Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Bentley, John Francis

BENTLEY, JOHN FRANCIS (1839–1902), architect, born at Doncaster on 30 Jan. 1839, was third surviving son of Charles Bentley by his wife Ann, daughter of John Bachus of that town, and received his education at a private school there. In boyhood he made a model of St. George's Church, Doncaster, from notes and measurements taken before its destruction by fire in 1853, and when Sir George Gilbert Scott [q. v.] began the rebuilding in 1854, Bentley frequented the fabric and rendered some services to the clerk of works. In 1855 he acted as voluntary superintendent in the restoration of Loversall Church, and there tried his hand at carving. Meanwhile his father, who deprecated an artistic career, placed him for a short tune with Sharp, Stewart & Co., a firm of mechanical engineers at Manchester; but in August 1855 Bentley entered on a five years' indenture with the building establishment of Winsland & Holland in London. Next year his father died, and Richard Holland, a partner of this firm, recognising his promise, placed him (1858) in the office of Henry Glutton, an architect in extensive domestic and ecclesiastical practice, who had joined the Church of Rome. Bentley took the same step in 1862, and in the same year, though invited by Glutton to join him in partnership, preferred the risks of independence and took chambers at 14 Southampton Street, Covent Garden.

While waiting for commissions Bentley continued the sketching and modelling which had already occupied his evening leisure, and often made for other architects designs for work in metal, stained glass, and embroidery. He submitted designs at the exhibitions of London (1862) and Paris (1867). For St. Francis's Church, Netting Hill (the scene of his own baptism by Cardinal Wiseman), he designed the stone groined baptistery, font, and porch, as well as the altars of St. John and the Blessed Virgin (with paintings by his friend, N. H. J. Westlake), a jewelled monstrance, and at a later date the high altar. In 1866 he undertook for the poet Coventry Patmore [q. v.] the adaptation of an old Sussex House, Heron's Ghyll, near Uckfield. His work betrayed from the first conscientious anxiety for perfection in detail and soundness of construction. He regarded architectural competitions as inimical to art. In 1868 he transferred his office to 13 John Street, Adelphi, began the Seminary of St. Thomas at Hammersmith (now the Convent of the Sacred Heart), at the time his best work, and designed the altar and reredos of the Church of St. Charles, Ogle Street, Marylebone. In 1884 Bentley built in the style of the Renaissance the large preparatory school (St. John's) in connection with Beaumont College at Old Windsor. For some years (beginning in 1874) he spent much thought and labour on the internal decoration and furniture of Carlton Towers, Selby, for Lord Beaumont.

For thirty years he was engaged at intervals on the Church of St. Mary of the Angels, Westmorland Road, Bayswater, where he designed additional aisles, a baptistery, and various chapels. The Church and Presbytery of Our Lady at Cadogan Street (1875) and the Church of St. Mary and the Holy Souls at Bosworth Road, Kensal New Town (1881) are simple examples of Bentley's brick construction. In 1885 he built the unfinished portion of Corpus Christi Church, Brixton, in Early Decorated style.

For the Redemptorist Fathers he did varied work at Bishop Eton, Liverpool, and Clapham. To the Church of Our Lady of Victories at Clapham he added a fine Lady chapel (1883), a transept, stained glass windows, and a monastery completed in 1894. For the Church of St. James, Spanish Place, London, he designed several altars and some glass. His fine Church of the Holy Rood at Watford was with its schools and presbytery in hand from 1887 to 1892. Other works were a house (Glenmuire) for E. Maxwell-Steuart at Ascot and a private chapel in the neighbourhood for C. J. Stonor (1885-90). In 1897 he built with stone and red-brick in the early fifteenth-century style the Convent of the Immaculate Conception for Franciscan nuns at Booking Bridge, near Braintree. The screen and organ case of St. Etheldreda's, Ely Place, Holborn, are from his designs.

Bentley also had commissions from the Church of England. In 1893-4 the two City churches of St. Botolph came under his care. For St. Botolph, Bishopsgate, he provided external repair as well as internal decoration, and for that at Aldgate he designed numerous interior embellishments, notably the fine cornice of angels bearing the shields of the City companies. Similar works were done at Holy Trinity, Minories, and St. Mark's, North Audley Street. For St. John's Church, Hammersmith (designed by William Butterfield [q. v. Suppl. I]) he schemed a morning chapel, organ case, sacristy, and general decorations. In 1899 he built a new church at Chiddington, Penshurst.

In 1894 came the great opportunity of his life. Cardinal Vaughan [q. v. Suppl. II] called upon him to design the Roman catholic cathedral of Westminster. The conditions laid upon the architect were that the church should have a nave of vast extent giving an uninterrupted view of the high altar, and that the methods of construction should not be such as to involve undue initial expenditure of either time or money. On this account a strong preference was expressed in favour of Byzantine style.

Bentley perceived that his design should be preceded by special foreign study, and though not in robust health set out in November of the same year for a tour of Italy. Visiting Milan (especially for Sant' Ambrogio), Pavia, and Florence, Rome (where the work of the Renaissance disappointed him), Perugia (which with Assisi delighted him), and Ravenna, he came at last to Venice, where cold and fatigue compelled him to rest before he could study St. Mark's.

His natural wish to proceed to Constantinople was frustrated by the prevalence there of cholera, and returning to London in March 1895 he was ready by St. Peter's and St. Paul's Day (29 June) for the laying of the foundation stone.

The cathedral is outwardly remarkable for its tall campanile and its bold use of brick and stone (for description see Architectural Review, xi. 3, by W. R. Lethaby, and Builder, 6 July 1895, 25 Feb. 1899, 23 June 1900). The design is throughout marked by the greatest simplicity, largeness of scale and avoidance of trivial ornament. Internally the vast nave consists of three bays measuring 60 feet square and each surmounted by a concrete dome. A fourth bay nearest the nominal east forms the sanctuary and beyond it is an apse. The nave is flanked on each side by an aisle; outside the aisles are the many chapels. When first opened for worship, and before any progress had been made with the marble decorations, the interior effect was a triumph of pure form. The construction was remarkable, Bentley having set himself to avoid any structural materials but brickwork, masonry, and concrete. 'I have broken,' he said, 'the back of that terrible superstition that iron is necessary to large spans' (Memoir by Charles Hadfield in Architectural Review, xi. 115). In 1898 Bentley was summoned to the United States to advise on the design and construction of the Roman catholic cathedral at Brooklyn, for which he prepared a scheme.

Seized in November 1898 with paralytic symptoms, which in June 1900 affected his speech, he died on 2 March 1902 at his residence, The Sweep, Old Town, Clapham Common, the day before his name was to be submitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects for the royal gold medal (R.I.B.A. Journal, ix. 219). He was buried at Mortlake.

Bentley had married in 1874 Margaret Annie, daughter of Henry J. Fleuss, a painter, of D{[subst:u:}}sseldorf, and had four sons and seven daughters, of whom one son and one daughter died in infancy, and the remainder survived him. His third son, Osmond, succeeds, in partnership with Mr. J. A. Marshall, to the architectural practice, and his eldest daughter, Mrs. Winifred Mary de 1'Hopital, is engaged on her father's biography. There is in the possession of the family a portrait in oils by W. Christian Symons.

[R.I.B.A. Journ., 3rd series, 1901-2, ix. 437 (memoir by T. J. Willson); Architectural Review, 1902, xi. 155, and xxi. 18 (art. by Halsey Ricardo); Builder, 1902, Ixxxii. 243; Building News, 1902, lxxxii. 339; information from Mr. Osmond Bentley.]

P. W.