Ninian Comper

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John Ninian Comper
Sir John Ninian Comper by Beatrice Bright
Born(1864-06-10)10 June 1864
Aberdeen, Scotland
Died22 December 1960(1960-12-22) (aged 96)
Clapham, London, England
SpouseGrace Bucknall
ChildrenNicholas Comper, John-Baptiste Sebastian Comper, Adrian Comper
Parent(s)John Comper and Ellen (Taylor) Comper
PracticeBucknall & Comper

Sir John Ninian Comper (10 June 1864 – 22 December 1960) was a Scottish-born architect; one of the last of the great Gothic Revival architects.[1]

His work almost entirely focused on the design, restoration and embellishment of churches, and the design of ecclesiastical furnishings, stained glass and vestments. He is celebrated for his use of colour, iconography 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'.[2]

Early life[edit]

Comper was born in Aberdeen in 1864, the eldest son and fourth of the seven children of Ellen (née Taylor) and John Comper, Rector of St John's, Aberdeen (and later St Margaret of Scotland) in the Scottish Episcopal Church.[3][4] The Comper family were of Norman origin and settled as yeoman farmers in Pulborough, Sussex at the Norman Conquest; nevertheless, Comper's father upheld a romantic notion that the family were descended from noble Huguenots.[1]

Comper's father moved from Sussex to Scotland as a young man in search of work as a schoolmaster with a view to becoming a priest. His lack of a university degree prevented him from taking holy orders in the Church of England, so he was ordained as a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church.[1] John Comper became a significant figure within the Scottish Church, remembered for his ministry in the slums of Aberdeen and as an important figure in the northern High Church movement.[5]

Comper was educated at Kingston College, Aberdeen, Glenalmond School in Perthshire and studied drawing for a year at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford before moving to London to serve articles with Charles Eamer Kempe, and in 1883 to George Frederick Bodley and Thomas Garner. Fellow Scot William Bucknall took him into his London partnership in 1888.[6]

Personal life[edit]

Bucknall and Comper remained in partnership until 1905.[7] Ninian married Grace Bucknall in 1890. They had six children. The eldest, John-Baptiste Sebastian Comper (1891-1979), became an architect, designing many churches for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Northampton.[8][9] From 1912, Comper and his wife lived in London at The Priory, Beulah Hill, a house designed by Decimus Burton (1800–81), where he entertained friends such as John Betjeman. He had a studio nearby at Knights Hill, close to the cemetery at West Norwood. After the studio was destroyed in the Second World War, it was relocated to his garden, in a building previously used by his son, Nicholas Comper (1897–1939), to design aircraft.[10]


After a number of restorations and embellishments of existing buildings, Comper's first completed commission for an entirely new church was St Cyprian's, Clarence Gate, London[11] which sought to put into practice the precepts of the Alcuin Club, with whose liturgical views he remained closely identified. The warm reception afforded to St Cyprian's rapidly led to an increase in commissions. These included a range of windows in the north wall of the nave of Westminster Abbey; a baldacchino/ciborium, high altar and east window in memory of the dead of the Great War at St Peter's Church, Huddersfield;[12] the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough;[13] St Michael & All Angels, Inverness;[14] the Lady Chapel at Downside Abbey, Somerset;[15] the ciborium and House Chapel extension for the Society of St John the Evangelist in Oxford (now St Stephen's House, Oxford);[16] the Lady Chapel at St Matthew's, Westminster;[17] the Lady Chapel and gilded paintings in the chancel of All Saints, Margaret Street;[18] and St Martin's Chapel (1913) at Chailey Heritage School, with his son Sebastian.[19] He also designed the main building for infants for St Mary & St John School on Hertford Street in Oxford, now the Comper Foundation Stage School.[20] Comper also completely restored and partially redesigned the church at Church of St Giles, Wimborne St Giles, Dorset, which had suffered near total destruction following a fire in 1908.[21]

Comper is noted for continuing the tradition of designing altars in a medieval fashion, known as the 'English altar', which was first re-introduced by A. W. Pugin. An 'English altar' is an altar surrounded by riddel posts, from which riddel curtains hang, contemporary creations of which sometimes include a gradine (ledge), and despite its name, it is found in not just Medieval England, but other parts of Europe as well, including France and Italy. Comper designed a number of remarkable altar screens (reredos), inspired by medieval originals. Wymondham Abbey, Norfolk, has one example.[22] He was capable of innovative planning; his Church of St Mary-in-the-Baum, Rochdale responds to a restricted urban site by placing the "sensationally high"[23] nave on the well-lit southern side of the building, with the aisle on the north side.[24]

