Exploring Sir John Ninian Comper’s church of St Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough

The week before last, several Undergraduate and taught Masters students joined Dr Ayla Lepine and David Lewis in a visit to St Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. As an extension of the topics discussed in the module ‘Religion, Architecture and Visual Culture in Britain from 1851 to 1951,’ the trip provided students with an exploratory and practical seminar inside one of Sir John Ninian Comper’s churches of the Twentieth Century.

The High Altar, St Mary’s, Wellingborough, November 2013. Photo: David Lewis.

The High Altar, St Mary’s, Wellingborough, November 2013. Photo: David Lewis.

Comper (1864 – 1960) has been hailed as “the greatest British church architect of the twentieth century” and one of his finest achievements was the design of St.Mary’s. A committed Gothic revivalist, Comper experienced his own personal epiphany on trips made to Europe in the early 1900’s, when he realised that the beauty he sought to embody in Christian Architecture need not be found exclusively in the English Medieval but could incorporate the very best of other architectural traditions and styles. Beauty, he concluded, was universal. This was not for him “a borrowing from all sorts of styles” as Pevsner somewhat dismissively labelled it, but a unity by inclusion.

It was fortunate for Comper (and for us!) that his patrons at St. Mary’s allowed him free reign on his design, despite reservations about his apparent abandonment of a purist Gothic Revival aesthetic, for St. Mary’s is a stunning visual realisation of Comper’s principles of unity by inclusion and fitness for purpose through a liturgy-driven architecture.

View of the font and fan vaulting, St Mary’s, Wellingborough, November 2013. Photo: David Lewis.

View of the font and fan vaulting, St Mary’s, Wellingborough, November 2013. Photo: David Lewis.

During the trip, the extent of the detail in his design could be experienced on an intimate scale; close analysis of Comper’s floral, geometric and material schemes allowed students a deeper understanding of the principals of the Gothic Revival in Britain and forged visual and theological links between other buildings within the module. It particularly emphasised the importance of architects of the Nineteenth Century, most notably A. W. N. Pugin (1812-1852), G. E. Street (1824-1881) and G. F. Bodley (1827-1907) whose legacy within the revivalist movement was far-reaching and would have certainly influenced Comper’s approach.

Floral roundels and electric light bulbs, St Mary’s Wellingborough, November 2013. Photo: David Lewis.

Floral roundels and electric light bulbs, St Mary’s Wellingborough, November 2013. Photo: David Lewis.

Our main areas of discussion included the fan vaulted ceiling, the use of colour surrounding the most sacred elements of the building and the stained glass. The fan vaulted, plaster ceiling is highly decorative and expresses a visual metaphor of heavenly experience, with floral roundels emblematic of St Mary. The colour scheme within the nave represents an earthly and grounded existence; the columns are made of a local, untreated stone and the pews are carved in a simple design. The simplicity of the design in the nave allows the most sacred areas of the church to take central focus and become principal aspects of liturgical ceremony. Our exploration of the building prompted much discussion and Dr Ayla Lepine expertly led conversations surrounding the use of the various spaces and the theological and architectural influences on the design.

The “earthly and grounded” tones of the nave, St Mary’s, Wellingborough, November 2013. Photo: David Lewis.

The “earthly and grounded” tones of the nave, St Mary’s, Wellingborough, November 2013. Photo: David Lewis.

We were able to individually explore the church and then rejoined for discussion in the nave and in the Jesus Chapel to the left of the Sanctuary. It proved to be a greatly beneficial seminar and the learning experience gave the students a greater understanding of both sacred architecture and Comper’s work within the Revival. The group would like to thank Father Robert Farmer, the Parish Priest, David Lewis and Dr Ayla Lepine for an entirely enjoyable visit to St Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough.

Holly Kemish (MA student) & Rachel Swirles (MA student)

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