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Imperial Gothic: Religious Architecture and High Anglican Culture in the British Empire, 1840–70
by g. a. bremner
yale, 364 pages, $95

Over the course of a few years in the 1840s, the colonial architecture of high-church Anglicanism progressed from timorous neo-gothic copyism to uninhibited invention. The results could be staggering: for example, the mission church at Otaki, New Zealand (1848–54), a Gothic-Maori hybrid that hoisted its roof on three massive tree trunks and decked out its walls with woven Maori panels and hammerhead shark motifs. It is as complete an example of architectural syncretism as one can hope to find. And yet just a few years earlier, Anglican missionaries had been making timid facsimiles of thirteenth-century Gothic churches, copied nervously line for line and molding for molding. How this came to pass, not only in New Zealand but throughout the British Empire, is the subject of G. A. Bremner’s superb Imperial Gothic, the first comprehensive study of the missionary and colonial policy of the Anglican Church and how it expressed itself in church-building during the Victorian era.

A great wave of colonial church-building was unleashed in 1841 with the creation of the Colonial Bishoprics Fund, established to help support new colonial bishoprics. Prior to this, the overseas hierarchy of the Anglican Church was loose and undeveloped. Colonial churches were nominally under the aegis of the bishop of London, and not until after the American Revolution were any overseas dioceses established (in part because of fears that other denominations might be offended). The Colonial Bishoprics Fund changed this in short order. There followed eleven new dioceses, beginning with New Zealand (1841); then Antigua, Guiana, Tasmania, and Gibraltar (1842); Colombo and New Brunswick, Canada (1845); and Cape Town, Adelaide, Melbourne, and New South Wales (1847). Within scarcely half a decade, the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Anglican Church was transformed from an insular to a global enterprise.

Had the fund been founded at another moment, even a few years earlier, its architectural legacy would have been less distinguished. But in the early 1840s, architecture had become what it had never been before, a subject of high moral urgency. In his celebrated treatise The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841), A. W. N. Pugin made the novel claim that buildings ought to be judged by their intrinsic truthfulness—such as their honest use of materials—rather than by their beauty, and that Gothic architecture alone met this demand. Although Pugin was a convert to Roman Catholicism, the Catholic clergy (including fellow convert Cardinal Newman) were leery of Gothic Revival enthusiasm. Pugin found a far more receptive audience among the followers of the Anglican members of the Oxford Movement, those “Oxbridge-educated men of High Church persuasion, many of whom were naturally sympathetic to the formal expression of Anglican spirituality and worship,” as Bremner describes the new colonial bishops. And so, carrying this intoxicating mix of Tractarian ideas about ritual and Puginian ideas about construction, they sailed off to their distant colonial stations.

Their encounter with reality was curt and distressing. The prospects for enlightened patronage in the colonies were dismal: appallingly limited means, a near-total lack of trained architects and artisans, inadequate building materials (it seems to have come as a surprise that the mighty oak roof trusses of England’s Gothic churches actually require an oak forest), and climates far less benign than that of England. In some cases, the newly minted bishops picked up T-square and pen to design their own modest but plucky churches, as Bishop Broughton of Australia repeatedly did. Bishop Gray of Cape Town entrusted his wife with the task. Sophy Gray, whom he called the “architect to the diocese,” built numerous stone churches across South Africa, each of them a competent and intelligent performance, rendered in her own charming watercolor sketches.

In order to assist the struggling colonial bishoprics, the Ecclesiological Society—the architectural arm of the Oxford Movement—sent along measured drawings of approved Gothic churches to use as models. All were in what the architect George ­Gilbert Scott ironically called “the sacred Middle Pointed”—the style that high-church orthodoxy deemed the most perfect moment in the evolution of the Gothic. A favorite model was St. ­Michael’s, Longstanton, Cambridgeshire, one of the most attractive of thirteenth-century rural parish churches. Its paraphrases can be found everywhere, from Cape Town to Tasmania to the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Pugin may have intended his “true principles” to justify Gothic architecture, but principles, having a life of their own, can be applied freely to any subject or problem. The most fascinating examples in Imperial Gothic are not the literal facsimiles of English churches but those that fought to maintain structural honesty while responding imaginatively to the local determinants of climate, materials, and culture. In the beginning, patrons adapted by building in the “rather simple yet solid Norman,” as Bishop Selwyn of New Zealand did, not only because it was cheaper but because it suggested an earlier stage in the historical process of ­Christianization:

