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Book review: The Church Architecture of Richard Twentyman by Chris Kennedy

07 June 2024

William Whyte reads up on a Midlands architect

LIFE as an architect in mid-20th-century Britain was not, it seems, all work, work, work. Most days, Richard Twentyman ambled into his Wolverhampton office at 10.30 a.m. After a few hours in front of the drawing board, he headed off for a long lunch at the Conservative Club, returning at 3 p.m. to complete his day. He had time for bridge and tennis, reading and art. He loved fast cars, composed light verse, and liked a drink.

Despite these distractions, Twentyman manged somehow to produce a solid body of buildings. He was never a national — much less an international — name. Nor was his work strikingly original or profoundly avant-garde. But his career deserves further attention, not least because it tells us something about how modern architecture was understood and appreciated outside the world of the metropolitan elite. This richly researched and handsomely illustrated book does that job brilliantly.

It does so by focusing on Twentyman’s most characteristic and interesting projects: a small group of churches built in and around the West Midlands between 1937 and 1973. With their clever use of light and subtle deployment of art, each of these ten buildings is worthy of attention. Taken together, what they reveal is a creative architect whose career is a case study in keeping up with the times.

The authors identify three phases in his work. In the inter-war period, Twentyman followed fashion by employing brick to build substantial basilicas rather in the mode of Edward Maufe or Nugent Cachemille-Day. In the immediate aftermath of war, he switched to more modern materials and a still more modernist sensibility, following Basil Spence in his desire to create light and open churches. Finally, in the 1960s, Twentyman entered a consciously experimental phase, drawing on international models such as the architect Louis Kahn and contemporary debates about liturgical reform. At St Andrew’s, Runcorn, and St Andrew’s, Whitmor Reans, we find some of the most interesting churches of the 1960s.

© John EastAll Saints’, Darlaston, in Walsall, designed by Richard Twentyman, was dedicated in October 1952. From the book under review

Even an in-depth study such as this cannot tell the reader everything. It would have been nice to known how much these changes in approach reflected the work of Twentyman’s partners and assistants, for example. While he was enjoying a boozy lunch at the Conservative Club, were they actually doing the work? We also discover little about the parishes for which he built: what they hoped for and how they responded to what they actually got.

That is a project for someone else. In the mean time, we can enjoy this excellent book. There is still a snobbery about 20th-century churches and the work of provincial architects. Chris Kennedy and Aidan Ridyard have demonstrated just how foolish that attitude is. Twentyman may not have personified the Protestant work ethic, but he was no slouch, and his work amply repays revisiting.

One can only hope that other authors prove similarly willing to undertake research into equally neglected architects and correspondingly disregarded modern churches. From Walsall to Wolverhampton and from Rubery to Radford, there are real treasures to be discovered still.


The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

The Church Architecture of Richard Twentyman
Chris Kennedy
Forest of Arden Press £25

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