Ashley Place, Westminster, London SW1
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
The cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Westminster and the mother church of the Catholic community in England and Wales. The cathedral was built in 1895-1903 in the Italo-Byzantine style, from designs by John Francis Bentley. While owing much to contemporary and historic precedents, the design remains a highly original and creative tour de force. For Norman Shaw it was ‘the finest church that has been built for centuries’, while Bradley & Pevsner describe the interior as ‘without doubt one of the most moving of any church in London’. The cathedral was designed from the outset to allow for later enrichment. Major furnishings by Bentley or the successor firm of Bentley, Son & Marshall include the great baldacchino over the high altar, the cathedra or bishop’s throne, the giant rood hanging from the sanctuary arch and the delicate iron light fittings. The quality and range of the internal marble work is remarkable. There are furnishings and mosaic work of outstanding significance by W. Christian Symonds, Robert Weir Schultz, Ernest Gimson, Eric Gill, Boris Anrep and, more recently, Tom Phillips and Christopher Hobbs. Externally, the prodigious massing of the red brick and Portland stone-faced exterior, with its giant Diocletian windows, dominates the area, while the tall, slender Italianate campanile makes the cathedral a landmark in longer views. Since 1975, the (ritual) west front has been opened up to view from Victoria Street. At the rear, the Cathedral Hall, Archbishop’s and Clergy House and the buildings of the choir school and adjoining primary school form a Cathedral ‘quarter’, the older buildings forming the core and focal point of the Westminster Cathedral Conservation Area.
With the establishment of the Archdiocese of Westminster in 1850, the church of St Mary, Moorfields in Finsbury Square (previously the seat of the Vicar Apostolic for London) became the pro-Cathedral.
After the death of Cardinal Wiseman in 1865 the idea of a purpose-built cathedral was mooted as a memorial. In 1867 a site in Carlisle Place, closer to Victoria Station than the present cathedral, was acquired and Henry Clutton produced various designs for a Gothic cathedral on an ambitious scale, to compete with the medieval Gothic of Westminster Abbey. However, schools rather than a cathedral were the chief priority of Archbishop (Cardinal from 1875) Manning, Wiseman’s successor (‘could I leave 20,000 children without education, and drain my friends and my flock to pile up stones and bricks?’. Instead (in 1868) he chose George Goldie’s church of Our Lady of Victories, Kensington, then under construction, to be the pro-Cathedral, replacing St Mary Moorfields. This was a more convenient location than Finsbury Square, being closer to the diocesan seminary at Hammersmith. A stock brick palazzo on the corner of Carlisle Place and Francis Street, built in 1867 as the Guardsman’s Institute, served from 1873 (until 1901) as Archbishop’s House.
In 1884 the Carlisle Place site was sold when a larger, four-acre site became available at Tothill Fields, site of the former Middlesex House of Correction. Cardinal Manning’s solicitor Alfred Blount set up a company which acquired the site, sold the western half (site of the present cathedral) to the diocese and sold the eastern half for development.
Plans to build a cathedral were not developed until Herbert Vaughan succeeded Manning as Archbishop, in 1892. Vaughan was from an old Catholic family and his uncle, Bishop William Vaughan, had built the cathedral at Plymouth. At Hertford, he had commissioned a new church in the Gothic style from Henry Clutton in 1859-61 (qv). Without a competition, he appointed John Francis Bentley, a pupil of Clutton, to draw up plans for the cathedral.
Bentley’s initial instructions from Vaughan were to produce a design in the Early Christian style. This was partly on grounds of economy, insofar as the building could be run up relatively quickly with the ornament added later as funds permitted. Vaughan also did not want his cathedral to compete too much with the Abbey, at the other end of Victoria Street. Bentley’s preference was for Gothic, but recognising that this was not going to be accepted, he suggested that the new cathedral should be in the Byzantine style. This he was not unfamiliar with, as demonstrated in his proposals for the virtual rebuilding of the Warwick Street chapel (qv, completed only in part).
