luncheon which was to follow the ceremony.

On the architect lay the onus of preparing the site and all working details of the stone-laying."

(From Winefride de L'Hôpital, Westminster cathedral and its architect Volume 1 (1919) pages 26 et seq

The ceremony of the laying of the foundation stone of Westminster Cathedral in 1895

The volume goes on to quote at length from an article written by Bentley for the January 1907 edition of The Westminster Cathedral Chronicle. In it the architect illustrates his third plan for the cathedral and some of the thinking behind his ideas:

" Of the genesis and growth of church architecture little is known till the close of the reign of Diocletian ; but that it had its origin in Syria and Asia Minor, and that it gradually extended and developed is certain, till it culminated at Constantinople during the reign of Justinian. When Christianity was proclaimed the religion of the State and the seat of Empire removed to Byzantium, locally this development received a check. No sooner had Constantine taken possession of his new capital, than he began to erect the church afterwards dedicated to the apostles, on the model of the churches he had already built in Rome, following closely the style and plan of the pagan basilica.

In the subsequent reign the first Church of St. Sophia was raised under the same influence, emphatically indicating that the newcomers had brought with them ideas strange and foreign to the Hellenic mind. But this interruption was of short duration ; the traditions of the age and place speedily reasserted themselves, and remained dominant for ages long following the erection by Justinian of that marvellous creation so fittingly dedicated to the Eternal Wisdom ; that wondrous expression in material form of the apocalyptic vision of the Heavenly Temple—the second Church of St. Sophia at Constantinople.

The characteristic features of this, the Byzantine style, are simple roofs, flat domes rising from square spaces and carried on massive piers, unbroken arched soffits, and barrel vaults ; the interiors were often clad with marble of rich patterns and many colours, and mosaics depicting stories from the life of our Lord and His Saints covered the ceiling and walls.

The lighting generally is from windows placed high up in the building, and not infrequently in the domes. Lattices, from accounts given by ancient writers, filled the larger openings, though unfortunately few examples now exist.

Unlike the basilica churches, columns take quite a subordinate position and are seldom employed constructionally.

Galleries are a constant feature, and were set apart for the use of women, like the curtained-off aisles in the early Roman churches. What gives the building of this period a pre-eminence and a greater interest over any other, is that it was the first phase of Christian art ; that it expressed in full the hallowed genius of Christianity, and was the outcome of a sensitive, aesthetic people, inspired by the Seer of Patmos....

It may be stated that the arrangement is not that of an Eastern church of the Justinian period, but rather an example of what might have been unfolded had not the decadence of the Roman Empire terminated the growth of congregational requirements in the East. From a glance at the plan of SS. Sergius and Bacchus, Constantinople or of S. Vitale, Ravenna (, both of about the same age, it is evident that they were arranged from a liturgical rather than a congregational standard, while the church of St. Mark, Venice, erected nearly four centuri e s later, indicates a marked advance in the latter direction, showing clearly the course the development was taking.

On approaching the precincts o f the cathedral from Victoria Street at the angle of the site will be seen the campanile rising to an altitude of some 300 ft." and [facing the visitor] the western entrance included in a composition extending 65 ft. and embracing in the great arch of the central portion three entrance doors, the outer ones for the laity and the middle door for the Archbishop and clergy on solemn occasions.

These entrances open into porches leading to lobbies that, in turn, give access to the narthex. This narthex runs the entire width of the church, terminating at one end with an entrance from the side street and with the baptistery at the other, and in front opening into the nave. From Ambrosden Avenue the side entrance gives into a large porch, flanked on the left by the campanile with a caretaker's lodge and on the right by coupled columns supporting deeply recessed arches. The domed cubicles formed by the junction of the aisles and narthex are centres from which the baptistery, the aisles, and the staircases leading to the galleries are approached."

Here are some of the early plans for the Cathedral by Bentley: