Tag Archives: Brompton Oratory

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.

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‘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 .