Book Review: English Victorian Churches by James Stevens Curl

Book Review: OHCT Trustee, Professor Malcolm Airs, welcomes a stimulating new book by James Stevens Curl on English Victorian Churches 

In his preface, Curl sets out his objectives as ‘a desire to show how rich is England’s 19th-century church architecture: to describe its various styles: and to give a flavour of the backgrounds that prompted its designs and realisations’. He seeks to appeal to a general readership and succeeds magnificently. Although the title refers to the reign of Queen Victoria, his wide-ranging survey takes the reader back to the Gothic Survival after the Reformation and on to the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement in the decades before World War I. In the process, he demonstrates an admirable mastery of the written sources and gives a perceptive account of the essential background to the revival of Gothic religious architecture in its many manifestations. There is an extensive analysis of the theological and liturgical disputes that raged within the church throughout the nineteenth century and due acknowledgement of the social and economic factors such as the Industrial Revolution and the population growth in the major cities throughout England which resulted in so many new churches being commissioned.

The importance of Oxbridge was crucial. Not just because of the theological implications of the Oxford Movement and the activism of the Oxford Society for Promoting the Study of Gothic Architecture (now the Oxford Architectural and Historical Society) and the Cambridge Camden Society (later the Ecclesiological Society), but also for the educational background of most of the wealthy patrons who funded many of the new churches. Churches that enable the author to convincingly describe it as ‘one of the most creative periods in English architectural history’. Curl’s passionate enthusiasm for the numerous examples that he chooses to describe in support of this claim is complemented by the striking colour photographs which are beautifully reproduces throughout the book. Many of them were taken by Geoff Brandwood who sadly died before it was published. His exceptional contribution is fully acknowledged in the dedication.

The book can be highly recommended to members of the Trust. Although it is underpinned by exceptional scholarship, it is also enlivened at regular intervals by the author’s own prejudices against what he sees as regrettable trends in the modern world and his antipathy to some of the opinions expressed by Pevsner. It should be acknowledged that some of these interventions can either amuse or irritate the reader but the lasting impression is a recognition of the stimulating beauty of the Victorian church and a comprehensive account of the context and the individual contributions by the architects who helped to create it. Oxfordshire is well represented amongst the churches that are examined. In the city, itself the importance of Blomfield’s St Barnabas, Butterfield’s Keble and Scott’s Exeter College chapel is acknowledged and they are all illustrated, whilst in the county it is the churches by Street at Wheatley, Scott at Leafield and Pearson at Freeland that are celebrated. The emphasis is on new churches with only a short epilogue on the impact of the wholesale restorations carried out during the Victorian period on medieval churches. That in itself could be the subject of another book on its own.

English Victorian Churches: Architecture, Faith, & Revival , James Stevens Curl

(John Hudson Publishing, October 2022) 222 pages, copious colour illustrations,

ISBN , 9781739822934 ,  hardcover, £50.

OHCT readers can obtain the book at the discounted price of £35 when ordering online through the Boydell & Brewer website.

Simply enter the following code BB141 when placing your order.

This code is valid until August 31, 2023.

Testing a popup