(Sir) John Ninian Comper

Place of Birth

  • Birth date            10 June 1864 at Aberdeen
  • Married                1894 to Grace Bucknal
  • Death date          22 December 1960 at Hostel of God, Clapham, Londo
  • Burial                     Ashes in the north aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey.


John Ninian Comper was born on 10 June 1864 in Aberdeen, the son of a High Churchman, the Rev John Comper and his wife Ellen Taylor. He did not use the name 'John', generally being referred to as either J Ninian Comper or simply Ninian Comper. Educated at Kingston College, Aberdeen, Glenalmond College, Perthshire and the Ruskin School, Oxford, at the age of eighteen he joined the studio of Charles Eamer Kempe, whose stained glass was to have a profound influence on him, although most of his time there was spent on church furnishing under William Tate. After some months he was articled to Bodley & Garner in London from 1883 and remained there until 1887: during that period he attended the South Kensington Schools and the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford.

In 1888 Comper commenced independent practice in partnership with William Bucknall (born 1851) who was thirteen years his senior. He became Comper's brother-in-law in 1894 when Comper married his sister Grace Bucknall. Comper's father's connections in Aberdeen brought him his earliest major commission, St Margaret's Convent Chapel, Aberdeen, 1891 followed some years later by major churches at St Margaret's Braemar and St Mary's Kirriemuir where his father had been Rector. These, together with his convent chapel at Malvern Link (1893) and the major church of St Cyprian, Clarence Gate, St Marylebone (1901-1903), were what he was later to describe as 'beauty by exclusion' i.e. the 14th century English Gothic of Bodley & Garner with some northern European and late Scots Gothic elements in the smaller details. From the beginning restoration, church furnishing, stained glass and ecclesiastical needlework were important aspects of his practice.

In 1896 Comper made an extended tour of the Rhineland and in 1900, against his own inclination, he accompanied his father on a first visit to Rome. This was followed by another in 1905, when he also toured southern Italy and Sicily mainly to see Early Christian churches. Further study tours to Greece and Spain followed in 1906 and 1910 respectively. These progressively resulted in a refined synthesis of classical and gothic motifs more evident in his English than Scottish churches, which he described as unity by inclusion. His tours also brought a changing perception of church planning, the altar being placed under a ciborium and brought closer to the congregation, an arrangement which can be seen in Scotland at St Andrews Cathedral, Aberdeen, a remodelling and extension of Archibald Simpson's church following the abandonment of his magnificent Scots Gothic scheme for a completely new American-financed Seabury Cathedral in the wake of the financial crash of 1929.

Comper's partnership with Bucknall was dissolved in 1904 as the latter had become addicted to alcohol. The separation was particularly difficult as Bucknall's nephew, Arthur Bucknall, was a particularly important member of the practice: it resulted in Comper suffering both from pneumonia and a nervous breakdown, his second visit to Rome and the tour of Southern Italy being planned to help him recuperate. Thereafter he practised with Arthur Bucknall as assistant until his son John B Sebastian Comper, a qualified architect, was old enough to take a senior role in the practice, but Sebastian Comper had to leave to set up his own practice in 1920.

Comper built no completely new churches after the Second World War. He was knighted in 1950 and continued working with the assistance of John Samuel Bucknall, mainly on stained glass, almost up to the time of his death in London on 22 December 1960. He was survived by his six children, his wife Grace having died in 1933. A major exhibition of Comper's work was held at the RIBA in 1988. [Dictionary of Scottish Architects]

Death notice    The Times 23 December 1960 page 1
Obituary    The Times 23 December 1960 page 10
Reference    Dictionary of Scottish Architects   
Reference    Sir Ninian Comper by Anthony Symondson and Stephen Bucknall, 2006
Reference    Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004