Michael Powell


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Stories & People - Paper 6


This note is based on:


The Contexting of a Chapel Architect: James Cubitt 1836-1912


by Clyde Binfield, 2001, viii + 111 pages

Occasional Publications 2, The Chapels Society, ISSN 1475-6404


I am indebted to Professor Binfield for permission to draw extensively on his work; the views expressed are however my own.









The architect James Cubitt (1836-1912) is an example of a professional who develops a special expertise directly in the service of the churches. Himself a Baptist, he served English Nonconformity widely.


Furthermore Cubitt’s story is a good example of how family background leads to training and early practice. With travel and study a philosophy then starts to emerge, which is tested by use in significant projects. All is then drawn together in a publication for the education and guidance of others. This note therefore contains the follows that sequence.



Family background


Binfield explains that the Cubitt’s are a Norfolk clan. In the early eighteenth century some of them migrated to London. Various Cubitt's were involved with the development of Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Clapham; with canal, dock and railway building; and with the construction of the Crystal Palace. James Cubitt’s part of the family came from Worsted and Horning. Occupationally they were millers, farmers, teachers andironmongers, while religiously they were Baptists. Revd James Cubitt (1808-63) became a Baptist minister. His church at Bourton-on-the-Water was a meeting house that had been built in 1701, re-constructed in the 1740’s and completely rebuilt in the 1760’s.This James Cubitt, the minister, was the father of James Cubitt (1836-1912) an architect of FRIBA standing.



Training and early practice


The young James Cubitt was first articled to Isaac Charles Gilbert of Nottingham , son of a Congregational minister and architect of various Congregational chapels.


Later he proceeded to work with GW Elmslie of Great Malvern, whose work also included church projects.


Subsequently he was associated with brothers RJ and FC Withers. RJ Withers  developed a reputation ‘for a good, cheap type of church, plain and honest rather than mean.’ FC Withers went to America carrying ‘the polychromatic gospels of Ruskin and Butterfield to the thoroughly receptive New York City and State’. Binfield continues, ‘After a Ruskinian flourish for the Dutch Reformed of Fish Kill Landing, his chapel work returned to the good ecclesiologist’s early English austerity of ‘plain surfaces, clear volumes and quiet rhythms’. His secular work was more extrovertly Ruskinian.’ Binfield concludes that ‘The Withers brothers were good Churchmen and sound church architects. They were admirably placed to acclimatize able pupils who could abstract their architectural from their ecclesiastical principles and whose sense of place was pronounced but never insular’.


Cubitt’s next major association was with WW Pocock, a Wesleyan and architect for the Baptist Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle. Revd James Cubitt came to the Tabernacle as tutor to the Pastors College based there and his architect son set up his own practice in Camberwell, where he worked on designs for various Baptist chapels connected with Spurgeon. The church at Wandsworth was built by the Baptist builder William Higgs who had himself given the land.


Cubitt moved his office to 26 Finsbury Place where his neighbour was the architect Henry Fuller who had Baptist, Congregational and Presbyterian connections and was also a son of the manse. Binfield notes that ‘Fuller’s concern with light, space and their technical achievement was demonstrated in his last and best building, Clapton Park Congregational Church, Hackney. This building was a great galleried horseshoe. Some twenty years later, Cubitt wrote, ‘the Meeting house Gallery [is just] about the crudest attempt ever made at providing seats for a certain number of people over the heads of the rest. It is a failure practically and a horror artistically. A particular church, possibly one surmises, Clapton, Cubitt, said was a somewhat better ‘modification of this antiquated type’.  Cubitt had reached the stage of knowing that his own work had to be both Gothic and architectural



Study and philosophy


Binfield unpacks Cubitt’s philosophy of nonconformist chapel architecture. He was ‘an unabashed Goth’, in company with, among others, Pugin and Butterfield, and drawing ideas from the architecture of many Western and Middle European locations. In addition he had respect for Wren ‘whose grand manipulation of space delighted him’. Binfield continues:


Cubitt’s goal.... was massive honesty and historically grounded up-to-dateness. He sought to be a monumental architect, a man for broad arches and sweeping rhythms. He aimed to transcend fashion and to banish the taste for ‘trash and toffee’. His was the high Victorian passion for the ‘muscle and sinew of a building’, for ‘its life and force and expression’....... (p36)


Cubitt’s method of digging out the true contemporary spirit was to go back to the thirteenth century. There he found his inspiration. But it was inspiration and challenge to work authentically in his own time and situation. He asked what it was like for the medieval man to be in church. For medieval man the heart of things was not the nave, a mere outer court for the laity; ‘what was really held essential was what went on within – the priests about the altar’. Well, for modern man, for modern Protestant man, what was really essential goes on all around him, for all are priests. So, Binfield continues,’ Cubitt seized for his all-believing, all-seeing purposes on that strongest of Christian reference points, the Gothic style, as the best departure point for his new architecture’. And since the high Victorians were happiest when travelling most hopefully, it was indeed a departure, not a destination. He strove mightily for ‘a real nineteenth century church, in a masculine and monumental style’ and for an architecture of ‘breadth, space and largeness of parts’.



