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The abbey in exile.

Quarr Abbey was designed by French Benedictine monk Dom Paul Bellot (1876-1944). Pevsner described it as 'among the most daring and successful church buildings of the early twentieth century in England'.(1) New research by Charlotte Ellis sheds light on the remarkable architect and his work.

When Quarr Abbey church was consecrated in 1912, The Tablet commented: 'The new Abbey ... is built almost entirely of bricks, and is severely plain in style. The architect is Father Billot, one of the community, who received his architectural training in Paris, being a member of the Institut des Beaux-Arts before joining the Order'. Neither the misspelling of his name, nor his alleged membership of a non-existent 'Institut des Beaux-Arts', can have done much to improve Dom Paul Bellot's opinion of the English, whom he habitually described as 'savages'. He had trained at the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1894-1901, as a student of Marcel Lambert, and he was proud of it. Fellow Lambert students had won the Grand Prix de Rome for architecture in 1901 and 1902(2) and it was at the atelier Lambert that Bellot had himself acquired the skills in architectural composition and draftsmanship, and the stylistic versatility, that earned him a steady series of 'first mentions' for the work he submitted to the school) He obtained the Diploma in December 1900 and, the following year, entered a public competition for the design of a church at Flers in Normandy with another Lambert student, Paul-Marie-Joseph Hulot (1876-1959).(4)

Paul Bellot had hoped to marry Hulot's sister, but she chose instead to become a Carmelite nun a decision that led him to abandon his budding career as an architect in Paris and to join the Benedictine monks of Solesmes in their exile on the Isle of Wight.(5) As a newly arrived novice, he was 'requistioned' by the monk-architect Dom Jules Mellet(6) for a few days in the autumn of 1902, to copy plans of the temporary timber-and-corrugated-iron church the latter had designed for the monastic community, and he probably imagined any future demands on his skills as an architect would be no less modest after he had taken his monastic vows in 1904. But, in March 1906, he was summarily dispatched to the Netherlands by his Abbot, to supervise the construction of a Benedictine monastery at Oosterhout, near Breda.(7) No doubt it was the efficiency with which Dom Bellot accomplished the first building phase there in 1906-1907 that prompted the Abbot of Solesmes to give him the task of designing the new Abbey at Quarr for his mother house in 1907.

In deference to local building practice, the monasteries at Quarr and Oosterhout were both built principally of load-bearing brickwork - though for reasons of economy, most of the bricks used were cheap Belgian imports from Zandvoorde near Ostend. As Dom Bellot had been taught little or nothing about brickwork at the Ecole des BeauxArts, he stopped off on his outward journey to Oosterhout in 1906, to collect such technical information as his father, the architecte-verificateur Paul-Emile Bellot, had been able to find on the subject in Paris. In the course of the next 12 months, he divided his time between the drawing-board and the building site and learnt a very great deal, not least that bricklayers are not much inclined to read plans. He kept a close eye on them and, when necessary, placed the bricks himself, to demonstrate his design intentions.(8) His father sent him a constant stream of technical tips through the post, on such matters as down-pipe dimensions and gutter flashings, and travelled twice to Oosterhout to inspect the progress of the works. What is more, it was to his father in Paris that Dom Bellot sent his working drawings, to have prints made for the contractor at Oosterhout - and Bellot pere did not hesitate to let his son know of any errors in the construction details that caught his eagle eye.

In the beginning

The first phase - the cloister, enclosed on two sides by ranges containing the Chapter House and the Refectory, was completed in April 1907 and, soon after the monks of Saint-Paul-de-Wisques had moved to Oosterhout from Belgium, Dom Bellot returned to the Isle of Wight, to make a start on the new Quarr Abbey. Whereas the Oosterhout monastery was built on a green-field site for a small community (a total of 21 monks' cells was envisaged at the outset), a mid-nineteenth-century villa had to be adapted and extended for the use of 100 monks in little more than a year at Quarr.

