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Sticking to his Gothic guns

09 January 2015

William Whyte on the work of an architect of whose personal life little is known

George Frederick Bodley and the Later Gothic Revival in Britain and America
Michael Hall
Yale £50
Church Times Bookshop £45 (Use code CT251 )

IT IS no exaggeration to say that historians of Victorian architecture have been awaiting this book for decades; for that is exactly how long it has taken to write. Michael Hall began research on Bodley in the 1980s, and by the 1990s there were rumours that he had started work on a full-scale biography. Now, here it is, a study on a monumental scale: 24 chapters, 300 illustrations, 500 pages, many thousands of words - a book so large that is almost impossible to hold, let alone read, in comfort.

Non-specialists may well wonder whether all this effort was really worth it. George Frederick Bodley is scarcely a familiar name, even for those who take some interest in church buildings. A Gothic Revivalist through and through, he kept the faith long after many others had moved on, leading some contemporaries and many subsequent writers to see him as an irrelevant anachronism, lingering long after his architectural moment - and any real originality - had passed.

Any doubts about Bodley should be silenced by this impeccable piece of scholarship. Hall has amassed a huge amount of material to show just how significant - and how original - he actually was. This was the man behind a series of strikingly beautiful churches: St Augustine's, Pendlebury; Holy Angels', Hoar Cross; All Saints', Cambridge; as well as the original architect of the National Cathedral, Washington, DC. Whenever the Archbishop of Canterbury addresses the nation from his cathedral, too, he does so in a pulpit designed by Bodley.

The architect himself left behind few personal papers and, aside from a book of terrible verse, which Hall very wisely avoids, gave little public expression of his inner life. Beyond occasional speculations about his sexuality - and that of his clients, many of whom were gay - this book is not able to shed much light on Bodley the man. Instead, it most brilliantly illuminates the world in which he worked: a world of High Churchmen, newly interested in ritual and ceremonial; a world of ambitious architects, filled with all the excitement of the Gothic Revival; a world of builders and master-craftsmen, using the latest technologies to recreate the lost beauties of medieval art and architecture.

The book is, as a result, a treat for specialists as well as a revelation for those new to the subject. Broadly chronological, it recreates this now-lost world in an almost sedimentary manner. Layer upon layer of analysis, with each chapter consisting of a series of more-or-less connected sections, slowly but surely build up into the most marvellous evocation of a time and place. It's the sort of book that could only have been written over many years - and it's all the better for it.

This, then, is indisputably the standard work on its subject: not just Bodley, but also the late-19th-century Gothic Revival that he was so instrumental in shaping. Architectural historians will love it. It should also be read - and read with enjoyment - by anyone interested in the people who built some of our most intriguing churches.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow and Tutor of St John's College, Oxford and Professor of Social and Architec- tural History in the University of Oxford.

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