Westminster Cathedral, by John Francis Bentley

Westminster Cathedral by John Francis Bentley (1839-1902). Exterior: red brick with Portland stone banding; interior: many different varieties of marble. 1895-1902; interior decoration ongoing. Francis Street, London SW1P 1QW

Photographs, captions, and commentary by Jacqueline Banerjee.[You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.]

At the end of the Victorian period, Westminster Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of the Precious Blood, took over from A. W. N. Pugin's earlier St George's Cathedral as the foremost Roman Catholic church in the capital, and indeed in the country. In preparation for designing the cathedral, by far his most important commission, John Francis Bentley spent several months in Italy. The result was a neo-Byzantine rather than Gothic Revival structure. St Mark's in Venice, San Vitale in Ravenna and St Sophia in Constantinople were among the sources of inspiration for the design. It was an unusual style for an English cathedral, but a sensible way of differentiating it from Westminster Abbey, only a short walk away. In fact, it is not at all as "extraordinary" as some commentators suggest (e.g. see Curl 112). After all, G. E. Street's St James the Less, with its tall campanile, is also only a short walk away, in Pimlico.

David Watkin's account is helpful here. He points out that the choice of style "harmonized with the taste for Byzantine architecture, craftsmanship and symbolism, elevating a feature of the Arts and Crafts designers who had grown up under the influence of William Morris." Moreover, Watkin adds, it was "a natural development from Ruskin's obsession with Venice, a city dominated by the great Byzantine church of St Mark's." The cathedral's red brick with contrasting stone banding also "owes much to Shaw and Webb," he suggests (476-7). He might also have mentioned Alfred Waterhouse: see especially the latter's Red Buildings at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Bentley himself was particularly proud that he had been able to design such a vast structure from brick, stone and concrete alone, without the hidden support of iron. Twelve million bricks are said to have been used for the cathedral (Pepin 156). Norman Shaw described the end result as "beyond all doubt the finest church that has been built for centuries. Superb in its scale and character, and full of the most devouring interest, it is impossible to overrate the magnificence of the design" (qtd. in de le Hôpital 308).

Left to right: (a) Front elevation. (b) Close-up of front elevation mosaic, showing Jesus with the Virgin Mary and Joseph on either side; behind them kneel St Peter and Edward the Confessor. (c) Medallions with reliefs of early archbishops beside the west door, starting round the corner on the left with St Augustine. Those visible here are St. Laurence and St Mellitus; St Justus and St Honorius; St Theodore; and St Dunstan. (d) Interior view of the cathedral; only the foot of the great crucifix, which is suspended in the middle, can be seen here. [Click on these and following thumbnails for larger images.]

Although Bentley died before the work was finished, his assistant John Marshall set up a partnership which continued work partly in Bentley's name and wholly in his spirit. In talking about the lighting of the cathedral, for example, Marshall was "determined that his designs should be both true to the Byzantine tradition and up to Bentley's standards" (Rogers, Westminster Cathedral, 14). This seems to have been so in all areas. It was Marshall who oversaw the completion on the great tympanum mosaic and the carved medallions by the main entrance. With his experience of designing for different materials, Bentley had sketched these when drawing up plans for the front elevation. The mosaic was worked up from the original with some adaptations (notably, the outermost figures are now shown kneeling rather than standing) by Robert Anning Bell, and put in place in 1915-16 by James Powell & Sons (Rogers, Westminster Cathedral, 80). There was some adaptation in the stone carving, as well: the medallions were sculpted in much higher relief than Bentley seems to have intended. His eldest daughter, who wrote his biography, regretted the change, claiming that it produced an "unpleasant effect of overcrowding" (de l'Hôpital 104). In general, however, as usually happens when the long-time assistant has to take over such a project, work continued very much as Bentley would have wished.

Left to right: (a) Close-up of the Sanctuary, with the High Altar and its marble Baldacchino or canopy. (b) The Baptistery's large octagonal font, designed by Bentley, and described by his biographer daughter as a "glowing jewel" (149). (c) The Chapel of the Holy Souls, also designed by Bentley. On the altarpiece, Jesus is shown in crimson robes, with the Virgin Mary and Joseph interceding for the Holy Souls. (d) The reverse of the great two-tonne crucifix, made in Bruges to Bentley's designs, seen here at an angle, with its painting of a sorrowful Virgin Mary.