Building in such a ‘primitive’ style drew a parallel with the endeavours of the early Church fathers, such as Augustine of Canterbury in the 6th century. It must be remembered that New Zealand was perceived by many as an antipodean equivalent of the British Isles and Selwyn as a nineteenth-century incarnation of Augustine.

But some demands cannot be met by ransacking history, however cleverly, and the first of these was climate. To build a Gothic church in the tropics was to try to reconcile opposites: thick walls to screen out every ray of the sun, but generous openings to permit the free flow of air. As a test case, the Ecclesiological Society sponsored a project for a cathedral in Colombo, Ceylon. This was in 1846, by which time the society had sufficiently relaxed its Middle Pointed orthodoxy to permit the wrapping of the cathedral in a continuous sheltering veranda, disguised as an open Gothic cloister. Never realized, this strange waddling hulk showed the inherent difficulty of making what Bremner calls a “torrid Gothic” building. Subsequent architects abandoned the veranda motif to experiment with “speluncar,” or cave-like, designs, on the principle that thick walls acted to moderate extreme temperatures. (For this reason, rather paradoxically, speluncar architecture was also endorsed for the “hyperborean climate” of ­Newfoundland.)

Even more powerful than climate was culture, and the most fascinating of all colonial cathedrals, Christ Church, Stone Town (1873–80), grew out of a bracing encounter with the confident culture of Muslim Zanzibar. Its boxy crenellated form, minaret-like tower, and vaguely “Arabic” ornament all gave it a character closer to that of a mosque than of a church, a deliberate consideration in a locale in which the Christian population was a beleaguered minority. Even more remarkable was the use of a separated entry area to permit curious Muslims to observe Christian worship without participating in it. Bremner shows that the narthex, that long-defunct ­architectural feature, was revived in many mission ­churches in Africa where it served precisely the same function as it had in the early Christian Church, to separate the believers from the multitudes of those not yet initiated.

A talented amateur working from a pattern book might design and build a simple parish church, but for something as structurally complex as a cathedral, one needs a professional. The great cathedrals that followed in the 1860s were invariably the work of the leading architects of London. George Gilbert Scott designed cathedrals for Calcutta (1861), Christ Church, New Zealand (1863), and Shanghai (1866); William ­Butterfield for Adelaide (1868) and Melbourne (1880); and William ­Burges for ­Brisbane (1860). Designed at a great remove and realized (invariably on a reduced scale) by local architects, these projects show the remarkable consistency of approach—speluncar brawniness, self-conscious colonial simplicity, and attention to the ­historical development of both architecture and Christianity—that had become the quasi-official colonial Gothic ­language.

Imperial Gothic is architectural history at its best, a humane, brilliantly researched, and gracefully written account of an extraordinarily complex chapter in the history of ideas. It is also uncommonly well illustrated, and to look at its handsome illustrations of mission chapels and cathedrals—scattered across six continents—is to realize that this is one of the earliest manifestations of a truly global architecture. Only the Jesuits came earlier, but their solution was to apply the Roman model worldwide, as closely as possible and wherever they found themselves. According to Evonne Levy’s Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque, every Jesuit house received an engraving and description of the Chapel of St. Ignatius (at least 2,500 were printed). Here was none of the elastic understanding of architecture as an art of abstract principles—principles of climate, materials, historical custom, or usage—that made Anglican churches so alert and responsive to local conditions.

In the end, strangely enough, it is those early underfunded and inventive churches on the outer periphery of the Empire, made by gifted amateurs on shoestring budgets, that illustrate most poignantly the paradox of muscular Victorian Christianity: its self-confident, distinctly nationalistic insularity, and the endless reserves of goodwill, cultural curiosity, and strange modern restlessness that underpinned its mission to the world.  

Michael J. Lewis is Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art History at Williams College.