The monks of Solesroes purchased Quarr Abbey House, near Ryde, in May 1907. Built in the 1840s near the ruins of the mediaeval Quarr Abbey, to receive a few guests in comfort, the house was nowhere near big enough for 100 monks. It was Elizabethan - or Post-Reformation - in style, the garden front overlooked the Solent to the north, and the south-facing entrance front was screened from a service court by a projecting west wing. The strategy adopted by Dom Bellot was to eclipse the house and to assert the presence of the new Abbey. The projecting west wing was demolished, retained buildings were adapted for secondary purposes, such as the kitchens and the noviciate, and the principal elements of the new Abbey - the Refectory, Library, Chapter House and Sacristy were contained in purpose-built ranges organised round a quadrangular cloister placed hard against the original entrance front. Building was begun in June 1907 and was sufficiently advanced for the whole community to move in - albeit 'unpeu dans l'improvisation d'un chantier', before the lease expired at Appuldurcombe in June 1908. Only the Abbey church, the guest-house and parlours were reserved for later building phases and, in the meantime, Dom Mellet's 'Iron Church' was transported to Quarr and re-erected on the future cloister garth at a cost of [pounds]488/6/0d.(9)

Growing confidence

Dom Bellot seems to have been based at Quarr to supervise construction from June 1907, with an advance party of monks charged with such tasks as the preparation of the kitchen garden. His father continued to send him copious advice through the post from Paris, and Edward Goldie,(10) the Catholic English architect who had designed the church built at Ryde in 1906-1907 for the nuns of Sainte-Cecile-de-Solesmes, agreed to be named as arbiter in the contract documents for Quarr. Although Goldie may, perhaps, have met Dom Bellot at Appuldurcombe in 1907, he had no hand in designing the new Quarr Abbey. Dom Bellot's approach at Quarr in 1907-1908 flowed directly from his work at Oosterhout in 1906-1907: the Refectory and Chapter House interiors of the two monasteries show how rapidly he overcame initial misgivings about applying masonry principles to brick, which he deployed with growing confidence seemingly to the chagrin of Isle of Wight bricklayers. According to the late Dom Gabriel Tissot, they disliked working with the bricks imported from Belgium because these were much harder than the local bricks to which they were accustomed.(11) Moreover, the dimensions of the Belgian bricks differed from those of English bricks, which cannot have made their task any easier.(12) Yet the standard of workmanship achieved was high, as is testified by the precision of the elevational brick polychromy, the neatly executed window details and the crisp lines of the cloister arches.

A second building campaign followed at Oosterhout in 1908-1909. During this second stay in the Netherlands, Dom Bellot became better acquainted with Dutch architecture. He was contacted by two Dutch architects then actively engaged in promoting artistic and architectural forms they considered appropriate to the revived Catholic liturgy in the Netherlands : Jan Stuyt (1868-1934) and Joseph Cuypers (1861-1941, son of the great P.J.H. Cuypers). Stuyt plied him with information about contemporary and historic Dutch architecture and, in January 1909, Dom Bellot made an architectural tour of Amsterdam. As he later acknowledged, the corbels of brick and stone in the Sacristy at Oosterhout bear a striking resemblance to those in the main trading hall of H.P. Berlage's Amsterdam Stock Exchange. But, far from employing these corbels to support a steel roof structure, as Berlage had done, Dom Bellot used them in conjunction with an extraordinary honeycomb of a brick structure, very possibly modelled on Catalan precedents, designed to modulate daylight penetration from skylights in the tiled roof covering. This phase of the works, which also encompassed a monumental staircase, new cells and kitchens, and the enlargement of the Refectory and cloister, was completed at Oosterhout in December 1909.

The 1907/1908 layout plan of Quarr Abbey shows the church bounding the fourth side of the cloister, and surviving sketches suggest Dom Bellot planned to restrict public access to an area giving onto the main body of the church at right-angles, from the south, which would have enabled visitors to see the High Altar without seeing the monks. Similar arrangements were usual in convent churches of enclosed orders, requiring nuns to be screened from public view and, perhaps for that very reason, the monks of Solesmes eventually rejected this layout in favour of an east-to-west alignment of sanctuary, monks' choir and public nave.(13) In the revised project, the church was re-sited over sloping ground to the east, with a crypt beneath choir and sanctuary and, in consequence, the south side of the new Quarr Abbey had to be re-designed from scratch. The Chapter finally decided to go ahead with the church-building project on 12 August 1910, when the Abbot of Solesmes formally announced his decision to put Dom Bellot in charge as architect.