In order to inform his design, Bentley travelled to Italy, with the intention of continuing to Constantinople. This was prevented by a cholera outbreak, but Bentley later said that Lethaby and Swainson’s book on Santa Sophia (1894) and San Vitale at Ravenna ‘really told me all I wanted’.
The foundation stone was laid on 29 June 1895. Bentley lived to see the shell (but not the campanile) completed, dying in 1902. Vaughan died in 1903, the year of the cathedral’s opening. In that year Edward Elgar conducted the first performance of his Dream of Gerontius in the newly-completed cathedral. The cathedral was consecrated in 1910.
Vaughan was buried at Mill Hill, but in 2005 his remains were translated to his chantry chapel to the east of the north transept porch (see below). In 1907 E. W. Pugin’s monument to Cardinal Wiseman was transferred from Kensal Green cemetery to the crypt at the east end of the new cathedral. Here there is also a monument to Cardinal Manning, by Marshall, from 1908. Later archbishops and cardinals have been buried in the main body of the cathedral.
After Bentley’s death, work continued under the successor practice of Bentley, Son & Marshall, John A. Marshall having a much larger role than Bentley’s son Osmond. As a rule, Bentley’s plans and intentions were followed, at least for the major furnishings. Bentley intended that the vaults should be entirely covered with mosaics, but apart from a few sketches, there are no detailed designs. An indication of his desired finish can be seen in the Holy Souls chapel, where he worked closely with the artist W. Christian Symons.
A chronological sequence of the main furnishings is given below. Chief amongst these are the baldacchino and cathedra, the fitting out of the chapel of St Andrew, and the addition of Eric Gill’s Stations of the Cross, all completed early on, or by the end of the First World War.
In the 1930s there was something of a departure, with mosaics by Gilbert Pownall added in the apse, over the choir arch and in the Lady Chapel. These were in the Italo-Byzantine style of Palermo and Monreale, the model favoured by Cardinal Bourne. A campaign against this programme was instigated by the writer and convert Edward Hutton, as a result of which Pownall’s mosaics in the apse were removed by Bourne’s successor, Cardinal Hinsley, and a Cathedral Art Committee established (in 1936) to approve and oversee all future art works. This committee lapsed with Hinsley’s death in 1943 but was reconvened by his successor Cardinal Griffin in 1945, after criticism in the letters page of The Times of further mosaics approved by the Cardinal. Re-constitution of the committee led to the appointment of the Russian artist Boris Anrep, whose most notable contribution is the mosaics in the Blessed Sacrament chapel.
There was a lull in mosaic decoration after the Second Vatican Council; cash was short and progress towards the completion of the cathedral was not considered a pastoral priority. The cathedral escaped the destructive reordering that befell many historic churches at that time, although various radical schemes were mooted. A forward altar was introduced, but has since been removed. Under Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor a scheme was advanced to move the great high altar forward by twenty seven inches, to allow for westward celebration under Bentley’s baldacchino. This was abandoned primarily on structural grounds; under his successor Archbishop Vincent Nichols, an alternative solution has been realised, whereby the wall behind the high altar has been moved back by about twelve inches. This work, carried out with great care by Nimbus Conservation under the direction of the cathedral architect Michael Drury RIBA (of St Anne’s Gate Architects, Salisbury), was completed in time for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the cathedral in 2010.
The major change in the post-Vatican II years was external, with the creation in 1975 of a piazza in front of the cathedral, opening up the view from Victoria Street (architects Elsom, Pack & Roberts). In 2010 the piazza was resurfaced and redesigned by Westminster City Council, work which included a new granite ramped approach to facilitate wheelchair access to the cathedral (architects St Anne’s Gate Architects of Salisbury, contractors Cathedral Works Organisation (CWO)).
Apart from a lettered mosaic over the north door to commemorate the Papal visit of 1982, mosaic decoration did not pick up again until the late 1990s. Since then there has been an active and highly successful programme of mosaic decoration in the chapels and perimeter aisles, overseen by the Art and Architecture Committee and enabled in great part by the fundraising efforts of the Friends of Westminster Cathedral.
