Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Buildings of nonconformity

Christopher Wakeling, Chapels of England: Buildings of Protestant nonconformity
Published by Historic England

The next of my short series of pre-Christmas reviews is of a book that plugs a major gap in English architectural history: a general account of Protestant chapels and meeting houses...

The architecture of England’s Protestant churches (from Methodists to Unitarians, Baptists to Quakers) has been a difficult subject to get to grips with. There has been plenty of research (the old Royal Commission on Historic Monuments saw to that) but there is such diversity of denominations and architectural approaches that it is hard to see patterns or get a sense of overall development. In addition, nonconformist churches, unlike so many Anglican churches, are not often open, so casual visitors rarely get inside them.

Christopher Wakeling’s new book does much to remedy this situation, giving a clear, wide-ranging, and nuanced account of dissenting architecture in England, from the beginnings to today. The book’s approach is chronological, and it shows that, from the very beginnings it was hard to generalise. The diversity is there from nonconformity’s roots in the 17th century, when one found some groups worshipping in former Catholic churches (dissolved monasteries and priories, for example; even Exeter Cathedral was divided in two and shared between Presbyterians and Independents) and others building simple, often domestic-looking places of worship for themselves.

In the period from the passing of the Toleration Act in 1689 to the mid-18th century, chapels start to become more architecturally assured, impressive, and distinctive. Given the general importance of the Bible and the sermon in nonconformity, it’s not surprising that Wakeling finds buildings influenced by the Georgian ‘preaching boxes’ of the Church of England. But his book also shows that the dissenters were much more adventurous with plan forms, especially towards the mid-18th century as the influence of preachers like John Wesley took hold – Chapels of England singles out some impressive octagonal and oval buildings.

Methodism’s great age of the late-18th and early-19th century has its own chapter, chronicling a time when rising populations and vigorous preaching led to many new chapels, including some outstanding large ones. Growth was especially strong in the Regency and early Victorian periods, by which time the first specialist architects of chapels, men like William Jenkins, James Fenton, and James Simpson, had emerged. Wakeling notes a variety of designs, with a trend towards Greek revival yielding in part to the rise of Gothic designs (the great classifier of Gothic styles, Thomas Rickman, was a Quaker). But the author is at pains to stress that it was not simply a question of the Gothic fashion taking over in the Victorian period: the picture was always one of stylistic diversity, within denominations and across the whole field. 

And so the story continues through the period of continued renewal in the later 19th century, when one could find monster Classical town chapels, tiny Gothic wayside chapels, and Gothic town chapels that looked like Medieval churches being erected at the same time. By the end of the century an Arts and Crafts influenced style had been added to the mix, especially in suburbs and Garden Cities. By the time of World War I, it was evident that many of these structures were major buildings, and nonconformist architecture was being taken seriously in books like Joseph Crouch’s Puritanism and Art

Christopher Wakeling’s fine book, lavishly illustrated, clearly written, and underpinned by deep research, brings the story up to date, with a good selection of 20th-century chapels in styles from expressionistic Gothic to modernist. It does an excellent job of bringing all these buildings and the religious motivation for constructing them to life, illustrating their best points, and delineating some sort of pattern to the complex story of nonconformist architecture, a story that is also one of heterodoxy and variety.

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