About the artwork
'Many Philistines have asked me why we want to build a cathedral at Liverpool', the Roman Catholic Archbishop Richard Downey wrote in the early 1930s, 'and why we want to build it on [such a] magnificent scale.' He explained that a cathedral was not to be seen as 'a glorified parish church', but as 'a vast spacious place where the bishop can address his multitudinous subjects.' Also, the planned Cathedral was not intended solely for the 250,000 Roman Catholics of Liverpool, but for those of what Downey called the 'whole Northern Province: for the Metropolis of Liverpool and for the Suffragen Sees of Hexham and Newcastle, Lancaster, Leeds, Middlesbrough, and Salford.'
His Grace concluded: 'We need a cathedral, we need it urgently, and it must be a vast one.'
And if this was what Archbishop Downey felt was needed he had chosen the right man for his architect. Sir Edwin Lutyens's Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, had it been built, would have been the second largest Christian church in the world, second only (presumably in deference to the Pope) to St. Peter's in Rome. It would have occupied twice the area of St. Paul's Cathedral in London and, more immediately, entirely dwarfed the Anglican Cathedral at the other end of Hope Street. The estimated cost was 3 million pounds.
Lutyens persuaded the Archdiocese that a model of the proposed Cathedral, constructed to a scale ratio of 1:48, would provide an invaluable reference tool for the builders, but could also be used as a travelling fund raising attraction for the project, in much the same way as Queen Mary's Doll's House - also designed by Lutyens - had raised considerable sums of money for charitable causes during the previous decade.
The model was built by JB Thorp & Co., the leading architectural model-making firm in London. Twelve craftsmen worked on it for two years at a cost of £5,000. In 1934 Lutyens estimated that it would take a further £6,500, and another year to complete. At this point the Archdiocese, regarding it as a drain on resources, refused to put any further money into it and took delivery of the model as it was. Although externally finished enough to make a strong impression when it was shown at the 1934 Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy, practically filling the Octagon Room of Burlington House, much of the interior structure and detail was in a very rudimentary state. Work had not even started on some areas.
It was exhibited in Dublin and in various places around Liverpool but it never fulfilled its intended fundraising purpose being too large and expensive to transport and erect.
As for the Cathedral itself, only the crypt was built and during World War 2 this substantial brick structure served as an excellent air raid shelter. The increasingly battered and neglected model also found a home there. Lutyens died in 1944 and Archbishop Downey in 1953. By then the estimated cost of the building had risen from 3 million to 27 million pounds and after a short-lived proposal by Adrian Gilbert Scott to adapt Lutyens plan and build something smaller, the project was abandoned. Sir Frederick Gibberd's radically different Metropolitan Cathedral - 'Paddy's Wigwam' - was eventually erected on the same site in the space of seven years.
Lutyens's model was presented - unfinished, severely damaged and missing many of its original parts - to the Walker Art Gallery in 1975. Conservation began in 1993. Today, after thirteen years work by the conservation team, it is complete.
The last word should go to the architect's son, Robert Lutyens:
'There is one work of my father's which stands quite outside time and period, and which can be judged, therefore, as a totally isolated work of art, without social or cultural connotations, and which has been saved from prejudiced denigration by the singular purity - by the abstraction of its non-completion. I am, of course, referring to the Cathedral. It is there, yet it is nowhere: and let no-one condemn it as an unattainable artefact. It could and should have been built. It may well have been the final affirmation of his faith in the eternal thing that so transcends mere building. It is architecture - asserted once and for ever - and the very greatest building that was never built!'