Great British Architects: George Frederick Bodley 1827-1907

By the end of the 19th century, G.F. Bodley was the most influential architect at work in the Church of England. In the course of a long career-from 1852 to his death in 1907-his style pervaded the Anglican communion throughout the world, from Canterbury where Bodley designed the pulpit-to his cathedrals in Hobart, Tasmania, and Washington DC.

Although for a decade he worked closely with William Morris and his firm, Bodley had no enthusiasm for Arts-and-Crafts principles: he believed that every element of a building should be brought into harmony by the architect’s controlling hand. His early works fuse the inspiration of Ruskin with the high artistic standards of the High Church movement, of which he was a loyal adherent.

In their restrained elegance and patrician beauty, his later churches embody the progression of English design in the second half of the 19th-century from pre-Raphaelitism to the Aesthetic movement. But Bodley did not believe in art for art’s sake: he thought that art should serve the Church. Such a belief helps to explain an underlying toughness in his approach to architecture that perceptive contemporaries recognised: his friend Lady Paget said he was ‘spiritually a porcupine’.

Early career

G. F. Bodley was born in Hull in 1827, a son of the physician at the Hull Royal Infirmary, and Bodley’s early career was shaped by family connections. In 1846, one of his sisters married a Brighton doctor, Samuel Scott, a brother of the architect George Gilbert Scott. This led the 19-year-old Bodley to join Scott’s office, where he stayed for six years.

There, he became close friends with two of Scott’s most talented assistants, George Edmund Street and William White. Like them, he rebelled against what he felt was Scott’s over-reliance on historic precedents and sought instead to ‘develop’ Gothic into a modern style for the needs of the 19th century. Influenced in part by Ruskin, he drew on early-medieval French and Italian buildings to create a new synthesis of Gothic forms. In emulation of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, he sought to strip architecture down to its essentials, and to enliven it with brilliant colour.

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The result was such churches as St Michael’s, Brighton, and All Saints, Selsley, Gloucestershire, both designed in 1858. Most visitors to these churches today come to see not their architecture, but their stained glass, some of the very earliest work by Morris’s new firm.

Morris relied greatly in the 1860s on commissions from Bodley, but, by 1870, they were no longer friends, as Bodley refused to concede to Morris total control over the design of glass and decoration. In 1874, he co-founded his own firm of church and house decorators, Watts & Co (which, unlike Morris & Co, still flourishes in its original form). Watts executed Bodley’s designs for textiles and wallpapers: he had a flair for flat-pattern design matched only by Pugin and Morris.

English Gothic

Morris’s interest in late-medieval English sources for design and decoration had an important influence on Bodley, who, in 1862, abruptly changed his style. His revised design for All Saints’ Church, Cambridge, abandoned early, foreign Gothic in favour of 14th-century English forms.

Bodley’s refinement of his new style was carried out in conjunction with a younger architect, Thomas Garner, with whom he went into partnership in 1869. Together, they created such celebrated churches as St Augustine’s, Pendlebury, Lancashire, and Holy Angels, Hoar Cross, Staffordshire, both designed in 1870-71.

Bodley and Garner also worked on numerous church and house restorations and had major commissions at Oxford and Cambridge, notably St Swithun’s Quadrangle at Magdalen College, Oxford (1880-84). The partnership ended in 1897, following Garner’s conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Bodley worked with unflagging energy to the end of his life, and some of his late buildings-notably the estate church at Eccleston, Cheshire, for the 1st Duke of Westminster, consecrated in 1900-are among the finest achievements of the entire Gothic Revival.

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