It is, perhaps, difficult to appreciate how great the challenge of employing exposed brickwork for so important a project as the new Abbey church for his mother house must have seemed to Dom Bellot in 1910. Brick was then generally despised in France and although Viollet-le-Duc's disciples had long campaigned against the French habit of concealing brickwork behind stone cladding or stucco, their efforts had produced few new brick buildings of note. No doubt Dom Bellot was encouraged to pursue and distil his own interpretation of how Viollet-le-Duc's theories on the appropriate uses of materials should be applied to brick by an encounter with H.P. Berlage at Oosterhout on 10 April 1910. The celebrated Dutch architect is said to have been very favourably impressed by the monastery buildings,(14) and this meeting may also, perhaps, have stimulated Dom Bellot's nascent interest in the theory of proportions.

Dom Bellot prepared his preliminary version of the revised design for the future Quarr Abbey church, at a scale of a quarter inch to a foot, in September 1910. A few weeks later, he began looking for a reliable Quantity Surveyor to collaborate on the project and the Abbey's Land Surveyors recommended H.T.A. Chidgey of 8 Adelphi Terrace, The Strand.(15) 'The church area is about 1000 square yards. Kindly let me know what you would want for such a work', wrote Dom Bellot to Chidgey in November. Soon afterwards, he wrote again, inviting Chidgey to come to see the project and the site: 'My designs are nearly finished and I think the sooner you come the best it is. Tuesday or Wednesday of the coming week would suit me much. Kindly let me know the day and time of your coming, Quarr Abbey is about 30 minutes' drive from Ryde Esplanade. Buses and Landaus stay at the station'.

Building the church

The Specification and Bill of Quantities were completed in January 1911,(16)q tenders were received in February,(17) the Abbot laid the first stone of the church on 17 April and, by 23 October, the nave had been built to cornice height. But a large number of variations were introduced during the course of the works, including one very major item: the manufacture and supply of the 'artificial stone' to be used for a great many internal and external details and dressings, and for the paving slabs throughout the church. The contract stated this artificial stone would be supplied, ready made, by a nominated specialist, but no suitable specialist was found. The main contractor was subsequently persuaded to make and cast all the artificial stone on site to Dom Bellot's specification and, inevitably, allowances for the extra time and work became a bone of contention. By the summer of 1919, relations between architect and main contractor were far from good. Already 'very displeased' in mid-August that the works would not be 'finished by the 15th, as required by the Contract', Dom Bellot wrote to the contractor on 90 August saying: 'Let me tell you straight that your talk about bad weather having impeded the progress of the works seems to me nothing but blarney'.(18)

Delays in the works caused the ceremony of consecration to be re-scheduled over three weeks, starting with the crypt on 97 September 1919. On Saturday 12 October, the dedication of the church was attended by numerous guests but, as only two of five altars had been ready in time, the others had to be consecrated a few days later.

The previous month, he had insisted Chidgey should return from his annual holiday at Clacton-on-Sea 12 days early, to make a start on the Final Account - a laborious task due to the 'very large number of items requiring adjustment'. Dom Bellot negotiated the final settlement with the contractor in November: 'The rock on which we stuck longest was the "artificial stone" but I at long last succeeded in pulling him into fairly smooth waters', he informed Chidgey on 15 November, 'From your Summary there was a total of [pounds]483.15.2 1/2d, not including the disputed items. The total, including these items, will now stand at ... [pounds]11,086.1.6d'. Chidgey congratulated him on reaching 'what appear to me to be very satisfactory terms', and asked if he might keep the set of prints from which the Quantities had been taken, 'as a reminder of a piece of work with which I am proud to have been associated, within a humble capacity'.

