Magazine article History Today

Westminster's Roman Candle

Magazine article History Today

Westminster's Roman Candle

Article excerpt

* In 1853, in what Cardinal Newman called the 'second springtime' of English Catholic life, the idea of a cathedral in London began to germinate in the minds of Catholics. But more than forty years elapsed before the foundation stone was laid by Cardinal Herbert Vaughan on June 29th, 1895, and a vast basilica in an Italianate-Byzantine style began to rise behind a row of houses in Victoria Street. Immediately it invited criticism and derision.

Today, when architecture is better understood, Westminster Cathedral, or 'Cardinal Vaughan's Railway Station' as it was once dubbed, is an accepted, even admired feature of the London scene. The completion of such a large and complex cathedral in so short a space of time - a mere seven years - is considered remarkable, and as part of the centenary celebrations visitors to Westminster will be able to see how it was achieved. The plans and drawings, the huge scale model one of only three large architectural models in Britain) and the cathedral's treasures go on show in the newly-restored Cathedral Hall from July 2nd to October 15th in an exhibition that traces the history of the building from its inception to the present day.

A hundred years after the controversy, it is easy to under-estimate Cardinal Vaughan's achievement. Almost 300 years of suppression had come to an end with the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 and English Catholics, free to worship again, sought a visible expression of their faith in London. Vaughan's predecessor, Henry Manning, commissioned the architect Henry Clutton to draw up plans for a Gothic cathedral in 1867. The style, Manning felt, would not offend Protestants who feared an Italian or Roman church in central London. When the drawings were made public, the Morning Post assured its readers that 'Good taste has prevailed over all foreign influences'.

Inevitably, money was a problem. Clutton had put forward a number of plans for a cathedral in the tradition of Notre Dame or Cologne but Manning said he could not leave 20,000 children without education and drain my friends to pile up bricks and stone'.

Apart from buying land on which to build the cathedral, little progress was made until 1882 when Sir Tatton Sykes, an eccentric Yorkshire sportsman, offered a large sum to finance the building. He imposed conditions. He wanted a Gothic extravaganza and requested that Baron Heinrich von Ferstel, designer of the new Votivekirche in Vienna, should replace the unfortunate Clutton. Somewhat churlishly, since Clutton had received expenses only but no fee for his six years of work, Manning agreed. But before the plans were finalised, the baron died and his son, also an architect, was not interested in fulfilling the commission.

When Herbert Vaughan came to the diocese of Westminster in 1892 he resolved to see the fabric of the cathedral completed in his lifetime. The interior decoration, he felt, could be left to future generations. Before selecting a designer, he sought the advice of a number of leading architects. Their choice concurred with his and John Francis Bentley, a Doncaster-born convert to Catholicism who had worked in Clutton's office, was nominated.

Vaughan, who did not want the new cathedral to compete with Westminster Abbey, stipulated an Italianate style. …

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