So who was Ninian Comper?
Ninian Comper (1864-1960) was born in Scotland and like Pugin advocated the return to the Gothic style in architecture, deemed to be most suitable for churches and their furnishings. And far more suitable, so architects of the Gothic Revival held, for an English church than the classical design and style which had taken over as the default design from the 18th century. Gothic is associated with light and height, verticality, vaults, majesty and wonder.
Gothic was light and colour and brightness. By the time the classical had been absorbed into the English imagination, it was light and bright, white or cream. And the likes of Pugin and Comper sought to bring back the medieval approach to church interiors which was to colour and ornament everything, from the pillar to the capital, the arch to the arcade, the reredos and the rood screen to the chair.The likelihood is that screens and chairs were dazzling and sparkling, dancing with light and colour patterns and drenched in grandeur. So the likelihood is that if you visit a Comper church, you will see glistening enamel, jewel like designs. Yesterday I visited Wymondham Abbey in Norfolk for the first time and discovered his magnificent roodscreen which is actually more gold than colour. But it is there to impress and that it surely does.
So one of the most wonderful architectural surprises in London where you see his work is that of St. Cyprian’s Clarence Gate behind Baker Street. I shall write about this church in more depth at a later date. And likewise his paintings at the church of All Saints in Margaret Street. A notable ‘high church’ so its resplendent interior of paint, colour, gold and light is reflected in the type of service and liturgy where incense is smelt and Latin chant is heard.
We might also regard Comper as another type of William Morris, where not only was a building designed, but everything that goes with it – from wallpaper to candlestick, to book to chair. This can be seen in the Leslie Lindsey Chapel of Boston’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church where he designed the altar, altar screen, pulpit, lectern, statues and the windows. More anon.
There is a quality of reverence about this and all Comper’s churches which makes a materialist lower his voice and brings the agnostic to his knees.
John Betjeman, writing in 1939 about St. Cyprian’s.