In Historic Scotland’s recently published Burgh Survey, ‘Historic Whithorn’, the Church of St Martin and St Ninian on George Street is described as, “rather formal and old-fashioned, as one might expect of this Arts and Crafts architect from London.” In 2010, the 50th anniversary of its completion, it is worth investigating this view of the church.
Certainly the present building has none of the modernist drama of the Scottish architect Sir Basil Spence’s first proposals for the church prepared in 1950. His design contains several elements later developed for his masterpiece, Coventry Cathedral but the large pilgrimage chapel he envisaged for Whithorn was beyond the scale needed for worship in the town and, with its cloistered courtyard and linked presbytery, would have required considerable funding.
The architect who fell heir to the work in the late 1950’s was Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel. He was twenty years older than Spence but had built only a handful of buildings in England before designing what would be this, his final church in Whithorn. Born in Cambridge in 1887, he was a classics don who first studied music before taking up architecture in 1909. At the death of his grandfather, Baron Rendel, he assumed the family name. Highly respected in the profession, Goodhart-Rendel became President of the Architectural Association, Slade Professor of Fine Art, Oxford, and President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. His books were very influential and he was considered the greatest authority on English 19th century architecture. Drawing from this academic background Goodhart-Rendel found his concept for his church in Whithorn.
The ancient pilgrimage route, Camino de Santiago de Compostela, passes though Oviedo the capital of Asturias in Northern Spain. Here, in the early 8th century, Alfonso II built the church of Santullano. Its front elevation, with formal symmetry, sloping roofs, bellcote and circular windows clearly provided inspiration for Goodhart-Rendel. A design source taken from a church on Europe’s most important pilgrimage route so appropriate for Whithorn, which was once the most visited centre of pilgrimage in Medieval Scotland. In echoing this thousand year old church, did Goodhart-Rendel’s design really deserve the epithet “old-fashioned” in the ‘Burgh Survey’?
Sadly Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel (1887-1959) did not live to see his church in Whithorn completed.
First Published January 2011