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Spiritual awakening

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Piety Proclaimed: An Introduction to Places of Worship in Victorian England By James Stevens Curl. Phillimore, 2002. 196pp

When James Stevens Curl wrote this, perhaps his most important book to date, no one had approached English Gothic Revival churches of the 19th century with the two essential qualifications for such a study.One was a personal Christian delight in how these churches were meant to function ritually. The other was the detached aesthetic judgement required to see that most of George Gilbert Scott senior's churches, and all those by A W Pugin, were mediocre in their interior spatial effects and exterior profiles; the best-known names were not the best designers.

As an Ulster-based, High Church Anglican, Curl can empathise with Tractarian, Roman Catholic and Nonconformist architectural aspirations, reserving his rare flashes of malice for Evangelicals and Nikolaus Pevsner.With a confident, though never superior, scholarship, Curl traces the complex political and spiritual tensions of the century.

Then, with 16 of Martin Charles' seductive colour plates of interiors all caught in a golden haze, and with monochrome illustrations of virtually every church discussed at any length, the text takes an exhilarating ride through the three main stages of the Revival.

These are first, Pugin and G G Scott's mistaken historicism; then the muscular Gothic of 'rogue' architects such as Butterfield, Burges, Teulon and Lamb; and lastly the architects working in an historicist, but developing Gothic: J L Pearson, Bodley, Garner, Giles Gilbert Scott, J A Hansom, Sedding and Comper. These last architects are Curl's heroes.

Pugin and G G Scott could not stand back from their models, the average medieval village church, to realise that they were structurally unsatisfying combinations of two ill-related skills: masonry and carpentry.

For the most part they were corridors of stone arches without the unifying feature of a stone vault, topped instead by two wooden slopes propped simplistically together at a high, rain-skidding pitch.

Treasures of glass, angel beams, sedilia and screen could enrich these but never make a spiritual whole. Pugin's St Giles, Cheadle, only breaks into beauty by a decorative richness of paint distracting from the commonplace spatial qualities imposed by its wooden roof.

Ideally, a Gothic church achieves the effect of a Byzantine dome by a central tower giving an overall unity outside as well as inside. English west towers are spatially irrelevant and in profile they distract from the chancel; few of them risk stone vaults. Most of G G Scott's churches are grandiose versions of that simple prototype.

Aware of being trapped in a bad native tradition by Pugin and the prolific but uninventive Scott, the 'rogue' architects tried to batter out a new form with exotic roof trusses, polychromatic masonry and German brick borrowings. Curl quotes Pevsner's praise for them as 'pioneers of design', and 'therefore, by some strange mental alchemy, being forerunners of Modernism'.

The third generation of Revival architects, led by Bodley and Pearson, went back to historicist forms, but then evolved spatially and decoratively within their restraints. Pearson developed the Early English or First Pointed; Bodley a subtle mixture of First with Second Pointed, or Decorated Gothic; Sedding and Comper worked more within an evolving Perpendicular. Liverpool Cathedral's Lady Chapel was the last perfect flowering of this third phase of the Revival, a Giles Gilbert Scott design done under Bodley's direction.

The first reaction to reading the book is to go hunting in the suburbs: to Manchester for Hansom's Holy Name of Jesus, to Liverpool for Bodley's St John, Tue Brook, and to Scarborough for his St Martinon-the-Hill; then off to London for any of 20 glorious interiors lucky enough to have survived the agnostic 20th century, seeing St Augustine, Paddington, Pearson's sublime complexity, if no other.

What is so admirable is Curl's masterly jettisoning of the entire pedantic apparatus of footnotes, the modern excuse for loose pretentious writing. All his wide learning is expressed precisely within the flow of his text, as it should be and could be in any integrated scholarly argument.

Timothy Mowl is an architectural historian.

Paperback editions of two previous books by Curl, Georgian Architecture (David & Charles, £16.99) and The Art & Architecture of Freemasonry (Batsford, £19.99) have just been published

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