Posthumous glory: John Francis Bentley

Words:
Hugh Pearman

The architect did not live to see his masterwork Westminster Cathedral completed, or his Royal Gold Medal nomination confirmed

Westminster Cathedral – the Bentley masterwork photographed in 1995 after cleaning.
Westminster Cathedral – the Bentley masterwork photographed in 1995 after cleaning. Credit: Janet Hall/RIBA Collections

Royal Gold Medal nomination 1902
Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral, 1903

There is a particularly evocative scene in Arnold Bennett’s 1916 novel The Roll Call, which follows the career of ambitious young architect George Cannon. It is the turn of the 20th century and one evening George has decided to visit the nearly completed Westminster Roman Catholic cathedral. 

‘Suddenly, out of Victoria Street, they came up against the vast form of the Byzantine cathedral. It was hemmed in by puny six-storey blocks of flats, as ancient cathedrals also are hemmed in by the dwellings of townsfolk. But here, instead of the houses having gathered about the cathedral, the cathedral had excavated a place for itself amid the houses. Tier above tier the expensively curtained windows of dark drawing rooms and bedrooms inhabited by thousands of the well-to-do blinked up at the colossal symbol that dwarfed them all.

‘Immense without, the cathedral seemed still more immense within… They gazed, more and more aware of a solemn miracle. ‘“It’s marvellous – marvellous!” he breathed.’ 

But it gets more marvellous still because the architect himself, John Francis Bentley (1839-1902), appears as if in a vision: ‘On the highest floor, at the other extremity of the cathedral, in front of the apse, a figure had appeared in a frock-coat and a silk hat. The figure stood solitary, gazing around in the dying light. ‘“By Jove! It’s Bentley! It’s the architect!”

‘George literally trembled. He literally gave a sob. The vision of Bentley within his masterpiece… was too much for him. Renewed ambition rushed through him in electric currents. All was not wrong with the world of architecture. Bentley had succeeded. Bentley, beginning life as an artisan, had succeeded triumphantly. And here he stood on the throne of his triumph. Genius would not be denied. Beauty would conquer despite everything. What completed the unbearable grandeur of the scene was that Bentley had cancer of the tongue, and was sentenced to death. Bentley’s friends knew it; the world of architecture knew it; Bentley knew it…’

 

The magnificent Piranesian interior of the cathedral photographed in 1953 by Reginald Hugo de Burgh Galwey.
The magnificent Piranesian interior of the cathedral photographed in 1953 by Reginald Hugo de Burgh Galwey. Credit: Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Collections

Indeed he did. Bentley worked right to the end – a letter from a friend recounts how he was still designing details the evening he suddenly died of paralytic convulsions in 1902, aged 63. The cathedral opened the following year, minus a great deal of the interior finishes that Bentley intended: its raw brick interior spaces however carry their own enormous, Piranesian power and controversy has always attended later work carried out inside. As is clear from Bennett’s novel, the story of Bentley and his culminating commission fascinated the public at the time: this was a great project carried out at the height of Britain’s imperial power and wealth. 

If you visit the foyer of the RIBA at 66 Portland Place today you will find his name carved into the wall, prominently separate from all the other Royal Gold Medallists. It reads: ‘John Francis Bentley was nominated for the award of the Royal Gold Medal in 1902 but died before the nomination could be confirmed.’ Indeed, that year the medal went to TE Colcutt so this is a unique example of two instances of this highest accolade being recorded for the same year. The one that does not officially count is, of course, the one that really does count.


More Royal Gold Medallists and other highlights of RIBAJ's 125 years here

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