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Building shrines for the new Blessed

Fr Anthony Symondson SJ describes three new chapels in Birmingham, London and Oxford that will be dedicated to John Henry Newman

By on Thursday, 12 August 2010

A digital rendering of the future Newman Chapel at the London Oratory                                                                                        (Image courtesy of Russell Taylor Architects)

A digital rendering of the future Newman Chapel at the London Oratory (Image courtesy of Russell Taylor Architects)

For me, as a boy, an escape from leafy suburbia was the 74 bus route from Putney Heath to the South Kensington museums in Brompton. There, at choice, lay undiscovered worlds of the applied arts, natural history, science and geology and, in those days, the Empire collections of the Imperial Institute. But, in addition, lay the enticing attraction of the Brompton Oratory. Outside St Joseph’s Hall, stood one of the most compelling pieces of public sculpture in London: Thomas Garner’s Classical, shell-headed monument of Portland stone to John Henry, Cardinal Newman. It was carved by L J Chaualliaud, a French portrait sculptor working for Farmer & Brindley, and erected in 1896, six years after Newman’s death. Seen from the top deck of a bus, one gazed into Newman’s far-seeing eyes, deeply set in a sensitive head, given definition by London soot. From the moment I saw it I wanted to know more about this poetic-looking, cassock-clad priest with fine features.

Newman’s Cause was opened in 1958. That pleased many, but I remember Fr Juvenal Matthews Cong. Orat. emphatically declaring that they had letters in the Brompton archives that conclusively would bring an end to this aspiration, and seemed rather pleased that they existed. Then, in 1962, came Meriol Trevor’s two big volumes on Newman in which the difficult relations between Newman and Fr Faber and the Birmingham and London Oratories are entertainingly recounted in detail. However excellently Ian Ker writes about Newman’s thought and writing, and Sheridan Gilley about the historical setting of his time, I believe that Meriol Trevor presents Newman the man as no other biographer.

When plans were being made to exhume Newman’s body at Rednal, the Birmingham Oratorians commissioned a well-detailed, Italian Classical sarcophagus of marble to contain his relics which would have stood in the north aisle of their church. It would have been a striking addition to Doran Webb’s Oratory. But the disintegration of Newman’s remains brought this aim to a conclusion. Ironically, Fr Faber’s body had also returned to dust; when his remains were exhumed at Sydenham in the 1950s all that was found was a pair of patent leather shoes.

Newman’s forthcoming beatification has led to some significant architectural commissions from the Oratorians. The London Oratory has commissioned a new chapel to be dedicated to him, designed by Russell Taylor. It is to be situated beneath the organ loft, in the south aisle, and replaces the Calvary chapel. The Oxford Oratory is to include a new chapel dedicated to Newman, designed by Anthony Delarue, as part of its long-term extension plans. In the meanwhile, a temporary shrine in the relic chapel in the south aisle is planned to coincide with the beatification, the main feature of which is a copy of the portrait of Newman by Walter Ouless at the Birmingham Oratory, contained in an elegant Classical aedicule. While in Birmingham, St Philip Neri’s chapel on the south side of the high altar is to be re-dedicated to Newman and contain his relics. These consist of a lock of hair, a drop of blood and secondary relics retrieved from his grave. A new floor is to be laid and the chapel re-decorated by the International Fine Art Conservation Studios (IFACS), of Bristol; a copy of Ouless’s portrait will replace one of St Philip above the altar. IFACS has also recently restored the relic chapel at Oxford.

What unifies these commissions is their Classical style of architecture. Taylor is one of the most distinguished Classical architects currently working and he has already refurnished St Joseph’s chapel at the west of the north aisle of the London Oratory. Delarue also uses the historic styles as a living architectural language and his subtle proposals for Oxford combine Roman Baroque elements, derived from Boromini, with English Classical, derived from Soane. IFACS is experienced in working in historical interiors, sacred and secular. In Birmingham the decoration of the Newman chapel will be in keeping with the church’s Baroque architecture, and retain existing and new decoration in the present setting. The overall effect will be buff and stone, decorated with stencilling and heraldic cartouches, and the conservation of surviving figurative panels by John Hungerford Pollen.

Taylor and Delarue are insistent that their work is not pastiche. Neither is trying to make it look as though it might have been designed in, say, the 18th century. People who criticise the use of the historic styles as pastiche only betray their own visual illiteracy. For the last 2,000 years all Classical architecture has relied upon precedent; architects have looked back from one age to another and taken elements from the language of their predecessors to enrich their own. In this way the principles of Classicism are developed as an expression of traditional design and these new works demonstrate the procedure.

The focus of the altar in Taylor’s chapel in London will be a copy in oils of Sir John Everett Millais’s portrait of Newman, currently hanging in Arundel Castle. It will be positioned in the centre of the reredos, divided by small Corinthian pilaster-shafts. These help resolve the portrait’s dimensions with the square space of the reredos. The mensa of the altar will be supported on paired volute consoles aligned with the reredos. These will give necessary vertical movement because the ceiling of the chapel is exceptionally low and the emphasis on a higher scale becomes necessary.

The gradine, or shelf, of the altar will be inscribed with Newman’s motto from his grave cross: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (“out of the shadows and images into truth”) and on the font of the altar, below the mensa, there will be Newman’s arms and his motto Cor ad cor loquitur (“heart speaks to heart”). The altar rails, returned at the sides, are in a baluster design and made of timber, with a pair of gates of wrought iron and brass in the centre. The furniture is to be executed in wood, and marble will only be used for the mensa and altar steps.

The walls and ceiling of the chapel will be painted light stone. But the altarpiece and rails will be marbleised in scagliola and their colours have been chosen to enhance Millais’s portrait. Imitation marble has been known since Antiquity and was much used in the 17th century and 18th century for columns and pilaster-shafts. It has had 500 years of continuous use and is a proper material, Taylor insists, in its own right; he used it successfully in St Joseph’s chapel. The reredos and rails will have simulated Italian marble panels of black and gold (Pororo); white and light pink (Calacata Borghini); dull yellow (Travertino Dorato); while the flanking walls will be decorated with red (Travertino Rosso). The glare coming from the two side windows will be reduced by trellis screens that will diffuse the light and enable the chapel to be read as a whole.

These Oratorian works are emblematic of Catholic architectural patronage at its most enlightened and provide a model of how to set about commissioning new work in historic churches. But, above all, they will delight the eye because they are beautiful and no better acknowledgment of Newman’s beatification and memory may be found than that.

  • http://gyronny.wordpress.com/ Michael Carchrie Campbell

    Looking forward to seeing the new chapels, the work completed in the Oxford Oratory on the relic chapel is fantastic.