Stephen Dykes Bower
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Stephen Dykes Bower

Those who, like the present reviewer, have attended the annual DAC Conference for more years than it is polite to recall, will agree that a highlight of the conferences was a talk by Stephen Dykes Bower on the appearance of churches. ‘Candles should taper’, he begun, emphasising that everything in the design of a church is worthy of care and consideration. The published article, accessible here, should be required reading for all DAC members. The talk was at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, which was extended to his designs and where the central tower was gloriously added with funds from his estate.

Dykes Bower was the pre-eminent church architect of the latter half of the twentieth century. He was simultaneously surveyor of the fabric at Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, and so was responsible for the extensive restoration, redecoration and nave furnishings at the former, and the baldacchino and American War Memorial chapel in the latter.   His output was prodigious, with major work at another nine cathedrals, a handful of new churches and major rebuilds, alongside other major work such as the completion of the chapel at Lancing College.

He was a traditionalist, certainly not a modernist, but neither was he a conservationist. His work was generally carried out outside the bounds of today’s complex systems of approvals, and it is difficult to imagine how proposals for restoring monuments, organ cases and painted schemes by adding judicious new painting and gilding would be received now.   Fr Symondson’s book charts his career from the grand London schemes to the stencilled roof at St Paul’s Salford, the wonderful restored painted decoration at St John’s Tue Brook and the restoration after war damage of St Nicholas Great Yarmouth. The book is peppered with general points that are of value to today’s reader, such as the following advice on glass, contained in a letter to the Secretary of the Council for the Care of Churches:

“ …the best windows are not at first noticed at all, they are just there and so right that they blend into a general fine view, and are part of it. But to do so it is vital that in scale and composition, as well as colour, they should be in harmony with their surrounding features, and as a rule subordinate to them, not clamant by themselves.”

It is best to finish with Dykes Bower’s own words, reproduced in an obituary written by his assistant Alan Rome:

“the prime need of religious buildings is an unmistakeable atmosphere of reverence. The concomitant of that is beauty, which will lift people out of themselves and quicken their response to that a church stands for and has to offer.”

Jonathan Goodchild

November 2013

Stephen Dykes Bower by Anthony Symondson is published by RIBA, priced £20. Available to order from RIBAbookshops.com