Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and Downside Abbey

November 2020 marks the 140th birthday of one of Britain’s most distinguished and well-known architects, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. He is best known for his work on Liverpool Cathedral, Cambridge University Library, Battersea Power Station and also for creating the iconic red telephone box, yet lesser known in many circles, however, is his work on Downside Abbey. 

Scott was approached in 1917 by the Downside community to create a nave for their abbey church, four years after he carried out the conversion of The Holy Ghost church in Midsomer Norton from a dilapidated tithe barn. Scott was a natural choice for the work on the nave as he had been raised a Roman Catholic and had already done much work for the Catholic Church across Britain. 

The new nave at Downside was intended to be a war memorial to the scores of Downside school boys who had lost their lives, and who would go on to lose them. When Scott agreed to the project in September 1917, sixty nine Old Gregorians had already been killed and a further 39 would be added to that number by 1919. However, it was not until 1922 that Scott was finally instructed by the monks of Downside to begin work on seven bays of his nave following the work of previous architects Dunn and Hansom and Garner. 

Work on the nave was carried out by the abbey’s own works department and was completed in 1925. Much disagreement had ensued between Scott and the monastic community as to the style of the new nave, but at the opening of the new addition to the church Scott was tactful in saying the monks had been right in their views for the building. 

After the completion of the nave Scott continued to carry out work for the Downside monks. In 1934 he carried out a rearrangement of the sanctuary in time for the consecration of the church in 1935. The current choir stalls were also executed by Scott, created by Stuflesser in the Austrian Tyrol and then shipped to Somerset. 

Scott is also responsible for the screen across the organ loft, which was added in 1931 and for many of the tombs and monuments within the church. These include the tombs of Abbots Edmund Ford and Leander Ramsay as well as that of Bishop Collingridge. Yet perhaps the most striking of the interior decorations created by Scott is that of the tomb of Cardinal Aidan Gasquet. 

Scott viewed the exceptional tomb of the Cardinal as one of his best works. It is certainly a striking piece, showing Scott’s ability to combine medieval form with modern interpretation. The last piece of work Scott carried out at Downside was to finish Dunn and Hansom’s tower which he did in 1938, adding the ‘Gasquet crown’. At 166 feet it is the second highest tower in Somerset. Nikolaus Pevsner said ‘with its commanding tower, it is Pugin’s dream of the future of English Catholicism at last come true.’ 

It is also important to note Scott’s design and building of St Alphege’s church in Bath, started in 1927 and opened partially in 1929. 

Much of the history of Scott at Downside comes from Gavin Stamp’s chapter in the book Downside Abbey An Architectural History which can be purchased here.