The subject of today’s post is the sort of architect whose biography explains at a quick glance why he has been largely overlooked by architectural historians. My hope is that a quick glance at his delightful and engaging work will be enough to show why that neglect is undeserved. Robert Jewell Withers (1824-1894) built no cathedrals, stately homes or public buildings in major cities. Based in London for all of his career, he seems to have kept a low profile, not entering the competitions that made the reputations of the most celebrated Victorian architects and contenting himself mainly with a steady stream of commissions from all over the country for restoring country churches and building new ones (according to his obituary in the Building News, the number ran almost to a hundred). Consequently, much of his work is in obscure, even remote places. He had pupils, but none achieved any renown, and he produced no school.
So, why bother with him? I owe my interest in Withers to Julian Orbach, who worked on The Buildings of Wales and described him as one of the great discoveries that he made while carrying out fieldwork for the Pembrokeshire volume. More specifically, he brought to my attention the splendid little church at Meline, halfway between Fishguard and Cardigan, which came to prominence (albeit in a modest way) in 2017 when, on being made redundant, it passed into the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches.
I’ll discuss it at greater length below. Suffice it to say for now that it immediately made me curious to find out what else Withers had designed, and it emerged before long that southwest Wales is a very rich hunting ground for anyone interested in his work. Moreover, the very fact that these are tiny rural churches in out-of-the-way places is what makes them worth studying. They testify to his powers of invention and ability to achieve original, memorable results out of the simple formula of a two-cell, towerless church built on a limited budget which, one would think, offered little scope for any creativity. This post will look at a selection of Withers’ designs, arranged in chronological order, with a few glances at his career elsewhere to put them in context.
First, a few words about his training and career: born in Shepton Mallet in Somerset, Withers was articled in 1839 to Thomas Hellyer (1811-1894) in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, who specialised in church work. In 1844 he made a tour of England and the Continent, then returned to Sherbourne in Dorset where he set up practice in 1848. He became an Associate of the RIBA in 1849 and moved the London the following year. He opened an office in 1854 and, barring a brief period from 1855-1859 when he was based on Doughty Street in Holborn, worked out of premises in the Adelphi, the Adam Brothers’ development just off the Strand.
We get off to a flying start with St Mary at Llanfair Nant Gwyn in the north of Pembrokeshire, a tiny church of 1855-1857 in a remote (there is no village centre to speak of), but very beautiful location. It is an arresting silhouette – the hunched forms of nave and chancel with steeply pitched roofs and a needle-sharp bell turret at the west end. Observe how deftly the transition is handled from the single buttress in the centre of the west wall to the base of the bell turret – from narrow oblong, to half octagon, to narrow oblong again, though a sequence of corbelling and brackets. There was no particular reason to do it like this, other than to express delight in geometrical forms. The fenestration consists mostly of simple lancets, those in the nave paired and with acutely pointed ogee arches, so that the Geometrical Decorated tracery of the east window has real impact as a visual focus. Everything is restless and angular, the very antithesis of a placid rural shrine. Around the same time, Withers was at work on one of his few major secular works, a complex of municipal buildings now known as the Guildhall in Cardigan, built in 1858-1860 and important as an early application of Ruskinian Gothic to a civic commission.
But we now leave southwest Wales for Lincolnshire, to look at the building which seems to have established Withers as an architect of rural churches – St Helen’s in Little Cawthorpe, Lincolnshire, just to the southeast of Louth, erected in 1859-1860. Again, this is a replacement for a predecessor on an ancient site, and again a simple two-cell building with a bellcote. Withers makes a virtue out of necessity: nave and chancel are under a continuous roofline and the latter is only slightly narrower than the former, making for a satisfyingly compact form. The roof is steeply pitched and pulled down low. A slate-hung bellcote with a sharply pointed spire straddles the roofline at the west end of the nave, with a vestry chimney of fantastically lopsided, angular form serving as a counterpoint to it. Cheap, pale-pink bricks are used, with much constructional polychromy. Even where mouldings and tracery are inserted, the dressings are set well back into the window openings, emphasising the simple, elemental geometry, so that nothing breaks the plane of the wall surface.
Internally, all the fittings are rough, tough pieces of design – there is nothing superfluous. Everything builds up to the east end, again with a window of Geometrical Decorated tracery. Brightly patterned tiles are used for the reredos, the east window and chancel arch are carried on shafts of polished green marble. It is a hard, bright, uncompromising aesthetic. Importantly, it impressed The Ecclesiologist – the highly opinionated and dogmatic newsletter of what had begun as the Cambridge Camden Society (which Withers had joined at the age of 20) and promoted its ideals of aesthetic and liturgical propriety. Its reveiwer praised St Helen’s on completion as ‘A truly excellent design… for cheaply rebuilding a small rural church’.
