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Left: Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, west front. Right: Closer view of west front. John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897), completed to his original design by his son Frank Loughborough Pearson (1864-1947). Designed 1880, consecrated 1887, largely completed in 1910. Exterior: local Cornish dressed granite with Bath stone for details. Interior: various materials, including decorations in serpentine from the Lizard peninsula, and polyphant, another local marble-like stone. Slate roofs, stone spires and copper spire over the bell tower (more detail in the listing text). St Mary's Street, Truro.

Truro Cathedral, south elevation (frontispiece of The Cornish See and Cathedral). Notice, in the right foreground, the low medieval south aisle, which has a wagon roof inside, as well as is own little copper bell-tower at the west end. This aisle comes from the old parish church of St Mary: despite the doubts of the new bishop and the building committee (see Pevsner and Metcalf 289), Pearson managed to incorporate it into his design — perhaps not entirely harmoniously (see Cormack 139). The gesture must have pleased the church's congregation, and indeed the aisle still functions as a parish church today.

The past mattered: Disraeli's support for the revival of the old medieval diocese and bishopric in Cornwall was an occasion of great moment for the local people, who had previously been included in the Devonshire diocese. But this was not just about reviving the past. The new cathedral was to be the first one built in the country since Salisbury, not counting Wren's new St Paul's and Pugin's Roman Catholic St George's Cathedral, Lambeth. Salisbury itself dates from 1220 (see Reid 2). It says a great deal for J. L. Pearson's reputation that he was selected for the task. Of course, he had been working on cathedral restoration since 1870, starting with Lincoln. After this he restored several others, including Canterbury and Rochester, and Westminster Abbey. So he was experienced in such work. Still, building a new Anglican cathedral, the first and last to be erected in the Victorian age, was an enormous task. He set about it with the avowed aim of inspiring reverence, using the Early English style except for the spires, which Nikolaus Pevsner describes as "Normandy Gothic" (293), and some other elements of French Gothic.

Left: The tower at the crossing (on the left), and the two towers at the west, all with stone spires. Right: Tracery of the west rose window. Despite its Cornish building material, the cathedral looked too French to suit every taste, and responses to the building were mixed. Later architectural historians have expressed different opinions too. Pevsner puzzles over its "craggy sharpness" in a county where churches tend to be long, low and spireless, though he does say that after getting over "the shock of this compressed, upward pointing , and yet somehow neat silhouette ... the merits of the design can be appreciated" (233). Some have found the whole exercise "retrospective" (Cook 337), while others, according to Patrick Cormack, have found it an uninspired "exercise in scholarship" (139). But there are many besides Colin Reid, author of Truro Cathedral's short guidebook, who consider this Victorian cathedral in Cornwall a "beautiful and wonderful building" (3). It is interesting to see that in a later work co-authored by Pevsner (with Priscilla Metcalf), the cathedral is more wholeheartedly praised for leaping "upward from its cramped site to dominate the town as a cathedral should" (290).

Left: The west entrance, with its double porch.. Right: Interior, looking towards the reredos and east window. The west entrance is suitably impressive, with much architectural sculpture, including a statue of King Edward VII, who had laid the cathedral's foundation stone in 1880 as the Duke of Cornwall. The sculpture here, and on the tympanum panels of the west porch, are all by Nathaniel Hitch. Hitch was also responsible for the remarkable reredos. In the nave, the Gothic vaulting again shows a French leaning: "oddly enough, [Pearson] has chosen sexpartite vaults, a French rather than an English tradition" (Pevsner 233). At any rate, the effect is powerful, giving that appearance of great height and grandeur which is so appropriate to a cathedral, and must have been difficult to achieve in a compact space: the nave is only just over 125' long (see Pevsner and Metcalf 290). Thus "it is a perfect cathedral in miniature," writes Cormack (138).

Note

Left: Liverpool Cathedral from the corner of Duke Street, Liverpool. Right: Liverpool Cathedral from the River Mersey.

What made Truro Cathedral seem "conservative"? Perhaps it was the contrast with the next Anglican cathedral to be built in England — Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Liverpool Cathedral — a building that Pearson himself had once set out to design, before abandoning the project because of ill-health (see Waterhouse and Quiney). Here, one of a new generation of architects (a grandson of the great Sir George Gilbert Scott) adapted Gothic forms far more freely, to build a massive red sandstone edifice that simultaneously broods and towers over the northern city, unmissable, unmistakable — reputed to be the largest cathedral in England, and the third largest in Europe after St Peter's in Rome, and Madrid and Seville Cathedrals (see Spence 241). But such a building would have been extraordinarily out of place in late Victorian Cornwall.

Related Material

References

Cook, G. H. The English Cathedral through the Centuries. London: Phoenix House, 1957.

Cormack, Patrick. English Cathedrals. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984.

The Cornish See and Cathedral: Historical & Architectural Notes. Heard and Sons, Truro; London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1887. Internet Archive. Web. 5 January 2012.

Pevsner, Nikolaus, rev. Enid Radcliffe. The Buildings of England: Cornwall. London: Penguin, 1970.

Pevsner, Nikolaus and Priscilla Metcalf. The Cathedrals of England: Southern England. London: Viking (Penguin), 1985.

Reid, Colin. Cornwall's Cathedral: A Short Guide. Hudson's Heritage Group and Truro Cathedral, 2011.

Spence, Keith. Cathedrals and Abbeys. London: A. & C. Black, 1984.

Truro Cathedral, Truro. British Listed Buildings. Web. 5 January 2012.

Waterhouse, Paul, rev. Anthony Quiney. "Pearson, John Loughborough (1817-1897)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 5 January 2012.


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Last modified 5 January 2012