Dom Bellot described the finished church as the most peremptory demonstration possible that the monumental could be achieved in brick. Externally, the relative importance of the principal components is clear: public access is restricted to a porch and nave, treated like a narthex at the foot of a mighty west front flanked asymmetrically by stair and bell towers, behind which the imposing horizontal mass of the choir leads to a fortress-like lantern tower at the east end. This hierarchical progression is still more explicit within the church: the narthex-nave terminates with an ascending flight of steps flanked by side altars; above, a low, wide arch frames the axial perspective through the much loftier and more luminous choir to the 'feu d'artifices etjongleries de briques' in the sanctuary. As Dom Bellot put it, everything leads to the High Altar.

The means he employed to exploit the structural potential of brick in the new Quarr Abbey church owed much to his reading of Auguste Choisy's analysis of the history of architecture,(19) enriched by his own experiments in earlier building phases at Oosterhout and Quarr, by his recently acquired knowledge of Dutch architecture and the first-hand studies he had made as a student of Mozarabic, Mudejar, Romanesque and Gothic architecture in Spain.(20) For good measure, acoustic principles he had learned from a Dutch Jesuit in 1907 were applied to the design, as was a system of proportions based on the equilateral triangle inspired by the writings of fellow Benedictines.(21)

Although the general arrangement of the church takes its cue from mediaeval monastic churches in France, Spain and at Quarr itself, Dom Bellot dispensed with side aisles and adopted instead a system of interior buttresses contained within a double wall plane, to striking architectural effect. The monk's stalls are set against sheer screen-walls, from which the succession of transverse arches spanning the choir appear to spring. Concealed behind the screen-walls, internal buttresses are pierced by side passages, above which open clerestorys modulate the penetration of daylight from lancet windows in the external envelope. In the sanctuary, the play of light from much larger lancets is diffused by the openwork spandrels of an inner structure crowned by soaring, interpenetrating, diagonal brick arches. Conceived like a giant baldacchino, it is set between the four corner turrets that contain the lantern tower. The architectural fireworks in the sanctuary are enriched by decorative brickwork and elements in artificial stone, including brick 'lacework' over openings leading to side chapels to north and south.

Beneath the pyx

As originally raised on a stepped plinth against the blind arcading of the east wall, the High Altar was seen by the public at a distance, at or above eye level, beyond a substantial balustraded communion rail which separated the narthex-nave from the main body of the church. It provides a still more striking focal point in its present position, at the centre of the sanctuary, beneath a pyx suspended from the apex of the baldacchino.

After the new church had been built, the new Quarr Abbey was completed by the addition of the southern range - re-designed to incorporate the guest house (originally envisaged as a separate, free-standing building). Construction of this third and last phase was begun in the spring of 1913 and completed in March 1914. This time, existing supplies of Belgian bricks were supplemented with local bricks (used exclusively for interior work and the inside face of cavity walls), and the contract was won by Mr Linington, with a tender of [pounds]4030/0/-.

The composition is dominated by a monumental crosswing, with elevations that bear a striking resemblance to the type of house-front described in Choisy's Histoire de l'Architecture as, 'approprie a un elimat vu les neiges et les pluies sont frequentes'; within, the main entrance is aligned on a recess in the south-west corner of the cloister where guests are received by the Abbot. Unlike the other three sides of the cloister, window openings in the southern gallery are of a design similar to the brick 'lacework' experimented in the Abbey church a device Dom Bellot may well have derived from similar details inspired by Hispanic precedents in Boeswilwald's church at Masny in northern France. By contrast, the western extremity of the south range, which contains the parlours, is more domestic in character and, at first glance, could be taken for the work of a yet undiscovered Arts & Crafts architect. Unexpectedly, perhaps, it has both a pitched and a flat roof, as is faithfully translated by the juxtaposition of a straight parapet and an externally buttressed gable end.

Goodbye to all that

Robert Graves visited Quarr Abbey during the First World War, while recovering from the rigours of the Front at a military convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. 'Hearing the Fathers at their plain-song made me for the moment forget the war completely', he wrote in Goodbye To All That, 'I half envied (them) their abbey on the hill, and admired their kindness, gentleness and seriousness. Those clean, whitewashed cells and meals eaten in silence at the long oaken tables, while a novice read The Lives of the Saints! The food, mostly cereals, vegetables and fruit, was the best I had tasted for years - I had eaten enough ration beef, ration jam, ration bread, and cheese to last me a lifetime. At Quarr, Catholicism ceased to repel me'. Most of the monks returned to France after the war, leaving a small community at Quarr which grew gradually and was raised to the rank of an independent Abbey on 27 December 1937-.

