Italians Do It Better : A View Of The Brompton Oratory, SW7.

17 Mar
Brompton Oratory from Montpelier Street, SW7

Brompton Oratory from Montpelier Street, SW7

Funny how grand buildings can get swallowed up by their surroundings. The Brompton Oratory in South Kensington is a case in point – it’s huge, but from the front it’s just another bit of high Victorian cod-Italiana, dwarfed and out-weirded by the giants that surround it; Harrods, the Ismaili Centre and the V&A. Even the much smaller Holy Trinity church next door makes more of an impression, but perhaps this is just because of its association with the evangelical shamanism of the Alpha Course.

Herbert Gribble, the Oratory's architect.

Herbert Gribble, the Oratory’s architect.

The Oratory of St Philip Neri, to give it its proper name, was designed by the wonderfully-named Herbert Gribble, who based it on the Chiesa Nuova in Rome. For about twenty years after its completion in 1884, it was London’s main Catholic church until the bizarro-Byzantine Westminster Cathedral opened down in Victoria. If we’re going to play public figure/public buildings metaphors, it’s Anne Widdecombe to the Cathedral’s Nancy Dell’Olio.


‘It could be a middling Baroque church in any big Italian city : and this is not enough.’
– Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London, 1966.

But from these similarly unremarkable sidestreets towards Knightsbridge, it casts a continental view like no other in Britain. It has none of the survivor’s guilt or grandeur of Saint Paul’s, none of the Olde World disapproval of Westminster Abbey. My photos don’t do the view justice, but it shows Victorian ersatz  at its absolute Canaletto-lite best. On a sunny day you could mistake it for Florence – in the rain, too, for that matter. From here, it’s not just Italian architecture that’s plagiarised – it’s Italy itself.

What else? Nick Cave wrote a song about the Oratory for his 1997 masterpiece The Boatman’s Call. It’s one of the best things on the record. A friend of mine wrote off his car when he smashed it into one of the bollards outside – he claimed he’d lost control because he was playing his Tindersticks CD too loud. More improbable things have happened, I suppose .


2 Responses to “Italians Do It Better : A View Of The Brompton Oratory, SW7.”

  1. positivegreenford March 20, 2014 at 7:43 am #

    My parents had their marriage blessed at the Oratory, there’s a photo of them with invited guests on the steps outside. My Scottish cousins couldn’t believe that my paternal grandfather, a Presbyterian minister, had attended an event in a Catholic church. I was baptised there and attended the Oratory Primary school. I remember all the church events like summer fetes (there can’t be many that had Harrods as a sponsor) and Bonfire Night ( a bit inappropriate for a Catholic church) as well as all the special masses. One of the grandest was a requiem mass for a friend’s father, a Pole who had fought at Monte Cassino. There was once a lovely painting by Rex Whistler there but it was stolen. I got the impression that those responsible for building it went on a shopping spree in Italy for second hand altars and other assorted bits. I remember it as having an air of faded grandeur. I’m sure I was told that the priests’ house next door didn’t have a supply of hot water until the 1980s but there was a large room with full size snooker tables, very Edwardian. There was a carriage drive/circle in front of it. One of the best things about the church was Father Barrett-Lennard who was the chaplain at my secondary school. He would turn up in a classroom and begin telling us an incoherent ghost story which always ended in his making us jump out of our skins. On one occasion his false teeth fell out onto a desk when he did this which left everyone weak with laughter, including the teacher. We adored him. I had no idea that he had a title until I saw his obituary after his death:

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