Robert Dennis Chantrell (1793-1872), born in Newington, London, became one of the most important church architects of Leeds — though he returned to the capital in 1847, not to open a London office, but to pass "a long semi-retirement as an eminent antiquary, scholar and something of an elder statesman of the profession" (Webster, Building a Great Victorian City, 99).
Chantrell's father was a businessman who took his young family to various European cities, eventually settling in Bruges where Chantrell, then twelve years old, was greatly inspired by the picturesque architectural forms he saw. Chantrell was eventually articled to Sir John Soane, then at the peak of his career. In 1816, he returned to the north, to Halifax, and three years later opened his practice in Leeds. Despite a promising start, his career as a designer of public buildings lapsed. Nevertheless, he is particularly important as a church architect — "a pioneer Goth" (Webster, Building a Great Victorian City, 103). Notable among his works are Christ Church, Skipton (1835-39), and the rebuilding of Leeds Parish Church (1837-41), not only to make a powerful statement for the Church of England in industrial Leeds (and, indeed, the north of England more generally), but also and specifically to make it suitable "for a surpliced choir and sacramental worship" (Herring). Unusually, Chantrell was important too, through his family connections, in rebuilding the Cathedral of St Saviour in Bruges, after a fire. This made him "the first English architect to work on a Continental cathedral" (Webster, Building a Great Victorian City, 111).
Early on, Chantrell was a member of the Cambridge Camden Society (see Stanton 33n.) and on returning to London, he became a member of the Committee of Architects of the Incorporated Church Building Society, an important role in which he had responsibility for the dioceses of York and Ripon.
Chantrell's St Peter, Kirkgate, Leeds
Despite Chantrell's reputation as a pioneering Gothicist, Christopher Webster finds evidence, for instance in the symmetry of St Peter, to suggest that he remained a Classicist at heart. Webster also suggests that the Ecclesiological Society later set him to one side, because they wanted to promote a new generation of church architects who adopted their own principles more rigorously (see Webster, "St Peter, Kirkgate," 398, and Building a Great Victorian City, 115). This is certainly borne out by a passing reference to him in the The Ecclesiologist of 1858, following a report of an excursion to the north:
Mr. R. D. Chantrell describes and figures an ancient pillar, discovered in taking.down the old parish church at Leeds. This gentleman does the Ecclesiologist the honour to call it a "mischievous tissue of imbecility and fanaticism." It had probably criticised some of his designs less favourably than might have been wished. (34).
Woe betide the church architect who got on the wrong side of the Ecclesiologists at the time of their greatest power! — Jacqueline Banerjee
The Ecclesiologist. Vol. 19. Internet Archive. Web. 8 March 2012.
Herring, George, "Hook, Walter Farquhar (1798-1875)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web.9 March 2012.
Stanton, Phoebe B. The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture: An Episode in Taste, 1840-1856. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.
Webster, Christopher. "Robert Denis Chantrell (1793-1872)." Building a Great Victorian City: Leeds Architects and Architecture. Huddersfield.: Northern Heritage Publications in Association with the Victorian Society, 2011. 99-116. Print.
Webster, Christopher. "St Peter, Kirkgate." Buildings of England: Yorkshire, West Riding: Leeds, Bradford and the North.. Eds. Peter Leach and Nikolaus Pevsner. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. 398-402. Print.
Last modified 8 March 2012