Sir John Ninian Comper

Sir John Ninian Comper was born in Aberdeen on 10 June 1864, the eldest of five children. His father, the Revd John Comper, rector of St John’s Episcopal Church, was one of the advanced priests in the Anglo-Catholic revival in Scotland. After attending Glenalmond School in Perthshire, Comper spent a year at Ruskin's Art School in Oxford, before going to London where he was articled to Charles Eamer Kempe, and later to George Frederick Bodley and Thomas Garner. He always regarded Bodley as his master, and like him always steadfastly opposed the system of qualifying examinations for architects and architectural schools: in "Who's Who" he described himself as "&architect (not registered)".

With the exception of the Welsh War Memorial in Cardiff (1928), all Comper's work was ecclesiastical. His first independent building was a chapel added to his father's church of St Margaret of Scotland, Aberdeen in 1889. The chapel, known today as "the Comper Aisle" was built in memory of Ninian's father, the Reverend John Comper who died suddenly in the Duthie Park in Aberdeen, on the banks of the River Dee, while giving strawberries to poor children.  The figure of Fr John Comper, keeling at a prie-dieu, is shown in the magnificent east window in the Comper Aisle. Comper's signature of a strawberry can be seen in this window and his other stained glass works as a tribute to his father.

The St Margaret's chapel was followed two years later by the new St Margaret's Convent Chapel in Aberdeen. This set the fashion, destined to become the norm for many successful Anglican convents ... a Comper chapel. One of his last works was the great window in Westminster Hall in London in 1952.

In the course of seventy years Sir Ninian Comper was the architect responsible for fifteen churches; he restored and decorated scores of others; and he designed vestments, banners and windows in places as far apart as China, North America, France, India, and South Africa. There can hardly be a rural deanery in England or a Diocese in Scotland without some example of his sensitive and unmistakable workmanship which is also to be found in churches of the Roman Communion, among them Downside Abbey.

Comper's liturgical understanding of the purpose of a church was far in advance of any other architect of his time. It has been claimed that Ninian Comper was the greatest church furnisher since Wren. However, if he was primarily a decorator rather than an architect, his decorative art was never simply for art's sake, but for the sake of the function for which he firmly believed a church exists, namely "as a roof over an altar".

Believing this, he built from the altar outwards, personally designing every detail of the furnishings, even down to the candle sticks, which had to fit in with his design. While bitterly opposed to 'modernism', he nevertheless anticipated by many years the changes that were to come: for example, his use of free-standing altars, of pure white interiors and strong clear colours, especially the typical Comper rose and green, and the combination of gilding, blue, and white. Sir John Betjeman said of him (in 1948): "His ecclesiastical tastes are rococo as well as his architectural ones; he is perfectly satisfied so long as gold leaf is heaped on everywhere."

In 1890 Ninian Comper married Grace Bucknall. They had four sons, the eldest of whom followed in the steps of his father, and became an architect - and two daughters. His wife, Grace, died in 1933.

Ninian Comper was knighted by the king in 1950, and is recognised as one of the major church architects of the twentieth century, if not the greatest.

Sir John Ninian Comper died on the 22nd December 1960 in The Hostel of God, now Trinity Hospice, in Clapham, London SW4, which at the time was run by the Sisters of St Margaret from East Grinstead, the same Order that his father brought to Aberdeen to share his work in caring for the poor. It was appropriate that the Sisters of St Margaret were there to care for Ninian at the end. The Chaplain of the Hostel, Fr Leslie A Pickett SSC, was a member of the Society of the Holy Cross (of which Fr John Comper would have undoubtedly approved) cared for Ninian, providing the Sacraments of the Church right to the end.

Sir Ninian Comper's ashes were buried beneath the windows he designed in Westminster Abbey and where he had also been responsible for the design of the Warriors' Chapel.


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