Bigness of Touch: Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool, England. Photo credit:

Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool, England. Photo credit:

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s magnificent Liverpool Cathedral commenced construction in 1904, shortly after his initial design, prepared at the age of twenty-two, had won a now-famous competition, and was finally completed seventy-four years later in 1978. Toward the end of its construction, Sir Nicholas Pevsner described the cathedral, in his series The Buildings of England, as “desperately of a past that can never be recovered.”1 Another equally distinguished architectural writer, H. S. Goodhart-Rendel, called it in 1953 “a scenic prodigy, aloof from architectural reality.”2 He predicted that its tremendous tower might become the venerated last resting place of romantic architecture.

These appraisals are quite understandable so soon after two devastating World Wars destroyed so many traditional buildings and cities in Europe, and when modern methods of construction, promoted by Modernist architects, seemed to offer an answer to the urgent need for reconstruction. Now, almost forty years after the last stone was laid on the cathedral’s west front, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate these predictions of a final irrecoverable high point of achievement.

Scott’s cathedral is perceived to be the most traditional of the new English cathedrals built in the twentieth century. Some even labelled it anachronistic in the mid-twentieth century. This is a simplistic view of a building Scott continued to develop and refine up until his death in 1960. It is a building of subtle invention and “modern” in its fresh contribution to the Gothic language.

The Beginnings

Liverpool is not the only entirely new cathedral to have been built in England in the twentieth century. There is Coventry by Sir Basil Spence; Guildford by Sir Edwin Maufe; Clifton Roman Catholic Cathedral in Bristol by the Percy Thomas Partnership; Bentley’s Westminster Cathedral in London; and Frederick Gibberd’s Liverpool Roman Catholic Cathedral, built over the crypt of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ cathedral which, had it been built, would have matched in Classical terms what Scott achieved in his Gothic cathedral on Saint James’ Mount, a short distance away. What a double glory that would have been.

These cathedrals were all, apart from Liverpool, built in relatively little time. By comparison, Scott’s cathedral commenced construction at the end of the Gothic revival in the first years of the twentieth century and continued to be built in the Gothic manner throughout most of that century, during which time the prevailing architectural style shifted from Gothic to Monumental Classicism and then to International Modernism.

This tenacity of design intention says a great deal about the architect, his patrons in the church, and all those who contributed to its cost over so many years. This is even more remarkable given that the period of construction included two World Wars and at least one severe economic depression. To maintain a steadfast faith in a design, in this way, is a notable achievement.

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s winning competition design. Photo credit:
Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s winning competition design. Photo credit:

The distinguished Cathedral Competition Committee, comprised of Norman Shaw and G. F. Bodley, discovered that the anonymous design they had selected was by a young architect who, albeit from a very distinguished dynasty of ecclesiastical architects, had built nothing to his own designs, and was a Roman Catholic. Concerned about his lack of experience, the committee appointed Bodley (who himself was then engaged in the design of several cathedrals, including the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.) to work alongside Scott. This was an uneasy relationship during which Scott challenged Bodley’s design approach until the latter’s death in 1907.

After being appointed, Scott almost immediately began fundamentally rethinking his design for the cathedral, so that by the time Bodley died his conception of the building had changed entirely. The somewhat academic competition design began to be replaced by a new approach, infused with what Scott called a “bigness of touch.”

In his debate with Bodley at the outset of the project he argued for boldness of individual motifs: “I really believe scale may mean two things. One kind of scale is got by making a part small … so as to make the building look larger than it really is. … Another kind is got by keeping the parts on a large scale, thereby giving the design a big touch imparting a feeling of grandeur and impressiveness, which is not produced by the other method.” This “masculine grandeur” he described as “my ideal and [it] is what I want, above anything in Liverpool Cathedral. Harmonious beauty without this quality is nothing for me.”3

The Reworking

By 1910, Scott had completely reworked his design and the cathedral began to take on the characteristic form that was eventually to be built. The two transept towers of the competition entry were replaced by a vast, open, central space under a massive monumental tower, flanked on the north and south sides by symmetrical, equally monumental transept entrances to the great central space. It is remarkable that the Cathedral Committee agreed to these changes given that the foundations for the earlier twin towers were already in place.

