John Francis Bentley (1839-1902)
painting by William Christian Symonds
One of London's most recognisable and distinguished buildings is Westminster Cathedral standing out proudly in Victoria Street. In Neo-Byzantine style it was described by the architect Norman Shaw as "the finest church that has been built for centuries". And yet the man who designed it started his career in a locomotive works in Doncaster
John Francis Bentley (1839 – 1902) was the son of a lawyer who became a wine merchant – appropriately because his wife, and Bentley’s mother, was Ann Bacchus. Bentley eventually came to London where he joined a firm of builders in Bloomsbury as an apprentice.
In 1860 he became a member of the Roman Catholic Church and in 1862 set up as an architect at 14 Southampton Street.
In 1868 he moved the practice to 13 John Street, Adelphi, where it remained until his death.
1874 saw his marriage to Margaret Fleuss who he had met only four months earlier.
Characteristically absent-minded he is said to have appeared at the altar in odd shoes – one kid, one patent leather.
JF Bentley’s house with blue plaque, Old Town,Clapham
Blue Plaque marking the home of JF Bentley
After 18 months living in furnished rooms in Belmont Street, Clapham, he took a 21 year lease of 43, Old Town, a beautiful Queen Anne house which today bears an LCC blue plaque recording his stay there, which ended in 1894. In Clapham 11 children, 4 sons and 7 daughters, were born to the Bentleys one of each dying in childhood.
To house them, and his collection of blue and white porcelain, he added a back extension to the house.
In 1894 came the great opportunity of his life when he was commissioned to design a new Roman Catholic cathedral in Westminster.
Having decided on a Byzantine Revival style he travelled to Italy to study some of its early Byzantine-influenced cathedrals such as St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
The Cathedral took seven years to build but sadly Bentley did not live to see it completed. He died in 1902 following a stroke and was buried in the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Mortlake.
He did leave his mark on Clapham at St Mary’s Church in Clapham Park Road to which he added a Lady Chapel and transept chapel and the adjoining Redemptorist Monastery in 1892-3.
For sentimental reasons he declined to design a new font and the old one, in which all his children had been baptised, was moved into his new baptistery.
He also designed Corpus Christi Church in Brixton and the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Hammersmith.
The portrait of him in the last year of his life is by William Christian Symonds who had worked with him designing mosaics for the Cathedral. It is in the National Portrait Gallery.
Redemptorist Monastery, Clapham
Corpus Christi Church, Brixton