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Goths and Heathens

GA Bremner’s beautifully illustrated tome presents colonial architecture as a symbol and mechanism for social identity

GA Bremner’s book, Imperial Gothic, won last year’s prestigious Alice Davis Hitchcock Award, which is presented annually by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. It’s a high-quality publication with the usual Yale flair for design and illustration, its sheer bulk is impressive at nearly 500 pages, and its tightly focused chapters lucidly reveal the global Gothic Revival over a brief but important span of Victorian decades.

This is, however, not what makes it a great book. Its real achievement is in its insistence that British architectural research must change if it is to truly revolutionise understandings of globalised modern cultures and their interaction. Showing how colonial architecture is both a ‘symbol and mechanism for societal identity’, Bremner’s intricate research uncovers dynamics of architectural design and religious patronage within the smallest outpost and the most ambitious of cathedrals. Sophy Gray, who designed over a hundred places of worship for South Africa in the Gothic style, and who collaborated with William Butterfield, rises to prominence in Bremner’s book alongside the students of the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art who worked on Henry Conybeare’s Afghan Memorial Church in Colaba, Mumbai. Thematic chapters ensure churches in India and Canada are on facing pages, and that both local and British architects are discussed with equal weight.


St Andrews Cathedral, Sydney, by Edward Becket

Though the text’s engagement with post-colonial theory is limited, Bremner alerts the reader to his motives, explaining that he set out to expose how architecture was bound up within complex social networks and agents that necessarily complicate a classic binary of coloniser/colonised. Bremner claims that critical theories of imperial legacy can be enriched by dedicated, specialised architectural research. ‘As cultural artefacts,’ Bremner asserts, ‘buildings have proven to be an effective means of exploring the limits of agency.’

The book comes in a long line of recent cultural histories of Victorian imperial practices, including Tim Barringer’s discussion of ‘colonial Gothic’ in Men at Work (2005), John Plotz’s exploration of empire and material culture in his 2008 book Portable Property, and Tapati Guha Thakurta’s recent study of art institutions in colonial and post-colonial India. Bremner adds to this scholarship with renewed interest in simultaneously focusing on Victorian theology and church-building campaigns. Putting architecture and Anglican experience centre stage in the rituals of empire, Bremner argues that what might be considered peripheral in well-rehearsed histories of British imperialism is often dominant, demonstrating this claim through a close investigation of ‘the spiritual and material vision of extending the English church abroad’.


St Michael’s Church, Longstanton, Cambridgeshire, identified as a ‘model’ for use in the colonies, by the Cambridge Camden Society

Through the ever-present influence of the Ecclesiological Society and their influential journal The Ecclesiologist, modern Gothic churches epitomising ‘chasteness, simplicity, solidity and permanence’ were erected in stone, timber and glass from Newfoundland to Allahabad. In some cases, prominent Victorian architects including George Edmund Street, George Frederick Bodley and George Gilbert Scott were commissioned to produce designs.

Collaborations between local and British designers and builders, as well as independent projects undertaken in colonies using pattern books, trade press, and imagination were also common strategies. Regardless of size, materials, populations or architectural sophistication, these churches were always places that declared the shape of a particularly Anglican holiness while establishing ideological loci for much more than religious activity. Wherever they were planted, the buildings and their altars were markers of imperial ambition and the tightly integrated missionary belief that British faith and territorial manifest destiny were symbiotic concepts.


St Thomas’s, Tamaki, near Aukland, by Sampson Campthorne

Bremner calls attention to the Ecclesiologists’ assertion that ‘if a church be of mud, it may still be a church’ by taking all forms of architectural labour equally seriously without losing a critical edge in his interpretations. The clergyman William Cotton’s use of a travelling tent-church in New Zealand is such a  case, and its implications resonate in contemporary architectural debate. On 30 July 1842, the Bishop of New Zealand wrote, ‘I pitched the Church tent, a most complete cathedral, with pulpit, reading desk, communion table, rails, kneeling boards, &c. It was fitted up with boards resting on trunks of small trees, let into the ground, which the natives cut for me. I thus provided seats for 200, which were well filled …’

Long after the tent was retired and GG Scott and BW Mountfort’s cathedral in Christ Church, New Zealand impressed the permanence and dignity of Anglicanism upon its local population in Gothic language, the 2011 earthquake that destabilised it beyond repair has given rise to a new sacred space in the city. Shigeru Ban’s disaster-relief solution is the much discussed and somewhat infamous Cardboard Cathedral. Over budget, late to open, and still controversial, its form does offer a temporary solution and helps to facilitate a hopeful future; more than that, however, its timber, glass and cardboard surfaces recall a foundational history of makeshift colonial Anglicanism.

Imperial Gothic: Religious Architecture and High Anglican Culture in the British Empire, c1840-1870

Author: GA Brember

Publisher: Yale University Press

Price: £50

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