Two years later, Withers produced a design for St Mary’s College in Harlow, cut from similar cloth to Little Cawthorpe and, with the angular forms of the chimneys and buttresses and strident constructional polychromy in brick, immediately recognisable as the work of the same architect. Large educational buildings by High Victorian architects often sprawled, their designer getting as much mileage as possible out of the articulation of the various functions into distinct volumes. But here what is striking is the compactness. The dining hall and library (the block with traceried windows closest to the nominal viewpoint in the illustration below) form a continuous range. Horizontal circulation seems to be provided by a cloister-like passage, which runs underneath the main quadrangle rather than around its inner perimeter. The gatehouse – something often treated as a vehicle for grand gestures – is almost subsumed into the wing providing access to the chapel, which has study-bedrooms for the boys on the first floor. The college was built, but either the design was only partly executed, or else it was much scaled down. It was demolished in the mid-1960s during the construction of Harlow New Town.
One of the architect’s few ecclesiastical designs on a grand scale was produced in 1864 for the Anglican Church of the Resurrection in Brussels, intended for a site on the corner of the Rue des Drapiers and Boulevard de Waterloo. Like much of Withers’ work, it follows a well-established formula – in this case, the Victorian urban church with lean-to aisles and a lofty clerestory – but treats it with great aplomb to produce original effects. The exterior displays his love of highly sculptural chamfered and angular forms. A boldly emphatic buttress rises out of the west porch (a device perhaps borrowed from Butterfield’s church of St Matthias, Stoke Newington of 1849-1853), only to peter out just before it reaches a corbelled out image niche at the top of the gable. The powerful rhythm of the aisle and clerestory windows is echoed by the belfry windows of the tower, which bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the medieval Sint-Niklaaskerk in Ghent. The stately interior was to rise up to a roof of bold, chunky structural members, with vivid cusping to the trusses in the chancel (a favourite Butterfield device), all focused on a large window of plate tracery and a chancel screen wall and reredos with restless outlines of gablets and much incised decoration. In the event, nothing was built until 1873 and it is unclear what – if anything – that church (redundant since 1958 and now converted to a nightclub) owes to Withers.
Back to southwest Wales and the church that first sparked my interest in Withers – St Dogfael’s in Meline of 1864-1865. It was commissioned by a major local patron of Victorian Gothic, Sir Thomas Lloyd (1820-1877), who had previously engaged Richard Kyrke Penson (1815-1885) first, in 1853-1856, to turn the Georgian family seat of Bronwydd (Ceredigion) into an outlandish fairytale castle and then, in 1859-1860, to remodel the genuine, but ruined 13th-14th century castle at Newport (Pembrokeshire). In 1867, he engaged John Middleton of Cheltenham (1820-1885) to carry out a lavish remodelling of the nearest parish church to Bronwydd, St Cynllo in Llangynllo, to serve in effect as a private chapel for the estate.
These were all extravagant flights of fantasy by a Romantic medievalist in love with the title of Lord Marcher of Cemaes, which his family had in fact only acquired in the 18th century. But what is surprising about St Dogfael’s is that it could not be mistaken for a product of any century other than the nineteenth: ‘An object lesson in High Victorian solid geometry and minimal extraneous detail’, as it is succinctly and aptly called in the Pembrokeshire volume of The Buildings of Wales. As at Little Cawthorpe, nave and chancel are welded into a single, compact mass with a continuous roofline and only a slight difference in width to differentiate the two spaces externally. Again, there are no drip mouldings to break the surface of the wall plane, emphasising the subtle balance of solid and void created by the windows. But whereas elsewhere Withers uses the bellcote to provide a vertical emphasis and additional visual interest, here it too is pulled down into the mass, its gable barely rising higher than the ridge.
And whereas elsewhere the focus of the interior is a traceried east window, here everything is reversed – the chancel terminates in a polygonal apse, fenestrated with cusped lancets, and the most prominent window instead is at the west end – a striking rose formed of five cinquefoils. The church retains a full complement of original fittings: ‘all simple but original carpentry designs, emphasising structure over decoration’ (The Buildings of Wales, Pembrokeshire). This time, the colour scheme is muted, but this only serves to set off the jewel-like east window by Lavers and Barraud and tile panels of the reredos. The remaining windows are all glazed with plain glass, but incorporate intricate decorative leading.