Dom Bellot arrived for the ceremony hot foot from supervising the construction of 'the largest dome in the whole of North America' at Saint Joseph's Oratory, Montreal. His reputation as an architect was then at its zenith: he was widely known by the soubriquet 'the poet of brick', his numerous monastic, ecclesiastic and educational buildings in the Netherlands, Belgium and France had been published on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet according to Dom Tissot, in December 1937 he spent a good deal of time admiring the brick arches in the sanctuary and was moved to admit Quarr Abbey church was his finest architectural achievement.


1 'Quarr and Bellot', The Architectural Review, Vol 141, Jan - June 1967, p252 and pp307-310.

2 Jean-Louis Hulot in 1901, and Henri Prost in 1902.

3 The last project he submitted to the Ecole des Beam-Arts, 'un conservatoire reginal des arts et metiers', was rewarded with a 'second first' medal on 5 October 1901. He had enrolled with the Societe des Architectes Diplomes par le Gouvernement in May that year.

4 Their joint entry received a mention in September 1901 and was subsequently exhibited at the 1902 Salon des Artistes Francais (catalogue number 3061).

5 To escape constraints imposed on religious communities by the Loi sur les Associations of July 1901, the monks of Saint-Pierre-de-Solesmes had moved to Appuldurcombe House on the Isle of Wight in September 1901. They removed to Quarr when the lease expired at Appuldurcombe in 1908.

6 After training as an architect at the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts for six years, Jules Marie Mellet [1846-1917] joined the monastic community at Solesmes in 1884. Dom Mellet was precluded by failing health from acting as architect for the new Quarr Abbey in 1907-1914. He died at Quarr in 1917, 'shrivelled like an old cep', cf Dom Augustin Savaton, Dom Paul Delatte, Abbi de Solesroes, pub. Plon, Paris, 1954.

7 The monastery at Oosterhout was built for the Priory of Saint-Paul-de-Wisques, a Benedictine community founded by the Abbey of Solesmes. The monks had left Wisques for Belgium in 1901. The Wisques monks were told Dom Bellot had been sent to Oosterhout to supervise the building works. However, Dom Bellot seems to have had carte blanche from his Abbot to amend the designs. He had revised the overall plan and negotiated substantial modifications to the contract documents in time for a site meeting with Paul Vilain, the initial architect, early in April 1906. The latter promptly resigned from the job. Archives, Abbey of Saint-Paul-de-Wisques, Abbey of Saint Paul, Oosterhout, and Abbey of Saint-Pierre-de-Solesmes.

8 When he first arrived at Oosterhout, Dom Bellot spoke no Dutch and had to use such means he could to communicate with the bricklayers on site. His formal dealings with the main contractor were sometimes conducted with the help of the Benedictine nuns at the Abbey of Notre-Dame-de-Wisques, and sometimes with the aid of their chaplain, Dom Assemaine, with whom he shared lodgings and who took on the task of translating the Specification 'with the best will in the world' using such Dutch as he had picked up from his studies of Flemish mystics. Archives, Abbey of Saint-Pierre-de-Solesmes.

9 'The contractor ... is to demolish the iron church at Appuldurcombe House, near Wroxall, together with the iron covered way adjoining thereto, and to remove all materials, except the foundations, to Quarr Abbey house, in the parish of Binstead ... The Church is to be rebuilt according to the plans and Schedule II Annexed' Draft Specification, annotated in Dom Bellot's hand: 'Prix transport compris [pounds]488-6-0d = 12,200 frs' (Archives, Abbey of Saint Paul de Wisques).

10 Edward Goldie (1856-1921) is best known as the architect of Saint James's church, Spanish Place, London. Correspondence between Bellot and Goldie was limited to pure formalities. Archives, Abbey of Saint-Paul-de-Wisques.

