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The resurrection of Dykes Bower

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Stephen Dykes Bower battled ambitious colleagues and changing public tastes to redefine and restore our most cherished churches, writes Gavin Stamp

It is cheering that, in the admirable series of books on Twentieth Century Architects published by the RIBA in association with the Twentieth Century Society, the preponderance of Modernists is to some extent balanced by monographs on some of the traditionalist architects who practised in the post-war years. They did so despite widespread and sometimes vicious opposition from a Modernist establishment not prepared to tolerate deviation from the party line. And of none was this more true than of Stephen Dykes Bower (1903-94). Indeed, to some extent Anthony Symondson’s book reads as a tragedy.

This may seem surprising given that Dykes Bower was responsible for successful and widely known interventions to London’s two greatest churches. As surveyor of Westminster Abbey, he designed the bright and ordered appearance of the present interior, while to St Paul’s Cathedral he brought the magnificent high altar and baldacchino with the American chapel behind which replaced the reredos by Bodley & Garner damaged in the Blitz. These superbly crafted fittings show great sympathy for Wren. Mark Girouard’s view in 1960 that Dykes Bower’s work was a conspicuous exception ‘at a time when those who practice in the traditional styles all too often fail to bring credit to their profession’ remains true today.

But Dykes Bower’s unfashionable passion was for Gothic and he was precocious in his appreciation of the Gothic Revival. In a review of Kenneth Clark’s pioneering book on the subject published in 1928, he went so far as to praise the work of Gilbert Scott and his successors. After the war, much of Dykes Bower’s work consisted of the restoration and enhancement of Victorian churches, and it was his exemplary restoration of Bodley and Kempe’s painted decoration in St John’s Tuebrook, Liverpool, in the late 1960s (when most architects would have whitewashed it away) that first brought Symondson into contact with him. In consequence, this monograph is a happy product of the author’s long friendship with the subject. As he writes, ‘Gothic architecture in England has nearly died twice, once at the end of the Middle Ages and again in the 20th century. Dykes Bower’s career is a tale of the second decline of Gothic, following its rebirth in the 19th century… For decades, [he] stood completely alone as a worthy successor to the Victorian and Edwardian tradition into the late 20th century.’

Dykes Bower designed several new churches, of which the most inventive is the great brick basilica of St John in Newbury, Berkshire. Not that he strove for originality, least of all in his work refurnishing, reordering or enlarging existing churches that dominated his practice. He once wrote, ‘that more permanent satisfaction and interest would derive from work demonstrating that new work should look not different, but natural and harmonious; that gave the opportunity for the exercise of skills and craftsmanship not extinct but only neglected and under-used.’ What is sad is how much has since been spoiled by insensitive and/or doctrinaire clergy and architects. The worst case is Dykes Bower’s treatment of the Church of the Holy Spirit, Southsea, a noble hall-church by Micklethwaite bombed in the war that was, until recently, breathtakingly beautiful. Symondson writes, ‘No replanning… could have been more abrasive in its modernity and liturgical naivety or less sympathetic to a building characterised by taste, learning, refinement, and restraint.’

Then there were the rebuffs and attacks that occurred in the architect’s lifetime. At Sheffield Cathedral he was elbowed out by the ambitious George Pace (who, in the end, failed to build anything). At Cambridge, the model of Dykes Bower’s contentious traditional design for the project, eventually executed by Basil Spence, was stolen by undergraduates and he resigned. And at Westminster Abbey his distinguished career as surveyor was blighted by controversy over the replacement and destruction of medieval roof timbers (of which crime Symondson exculpates him) and over his (perhaps regrettable) proposal to lay down a marble floor in the nave, which was strenuously attacked by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, among others.

The principle example of doctrinaire malice concerns his proposals for St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. Appointed architect in 1945, Dykes Bower made John Wastell’s Perpendicular Gothic church of St James a cathedral by replacing Gilbert Scott’s chancel with a much longer choir. Among other proposed additions and changes, some executed in his lifetime, were cloisters, a north transept and, most conspicuously, a prominent crossing tower. When Dykes Bower died in 1994, he left more than £2 million towards carrying on the work at Bury. After much discussion and opposition from Suffolk grandees, the landmark tower went ahead, designed by his designated successor Warwick Pethers. This miracle of traditional construction and superb craftsmanship was completed in 2005 to general acclaim. Then the following year a new dean (since deceased) engineered Pethers’ dismissal and further work was carried out contrary to Dykes Bower’s intentions. According to Symondson, ‘None of these modifications were necessary, Dykes Bower would not have approved of them, and they diminish the cathedral’s interior as a unified whole.’

Legitimate criticisms may be made of Dykes Bower’s approach. His colouring could sometimes be gaudy and he had a high-handed lack of sympathy for the visual effect of time. But these pale into insignificance compared with the learned and refined appropriateness of such works as the completion of Lancing College Chapel or the choir of St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

Gavin Stamp is a writer, architectural historian and trustee of the Twentieth Century Society


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