The next two churches by Withers in these parts are both in villages along the A487 coast road from Fishguard to Aberystwyth. St David’s in Henfynyw (Ceredigion) is a dour little building of 1864-1866, on a site formerly occupied by a medieval predecessor. Probably built on a very tight budget, it nonetheless achieves visual interest thanks to the original treatment by Withers of the west end. He plays with the wall thickness – it is stepped back at the base of the gable, and at this point a buttress-like form emerges from it, pierced by a plate-traceried west window. This supports a squat little pepperpot of a bell turret, which halfway up turns from a square to an octagon in plan. Not far out of Cardigan, one passes through Blaenporth, where in 1865 Withers rebuilt the church of St David, which stands in an ancient churchyard with wonderful views out to sea. Here, the handling of Gothic forms is more traditional that at Meline, with kneelered gables and projecting mouldings.
What sets the church apart is the splendid little bell turret, an exercise in angular forms with a pyramidal spire terminating in a stiff leaf finial and gablets emerging on all sides above the bell openings. Viewed in isolation from the rest, one could easily believe it was many times bigger, but in fact it must be barely 6 feet square. Again, Withers plays clever games with the wall thickness, with the base of the turret breaking through the plane of the west elevation and producing intriguing spatial effects internally. Inside, everything leads up to the east end with its reredos of inlaid marble and incised decoration, and, above it in the traceried window, gorgeously coloured stained glass by Lavers and Barraud. They seem to have been favoured collaborators and it should be mentioned in passing that Withers designed their premises (still extant) at No. 22 Endell Street in Covent Garden, London, built in 1859.
Withers did produce one church on a grand scale in southwest Wales – St Peter’s, the parish church of the town of Lampeter, built in 1867-1868 on an ancient site. It is a big boned design with a commanding tower, which makes the most of its prominent location, and incorporates much of his trademark plate tracery. It was not viewed on the expedition that took me to the other churches described above and I have never been able to find any images of the interior. Around the same time, he designed an Anglican church at the German spa town of Bad Wildbad in Baden-Württemberg. A sleek single volume with a polygonal apse, the wall surfaces almost uninterrupted by buttresses, the only concession to its locality is the use of the local dark-red sandstone. More intriguing is a design for the parsonage in the Newcastle neighbourhood of the town of Miramichi, British Columbia in Canada. Though evidently intended to be timber-framed, the design eschewed the planar forms of North American balloon-frame construction for vigorous, uncompromisingly High Victorian sculptural effects, packing a huge amount of visual interest into a relatively small space. The windows and bargeboards break out into his favourite bold cusping. I have so far been unable to ascertain whether it was ever built.
Withers was active in London, taking advantage of the commissions for new church buildings and reorderings that burgeoned throughout his life, yet it is nothing like as rewarding a place to see his work. To some extent, this is the result of sheer bad luck, since two of his new churches proved ill-starred: St Anselm’s in Streatham, begun c. 1882, was destroyed by a flying bomb during World War II, while St Gabriel’s, Notting Dale of 1882-1883 lasted for only slightly over half a century before being closed and demolished for redevelopment, and seems to have disappeared unrecorded. St Mary’s, Bourne Street in Belgravia of 1873-1874 is a typical urban church of its period – good quality architecture, but not especially individual in flavour. What makes it worth a visit are the later embellishments, which appeared when a church originally intended for local residents in domestic service went on to become a prominent centre of Anglo-Catholicism. Some of these are in the flamboyant Baroque manner popular in the early 20th century in Anglo-Catholic circles and out of sympathy with the building. But the brilliant west porch and chapel of the Seven Sorrows added in 1924 by Harry Goodhart-Rendel (1887-1959) show a sensitivity to High Victorian architecture rare for the date and are the work of a designer who managed to internalise Withers’ manner to such a degree that he was able to produce something even better than the genuine article.
Some creative figures are trailblazers who define their age. The aftershocks of their achievements are felt everywhere and impossible to avoid. They are always searching and this drive often leads them to reinvent themselves during the course of their career. Others follow in their wake and, having established a particular artistic idiom, stay within its confines, concentrating on refining and developing their command of it. It would be foolish to make grand claims for the significance of Withers in 19th architecture and he undoubtedly belongs in the latter category. His High Victorian idiom, though individual and fluent, is redolent of the early Butterfield, and does not seem to have changed all that much as his career progressed.
Nonetheless, he was talented and accomplished, and clearly took pains over the kind of commissions for which the major figures of his age, chasing the prestigious jobs, might well have contented themselves with something far more pedestrian, dashed off in a hurry and barely worth a second glance. I don’t especially recommend that you immediately set off to the wilds of Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion to see for yourself the buildings featured here. But if you do, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.