Edgbaston - Oratory Church of the Immaculate Conception

Hagley Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham B16

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A Roman basilican design of the first decade of the twentieth century, built as a memorial to Cardinal (Blessed) John Henry Newman, who lived here for nearly forty years. The interior is richly fitted out in marble and mosaic, with imported items as well as purpose-designed furnishings by J. H. Pollen, Dunstan Powell, Nathaniel Westlake and others. It contains elements from the previous church, and with Oratory House and Henry Clutton’s school hall forms part of an important historic group on one of the principal approaches to the city centre. 

John Henry Newman and the Oratory Fathers moved to Hagley Road in 1850, where a house was built in the style of a Renaissance palazzo (figure 1) from designs by the Irish architect-engineer Terence Flanagan, a cousin of the Rev. John Flanagan, who was a priest of the Oratory. Behind this was built in 1853 the first church, also designed by Flanagan. Some accounts (e.g. Little) state that Eugène Viollet le Duc was responsible for the ambitious Lombard Romanesque design originally proposed, but this stems from a misreading of the signature on the drawings, by the Parisian architect Joseph-Louis Duc (1802-79). Flanagan’s design was more modest, a simple, barn-like structure, ‘its roof transferred from an abandoned factory’ (Little, 141). To this was added an aisle in 1858-61, from designs by John Hungerford Pollen, who later added an apse and two transepts, apparently in Norman style. Part of this church survives as the former St Philip’s Chapel (now the shrine to Bl. John Henry Newman).  

Henry Clutton designed the Italian Romanesque school hall facing onto Hagley Road and (behind it) a cloister in 1872-3. The school was originally an elementary school for boys and girls, which opened in 1856. This later became a private school for boys, before decamping to Reading in 1922, whereupon St Philip’s Grammar School took over the building. Expanded with new buildings in the 1950s and sixties, this later became a sixth form college before closing in 1995.  

The Oratory House contains Newman’s rooms and library, preserved as they were at the time of his death in 1890. After Newman’s death it was decided to erect a new church to his memory, an appropriately Roman basilican design by E. Doran Webb. The foundation stone was laid on 25 March 1903 and opened (minus its apsidal sanctuary) on 9 October 1906. The sanctuary apse was added (the gift of Charles Shaw, a notable benefactor) and the main phase of construction completed for the solemn opening on 8 December 1909. The church was consecrated on 23 June 1920. The main later addition was the shrine of St Philip Neri, added at the northeast corner in 1927, from designs by G. B. Cox. Fittings and enrichments have been added over time, briefly described below.

On 19 September 2010, John Henry Newman was beatified here by Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope also unveiled a plaque at the entrance from Hagley Road, commemorating Newman’s residence here from 1852-1890.

In the nave, the columns are of Breccia marble from Serravezza. The Renaissance-style painted decoration of the barrel vaulted roof is by Patrick Feeny of Hardman’s Studios, 1959 (restored 1986). The nave pulpit is modelled on that in St Mark’s, Venice and 

is of marble, porphyry, mosaic and alabaster; it was first used in 1911. The Stations of the Cross, of Limoges enamel with copper frames, are by Dunstan Powell of Hardman & Co.  

In the sanctuary, the high altar was designed by Dunstan Powell for the old church in 1899. The suspended canopy (by Ernesto Sensi of Trastevere) was the gift of the children of John and Mary Hungerford Pollen, in memory of their parents. The walls of the sanctuary are lined with marble and onyx and the apse with a mosaic depiction of the Coronation of the Virgin, the culmination of a series of mosaics depicting scenes from the life of Our Lady which run around the apsidal recesses of the side altars; these are by Nathaniel Westlake (1913). The communion rails are from Sant’ Andrea della Valle, Rome, and with the gates were installed in 1911. In front of the sanctuary, the pendentives of the dome are decorated with mosaics of the four Major Prophets (1914).

The altar to Our Lady, in the northern transept has altar rails from the church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, Rome. The fine altarpiece is of alabaster and coloured marbles; the blue mosaic above was designed by G. G. Cox and made by Hardmans after the Second World War.

Giving off to the north of Our Lady’s transept is the shrine of St Philip Neri, designed by G. B. Cox and added in 1927. It is a domed octagon with marble-lined walls and a Cosmatesque floor. The altar contains a wax effigy of St Philip, and above a copy of Guido Reni’s portrait of the saint in the Oratory at Rome. There is also a portrait of St Philip as a boy, and below this a case containing relics and souvenirs of the saint, mostly collected by Newman.

The south transept contains the choir gallery and organ, the former carried on two rows of columns, one of marble and one of alabaster, the latter with an extravagant gilt case by Sensi. The organ itself was rebuilt in 1986-7 by Nicholson of Malvern.

To the east (parallel with the sanctuary), the chapel of St Charles Borromeo has a marble altar by John Hungerford Pollen which came from the old church. Similarly the marble and alabaster altar in the Sacred Heart chapel and the mosaic frontal of the altar of St Patrick.

Entered through the doors to the right of the Sacred Heart chapel, the former St Philip’s chapel is the last remnant of the old church, and is now a shrine to Bl. John Henry Newman. According to the church guide, the altarpiece here, of Derbyshire alabaster, was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott Senior, but is more likely to be by his Catholic son, also called George Gilbert Scott, who is credited with the design of the rest of the chapel sanctuary (1880). The altarpiece formerly held another copy of the Guido Reni portrait of St Philip, but now contains a portrait of Newman. 

At the northwest corner of the church, the baptistery (1912) was designed by Dunstan Powell. The font was carved from a single block of alabaster by Bridgeman of Lichfield, the bronze cover with statue of St John the Baptist designed by Powell and made by Hardmans.

LIST DESCRIPTION:

List entry Number: 1076349

Grade: II

Date first listed: 25-Apr-1952

Date of most recent amendment: 08-Jul-1982

 

HAGLEY ROAD 1. 5104 (north side) Edgbaston B16 The Church of the Immaculate Conception (The Oratory) (formerly listed as The Oratory) SP 0488 SE 36/3 25.4.52

 

II GV

 

On the site of the original church of 1853 which had been added to and embellished by John Hungerford Pollen in 1858-61. The present church of 1903-9 by E Doran Webb, and built as a memorial to Cardinal Newman (1801-90). Stands back from the road and is approached through a gate beneath part of St Philip's Grammar School (qv). Limestone; copper facing to dome. Long nave with tunnel vault lit by dormer windows and carried on Corinthian colonnades. Narrow passage aisles with side chapels in shallow bays in the outer walls. Shallow north and south transepts; wide short apsidal chancel. Over the crossing, a dome on a drum with large rectangular windows. The interior decoration ornate and with much use of coloured marbles and mosaic work, some of the latter by Westlake. Altar in the north transept from the church of Sant Andrea della Valle in Rome. Altars beneath the choir gallery and in the chapel of St Charles Borromeo by Pollen and from the old church. St Phillips chapel on the south side of the church is of 1858. The shrine of St Philip Neri in the north-east chapel, by G. B. Cox, is based on that in the Chiesa Nuova in Rome and was added c1930.

 

Listing NGR: SP0491586049

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: E. Doran Webb

Original Date: 1909

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II