The Norwood Society

Sir Ninian Comper

This book tells of the work, not only of one man, but of many with whom he shared his beliefs and talents. John Ninian Comper (the John was dropped in common use, probably because his father was also John Comper) was born in Aberdeen on 10th June 1964, but his accident of birth did not make him a Scotsman. His father came from Sussex and sought work as a schoolmaster, and ordination as a priest. His ambition had been to take holy orders in the Church of England, but at that time the Church of England insisted on an Oxford or Cambridge education, and so he was not qualified. The Scottish Episcopal Church imposed no such restriction, however, and so he was ordained a priest in that Church.

At around that time what was called the Oxford Movement within the Church of England was flourishing, and the Rev. John Comper became an enthusiastic supporter of its aims to re-introduce Catholic rites and practices into the Church, in effect to establish that the Church of England was a truly Catholic church, in spite of the Reformation and its effects. His son Ninian inherited his father's enthusiasm and commitment, and trained in art and architecture. This took him to Oxford and then to London, where he took up a four-year apprenticeship in the drawing-office of Bodley and Garner, regarded at the time as being the leading church architects of the day together with George Gilbert Scott Junior. He became particularly interested in the design of embroidery, and after completion of his apprenticeship set up as an architect in partnership with William Bucknall, whose sister he married. The family connection continued for a lifetime, with members of the family showing talent and becoming closely involved in Comper's growing success.

The book catalogue's Comper's (and Bucknall's) work over a long period, and this review can do no more than borrow from Anthony Symondson's preface. He said that Comper was able through his artistry to make credible and convincing a Catholic understanding of the architectural setting of Anglican worship. He believed that faith and beauty were complementary, one to the other, and that beautiful surroundings brought people to understand their faith. The Oxford Movement aimed at restoring much of the beauty of churches, both in terms of their architecture and their interiors, as well as encouraging Catholic ritual. Some, like his friend Betjeman (whose views were on occasions controversial) and even his opponent Pevsner, had eventually to concede that there was much beauty in Comper's work. Pevsner, very unusually, even found bound to recommend a visit to St Mary's Church, Wellingborough and made the comment 'It glistens and reveals and conceals to ones heart's delight'.

Comper, in spite of his Anglo-Catholicism and the conversion of some of those in the Oxford Movement to the Roman Catholic Church, remained staunchly Anglican, although he fused together many of the traditions and rites of both churches in his work. He did however make a notable contribution to Downside Abbey.

Some who read this comprehensive and well-researched book about Sir Ninian Comper may feel a need to have access to a dictionary - the reviewer admits to having to look up words like 'narthex' and 'gradine'. Others will be more knowledgeable.

Sir Ninian Comper
An introduction to his life and work with complete gazetteer. By Anthony Symondson SJ and Stephen Arthur Bucknall. Spire Books & the Ecclesiological Society. 2006.