In the new design, the cathedral had been transformed into a composition of large blocks or masses which provide an overpowering sense of the sublime and which elevate the design to something akin to the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis. Scott’s Romantic vision for the cathedral was perhaps shaped by the drawings of the enigmatic architect Beresford Pite and might also have been influenced by the visionary engravings of imaginary Gothic towers by F. L. Griggs.

Even though it could be argued that this Romantic vision of the Gothic world was in the air, Scott’s changes still challenged the architectural establishment. This is perhaps best illustrated in the reaction to this new approach by Scott’s contemporary genius in America, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, who had already been responsible for a series of very fine Gothic churches and who was supremely versed in the Gothic language. Goodhue was initially profoundly shocked by the change. However, he subsequently met Scott in England in 1913 and immediately changed his mind and, thereafter, was hugely influenced by Scott’s new approach.

The boldly scaled massing of Scott’s cathedral was eloquently described by Professor C. H. Reilly as “so broad and monumental in its lines that, unlike the old Gothic cathedrals; it has much of the balanced beauty of a Classical building, while not abating a jot of the dynamic force of Gothic architecture in its most energetic form.”4 Reilly, the influential professor at the remarkable Liverpool School of Architecture, dedicated to monumental Classicism, refers to the other aspect of Scott’s new approach that was so attractive to Goodhue: the fusion of Classical monumentality with Gothic sensibility.

Goodhue had long dreamed of an architecture that would go beyond one particular style, seeking a form of architecture that would be “malleable enough to be moulded at the designer’s will, as readily toward the calm perfection of the Parthenon as towards the majesty and restless mystery of Chartres.”5 Liverpool Cathedral was undoubtedly the catalyst for the flowering of Goodhue’s final feats of genius in the fresh traditionalism of his late works such as his Nebraska State Capital building.

The Architectural Result

At this point, it is worth examining more closely the architectural result that Scott achieved in his synthesis of Classical and Gothic architecture, as well as addressing some of the further criticisms leveled at his design in the past.

The 1924 guide to the then-unfinished cathedral describes the way in which the design is Classical rather than Gothic in composition, with a symmetrical plan that has similarities with the plan of St. George’s Hall in Liverpool. It goes on to say: “But if the bones are Classic, the flesh in which they are clothed is pure Gothic, pure because it is living and not a mere aggregation of dead styles.”6

The guide presents these attributes in a favorable light, while Sir Nicholas Pevsner regards this as a fundamental weakness in the design, describing the central tower space as “useless, functionally speaking” and puts it down to Scott’s obsession with symmetry.7 Pevsner, however, misses the essential point that Scott is perhaps making in his design: the importance of so-called redundant space in the service of sublime expression in a sacred building. Scott understood the importance of redundant beauty in a sacred building better than almost any other architect. In that vast central space and in the monumental massing of the exterior of the cathedral, he seamlessly combined the stillness and gravity of the Classical with the soaring lines of the Gothic.

This combination in the design and the symmetry that Pevsner dismisses is a stroke of genius, particularly in relationship to the site on which the cathedral is placed. The composition of two pairs of transepts flanking the tower and main portal are described by Pevsner as “highly original and bold,”8 but he goes on to describe the matching of the Welsford porch on the north side with the Rankin porch on the south side as “utterly useless, because leading straight into the abyss of the cemetery, but it had to be there, because north must match south.”9

It seems to me that Pevsner entirely overlooked the point of those two portals. The ceremonial entrance to the cathedral from the Rankin porch, on the urban side of the cathedral, is contrasted on the densely wooded cemetery side of the cathedral with the Welsford porch, with dramatic and symbolic purpose. The journey from the bustle of the city to the stillness of the cemetery, separated by that vast, great, central space within the cathedral, with its view of the high altar and its astonishing reredos, is a mighty symbolic statement and an example of Scott applying his genius to the particularities of the site. The Rankin porch extends a yawning invitation to the city while the Welsford porch is the dark cave of the sepulchre above the wooded graveyard.