On plan, as Bradley/Pevsner point out (p.674), the cathedral is a ‘Byzantine translation of the sixteenth century scheme of the Gesù in Rome’, consisting of a nave with perimeter chapels, domed crossing, non-projecting transepts and raised sanctuary. There are three large domes over the nave, of massed and unreinforced concrete. The series of domes perhaps owes something to San Marco, Venice, although the building is not centrally planned. The debt to San Vitale lies above all in the intention to adorn the tunnel vaults and domes with mosaic decoration mosaic, a plan still largely unrealised. Outside, the domes are not prominent; the single most prominent external feature being the 284ft campanile. This is more Italian than Byzantine in character, similar in height and design to that at Siena (Bentley wanted two towers, but was overruled by Vaughan, primarily on grounds of cost; aesthetically this was a happy decision). The combination of red brick and Portland stone banding in the external facing is redolent of Italian Gothic in its polychromatic effect, but also has contemporary resonances, for example in Norman Shaw’s New Scotland Yard (from 1887).
The cathedral is 360ft (109.7 metres) long, 156ft (47.5 metres) wide and 117ft (35.7 metres) high (up to the top of the domes). The span of the vaults is 60ft (18.3metres), the height of the main arches 90ft (27.4 metres). The building is described in detail in the list entry below, but this does not include the most recent furnishings. The following is a chronological sequence of the main fittings:
99/15 The Metropolitan Cathedral Church of the Most Precious Blood (Westminster Cathedral)
Roman Catholic Cathedral. Commissioned by Cardinal Vaughan: built 1895-1903 to the designs of J F Bentley; consecrated 1910; interior fitting-out continued by John A Marshall of Bentley’s office. Red brick, Portland stone bandings and dressings on Cornish granite plinth, with concrete foundations and vaults. Saucer domes of brick and concrete, three over nave and one over sanctuary. Narthex flanked by baptistery and porch, aisled 3-bay nave with 4 aisle chapels to (liturgical) north and three to south, where western one is substituted by base of 284ft campanile; narrow two-bay transepts beyond which the apsed choir and sanctuary is flanked by apsed and aisled chapels. Sacristy to rear. Free Byzantine style. Complex west facade stepping forward in lower stages with central entrance in semi-circular arch with decorative voussoirs, columned jambs and mosaic by Robert Anning Bell in tympanum and sculptured medallions of 12 Archbishops of Canterbury. Blind round-arched arcading to upper tier, flanked by polygonal towers with corner buttresses supporting domes. Two-storey wings to either side with round-arched arcading and plate tracery. Further domes over the polygonal corner turrets to the banded bulk of the nave. Square campanile with polygonal buttressing at top supporting cupola. Side elevations with Diocletian windows, paired round-arched and plate traceried windows divided by angular buttresses in each bay; these rise behind flat roof from less moulded ground-floor aisles, and similarly the gabled transepts are shallowly moulded. Sanctuary towers are polygonal with shallow, blind arcading and onion domes over corner buttresses. Three-bay sacristry with Diocletian windows to ground floor, round-arched lancets above.
