Ninian Comper, as he was usually known, was born in Aberdeen, where his father was the Rector of St John's Episcopal Church. This background had a profound influence on his future career: "Anglo-Catholicism was the motivation and mainspring of his work as an architect; indeed, it was for this cause that most of it was executed" (Symonson). Having studied drawing for a term at the Ruskin School, Oxford, Comper helped in the office of C. E. Kempe, while continuing his studies at the South Kensington School of Art. In 1883 he was articled to G. F. Bodley, another devout Anglo-Catholic, and went on to make a name for himself as one of the last Gothic Revivalists.
In 1888 Comper went into partnership with William Bucknall (1851-1944), whose sister Grace he would marry in 1890 at St Barnabas, Pimlico. The couple had six children, and the partnership with his brother-in-law lasted until 1904. Their first church was the red-brick, Perpendicular-style St Alban, Thornton Heath, its nave completed in 1889, with a hammerbeam roof all through to the chancel. The chancel itself was completed in 1894. Even at that stage, Comper's church furnishings were felt to be special, though they were not implemented for this church; only his design for the east window of the south chapel was carried out, and that not until 1903 (see Nairn and Pevsner 482).
His reputation soon grew, with his first major commission coming while St Alban was still in progress. This was in Scotland, where he had already done some work. The new church, St Margaret's Convent Chapel, Aberdeen, was started in 1891 (see "[Sir] John Ninian Comper"). His own comments on St Cyprian's, the church in Marylebone also commissioned in the 1890s, give a good idea of his evolving approach. In a booklet entitled On the Significance of the Building (1903), he wrote:
Its design neither seeks nor avoids originality; still less is its aim to reproduce any period of the past, but only to fulfil these and other needs which are ours today, and to do so in the last manner of English architecture, which for us in England is the most beautiful manner of all. [qtd. in Brooks & Saint, 216]
Still, not everyone approved. It is well known that Pevsner and John Betjeman had different opinions about Comper. The former could be dismissive, or worse, while the latter admired him hugely (e.g. see Jenkins 482). Betjeman particularly loved St Cyprian's.
But there was more to come. St Cyprian's was still an early work. The front cover of Symondson and Bucknall's book about Comper features the interior of another church: St Mary's, Wellingborough, in Northamptonshire. Begun in 1908, this was a masterpiece that even Pevsner liked (see Jenkins 584). Contributing greatly to its effect, and to all these interiors, were Comper's designs for church embroidery and stained glass windows. As for the former, this was a craft in which he had been guiding and inspiring the Sisters of Bethany in Clerkenwell from as early as 1886. He was equally innovatory in his stained glass techniques.
Though innovatory in these respects, and aiming in his maturity to design for those "needs which are ours today," Comper was no fan of modernism as such (see Howse). But because he lived well past the middle of the next century, and continued working far into it, his practice does to some extent link late Victorian architecture, as exemplified by Bodley, with subsequent developments. His last complete church, quite plain outside but stunning inside, was St Philip's, Cosham, Hampshire, built 1836-38. Among several others of the fifteen complete churches he designed, in addition to his restorations and decorative work elsewhere, this also has claims to being considered his masterpiece. — Jacqueline Banerjee
- Welsh National War Memorial, Cardiff (Comper's only secular work)
- Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre, G. E. Street's St. Mary Magdalene in Paddington
- Lady Altar, All Saints, Margaret Street, London
- Design for the interior of St. Cyprian's Church (with William Bucknall)
Works in Other Media
Brooks, Chris, and Andrew Saint. The Victorian Church: Architecture and Society. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.
Hope, Michael. "Sir John Ninian Comper, 1864–1960." Transactions of the Royal Institute of British Architects 3 (1984): 90–99.
Howse, Christopher. "On the Altar of Function and Beauty." The Telegraph. 14 October 2006. Web. 6 November 2015.
Jenkins, Simon. England's Thousand Best Churches. Rev. ed. London: Penguin, 2009.
Nairn, Ian, and Nikolaus Pevsner. Rev. Bridget Cherry. Surrey: Buildings of England. London: Penguin, 1971.
"(Sir) John Ninian Comper." Dictionary of Scottish Architects. Web. 6 November 2015.
Symondson, Anthony. "Comper, Sir (John) Ninian (1864–1960), architect." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 6 November 2015.
Symondson, Anthony and Stephen Bucknall. Sir Ninian Comper: An introduction to his life and work with complete gazetteer. Reading: Spire Books and the Ecclesiological Society, 2006.
Last modified 6 November 2015