Philosophy into practice


Binfield discusses a number of Cubitt’s designs in detail, identifying Union Chapel, Islington as his ‘Master Work’. Here I would like to refer to the project that I have personally visited, Emmanuel United Reformed (formerly Congregational) Church, Cambridge .


At Emmanuel, there were various given starting points: the building committee insisted on a tower and the site precluded transepts or a large central area.  More importantly, the building had to express the significance of the recovered place of evangelical Free Churchmen in the university. The site seemed to entail an oblong nave and the need for light, a clerestory, piers and aisles, altogether ‘the ordinary type of church’. Cubitt cut into this traditional line of thinking with new ideas:


Cubitt’s Cambridge solution was to carry his clerestory on four arches of unusual span supported by two huge stone columns so placed that only one per cent of a full congregation would have no view of the pulpit. The problem of the tower was solved by opening it full frontal to the nave and filling it with a deep gallery for 130 of the 700 sittings. (p42)


Cubitt described his style as ‘early English, with some slight adaptations of early French detail’. The tower ‘escaped the English solution of a soaring spire by opting for the continental solution of a moderate spire’. Inside, any ornament was to be ‘of a rather reserved and simple type’. That meant early thirteenth century with some simple foils and mouldings but ‘nothing approaching tracery’. While there is some stained glass, some of the proposed internal decoration has never been completed. Binfield concludes, ’Emmanuel works. Its acoustics are good enough. Its draughts are few enough. Its sweeping space is exhilarating. There can be little doubt that its style has formed the style of its select generations of worshippers.’





Cubitt became FRIBA in 1890 and in 1892 published A Popular Handbook of Nonconformist Church Building . He encapsulates his design philosophy as follows:


We build churches for the worship of God, and for the moral and spiritual culture of men. We build them for worship, not because of any special sanctity in them or in what they contain, but simply because the building of them and the act of united worship in them are signs of, and helps to, the profoundest reverence which we know how to display. We build them for moral and spiritual culture, whether that culture be carried on by means of the emotion or of the intellect; and whatever raises men to a higher level, or guides them to a truer judgement of right and wrong may find a fit place in our buildings and in our services.  (p75)


This philosophy unites intellect and emotion, truth and beauty, the fleeting nature of a service and the permanent nature of the building. If each service is an act of re-creation, the building is what unites them. Such buildings do not have to be grand or costly; the principles can be met equally in the ordinary:


A church full of thought and refinement will look respectable whatever its materials may be, and the secret of building well and cheaply is just to use common materials in an artistic way. .... From the common brick, or rubble or tiles or concrete of the neighbourhood, something worth looking at may be made.... (p76)


Cubitt emphasised his craftsman’s gospel. ‘Men’ he believed


want to put something of their souls into their work, something of their aims and hopes; they want the spiritual to shine through and transfigure the material. Where this is, there is art. It does not depend on ornament, or luxury, or expense. (p76)


Ultimately an architect can only do what he is allowed to do, for:


an architect’s work is a building, and not the mere plan or view of a building. His productions, then, it is always in the power of others to influence to an extent beyond that to which the productions of most other artists can be influenced. (p79)


Cubitt’s clerks of works tended to be Baptist on Baptist projects, Methodists on Methodist projects and so on. However, in a piece on Faith and Facts for the Building News he opined that too much religion of a particular kind might be a bad thing and that


There is a sense in which every man ought to grow his own creed, as every shellfish grows his own shell. But few men do this. Most men, before they are men, are saddled with a ready made belief, which is too tight here, and too loose there, and which never really fitted them at all. (p92)






Cubitt’s is an exciting professional story. He was working at a time when all churches were in an expansive mood and were operating on distinctive denominational lines. The climate of expansiveness created a large field into which he could enter, and the strong denominational structures with their distinctive modes of worship enabled him to carve out a nonconformist speciality. Thus he was able to realise a strong faith-related professionalism which was completely authentic for his time and place. He was able to make being ‘a chapel architect’ into a coherent life’s work.


Possibly Cubitt’s immediate successors include those architects and surveyors today who develop skills in varied works of adaptation, conservation or conversion of chapel buildings of his era.


A wider group of successors may be those who have to try to fathom what the Word says, not only about chapels in which it can be expounded, but with true catholicity about the wide range of buildings called for in our different kind of era.


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