1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bentley, John Francis
BENTLEY, JOHN FRANCIS (1839-1902), English architect, was born at Doncaster in 1839, and commenced his career as an engineer, later passing three years in a builder's office, a course of practical training the benefits of which are evident throughout his work. He subsequently entered the office of Henry Clutton whose practice was very largely in an ecclesiastical direction, and where young Bentley's bias towards that French Gothic treatment of design, by which his earlier work was distinguished, found support and encouragement. Established on his own account in 1862, commissions flowed in for work not only of an architectural nature but also giving scope for his talent in designing for the subsidiary arts, such as stained glass, goldsmith's work, embroidery and the like. His earliest important undertaking was the enlargement and decorative treatment of St. Francis' church, Notting Hill, followed by other ecclesiastical work in London and the country, in which he shows an increasing tendency towards a more English form of expression in his design. The beautiful seminary of St. Thomas at Hammersmith, noteworthy not only for its architectural treatment but, as usual with Bentley, for a carefully conceived and thought-out plan, was followed by St. John's school at Beaumont, one of the best examples of his power to deal with design based on English Renaissance of the 17th century. For many years he was occupied in the completion of Carlton Towers, the seat of Lord Beaumont, left unfinished on the death of E. W. Pugin. On the decorative work of this fine building he spent during the 15 years he was engaged on it an immense amount of thought and invention, and with marked success. A very excellent example of Bentley's skill in adapting mediæval ideals to the circumstances of our times, while yet infusing them with an individuality that lifts them above the level of sheer copyism, is to be found in Holy Rood church, built by him 1892, in which, as regards the interior, he gave free rein to his sense of colour as a final complement of his design.
It was after 30 years of strenuous work at his art, and in his 56th year that Bentley — his claims strongly supported by the most eminent of his fellow architects — was appointed by Cardinal Vaughan as architect of the proposed Roman Catholic cathedral in Westminster, his unremitting and enthusiastic labour upon which occupied the remainder of his life. Already, before his selection by the authorities, it had been decided that for the new building it would be far from desirable to adopt Gothic principles and traditions. The principal factor in coming to this conclusion was the obvious danger of an unpleasant competition, both as regards size and aesthetic treatment, with the closely neighbouring Westminster Abbey. To equip himself thoroughly for dealing with the problem in terms of the Byzantine style settled upon, Bentley determined, as a preliminary, to study his subject at first hand in Italy and Constantinople, and in 1894 he spent several months in northern Italy and Rome with this end in view. From a series of sketch plans prepared on his return was gradually evolved that adopted for the cathedral as now built, a masterly treatment of a difficult problem. The exterior dimensions of the building are 360 ft. in length by 156 ft. in width, the interior of the nave being 232 ft. long, and 60 ft. wide. The three bays into which its length is divided are covered with saucer-shaped domes 112 ft. in height, and springing from enormous piers. The aisles, narrow, as being used for processional purposes only, give on to the seven side-chapels. The truly imposing character of the building was perhaps more to be appreciated when its walls, piers and arches were in their undecorated state, and full value was given to its 342 ft. of length, and to a vast nave higher and wider than any in England. It was always intended that the whole of the inside wall and arch surface should be clothed with marble and mosaic, and to no one could so sumptuous a manner of vesting his building in rich apparel appeal more than to Bentley, and in no hands could it have been placed with more hope of success. There was, however, much difficulty in arriving at a scheme for the comprehensive treatment of the whole ot the vast building, which should be devotional and symbolic, and above all possess a unity of conception. Bentley himself prepared a very thoughtful and complete proposal, partly embodied in the mosaics so far executed, but, unfortunately, only partly so.
In May 1898 he visited the United States to consult as to the proposed cathedral at Brooklyn, and for this he prepared a design, in which he, this time, reverted to Gothic, and which he left incomplete at his death. He died after seeing all but carried into effect and full realization his dream of a church building which should in a grand manner show forth all of the beauty and holiness of that religion to which he had as a young man given himself, and which was throughout his life, in all the work of his genius, his inspiration. On the eve of being presented with the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects he died at Clapham March 2 1902.
See W. de l'Hôpital, Westminster Cathedral and its Architect (1920); T. J. Willson, “Memoir,” Journal of R.I.B.A. (III. Series, vol. ix).