High on St. James’s Mount, the great Cathedral of Christ in Liverpool dominates the city centre and the Mersey estuary marking ’ (Sharples)
A hundred years ago this month work began on Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960)’s Cathedral, after King Edward VII had laid the foundation stone on July 19 1904. Liverpool was then at the peak of its wealth and prosperity, one of the great ports of the Empire, and Britain’s principal transatlantic port. Despite two world wars, the loss of Empire, the rise of air travel, and changing trade patterns that devastated the city’s economy, work continued on building the Cathedral – mainly using sandstone quarried in Woolton – until a formal service of completion, attended by Queen Elizabeth II on October 25 th 1978.
The Cathedral’s magnificent tower, rising 331ft high, impresses by its height and subtle bulk. The lower part is square, punctuated by the maw of the Rankin Porch entrance. Originally Scott intended to build twin towers but from 1909-10 he redesigned the Cathedral completely, revising his plans so that the tower now tapers to an eight-sided upper stage, topped with a crown of lanterns.
Scott was 22 years old when he won the 1903 architectural competition. For diplomatic reasons he had been appointed joint-architect with G.F. Bodley (1827-1907), becoming sole architect after Bodley’s death in 1907. The earliest part to be completed, the Lady Chapel, possibly reflects Bodley’s involvement: it is lighter and more refined than the main Cathedral spaces.
The west front, which dominates the approach from the city centre, was completed in the 1970s and in 1993 a bronze statue of Christ by Elizabeth Frink was installed.
But it is the interior spaces that awe and impress: the immensely high central tower space, the 457 ft long nave, and the round-arched bridge at the east end. Can there be any other twentieth-century British building that creates such sublime spaces?
Reflecting the wealth of the city merchants who paid for much of the construction, the interior is enriched with monuments, glass and furniture. Scott closely supervised their design. Edward Carter Preston’s sculptures can be seen throughout the Cathedral and much of the stained glass was made by James Powell & Sons at the Whitefriars Glassworks. The reredos was designed by Walter Gilbert and carved by Arthur Turner and others at H.H. Martyn’s of Cheltenham. At the heart of the Cathedral, in the middle of the central space, is the circular, tiled Scott Memorial. It simply reads: “1880-1960 Sir Giles Gilbert Scott Architect”. There is nothing to add: his life’s work speaks magnificently for itself.
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