Canterbury’s colonial idealism, Russell Walden

A Dream of Spires: Benjamin Mountfort and the Gothic Revival
Ian Lochhead,
Canterbury University Press, $79.95,
ISBN 0 908812 85 X

Ian Lochhead’s Dream of Spires is a long book glorifying the colonial architect Benjamin Mountfort (1825-1898). It has been 25 years in the making, and an enormous amount of effort has gone into its composition. Clearly Mountfort has a special place in Canterbury’s history but Lochhead pursues Mountfort like a religious conviction. He devotes to his work 150,000 words, 222 black-and-white halftones, 27 coloured plates, three appendices, 20 pages of end-notes, a voluminous bibliography and index. In terms of the literature dealing with the 19th-century architecture of this country, this book is a marathon effort to vindicate the Romantic Movement and the Gothic Revival in Colonial Canterbury.

Right from the outset, the Anglican colonists were determined to embrace an ideology of “heaven-pointing spires” to “beautify” the Canterbury plains. In this Mountfort and Lochhead appear to be two of a kind – an earnest pair extolling the virtues of a colonial dream. Not for one moment does Lochhead pause for critical evaluation of Canterbury’s colonial idealism. Indeed, Lochhead falls over himself to support its ideology in stone and timber. In fact, he goes even further, attempting to convert us to the idea that Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort  is New Zealand’s finest colonial architect.

Nobody would deny that Mountfort was a solid and serious architect. Indeed his talent is wonderfully present, particularly in those small country churches, built in timber, which are unpretentiously designed and give the Canterbury plains such a sense of value and identity; where everything is conditioned by the need for reduction to the barest essentials. I am thinking of Mountfort’s designs for churches like St Andrews at Little River (1879) – and an even better example like that designed for West Melton (1887) – both inexplicably omitted. In these timber buildings, we sense the mind of Mountfort reducing the problem to a simple statement in space, structure and materials. Now this is what I think was the real Mountfort – at one with his farming clients; at one with his maker. For this reviewer, here is the true homecoming of Mountfort the man: as an architect dealing with the character of New Zealand in the making.

Interestingly, Mountfort’s ablest pupil Samuel Hurst Seager thought this as well. Lochhead quotes Seager, who thought the architectural importance of small timber churches was that they were “notable examples of simple, honest construction, leading to the most pleasing results”. In this one can detect the morality of the Gothic Revival’s most influential practitioner A W N Pugin (1812-1852) and its main polemicist John Ruskin (1819-1900). The point I am making is that Lochhead is very good at quoting from books – he cites more than 400 of them in the bibliography – but when it comes to actually debating the architectural value of such buildings, things begin to get murky, and Lochhead is far from convincing us of his thesis that Mountfort was the finest colonial architect in the country.

A Dream of Spires would have benefited from the “all-seeing eye” of Peter Beaven (a “New Zealand” architect and Mountfort enthusiast) to add life and insight to Lochhead’s conscientious scholarship. Lochhead’s introduction, for example, never really explains why “Gothic architecture was regarded as appropriate … for the new colony” and why “none surpassed the standards (Mountfort) maintained over a career of fifty years”.

To illustrate this dilemma, I want to make just a few comparisons. Did Mountfort ever erect a masonry building as convincing as say R A Lawson’s First Church in Dunedin (1873) or Maxwell Bury’s Otago University (1878)? Yet Lochhead persists with the idea (but provides no argument) that Mountfort was “New Zealand’s foremost Gothic Revival architect”. It is surely much more acceptable to argue that Mountfort belonged to a colonial group of architects which included men of the calibre of Lawson, Clayton, Bury, Turnball, Petre, de Clere, Burrows and Armson. Why indulge in parochialism when all that is needed is a degree of balance and architectural insight?

Again, and perhaps the most disturbing of all, there is Lochhead’s treatment of Frederick Thatcher. It is true that Thatcher did not have a long career in architecture, but what he did in New Zealand really counted – and still does. In talking about St Mary’s Parnell, Auckland (1886-96), Lochhead dismisses Old St Paul’s, Wellington (1866), with faint praise by saying, “St Mary’s is an evocation of the dawn of Gothic construction in timber architecture”. And again, “St Mary’s is more unified in conception”. And further on the inside cover, “St Mary’s is one of the finest timber Gothic churches in the world.” Clearly Lochhead does not know the serene quality of Thatcher’s work. Mountfort may have specialised in restlessness in masonry, but the deepest sympathy required by religious building is a sense of inner silence. This silence is serenely there in Thatcher’s work.

Criticisms of A Dream of Spires aside, we can thank Lochhead for having the stamina to finally realise his first book. He organises the work of Mountfort into a clear sequence. His scholarship is accurate, and he writes clearly and precisely. And perhaps Belfry for the Church of St Michael and All Angels (1861), beautifully photographed by Duncan Shaw-Brown, can stand as a compelling icon for Mountfort – colonial architect and High Churchman.

Russell Walden is Associate Professor in the History of Architecture at the School of Architecture and Design, Victoria University of Wellington.

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