Reredos in Wymondham Abbey, designed by Comper

After the First World War Comper designed the Welsh National War Memorial, unveiled in 1928 in Cathays Park, Cardiff.[25] In 1936–38 he designed St Philip's Church at Cosham near Portsmouth, with a highly original plan with centralised altar; this appealled to the post-First World War generation New Churches Movement because of the primacy of the altar as the focus of the design,[26] although by that date many architects and critics, such as Nikolaus Pevsner, saw his adherence to Gothic forms as dated and anachronistic.[27]

Comper's only work in the United States was the Leslie Lindsey Chapel of Boston's Emmanuel Episcopal Church, comprising the decorative scheme for the chapel designed by Allen & Collins. Comper designed the altar, screen, pulpit, lectern, statuary, furnishings and the stained glass windows.[28] The chapel commemorates Leslie Lindsey and Stewart Mason, her husband of ten days, who were married at Emmanuel Church and perished when the Lusitania was torpedoed in 1915.[29]

Comper was knighted by King George VI in 1950.[30] On 22 December 1960, he died in The Hostel of God (now Trinity Hospice) in Clapham. His body was brought back to Norwood for cremation at West Norwood Cemetery.[31] His ashes were then interred beneath the windows he designed in Westminster Abbey.[32]


  1. ^ a b c Symondson & Bucknall 2006, p. ?.
  2. ^ Symondson 1998a, p. ?.
  3. ^ Buckley 1994, p. ?.
  4. ^ Symondson 1988b, p. ?.
  5. ^ "John Comper". Scottish Episcopal Church. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  6. ^ "Bucknall & Comper". Dictionary of Scottish Architects. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  7. ^ "Sir Ninian Comper". Dictionary of Scottish Architects. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  8. ^ "Sebastian Comper". Historic Churches of Buckinghamshire. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  9. ^ "High Wycombe - St Augustine's". Historic England. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  10. ^ Bucknall, Stephen Arthur. "Sir Ninian Comper in Norwood". The Norwood Society. Archived from the original on 27 March 2012.
  11. ^ Historic England. "Church of St Cyprian, Clarence Gate (Grade II*) (1237476)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  12. ^ "Huddersfield Parish Church - Building history". Church of England. 13 May 2010. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  13. ^ Historic England. "Church of St Mary the Virgin (Grade I) (1371787)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  14. ^ "St Michael and All Angels". Scottish Churches Trust. 24 September 2017. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  15. ^ Historic England. "Abbey Church of St Gregory The Great (Grade I) (1058633)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  16. ^ Historic England. "St Stephen House and Attached Cloisters (Grade II) (1229802)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  17. ^ "St Matthew Westminster". Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  18. ^ Comper, Ninian. "A Dim Religious Light: The Atmosphere of a Church". Institute for Sacred Architecture. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  19. ^ "ST MARTINS CHAPEL, OLD HERITAGE, HERITAGE CRAFTS SCHOOL". Historic England. Retrieved 10 July 2023.
  20. ^ Historic England. "Comper Foundation Stage School (Grade II) (1047076)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  21. ^ Historic England. "Church of St Giles (Grade I) (1120134)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  22. ^ Pevsner & Wilson 2002, p. 797.
  23. ^ Hartwell, Hyde & Pevsner 2004, p. 592.
  24. ^ Historic England. "Church of St Mary-in-the-Baum, St Mary's Gate, Rochdale (Grade I) (1025294)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 30 December 2021.
  25. ^ "Cardiff Welsh National War Memorial; National Memorial For The First World War (great War), Cathays Park (32845)". Coflein. RCAHMW.
  26. ^ Hammond 1960, p. 78.
  27. ^ Pevsner 1952, p. 329.
  28. ^ "Design for the Leslie Lindsey Memorial Chapel, Emmanuel Church, Boston, Massachusetts". RIBApix. Retrieved 29 November 2017.
  29. ^ "History of Lindsey Chapel". Emmanuel Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  30. ^ Warwick, Alan (January 1961). "Sir Ninian Comper". The Norwood Society. Retrieved 30 December 2021.
  31. ^ West Norwood Cemetery registers. Cremations, 29 December 1960
  32. ^ "Obituary, Sir Ninian Comper". The Times. 23 December 1960.


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