Bring back beauty: this superb book triumphantly reasserts Ninian Comper's place in 20th-century British architecture.
No longer can it be said, as John Betjeman wrote in 1939, that 'no English architect is better known in cathedral close or distant rectory than J. N. Comper.' The young poet was speaking of an architect aged 74, who still had more than 20 years to live. The sheer quality of Comper's work persuaded many who shared his Anglo-Catholic churchmanship, even though he had never published or exhibited his work. Betjeman became uniquely linked to Comper's name and reputation, with effects that, as Anthony Symondson describes, were not entirely beneficial for a deeper and lasting understanding of his work.
Despite such widespread admiration, it was difficult to obtain even the basic knowledge of Comper's life and work prior to the publication of this wonderful book, which only Symondson has the knowledge and understanding to write. Anyone who has encountered Comper's work and been moved by it will find a sensitive exegesis of his development through three main phases, which represent an intellectual and aesthetic journey through the history and geography of church architecture. Comper left most of his contemporaries at the first base camp, the Perpendicular revival and the English altar, exemplified in St Cyprian, Clarence Gate, London (1902-3). He moved on, to 'Unity by Inclusion', most completely at St Mary, Wellingborough (1904 onwards). The idea of reconciling the conflict between gothic and Classical would doubtless have been a matter of indifference to many architects. Comper found it necessary in order to achieve the quality of beauty that he sought, underwritten by history and a highly practical sense of ritual and liturgical space. At St Philip, Cosham (1935-9) he went a stage further in his exploration of space, as Peter Hammond, the leading English theorist of the post-war liturgical movement, recognised. Yet Comper did not abandon his desire for richness. In fact, his furnishings shone more brightly after he began to specify burnished gilding in the 1920s.
If these three churches, surviving blessedly unscathed, represent the phases of Comper's progression, there is much else to discuss. The book opens vistas into triumphs, squabbles and the sublime campery that some of Comper's patrons trailed in their wake. 'Brookie' (Edward Brook, the squire of Ufford, Suffolk) had, as Comper recalled, 'an Italian valet who burnt incense in the library before we withdrew there after dinner'. At Ufford, the rare and vertiginous pre-reformation font-cover, complete with colour, represented the world of richness and beauty that Comper was committed to recovering for English worshippers, righting the wrong of Puritan iconoclasm. 'Unity by Inclusion', initially inspired by the fusion of styles and richness of reference in the Norman churches of Sicily; projected a parallel world in which history happened differently. Novelists or film directors are allowed to play this game, so why are architects who do it suspect?
The answer, for most, is that the abstraction of modernism represented some sort of necessity. Among writers who choose to disagree, Symondson is one of the most convincing. The relationship between Comper and Betjeman, which is the subject of a chapter introducing the text of Comper's best-known essay, 'On the Atmosphere of a Church', is a fascinating piece of research, involving John Piper in equal measure, in which various different opinions on modernism and tradition can be explored. A wartime exhibition curated by Piper, 'The Artist and the Church', included photographs of Comper interiors alongside stained glass by Georges Rouault and Evie Hone, sculpture by Gaudier-Brzeska and Henry Moore. As Symondson writes, this wave of modern art in churches, with which Piper hoped to drive out the sentimentality of imitation early Comper, fell victim 'to its own detrimental imitations, which themselves have become part of received Anglican taste'.
The moral, perhaps, is to see with head and heart in equal measure. 'On the Atmosphere of a Church' has much to say on the false opposition between originality and tradition. Although modernism has effectively been post-modern for the course of most current architects' working lives, it has left a stubborn legacy of received ideas prohibiting beauty and learned play outside its own restricted limits. Symondson's book--which has many excellent photographs (although only the cover, showing St Mary, Wellingborough, is in colour) and a gazetteer by Stephen Bucknall--speaks to a contemporary condition.
Alan Powers is Professor of Architecture and Cultural History at the University of Greenwich.
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|Title Annotation:||Sir Ninian Comper|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2007|
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