The cathedral that never was: Lutyens' design for Liverpool

Photograph of the domed cathedral model

27 January - 22 April 2007

Please note that this exhibition has now closed

This exhibition showcased the stunning model of Sir Edwin Lutyens' unbuilt design for Liverpool's catholic cathedral. Lutyens' original vision for the cathedral was so ambitious that even the finely detailed model was never fully completed.

Once the design itself had been abandoned the model was neglected for many years, until it came into National Museums Liverpool's collections.

The model has now been fully conserved and completed to Lutyens' final design. You can find out more about the history of the model and more using the links below.

The architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens

Line drawing of the Lutyens' head, Lutyens has a moustached and is wearing round glasses and a tie

Rothenstein sketch of Sir Edwin Lutyens
© estate of Sir William Rothenstein/
National Portrait Gallery
, London

Sir Edwin Lutyens was the greatest British architect of the early 20th century. He made his name with a series of grand Arts and Crafts country houses. These houses were based on traditional vernacular styles, using carefully textured local materials. They were informally composed, with dramatically steep roofs, gables and tall chimneys. Lutyens then moved towards a more classical and symmetrical style, inspired by English 17th and 18th century architecture.

In his later work, after about 1912, he designed public and commercial buildings in a monumental classical style, inspired by the Italian Renaissance but simplified to emphasize underlying geometrical form. His most famous later buildings include the Viceroy’s Residence, New Delhi; the Cenotaph, Whitehall; and the Memorial to the Missing, Thiepval, France.

Unlike the architects of the modern movement, Lutyens remained faithful to tradition. He believed in the universality of the classical language of architecture, which he adapted and reinvented with great subtlety and originality.

Lutyens' design

Rough line drawing of the basic outline including entrance and dome

Sketch of the cathedral design by Sir Edwin Lutyens
© RIBA Library Drawings Collection

In 1929 the new Archbishop of Liverpool, Richard Downey, revived the project to build a Catholic Cathedral. Liverpool had a large Catholic population but no adequate centre of worship. Downey awarded the commission to Lutyens, who made numerous drawings. Downey and Lutyens (an Anglican) visited Rome in 1933 and the cathedral design was blessed by the Pope.

Lutyens planned a vast building of pinkish-brown brick, relieved by bands of silver-grey granite. The exterior was composed of interlocking rectangular blocks, simple and massive at the lower levels, but rising to a more complex skyline. This featured detached columns, delicate spires and substantial belfry towers, topped by classical pavilions.

The interior, faced entirely of granite, would have been of majestic solemnity. Its leitmotif, seen also at the Western entrance, was the triumphal arch of antiquity, a tall arch flanked by two lower arches. The building was to have been crowned by an enormous dome 510 feet high, taller than St Peter’s Rome (450 feet) and St Paul’s London (250 feet). On a hill above the city centre, the cathedral would have dominated the Liverpool skyline, outstripping the Anglican cathedral, then under construction.

Photograph of the model from above

Post war photograph of the model fully assembled from the
Stewart Bale Ltd collection. Reference 601102-3

Building the cathedral

Black and white photograph of a flattened building site with a church and spire adjacent

Excavations for the foundations in 1931. Photograph from the Stewart Bale collection.

The site for the cathedral on Brownlow Hill, occupied by the old Liverpool Workhouse, was purchased for £10,000 and cleared, and a fundraising programme was launched. On 5 June 1933 crowds gathered to watch the foundation stone being laid. First to be built was the crypt, a series of complex vaulted brick spaces, intended to be faced with granite.

Work was halted in 1941 because of the war. During the war the unfinished crypt was used as an air-raid shelter. Building was resumed after the war.

By 1953, Lutyens' original estimate of £3 million had risen to £27 million. In the changed atmosphere of the post-war period, the cathedral now seemed an impossible dream and Lutyens’ design was abandoned.

The architect Adrian Gilbert Scott was asked to design a smaller domed building, but this too was abandoned. In 1959 a competition was held for a smaller cathedral on the site. This was won by Sir Frederick Gibberd and his cathedral was opened in 1967.

Photograph of an outdoor service with a large crowd before steps and an altar

Laying the foundation stone.
Photograph from the Stewart Bale collection.

A man in a dark suit sitting on the cathedral model

Model maker John Thorp (the younger) sitting on the 
Lutyens cathedral model.

Conservation

When the model was gifted to the Walker Art Gallery in 1975 it was in poor condition with considerable damage. Find out how our conservation department worked on the model to restore it here.

Current location

The exhibition has now closed but you can see the model on display in the Museum of Liverpool, where it is one of the key exhibits in the People's Republic gallery.