11 Dom Gabriel Tissot was 97 when he agreed to be interviewed at Solesmes for The Architectural Review in 1983. He took his monastic vows in the Iron Church at Quarr in August 1908, and was the first monk to be ordained in the new Abbey church (in 1913). He became the first Abbot of Quarr when the monastic community was raised to the rank of an independent Abbey in December 1937.

12 According to Dom Bellot, 'Our bricks have exactly the 9[inches] & the 4 1/2[inches] inclusive of the joints; for the height, 9 are required for the 2 feet'. (Archives, Abbey of Saint-Paul-de-Wisques). The two foot height would have required only eight courses of English bricks of equivalent size in plan.

13 The late Dom Leo Avery, Abbot of Quarr, 1992-1996, was of the opinion the principal objection to the original plan was that it was deemed appropriate for nuns but not for monks. Both Dom Avery and Dom Tissot were firmly convinced the original location proposed for the church had been chosen by Dom Bellot because the ground conditions were stable, and both attributed subsequent structural problems in the church to its having been re-sited on unstable clay.

14 According to monastery records at the Abbeys of Saint Paul at Wisques and Oosterhout, 'Mr Berlage, architecte de la Bourse d'Amsterdam' dined at Saint Paul's monastery, Oosterhout on 10 April 1910, while Dom Bellot and his Abbot were on a visit there.

15 H. T. A. Chidgey (c1860-1941) was a founding partner in Thurgood, Son and Chidgey, a firm of Quantity Surveyors established in 1900.

16 The bricks were ordered and paid for by the Abbey. A total of 1 984 250 bricks were delivered to Wooton Creek in 1911, of which 1 784 250 were used for the church. According to Dom Bellot's calculations, the total cost to the Abbey of the bricks used to build the church was [pounds]3767.11.11 1/2d. Combined transport costs [pounds]1455.4.5d freight from Zandvoorde to Wooton Creek + [pounds]496.3.0d carting from Wooton Creek to Quarr came to slightly more than the [pounds]1816.4.6 1/2d purchase price. Archives, Abbey of Saint-Paul-de-Wisques.

17 The tenders (excluding the supply of bricks, but including a provisional sum for the supply of ready-made artificial stone by a nominated specialist) were: MessersJames, [pounds]12 525-2-8d; Mr Langdon, [pounds]11 51 1-0-0d; Mr Jenkins, [pounds] 10 560-0-0d; Mr Linington, [pounds] 10 480-0-0d. Mr Jenkins won the contract. Archives, Abbey of Saint-Paul-de-Wisques.

18 At about this time, Dom Bellot began to receive assistance from an Irish monk, Father David Guthrie (he was killed at Beaumont Hamel in 1916).

19 Choisy's two-volume Histoire de l'Architecture of 1899 included chapters already published from the 1870s, among them Histoire de l'art de batir chez les Byzantins - undoubtedly Bellot's major source of reference for his student project for 'Une synagogue' of February 1900.

20 The precise route and date of this student study tour in Spain have yet to be discovered; it was very probably in the summer of 1900. The lasting influence of this Spanish tour on the architectural uses Dom Bellot made of brick was remarked upon by his father in a letter dated 18July 1922: 'Ta maniere s'affirme ... Ily avait vraiment a faire avec la brique et pour cela il fallait s'ajfianchir du classique, quant au detail, et se tourner vets les Maures - c'est ce que tu sembles avoir fait, car il me sernble bien que ta tournee en Espagne a developpe chez toi des dispositions qui y somrneillaient'. Archives, Saint-Paul-de-Wisques.

21 Dom Desiderius Lenz of Beuron Abbey in Germany, and Tempel-Masse by the Austrian Benedictine, Dom Odilo Wolff. Cf Dom Paul Bellot, Propos d'un Batisseur du Bon Dieu, Editions Fides, Montreal, 1948.

For Dom Bellot's principal buildings and projects, and the main documentary sources referred to in the text, see Dom Bellot, Moine-Architecte, 1876-1944, published under the direction of Maurice Culot and Martin Meade, by IFA/Norma, Paris, 1996.
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Title Annotation:Quarr Abbey in England
Author:Ellis, Charlotte
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Aug 1, 1997
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