Twentieth Century Gothic
Sir Ninian Comper: An Introduction to His Life and Work, with Complete Gazetteer
by Anthony Symondson, Stephen Arthur Bucknall
2007 Spire Books, 336 pages
While little known in the United States, the British church architect Sir John Ninian Comper (1864-1960), after John Betjeman’s championing of his work in the 1930s, received a cult following in his native United Kingdom. Since Betjeman, however, there has been only a smattering of mostly unremarkable, often skeptical reviews of Comper’s work. Anthony Symondson, S.J., and Stephen Bucknall’a new book Sir Ninian Comper: An Introduction to his Life and Work, with Complete Gazetteer comes therefore as a timely breath of fresh air.
The first part of Symondson’s thesis is structured around a chronological background to Comper’s key works, while the second is a critical commentary on the background and impact of Comper’s pivotal paper “Of the Atmosphere of a Church” (1947). The book concludes with the thoroughly useful gazetteer of Comper’s works, researched by Stephen Bucknall, his great-nephew.
Symondson shows how Comper’s inquisitive artistic and socio-liturgical intellect and practice built on his strong Anglo-Catholic foundations and his training under glass designer C. E. Kempe and architect G. F. Bodley. Comper’s first independent church work owed much to his master Bodley. Indeed, he was to continue Bodley’s model in his desire to restore historical continuity with what he considered to be the high point of English ecclesiastical architecture, namely, that of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. In this, what he was to call his “unity by exclusion” period, Comper became uncommonly passionate in his study of English and northern European forms and iconography pertinent to the liturgy. Comper’s early innovations, embodied in works such as St. Cyprian’s, Clarence Gate, (1902-3) and his 1893 paper “Practical Considerations on the Gothic or English Altar” were highly influential. Yet, while having earned recognition for pioneering a shift in the perceived focus of the liturgy from the reredos to the altar itself, Comper soon considered this merely a first step to a much more significant conceptual shift in liturgical planning.
Symondson discusses how Comper’s lifelong search for the best examples in art, craft processes, and liturgical planning most often began with practical considerations of the relationship between the liturgy and the faithful. Symondson is careful to qualify this for, to Comper, the abiding imperative was beauty.
Comper traveled widely in search of the best and most authentic models for each of his discoveries. It was his understanding of the practical and aesthetic universal relevance exhibited by such models that gave Comper the impetus requisite for what he was to refer to as his theory of “unity by inclusion”. St. Mary’s, Wellingborough, (1904-31) became the laboratory for this developing theory. In England, Comper saw a rich precedence for the studied borrowing of foreign architectural vocabulary: “English architecture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and one may add the sixteenth is, it is true, the culmination of Gothic in [England], but it is not the rock from which we were hewn, nor yet the end beyond which we cannot go.”
Symondson’s notes that Comper’s proposals for his most radical development, the English appropriation of the early Christian altar beneath a ciborium, were “the first instance in the twentieth century of an altar brought into direct visual relationship with the congregation.” Indeed, Comper was before his time, having anticipated the practical agenda of the Liturgical Movement, ratified in Vatican II.
Reflecting upon this book amidst the entrenched nihilist, technocratic, atraditional philosophies of art that pervade today’s culture and the modern Church, upon what precedents are architects and liturgists to build. To Comper “the [artistic] purpose [of a church] is to move to worship, to bring a man to his knees, to refresh his soul in a weary land.” A revival of the will and hope expressed in this quote is becoming evident in the increasing numbers of traditional church projects built today. However, the greater challenge discernable from this book has to be whether the Church can foster, even champion, a flourishing of the traditional arts and crafts; one that sustains a growth in a depth of artistic and practical knowledge, as exhibited by Comper’s example. Many believe that the Catholic Church is in a unique position to inculcate such a resurgence in the traditional arts. It is certain that the atmosphere of a church is dependent upon those arts. Perhaps we should draw hope from Comper’s example, and pray that we, as the body of Christ, can act upon this hope and reinvigorate the Church’s historical and enduring power to inspire for generations.