The Architectural Competition

Griffith's ink and watercolour dawing of the Anglican Chapel of 1836
Kendall's Gothic design for the Anglican Chapel
John Griffith's Greek Revival design of 1836
Henry Edward Kendall's Gothic design of 1832

The principal buildings of Kensal Green Cemetery – the Anglican Chapel, Dissenters' Chapel and Main Gate – were built to the Greek Revival designs of John Griffith FRIBA (1796-1888), after an architectural competition won by the Gothic Revival designs of Henry Edward Kendall (1776-1875).

Before Kensal Green Cemetery was formally established by Act of Parliament in July 1832, its development was directed by a Provisional Committee brought together by the barrister George Frederick Carden (1798-1874). He had been pursuing the idea of a garden cemetery in north London since 1820, succeeding with the formation of the joint-stock General Cemetery Company in 1830. Through the agency of the banker Sir John Dean Paul (1775-1852), an influential member of the Committee, the company had purchased 54 acres (22 hectares) of meadowland in Kensal Green by the end of 1831, and proceeded to secure the site with an imposing boundary wall designed by another Committee member, the architect John Griffith of Finsbury.

Although its members were enterprising and well-connected, the Committee failed to attract a leading architect to undertake the design of the cemetery's principal buildings, despite the fleeting involvement of Augustus Charles Pugin (1769-1832), Benjamin Dean Wyatt (1775-1855), Charles Fowler (1792-1867) and Lewis Nockalls Cottingham (1787-1847).

The prospect of being interred in a suburban cemetery, rather than the grounds or vaults of the parish church, was a radically new idea in the 1830s. It was essential that the chapels and gates, even the walls and landscape of Kensal Green, should project security, stability and affluence in order to attract investors to the company and purchasers to the cemetery.

The Committee launched an architectural competition, initially for the design of a 'chapel with ample vaults' and an entrance gate, in November 1831, attracting 48 entries by the closing date of 28 February 1832. The plans were judged by a sub-committee comprising the barrister George Frederick Carden, the banker Sir John Dean Paul, the architects John Griffith and Augustus Charles Pugin, the sculptor Robert William Sievier (1794-1865) and the Bible printer Andrew Spottiswoode MP (1786-1866), another important member of the Provisional Committee. On March 1, the prize of one hundred guineas was awarded to the Gothic Revival designs of Henry Edward Kendall.

Kendall's design for the Anglican Chapel
Kendall's design for the watergate
Kendall's design for the Anglican Chapel Kendall's design for a watergate on the Grand Union Canal

In the definitive history of Kensal Green Cemetery, Prof. James Stevens Curl identifies Kendall as "a pupil of Thomas Leverton (1743-1824), and, it is alleged, of John Nash. He was one of the founders of the Institute of British Architects, exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1799 to 1843, and was a prolific architect, whose work included churches, town- and country-houses, gaols, and workhouses." His winning designs for Kensal Green envisaged an ornate chapel filled with sculptural monuments, complemented by a stout tower for the main gate onto Harrow Road, and a romantic watergate for the reception of barge-borne funerals from the Grand Union Canal.

However, trends in modern architecture excited as much controversy then as now, and in the 1830s, opinion was particularly divided on the relative merits of the classical and medieval traditions. The clean lines and geometric symmetry of classical architecture, standing witness to the ancient glories of Greece and Rome, embodied values that had been at the heart of the establishment for generations: for churches and colleges, town halls and courthouses, subtle variations on classical models were firmly established as the style appropriate to buildings of substance, from the Bank of England to aristocratic country houses. Nearly two centuries later, it takes an effort of the imagination to appreciate that the Gothic Revival – so familiar now as to seem 'typical' of high Victorian churches and public buildings – was then regarded with some suspicion by those who associated its extravagance with the recent excesses of the Regency, and the distant crudities of the middle ages. Morever, within the Provisional Committee, the advocate of the Gothic Revival was George Frederick Carden, the barrister who initiated the enterprise but who found himself increasingly at odds with the rest of the Committee – not least the banker John Dean Paul, whose taste strongly inclined toward classical models.

That conflict came to a head on 26 June 1833, less than a year after the cemetery was established, when Carden was replaced as Registrar of the General Cemetery Company by Charles Broughton Bowman. He continued to harry his former colleagues, not least with claims for services and expenses back-dated to 1820. Carden finally settled for £1000 compensation in June 1839, but had no further influence on the project he so boldly began, beyond securing a place for his own modest headstone amidst the grand monuments directly in front of the Anglican Chapel.

As the architectural competition preceded the actual establishment of the cemetery by some months, the Committee sensibly deferred its decision on the actual commission. Although Kendall was asked for more information, and published handsome plates of his designs – lithographed by Thomas Allom (1804-1872) – little more came of his or any other entry into the competition. Once the cemetery was incorporated, in July 1832, work began in earnest, with a boundary wall and railings, and preliminary sketches for a chapel – by the inside man, Committee member John Griffith, in the Greek Revival style.

East Front of the Anglican Chapel, elevation of 1836
Griffith's contract drawing of 1836
East Front elevation of John Griffith's Greek Revival design Contract drawing of 1836 showing the portico, loggia and chapel
The Anglican Chapel c.1845
The Anglican Chapel of Kensal Green Cemetery
The Anglican Chapel and Duke of Sussex's monument c.1845
The Anglican Chapel today

Interestingly, Henry Edward Kendall had actually submitted two entries into the competition, one in the Gothic and one in the Grecian style; unfortunately, his Greek Revival designs were collected after the competition and appear not to have survived, so we may never know what he had suggested. However, the exterior of the Anglican Chapel at Kensal Green, completed in April 1838 to Griffth's designs, bears a striking resemblance to Kendall's work on the Session House of Spilsby, Lincolnshire (now the Spilsby Theatre). Some observers also note strong similarities between the interior of the Anglican Chapel and rooms at the Bank of England of 1804-05, designed by Sir John Soane (1753-1837); Soane was one of the most influential architects of the day, for whom the contractor at Kensal Green, William Chadwick (1797-1852), had worked on later projects.

Yet if Griffith is not remembered as an innovative architect, he should be commended for the enduring quality of his work: while many of the first garden cemeteries have since lost their chapels – several built just a few years after Kensal Green's, in a Gothic Revival style that was then becoming fashionable – the chapels, catacombs, gate and walls of Kensal Green are all still standing. They require careful conservation, and major restorations from time to time, but they are essentially as handsome and imposing now as they were in the first days of London's premier garden cemetery. Although little of his other work as an architect has been identified, John Griffith went on to become Chairman of the General Cemetery Company between 1864 and 1879.

Henry Edward Kendall and John Griffith – as well as George Frederick Carden, Sir John Dean Paul, their fellow Committee members Charles Broughton Bowman, Robert William Sievier, Andrew Spottiswoode and Benjamin Dean Wyatt, and the artist Thomas Allom – are all interred at Kensal Green.

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