The cathedral from the cemetery with the Welsford porch as the “dark cave of the sepulchre.” Photo credit: Barry Hale
The cathedral from the cemetery with the Welsford porch as the “dark cave of the sepulchre.” Photo credit: Barry Hale

A procession through the central space. Photo credit: Barry Hale
A procession through the central space. Photo credit: Barry Hale

The Appropriation of Styles

There is another important point to note about the plan of the cathedral, which only gained its final form in 1927. Scott’s most significant change to the 1910 plan was the way in which he narrowed the dimensions of the central tower, which in turn caused the supporting walls at ground floor level to close off the continuous views through the cathedral along the length of the north and south aisles. This not only achieved a more elegant tower but also added considerable mystery to the experience of the interior. Later Scott reinforced this idea of screening and framing views in the interior by introducing the Dulverton Bridge between the nave and the central space.

Scott’s final floor plan, 1927. Photo credit: Cotton, V.E. The Book of Liverpool Cathedral
Scott’s final floor plan, 1927. Photo credit: Cotton, V.E. The Book of Liverpool Cathedral

In this way the development of the plan from 1904 to its final form represents a shift away from a conventional, transparent interior, with continuous open views through the length of the building, to a plan form that is much more layered and Romantic in its conception. Thus the final form of the interior achieves something of the feeling of an ancient cathedral that has developed over centuries with certain idiosyncrasies that add considerably to the spiritual mystery of the building. This development might not have been achieved without the benefit of Scott’s fifty-nine years of involvement in the design of the cathedral. It is a testament to his view that “Art is evolutionary, and the solution is not in revolution.”10

Scott’s appropriation of other styles and references is not confined to the broad massing and planning of the cathedral, but also manifests itself in his detailing. The latter shows that he was a master of many architectural styles. One thinks of his monumental Classical buildings at Clare College in Cambridge, his Byzantine chapel at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, and his Romanesque church of Our Lady and Saint Alphege in Bath. John Goodall argues that the Lady Chapel owes more to medieval architecture than Gothic and that the detailing in the central volume of the cathedral has parallels in Spanish buildings.11

War Memorial Chapel. Photo credit: & Other Stuff
War Memorial Chapel. Photo credit: & Other Stuff

Certainly much of the Gothic detailing owes more to Spanish flamboyant Gothic architecture than to English Gothic, but Scott’s integration of Renaissance and Classical references is also evident and is probably best displayed in the War Memorial Chapel. This space is dominated by a small cenotaph placed under the transept arch. The idea of a cenotaph is a Classical one and this was the first cenotaph to be suggested in England as a memorial of the Great War (and as such it precedes the magnificent cenotaph designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in London).

Detail of the high altar reredos. Photo credit: Hobbit
Detail of the high altar reredos. Photo credit: Hobbit

The reredos and holy table here are in marked contrast to the monumental, highly ornate, Gothic reredos in the main sanctuary. The reredos in the War Memorial Chapel gains its beauty not from its degree of ornamentation, but from its restraint. A red sandstone canopy inspired by perpendicular Gothic surrounds a Classical sarcophagus in polished Hoptonwood, resting on carved brackets. The sarcophagus and the field of the reredos are ornamented with Renaissance inspired bronze detailing and the flanking figures by the sculptors Walter Gilbert and Louis Weingartner are distinctly moderne in style.

Scott achieves a perfectly harmonious integration of these diverse elements and this is just one example of something repeated throughout the cathedral. His free interpretation of styles and references is one of the great joys offered by the building.

Scott’s Contrasts

Another strong characteristic of Scott’s design is his use of a contrast of scale and contrast of plain wall surfaces with tightly conceived and controlled smaller areas of ornamentation. These contrasts all serve the expression of sublime beauty. The high altar is dwarfed by the mighty reredos; the delicate altar rails are swallowed up by the vast volume of the sanctuary; the cathedra is a giant presence dominating the choir and priest stalls.

There are many examples of these contrasts. His oversized hanging lanterns somehow expand the volume of the Lady Chapel, as does the organ in the main choir of the cathedral. The soaring canopy of the baptismal font has a similar effect. Perhaps most dramatic of all is the way in which the Dulverton Bridge leaps across the nave at its junction with the central space and, in so doing, frames the high altar and reredos in such a way that the sanctuary appears to be infinitely distant. The effect, for the visitor, is of a vast architectural landscape of awe-inspiring proportions.

Scott also makes use of large, unornamented wall surfaces (which could perhaps be called “fields of rest”) contrasted with beautifully designed and wrought concentrated areas of decoration. This contrast is evident everywhere in the cathedral on the exterior and interior and is also characteristic of so much of his other architectural work, sacred and secular.

As with the contrast in scale, the effect is to intensify the sublimity of expression. The 1924 guidebook describes this approach admirably: “It will be found that while the decoration has been made subsidiary to broad general effect, there is an exuberance of detail which is characteristic of the best periods of medieval craftsmanship. Decoration is the ritual of architecture — it should emphasise and not obscure the principles it seeks to glorify; and this has been kept constantly in view.”12

It also describes a very good example of Scott’s use of decoration on the south elevation of the cathedral: “Running along the exterior of the choir, above the windows, is an arcaded gallery in the thickness of the wall. The figures of Saints and Angels on the window mullions, and the huge Angels surmounting the buttresses are the only ornament the architect has allowed himself, unless the frequent string courses and the pierced parapet along the roof of the vestries be included.”13 The same contrast between plain surfaces and concentrated detail is evident in all the fittings within the interior of the cathedral.

Scott’s “Bigness of Touch”

Unfortunately, Scott died in 1960 before the nave and west end were completed. In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, he had settled on his final design for the west end. It is a remarkable design that would have perhaps given ultimate expression to his ideal of “bigness of touch.” In this design, the vast height of the west front is largely blank, save for a rose window and the two flanking towers, with the decoration concentrated more than eighty-six feet above ground.

The entrance itself was a low, prow-like portico dwarfed by the west wall and projecting westwards over the very edge of the site. This was another flash of genius, but as with all uncompromising ideas as dramatic and visionary as this, it was vulnerable. After Scott’s death his office partner Frederick Thomas, assisted by Roger Pinkney, revised the design by introducing a broad arch with a tripartite window lighting the nave. The design is by no means inadequate, but it is a great loss that Scott’s uncompromising design was not implemented.

Scott and his wife are buried in a plot just west of the west frontal, making the abandonment of his design, at the eleventh hour of construction, even more poignant. It is a salutary reminder to retain faith in the integrity of the design until the very last stone is fixed.

The Integration of Sculpture

It is also worth reflecting on Scott’s integration of architecture and sculpture in the cathedral, because this is now rare in contemporary sacred architecture and indeed in architecture generally. By this I mean a carefully conceived program of sculpture which sets up a narrative which is fully integrated into the meaning of the cathedral from the outset, rather than the arbitrary placing of statues as an afterthought, which is regrettably commonplace today.

Throughout his involvement with the cathedral, Scott commissioned and worked alongside a large number of fine sculptors and artists. In the Lady Chapel, he worked with Lillie Reed who sculpted the figures on the Children’s Porch. For the great reredos he employed Louis Weingartner and Walter Gilbert and in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit he used William Gough.