The interior has never been completed, yet is magnificent – the nave for its volume and (especially) the chapels for their wealth of enrichment, most of it mosaic in keeping with Bentley’s intention and much of it to his design. The walls lined with veined marble in cream and green to springer level. The brickwork above left rough for future mosaics where not yet installed. Narthex, for which Bentley left complete designs, with columns of Norwegian granite and marble floor. Organ by Henry Willis and Sons over. Nave has broad galleries over aisles, supported at the centre of each bay by paired monolithic columns, the Carrara marble capital of each being a different design. Stations of the Cross by Eric Gill, 1913-18. Pulpit remodelled and enlarged 1934 by L H Shattock. Rood by Christian Symons. Statue of St Peter copied from that at St Peter’s, Rome, c.1900. Pendant lights of 1909. Aisle chapels separated by further single columns of rare marble. The Chapel of the Holy Souls completed to Bentley’s fully worked out designs, in black and white marble and with carefully overseen mosaics by Christian Symons 1902-3. Altarpiece shows Christ enthroned. Marble floor 1906, bronze gilt grille 1908. Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs, also developed as a war memorial from 1915; largely designed by Marshall with altarpiece by Eric Gill, 1946. Figure of St George by Lindsay Clarke. Shrine to St John Southworth (1592-1654), reintered here in 1930. Apsed chapel of St Joseph with fine altar by Marshall, and monolithic panels of c.1992. On south side, from the west the baptistery, with font by Bentley. Statue of St John the Baptist. Marble screen and steps lead to the Chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine, with altarpiece by Henry Holliday set into design by Bentley (drawn up in detail by him and which he later simplified) with mosaics by Clayton and Bell 1902-4. Chapel of St Patrick and the Saints of Ireland, clad in Irish marbles with memorials to the Irish regiments of 1914-18, designed by Marshall in the 1920s; the altar also by him, 1910; statue of St Patrick by Arthur Pollen. The green hue of this chapel is in contrast to the blue and white of the neighbouring Chapel of St Andrew and the Scottish Saints, the gift of Lord Bute and the work of R Weir Schultz 1910-14. Lean openwork screens of white metal by W Bainbridge Reynolds; sculpture by Stirling Lee, stalls by Ernest Gimson (considered amongst his finest works) with kneelers by Sidney Barnsley, reliquary by Harold Stabler and altar cards by Graily Hewitt. Chapel of St Paul similar to Marshall’s work for that to St Joseph, 1913-17. Transepts with doors and confessionals by Bentley and Marshall, the latter a standard design for the Cathedral also found in St Patrick’s Chapel and elsewhere. Mosaic of St Joan of 1909-12 by Christian Symons in north transept, where also is the Chapel of St Thomas of Canterbury – the Vaughan Chantry. Effigy of Cardinal Vaughan by Marshall and carved by Henry McCarthy; Marshall’s also the marble and mosaic decoration, as designed by him in 1907. Sanctuary has marble and jasper arcades supporting arcaded tribune above. High altar of Cornish granite, with baldacchino of Veronese marble on marble floor, designed by Bentley in 1901 and executed by Farmer and Brindley in 1905-6. Bas relief by Lindsay Clark; mosaic in tympanum over high altar by Gilbert Pownall, of Christ in Glory. Fittings by Marshall, 1908-10. Sacristy to rear not seen. Crypt under sanctuary dedicated to St Peter, with tombs to Cardinal Wiseman by Edward Welby Pugin and to Cardinal Manning by Bentley (but only partly carried out) and mosaics by Christian Symons. Bentley left designs for the marble work. The northernmost of the aisles to the apsed chapels either side of the Sanctuary forms the Shrine of the Sacred Heart and St Michael. Black Panderma marble installed by Farmer and Brindley with contrasting white marbles and rosso antiquo highlights; mosaic of the Holy Face the last work of Christian Symons, 1910. Alabaster statue of the Sacred Heart by Farmer and Brindley and bas relief of St Michael on altar frontal completed by 1919. Silver lamp before the statue by Osmond Bentley and J A Marshall, who also designed the electric light pendants. Linked by screens is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, marble clad between 1904 and 1909, enclosed by grilles and gates 1907 by Marshall, above which is represented the ‘Pelican in her Piety’. Altar rail 1908, tabernacle and suspended canopy 1909, all by Marshall. Mosaics by Boris Anrep, completed in 1962. – The Lady Chapel is clad in richly-coloured rare marbles, completed c.1914. White marble altar, with mosaic of Our Lady with the Holy Child by Anning Bell executed by a Miss Martin, who also did those to the apse recesses. Other mosaics by Gilbert Pownall, C15 Nottingham alabaster statue installed 1955, marble floor 1956. Sources Winegride de L’Hopital, Westminster Cathedral and its Architect, vol. I, 1919. Westminster Cathedral, popular guide, n.d. Westminster Cathedral Bulletin, July-August 1993.
Architect: J. F. Bentley
Original Date: 1903
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade I