Sir Ninian Comper

Sir Ninian Comper

Sir Ninian Comper and Scotland

Sir John Ninian Comper (1864-1960) was a Scottish-born architect. He was one of the last of the great Gothic Revival architects, noted for his churches and their furnishings. He is well known for his stained glass, his use of colour and his subtle integration of Classical and Gothic elements which he described as unity by inclusion.

John Ninian Comper was born in Aberdeen on 10th June 1864, the eldest of the five children born to the Reverend John Comper, Rector of St John's Episcopal Church, and his wife, Ellen, daughter of John Taylor, Merchant of Hull. John Comper was born in 1823 at Pulborough, Sussex, and came to Scotland in 1848 to teach at the newly-founded church school at Kirriemuir.

By the time John Comper came to teach at Kirriemuir he was already an adherent to the principles of the Oxford Movement. In 1849 he moved to St Margaret's College, Crieff, and was soon pursuing studies in preparation for ordination in the Episcopal Church in Scotland.

After completing his studies, Comper was ordained as a Deacon in 1850 and a Priest, the following year (1852), by the saintly Bishop Forbes of the Diocese of Brechin for Bishop Torry of the Diocese of St Andrew's. Bishop Forbes was a close friend of one of the leaders of Oxford Movement, Edward Pusey, and was himself to suffer later at the hands of the Movement's enemies on the subject of Eucharistic Doctrine.

The Rev John Comper came to the Highlands of Scotland at the request of Bishop Robert Eden in 1853 to work on the Black Isle, north of Inverness. He also established a congregation at Nairn and a mission in Inverness that would later become St Andrew's Cathedral. In 1857 he moved to Brechin Diocese under Bishop Forbes to be incumbent of Stonehaven where he remained until 1861 when he became incumbent of St John's Aberdeen.

He soon realised that the poorer quarters of the city of Aberdeen were hardly being reached by the Church, and he felt called to respond. He established St Margaret's Convent in 1862, bringing sisters up from Dr John Mason Neale's pioneering community at East Grinstead.

In 1867 he established a mission church in the Gallowgate, one of the poorest slum areas of Aberdeen. He regarded this work as being so important that in 1870 he resigned from St John's to take up the less secure role of Mission Priest at St Margaret's, Gallowgate, and to devote his life and ministry to caring for the poor. John Comper was, by now, one of the leading priests of the Anglo-Catholic revival in the Episcopal Church.

Fr John Comper

The Rev John Comper

John Ninian Comper was born in Aberdeen and the lively and advanced Anglo-Catholicism amongst which the young Ninian was raised, naturally had a dominant influence on his life. In later years the 'Anglo-' came to mean less and less to him, and he would often appear not to recognise any difference between the Anglican and Roman Churches, maintaining that through the work of St Pius X, to whom he had a special devotion, the two communions were already, if secretly, united.

After rather unhappy school-days at Glenalmond in Perthshire, Comper spent a year at Ruskin's Art School in Oxford, before going to London where he was articled to Charles Eamer Kempe, the Victorian stained glass designer and manufacturer, and later to George Frederick Bodley and Thomas Garner, partners and English Gothic Revival architects. Comper always Bodley regarded as his master, and like him always steadfastly opposed the system of qualifying examinations for architects and architectural schools: in "Who's Who" he described himself as "architect (not registered)".

With the exception of the Welsh War Memorial in Cardiff (1928), all Comper's work was ecclesiastical. His first independent building was a chapel added to his father's church of St Margaret of Scotland, Aberdeen in 1889. The chapel, known today as "the Comper Aisle" was built in memory of Ninian's father, the Reverend John Comper. The figure of Fr John Comper, keeling at a prie-dieu, is shown in the magnificent east window in the Comper Aisle.

Comper's unique signature can also be seen in this window (if you stand on your tiptoes). It's in its customary place at the bottom right of the window. His rather unusual signature of the strawberry is linked with his high regard for his father who demonstrated his great devotion to the poor in so many practical ways. Fr John Comper died suddenly in the Duthie Park in Aberdeen, on the banks of the River Dee, while giving strawberries to poor children. What better memorial to his father .... the strawberry which can be seen in churches throughout the world!

Comper's Strawberry
Sir Ninian Comper, 1938

The St Margaret's chapel was followed two years later by the new St Margaret's Convent Chapel in Aberdeen. This set the fashion, destined to become the norm for many successful Anglican convents ... a Comper chapel. One of his last works was the great window in Westminster Hall in London in 1952.

In the course of seventy years Sir Ninian Comper was the architect responsible for fifteen churches; he restored and decorated scores of others; and he designed vestments, banners and windows in places as far apart as China, North America, France, India, and South Africa. There can hardly be a rural deanery in England or a Diocese in Scotland without some example of his sensitive and unmistakable workmanship which is also to be found in churches of the Roman Communion, among them Downside Abbey.

Comper's liturgical understanding of the purpose of a church was far in advance of any other architect of his time. It has been claimed that Ninian Comper was the greatest church furnisher since Wren. However, if he was primarily a decorator rather than an architect, his decorative art was never simply for art's sake, but for the sake of the function for which he firmly believed a church exists, namely "as a roof over an altar".

