St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham
Jai Khanna K1607633
There is an extraordinary number of Anglican churches in England. These churches are organised into geographical areas called Dioceses. The Church of England in Birmingham is one of the 42 Dioceses of England. There are approximately 78 million Anglicans worldwide, and each Anglican parish church across the world will look different, but hold the same core beliefs.
St Philip’s was built between 1709-1715 to Thomas Archer’s design since the existing church of St Martin in the Bullring could not house the congregations due to the growing population of Birmingham. St Philip’s Church is a building of national importance, and it was built in a modest 18th-century town. It is small for a cathedral as it is only one hundred and fifty feet long. St Philip’s Church is one of the earliest English town churches of the 18th century with,”a most subtle example of the elusive English Baroque.” Alexandra Wedgwood. (Lookingatbuildings.org.uk, 2018)
During the 17th and early 18th century Europe, the Baroque style of architecture was at its peak. It developed the classical architecture of the Renaissance to greater extravagance and drama. The most apparent Baroque architectural innovation was the use of curves and symmetrical irregularity. Italian architecture refers to the Baroque architecture in Italy, and it is mostly found in Rome, Naples, Sicily, Turin, Milan, Venice, Genoa.
Thomas Archer was a local man, whose brother, Andrew owned Umberslade Hall in Warwickshire. Thomas was also the only English architect of the generation after Wren who knew Italian Baroque at first hand. (Lookingatbuildings.org.uk, 2018)
In this dissertation, I will be focusing on the history of the St Philip’s Church in Birmingham, the Baroque style that influenced Archer’s design of the church and the new additions and changes that were made to the church over the years.
What is Baroque ?
The term Baroque, was probably derived from the Italian word ‘Barocco’, which was vastly used during the middle ages by philosophers to describe an obstacle in simple logic. Another possible source is the Portuguese word ‘barroco’, which was used to describe an irregular or imperfectly shaped pearl, and it is still used in the jeweller’s term baroque pearl. In artistic criticism, the word ‘Baroque’ came to be used to describe anything irregular, bizarre, or otherwise departing from established rules and proportions. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018)
Baroque is not a word of great renown in England. the word ‘Baroque’ is given adjective and noun in the dictionary, irregulars shaped, grotesque, whimsical A few qualities of the baroque are most frequently associated with grandeur and visual art. A few well-known examples of Baroque art around the world can be seen in The Place of Versailles and the St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The San Carlo all Quattro Fontane in Rome is one of the finest examples of Baroque Architecture. Distorted shapes and vibrant art prompted eighteenth century critics to adopt the word ‘baroque’. The Italian architects who pioneered this style were Cortona, Bernini and Borromini; their results were dynamic, theatrical and whimsical. Soon after, the baroque style spread across from Papal Rome to the greater part of Europe, including Protestant England, where it sporadically occupied a period of seventy years. (Kenyon, 1948)
The Architectural aspect and the introduction of Baroque in England
Some critics termed ‘Baroque’ as a universal category and see it in numerous varieties and shades whereas some critics like to limit the application of the word to one specific generation and a handful of pioneers. Interestingly, England offers a paradoxical case to the term ‘Baroque’ as it seems to fit to a nicety in terms of literature and artistically in which baroque characteristics appear only late and briefly and are almost exclusively confined to a few practitioners within in a tradition. According to Nikolaus Pevsner, there is something amiss from English art – the vigour, the boldness, and that excess that artists like Michelangelo, Grunewald, and El Greco had. The English landscape blends into the atmosphere but the English artist lacks the sense of the third dimension. Even architecture, the art in which the English have achieved great distinction because of its rational and utilitarian aspect is still two dimensional in England. (Praz, 1964)
The German critic, Dagobert Frey anticipated Pevsner’s idea of such bi-dimensionality in a volume that was published during wartime and hence it did not get much recognition or importance.
The English had a linear and flat sense of space. A good example that showcases this is the Lincoln Cathedral as the surface is decorated with a running motif of little arches. The most original architecture that England had produced was the Perpendicular and the Palladian was the other architectural style that flourished in England. If both, the Perpendicular and the Palladian are compared, they both bare a high resemblance. Delicately made patterned gratings on the surface, smoothness, softness and delicacy are the foundations of English art. One can find them in different figures such as Gainsborough and Burne-Jones.
