Sir Ninian Comper (1864 – 1960)

Sir Ninian Comper was a Scottish architect; one of the last of the great Gothic Revival architects.  His work focused on the design, restoration and embellishment of church and the design of ecclesiastical furnishings, stained glass and vestments.  His is celebrated for his use of colour, icnonography and emphasis on churches as a setting for liturgy.  In his later works he developed the subtle integration of Classical and Gothic styles, an approach he described as unity by inclusion’.

Sir Ninian Comper lived in a beautiful house set amidst woodlands, terraces and a lake. It was known as ‘The Priory’, 67 Beulah Hill, Upper Norwood. It would only last for another few years after Comper’s death before the area was all covered with the usual suburban growth, so that there has been nowhere to display the blue tablet to say that Sir Ninian Comper lived here.

The Priory was built in 1836 to the designs of Decimus Burton (1800-81). Comper came here in 1912 at this time having his Studio at nearby 228 Knights Hill, West Norwood. He had married Grace Bucknall at a beautiful wedding ceremony at the Church of St. Barnabas, Pimlico in 1890. Their six children were therefore partly brought up at ‘The Priory’. Between the road and the house was dense woodland through which went a gravel drive with a passing place. A small stable block acted as a garage, Comper being a very early motorist. This side of the sprawling house simply had the front door which immediately led down to a flight of steps to a passageway but this was not an ordinary house for the main doors were panelled with interesting carved woodwork. The dining room had an elaborate over-mantel. (From where had all this originated and what happened to it when the building was destroyed?). The kitchen was at a lower level. The large double drawing room with its French windows faced on to the main terrace with extensive views over Croydon. At the further end was a conservatory where two orange trees spent the winter.

Extensive terracing took the garden enthusiast down to the sloping orchard towards one side of which there was the ‘Aerodrome’, a name given to a large shed where Comper’s son Nicholas had his aeronautical workshop. Later in the 1930s Nicholas was to design the famous ‘Comper Swift’ monoplane. The orchard now levelled out to what John Betjeman called ‘the lake’ on which we Bucknall children used to skate. Beyond this there was another large woodland until the Thornton Heath estates appeared.

After ‘The Study’ at 228 Knights Hill, West Norwood, was bombed in 1944 it was moved to ‘The Priory’ where the double drawing-room became the drawing office, and the large kitchen became the area where the glass was painted, fixed and leaded to be then erected in the drawing office for all the artists to enjoy. During working hours the only noise came from the furnace. After staying at ‘The Priory’ Betjeman observed how silently the saintly office assembled: no one ever spoke above a hushed whisper. Under these circumstances was beauty created. In 1951 he wrote to Comper:- My mind still sings with the birds in your silver birches, my song still pours like the water from the upper lake into your lake, my imagination still wanders in the wilderness of that cliff-face below your windows and I see in memory’s eye the twinkling lights of Croydon as I saw them the evening before last from the moonlit boskage of the terrace. There is magic indeed in ‘The Priory’. I greatly enjoyed myself: perhaps most of all our eating ham sandwiches and drinking Sauterne until midnight up there in your bedroom’.

My father, Arthur Bucknall, became Comper’s ‘other pair of eyes’ and ran the business side of the practice. All lettering whether on stone, wood or glass was designed by him, while the tabernacle work in stained glass was also usually his. He accompanied Comper on all his travels both at home and abroad. Comper’s garden was well stocked with plants brought back from these travels. Arthur brought up his family of four children at ‘Roselawn,, 98 Beulah Hill, which was almost opposite ‘The Priory’. We were therefore very much part of the Comper environment and were influenced greatly by it throughout our lives. Nothing ugly or of bad colour was allowed. ’Roselawn’ itself had belonged to Dr. Attwood of St Paul’s Cathedral, organist, choirmaster and composer. Mendelssohn had twice been invited to stay here at Attwood’s country house. As children we discovered a quill pen lodged in a cupboard; it must have belonged to Mendelssohn. Music and the arts continued to flourish. Sadly Arthur died eight years before Comper. John Samuel, my brother, was Arthur’s second son and was also apprenticed to Comper at the age of sixteen. Comper would not appoint artists with qualifications from schools or colleges, just as he would not have letters after his own name. He only accepted his knighthood in 1950 at the age of 84 after much persuasion from friends and relatives.

Comper died in 1960 at the age of 967. His ashes were interred in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey beneath his noble windows of abbots and kings and alongside the burial places of the great architects of his era.

Within the Norwood area there is little Comper work, yet in All Saints’, Carshalton, can be seen as some of his very best. The Church of St Cyprian, Marylebone, is all his work together with all its contents. There is also much in Westminster Abbey. His greatest work is that of the Church and its furnishings of St. Mary, Wellingborough, Northampton. Even Nicholas Pevsner who was Comper’s principal antagonist could not control himself, but exclaimed ‘the church glistens and reveals and conceals to ones heart’s delight’.

Very little has been written about Comper until in 2006 when Spire Books and the Ecclesiological Society jointly published:- Sir Ninian Comper. An introduction to his life and work with complete gazetteer by Anthony Symondson SJ and Stephen Arthur Bucknall with ‘Of the Atmosphere of a Church’ by Sir Ninian Comper.

Courtesy of the “Norwood Review” Edition 106 from an article written by Stephen Arthur Bucknall great nephew of Stephen Bucknall