Believing this, he built from the altar outwards, personally designing every detail of the furnishings, even down to the candle sticks, which had to fit in with his design. While bitterly opposed to 'modernism', he nevertheless anticipated by many years the changes that were to come: for example, his use of free-standing altars, of pure white interiors and strong clear colours, especially the typical Comper rose and green, and the combination of gilding, blue, and white.

At St Wilfrid's Cantley in 1893 Comper erected an altar with riddel posts, the first of that succession of 'box-bed' altars whose use by inferior artists he came to deplore. In 1892 he installed a hanging pyx in St Matthew's Westminster (since removed), thus leading to a development in the practice of reservation in the Church. St Matthew's was the first of many examples of the hanging pyx of which the most elaborate was the nine-foot silver turris at All Saints' Margaret Street, and that in the Grosvenor Chapel.

Angel on a riddel post - St Michael and All Angels, Inverness

Comper's first work in the St Michael and All Angels, Inverness, was associated with the moving of the church from one side of the River Ness to the other. During the 1903-04 work a full-sized stone altar was erected, around which were placed four black wrought iron riddel posts, topped by four gilded Angels, each holding a taper, designed by Ninian Comper. The following year, 1905, an impressive stone font on top of a three step pedestal was placed by the west entrance. The steepled oak lofty cover, by Ninian Comper, was added in 1905 in memory of Fr John Comper, in thanksgiving for his ministry in Inverness.

The finest example of Comper's first medieval manner is the church of St Cyprian in Clarence Gate in London (1903). His second style dated from about 1904 following visits to the Mediterranean which revealed to him the debt owed by all Christian art to Greece. Other magnificent examples of his work are Wimborne St Giles, where in 1910 he restored a classical church with perpendicular decorations and distinctive Jacobean screen.

Then there is the magnificent St Mary's Wellingborough (1904-40), where a perpendicular nave, middle-gothic side chapel, Spanish screens, and classical baldachino, combine brilliantly in one harmonious riot of colour and gilding. In his last period he grew more and more to see the importance of a free-standing altar, usually covered by a ciborium, as in St Andrew's Cathedral Aberdeen, the All Saints' chapel at London Colney (now owned by the Roman Catholic Church), at Pusey House in Oxford, or St Philip's Cosham, and by an uncumbered, translucent background to his windows.

Between 1923 and 1924, St Michael and All Angels underwent extensive alterations. Canon Lachlan Mackintosh, Rector of St Michael's, had become a good friend of Ninian Comper. Together they had been planning to completely rebuild St Michael's but financial constraints (the reconstruction was paid for entirely by the Canon himself), a result of the effects of the First World War, meant a re-construction rather than re-building should be considered. The work was done under the guidance of Ninian Comper. The old dormer windows were replaced by new lower, wider windows and the roof of the church was panelled and painted. The Lady Chapel was also extended.

The magnificent stained glass Window of the Archangels on the east wall of St Michael's, and the Gilded Tester above, carved with a dove, both to designs by Ninian Comper, were later additions, in memory of Canon Mackintosh (depicted keeling at a prie-dieu in the third window), St Michael's great benefactor, who died in 1926.

The Archangels Uriel, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael (left to right)) are depicted in the window in the subtle colours favoured by Comper. The Gilded Tester above the High Altar depicts the Holy Spirit and Pentecost, with the tongues of fire radiating from the Dove, the Holy Spirit, with the seven 'Gifts of the Spirit' - Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness and Faithfulness - inscribed around the border.

The Archangels: Uriel, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael

In 1890 Ninian Comper married Grace Bucknall. They had four sons, the eldest of whom followed in the steps of his father, and became an architect - and two daughters. His wife, Grace, died 1933. Ninian Comper was knighted by the King in 1950.

Sir John Ninian Comper died on the 22nd December 1960 in The Hostel of God, now Trinity Hospice, in Clapham, London SW4. The Hostel was run by the Sisters of St Margaret from East Grinstead, the same Order that his father brought to Aberdeen to share his work in caring for the poor, and it was very appropriate that the Sisters of St Margaret were there to care for Ninian at the close of his earthly. The Chaplain of the Hostel, Fr Leslie A Pickett, a member of the Society of the Holy Cross (of which Fr John Comper would have undoubtedly approved) told me that he had cared for Ninian, providing the Sacraments of the Church right to the end.

Looking towards the High Altar from the Lady Chapel

Sir Ninian Comper's ashes were buried beneath the windows he designed in Westminster Abbey and where he had also been responsible for the design of the Warriors' Chapel.

Sir Ninian Comper's work in St Michael and All Angels attracts many visitors today. His clever use of the proportions of the small building are highlighted by the light which floods into the church from the large windows. The magnificence of the stained glass windows of the Four Archangels set behind the simplicity of Comper's riddel posted altar with its six brass candle sticks, not to mention the impressive gilded tester above the high altar, indeed make this an impressive little church.