Favourable conditions for the flourishment of baroque art in England were virtually non- existent. The English Baroque School lasted merely for a generation and was the creation of two very gifted and skilled artists, Nicholas Hawkesmoor (1661-1736) and Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) whose individual contributions are not ascertained as they were close associates and they also drew inspiration from the same sources. The English Baroque period lasted only for a brief time from 1692-1725, not only producing buildings and palaces but also a quantity of London Churches during the time of Queen Anne and George I. The Baroque period was nothing but an episode which was in a way, a magnificent delusion in the course of history of English Art.(Praz, 1964)
Sir John Vanbrugh was of Flemish origin, the son of a Flemish refugee from Ghent. At first, Vanbrugh was a soldier, a playwright and then without any thought or lecture he went on to design Castle Howard for the Earl of Carlisle and became an architect. He had a good sense of masses and the three dimensions, characteristics or perhaps traits that were alien rot the English art, which one could debate came to him due to his Flemish origin. John Vanbrugh’s masterpiece, Blenheim Palace which is located in Woodstock, Oxfordshire outlines against the sky with arched attics. The idea can be traced back to one of Perrault’s plates, a little known Roman ruin in Bordeaux. The pinnacles of the palace are in the shape of rigidly boastful globes which crown the corners of the pavilion. In order to achieve the full effect, the building only lacks the warm colour of the Roman Travertine. Vanbrugh introduced some bizarre medieval elements to his buildings, which he was influenced to do so by the scenery of the Italian stage. In 1717, he built himself a country house in Greenwich, which was a chatalet made by using bricks and had round towers which he liked to compare to Bastille.
The same qualities also appeared in another building in England that was designed by Sir Christopher Wren but executed by Nicholas Hawkesmoor, Sir John Moore’s writing school at Christ’s Hospital, London (1692-1693). There was a radical change in the buildings from the traditional English tradition that existed during the time of Inigo Jones. Sir Christopher Wren introduced that classical orders but only used them in the surface as a play of elements and as a deliberate curtain used to control and if need be, to camouflage the bare structure of the building. Wren had little feelings for the pure relation of one volume to another as his heart was in the motifs and not the planes on the which the motifs were deployed.(Praz, 1964)
However, the design of the Writing School showed a clear change in the mood, even though it was a simple design, it shows a massive stability that was achieved by a calculated and careful balance of voids, cavities and solids. There was a continuation of the cornices of the pavilion all along the facades of the main block and the arrangement of broad vertical pilaster strips at every angle of the block.
Thomas Archer’s Journey
Thomas Archer (1668-1743) famously known as an English Baroque Architect, who designed the St Philip Church in Birmingham. Thomas Archer spent his youth at Umberslade Hall in Warwickshire. He attended Trinity College, Oxford, and matriculated on 12 June 1686, after which he went on to travel Europe for four years. During his time in Europe, he visited Italy, where he was influenced by the works of Borromini and Bernini.
Thomas Archer is one of the architects who was regarded as a pupil of Sir John Vanbrugh, but the nature of this relation is difficile to determine. Nicholas Hawkesmoor and William Wakefield, Vanbrugh’s other followers had worked as his subordinates beside him. The Blenheim Palace, Vanbrugh’s masterpiece as mentioned earlier was the joined work of Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawkesmoor, and Vanbrugh and William Wakefield had worked together to design Duncombe Park, the stately home of the Duncombe Family in Helmsley, North Yorkshire.
Thomas Archer seems to belong to the same world as his master, Sir John Vanbrugh, as his family were of some consideration in Warwickshire as his father was a member of Parliament for the country during the time of Charles II. At one point, Thomas Archer himself held the position of Groom Porter, an official whose duties were to regulate gambling about the court., and it seems that he came under Sir John Vanbrugh’s influence as a friend or acquaintance rather than any other professional association. He went on to work at Chatsworth later on and out of the small group of English Baroque architects he was the only one who had first hand contact or experience with the work of great Roman Baroque architects such as Francesco Borromini and Gian Lorenzo Bernini during his journey across Europe after matriculating from Trinity College. Archer drew inspiration from Bernini’s Louvre and Palazzo Odescalchi for his design for Heythrop, which was his first project as an architect. (Archer, G.Webb)
Criticism of Archer’s first project
Horace Walpole, in Anectodes of Painting, says something interesting about Thomas Archer and William Wakefield: “each of whom seemed to think that Vanbrugh had delivered the art from shackles; and that they might build whatever seemed good in their in own eyes”
There is a good justification in such criticism in Archer’s first known building, Heythrop which was completed in 1705. The initial design for the building was uninspired but the house did have a certain impressive solidity, yet some of the details of the house are reprehensible, such as the “lugged” mouldings around the windows of the ground floor. However, the worse design flaw is the feature window which is adorned with a broken pediment. The two halves of the broken pediment have been everted and sprout like horns from above the window. There is no sign of the boldness and freedom of the design in the masses, which was Vanbrugh’s real contribution to the architecture of his time. Although the boldness and freedom of the design can be found together with more personal tricks of his style in Archer’s later work, there is solely nothing eccentric about the details at Heythrop and even though it was built around the same time as the Blenheim Palace, there is hardly anything that suggests that there was any influence from Vanbrugh in the design of the house. (Archer, G.Webb)