Visit to Liverpool Exhibition and Cathedral

Saturday 21 April 2007

John McCormack, the famous Irish tenor, donated the proceeds of a record, schoolchildren collected pennies and thousands of Liverpudlians worked to raise funds when, in 1930, Dr Downie, Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, announced that a site for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King had been purchased at the top of Brownlow Hill.

The site was a majestic one, overlooking the city, but even before the purchase was completed, Downie had approached Sir Edwin Lutyens ( a non- Catholic) who began his preliminary sketches. It was decided to build the Catholic Cathedral in the Classical tradition so that its outline would contrast with the Gothic style of the Anglican Cathedral, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (a Catholic), under construction half a mile away at the other end of Hope Street. The building was to be immense, bigger than the Anglican Cathedral, bigger than St Paul’s and second only to St Peter’s in Rome. Sir Edwin Lutyens perfected his design and in 1934, a scale model (17ft long and 12ft 6ins high) of the revised and perfected scheme was built and exhibited at the Royal Academy. As Jane Ridley says in her biography of the architect ‘ No estimate was ever made for Liverpool Cathedral. Instead, the project became a giant fantasy, spinning uncontrollably into unreality. It was unbuildable, but it was the greatest building never built’.

Conservators at the National Conservation Centre in Liverpool worked between 1992 and 2005 to restore this magnificent model which, for the first part of 2007, has been on display at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. On Saturday 21st April, a group of members visited the Gallery to view the model for themselves.

Guided by Gavin Chappell, our next port of call was the crypt of the Roman Catholic Cathedral, the only part of the Lutyens design to be built, and connected to the later ‘Frederick Gibbard – designed’ Cathedral standing above by a piazza planned for open gatherings and the crowds drawn by special Feast Days. Brownlow Hill was formerly the site of the hated Victorian workhouse where many of Liverpool’s Irish Catholic poor had been unsympathetically treated. The Cathedral was intended to make atonement, a point underlined by the brick of the crypt which evokes the brick of the workhouse. A vast and dramatic space, the crypt incorporates the chapel built by Lutyens as the burial place of two former Archbishops of the Diocese. Archbishop Whiteside and Archbishop Downie are both buried in the chapel, enclosed by Lutyens‘s rolling gate which the group was privileged to see in operation.

From here, the group walked to Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral for a tour of this impressive and soaring modern Gothic building, begun in 1904 and completed in 1978 – the largest Anglican Cathedral in Britain and Europe, and fifth largest in the world.

The subject of our interest now moved from religious to secular and, after a most interesting trip by bus through the Mersey Tunnel of 1933, and onwards by electric train, we arrived at Port Sunlight, on the Wirral in Cheshire. Founded in 1888 by WH Lever as a garden village for his soap factory workers, it still exudes an air of pastoral and rural calm after the hustle and bustle of nearby Liverpool. It consists of over 900 Grade 11 listed buildings and has one of the finest war memorials outside of London. Lever made a particular point of employing many different architects of whom Lutyens was but one and members were able not only to view the attractive row of four cottages which he designed but one of his interiors and back gardens.

Bathed in the early evening spring sunlight, Lever’s garden village seemed aptly named as a varied and contrasting day came to an end. Our thanks go to Gavin Chappell for his meticulous preliminary research and preparation in making it so.

John Entwisle