These were all fine sculptors, but as Scott’s architectural approach developed, he began looking for sculptors that could throw off the Victorian influence of Bodley and provide a more austere aesthetic better suited to his architecture. Initially, he worked with David Evans, a genius, who, soon after completing the Nurses Memorial in the Lady Chapel and Bishop Chavasse’s Memorial in the south choir aisle, left for New York. After that, Scott collaborated for the rest of his life with Edward Carter Preston, a sculptor perhaps less talented than Evans, but someone who was able to produce sculpture wholly subservient to Scott’s architecture.

Sculptures by Edward Carter Preston.
Sculptures by Edward Carter Preston.

This was Scott’s ideal, which he wrote about to Sir Frederick Radcliffe: “The figures being regarded as part of the architecture, rather than isolated examples of sculpture, is … a point of view which Carter Preston has kept constantly before him.”14 This approach is perhaps best evident in the two porches where Carter Preston’s columnar figures provide the linear emphasis and faceted appearance that Scott felt best suited his architecture.

After Scott’s death, there was less concern with the integration of architecture and sculpture in the cathedral, ending with the installation on the west front of Dame Elizabeth Frink’s bronze of the Resurrected Christ that was quickly dubbed as “Frinkenstein.”

Another important lesson that can be learned from this cathedral is that it is constructed to last for posterity. It is a cathedral built of many millions of load-bearing bricks and vast quantities of hand-worked red sandstone laid in lime mortar, using the same old-fashioned load-bearing masonry techniques that have been employed for thousands of years and which have stood the test of time. This cathedral was built for eternity and, because it was built in the age of photography, its construction has been recorded in beautiful black and white and sepia photographs, which offer so many practical lessons to all those who hope to build sacred buildings in the future.

Scott was criticized even by his son, the gifted architect Richard Gilbert Scott, for not wholly embracing the modern technology of the twentieth century. But Scott’s circumspection for these untried materials deserves considerable respect, especially considering the inevitable pressure to economize. Ultimately, he did use concrete extensively in the foundations as well as in the bell tower and in the roofs covering the vaults. But the shell of the tower was surrounded by a massive load-bearing masonry structure and the concrete roofs were covered over in verdigris copper.

A Sublime Expression

Giles Gilbert Scott’s masterpiece in Liverpool Cathedral embodies everything that is now rarely found in sacred or other forms of architecture. It is a building given sublime expression in massing and detail, a building of subtle invention, borne out by a deep understanding of traditional architecture in all its variety and that successfully and meaningfully integrates architecture and sculpture. It is a building whose builders and patrons had the courage and faith to stay true to their intentions in the face of war, economic depression and in an age of philistinism and iconoclasm, and it is a building that is built for eternity as an acknowledgement of its divine purpose.

Hopefully, the time has come again for architects and patrons to take courage from the Romantic vision realized at Liverpool, within living memory, and to prove that its glorious tower is not the last resting place of Romantic architecture, but instead a beacon for the resurrection of this sublime manner of making sacred buildings.

Craig Hamilton is a Classical architect, practicing in the United Kingdom, who specializes in sacred and monumental architecture and has completed three new chapels and is working on a fourth. He is the recipient of the 2018 ICAA Arthur Ross Award for Architecture.

1. Priscilla Metcalf and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Cathedrals of England: The North and East Anglia (The Folio Society, 2005).

2. Ibid.

3. Michael Hall, George Frederick Bodley and the Later Gothic Revival in Britain and America (Yale University Press, 2014).

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Vere Egerton Cotton, compiler, The Liverpool Cathedral Official Handback (Littlebury Bros., 1924).

7. Metcalf & Pevsner.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Cotton.

11. Martin Barnes, John Goodall, and Peter Marlow, The English Cathedral (Merrell Publishers Ltd., 2012).

12. Cotton.

13. Ibid.

14. Alex Compton, editor, Edward Carter Preston 1885–1965. (Liverpool University Press, 1999).