Well into the twentieth century, artisans from the firm of Farmer and Brindley were responsible for the stone carving in the cathedral. Farmer himself had died in 1879, but for many years the same high standards were achieved. The lavish marble decoration in the cathedral owed a great deal to William Brindley's explorations of marble quarries, while the final effect, produced by the preparation of the marble, the intricate carving of the capitals and so on, was down to the skill of his craftsmen: it could take two of these craftsmen as long as three months to complete just one capital (see Rogers, "William Brindley"). The Baldacchino makes the Sanctuary a stunning focal point for the interior. Bentley had left inch-scale drawings for the marble-work in the Sanctuary and half-inch scale drawings for the Baldacchino itself, which he fully expected to be "the best thing about the Cathedral" (qtd. in de l'Hôpital 137). Sadly, he died before it was completed. Even the font, made to his designs in Rome in 1901, had yet to be unpacked and assembled. The only one of the chapels which fully reflects his own ideas and designs is the Chapel of the Holy Souls, described in the cathedral's tour guide as "virtually unique, with all its elements of Bentley's design and conception" (13). As for the crucifix, he had approved the designs for its decoration, which was carried out by the artist W. Christian Symons. Interestingly, it was John Singer Sargent who suggested the green highlighting around the outer edge (see de l'Hôpital 131).

Left to right: (a) John Marshall's organ screen supported by red marble pillars above the west entrance, with the cathedral clock suspended from it. (b) The pulpit, glittering with its "optus sectile" work, involving "porphyry roundels, panels and chips" (Rogers, Westminster Cathedral, 59), much enlarged and heightened in 1934 from Cavaliere Aristide Leonori's smaller original. (c) The tomb of Cardinal Wiseman in the crypt, by Edward Welby Pugin, with his Cardinal's cap gently decaying above it, and a wonderful plump dragon at the effigy's feet. (d) Close-up of the effigy.

Right from the start, the cathedral has been graced by the work of many hands. The original pulpit was crafted in Rome by a Vatican artist. Both the marble organ screen and the clock were designed by Bentley's assistant and successor, John Marshall. In the crypt can be seen the Gothic tomb of the first Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Wiseman, who had been inducted as Archbishop at St George's and died in 1865. Designed by Augustus Pugin's eldest son Edward, this was transferred here from its previous resting place in the Roman Catholic burial ground next to Kensal Green Cemetery early in 1907, along with that of Cardinal Manning who had succeeded him. Note that Bentley had left "complete designs for the marble-work of the crypt" (de l'Hôpital 147), though much still remains to be done. The lavish decoration of the cathedral's interior continues to this day, with many different well-known artists, of different nationalities and in different branches of the visual arts, contributing their talents. A surprising harmony has been achieved through the decades.

Twentieth-century mosaic decoration by the St Petersburg-born artist Boris Anrep (1883-1969), above the marble in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel — light and fresh, but blending in well with earlier work.

Bentley had various other buildings to his credit, of course, including five churches, and the restoration and internal decoration of others; but his name has become "almost synonymous" with this one great project (Rogers, Westminster Cathedral, 19). It is his main legacy. Unfortunately, despite its striking appearance, it has always been easy to miss amid the bustle of this part of London, near Victoria Station. Even back in the 1930s, Arthur Mee of "King's England" fame, who considered it "one of the mighty monuments of [his] generation," lamented that it was "lost to the crowds" here (94). But plans are even now afoot to improve the piazza in front of it, and make it a more fitting forecourt for this iconic Grade 1-listed building.

Related Material — Westminster Cathedral in the arts

References

Curl, James Stevens. Victorian Architecture. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1990.

de l'Hôpital, Winefride. Westminster Cathedral and Its Architect: Volume I, The Building of the Cathedral. 2 vols. London: Hutchinson, 1919.

Howell, Peter. "John Francis Bentley: Cathedral Architect." Part of the excellent cathedral website. Web. Viewed 17 September 2010.

Mee, Arthur. London (The King's England series). London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1937.

Pepin, David. Discovering Cathedrals. 7th ed. Princes Risborough, 2004.

Rogers, Patrick. Westminster Cathedral: From Darkness to Light. London: Burns and Oates, 2003.

A Short Tour of the Cathedral of the Precious Blood. Available at the cathedral. NB There is an online tour on the cathedral's website.

____. "William Brindley: Sculptor, Merchant, Explorer." Web. Viewed 15 September 2010.

Watkin, David. A History of Western Architecture. 4th ed. London: Laurence King, 2005.


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Last modified 15 March 2012