Thursday 10 June 2021

Two Cathedrals

 There was an excellent documentary on BBC4 last night that told the story of the redesign and rebuilding of Coventry cathedral after German bombs had reduced much of the ancient structure to rubble. Several things were striking about this trip back in time to the postwar world, among them the astonishingly high quality of (most of) the commissioned artworks, and the equally high quality of Kenneth Clark's intelligent and critical response to the new cathedral. Filming his own documentary about the then new building, he asked real, searching questions of the architect, Basil Spence, and had certainly not hung his critical faculties up at the door, being clear about what he thought worked and what he thought did not. This was very refreshing, especially as we tend to caricature the postwar period as one of unquestioning deference (and Lord Clark of Civilisation as a presenter sauntering into view and asking only 'What could be more agreeable...?')
  Watching the BBC4 film put me in mind of another new cathedral, less grand and less iconic, which was consecrated a year earlier (in 1961) in my home county. Guildford cathedral had a long gestation – 25 years – and a troubled one, beset as it was by financial problems and various controversies, including a pretty basic one about the style of the building. At Coventry, Spence, in keeping with the spirit of the time, had turned his back on Gothic and created an unmistakably modern building. At Guildford, however, the Gothic style had one of its late triumphs. Edward Maule's building is in a plain, pared-down Gothic idiom, in keeping with the architect's aim to 'produce a design, definitely of our time, yet in the line of the great English cathedrals, to build anew on tradition, to rely on proportion, mass, volume and line rather than on elaboration and ornament'. A fine statement of intent, and one that Maule kept to, producing a noble building with airy, numinous interior spaces. 
  I remember the latter stages of the building of Guildford cathedral, when we would take family trips to see how it was getting on. And I remember a brilliant fund-raising scheme that was launched to raise money to finish the building – 'Buy a Brick'. For half a crown in the old money (equivalent to a fiver or so today), anyone could buy a brick and sign their name, or someone else's, on it. More than 200,000 people bought a brick, making a huge contribution to the cathedral's seriously limited building budget. 
  What I did not know at the time was that the project had been saved years before, in 1947, when a former Canadian prime minister, R.B. Bennett, the 1st Viscount Bennett, bought much of the land intended for the cathedral's site on Stag Hill and donated it to the diocese, as a memorial to the sacrifice of his fellow Canadians in the two world wars. Bennett had retired to Mickleham in Surrey after his Canadian political career, which coincided with the Great Depression, had ended in failure. The fine building that stands on Stag Hill is his best memorial, and a worthy one to the extraordinary sacrifice made by Canada in the world wars.

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