Discovering Sophia Gray (1814-1871): British Cape Colony “Architect to the Diocese”

Deirdre Thackray

(Department of History of Art, University of York)

This article is an edited and abridged version of the introductory chapter of my MA dissertation, Sophia Gray (1814-1871): an architectural apprenticeship for home, church and empire, presented at a Gender History Group meeting at the University of Sheffield in November 2017.

The contribution of Sophia Gray (1814-1871) to the physical establishment of the Anglican Church in South Africa between 1848 and 1871 is accepted and acknowledged, albeit not much beyond South Africa. Sophia Gray is attributed with full or partial responsibility for the erection of 40 out of the 50 churches built across the expansive Cape colony between 1848 and 1872.[1] These churches are primarily Gothic Revival, notably Early English in style, reflecting her and her husband Robert’s involvement in the Oxford Movement, and recorded interest in Cambridge Camden Society writings.[2] No evidence has been found to suggest that Sophia Gray had had any involvement in church-building activity prior to her husband’s appointment to the post of first Bishop of Cape Town in 1847.

 

Sophia Gray: a parish architect

The scale of the task that lay ahead was understood by the Grays, and thus it took some time for Robert Gray to accept the offer of the Colonial Bishopric. Robert’s correspondence indicates that Sophia was closely involved in the decision-making, and that she was satisfied with his eventual agreement to removing his growing family from his Stockton-on-Tees parish to the far side of empire, in the service of the Anglican church and the British empire.[3]

From the outset Sophia Gray needed to take unfamiliar, local building conditions into account, including the availability of skilled craftsmen, and an economic imperative that determined a simplicity of design. Such designs needed to be uncomplicatedly and economically replicated across the diocese. Her familiarity with the terrain, developed through accompanying her husband on visits across the diocese, is without question while issues of economy remained a factor throughout their ecclesiastical lives in South Africa.[4] The vastness of the geographical scope of the Grays’ diocesan-building endeavour was something of which they were aware from the outset, as indicated in one of Bishop Robert Gray’s first calls for the resources necessary to address the task: “The colony of the Cape of Good Hope, which has been in the possession of Great Britain since 1806, comprises the southern extremity of the continent of Africa, from latitude 29° 30’ south, and between longitude 17° and 27° 30’ east. Its length from east to west is about 650 miles; its average breadth from north to south is 240 miles; being somewhat larger than Great Britain”.[5]

Sophia Gray grasped how important the parish church was to British colonists, and in establishing parish churches that were familiar in liturgical and architectural style terms she was able to play a vital role in consolidating the Anglican church in the colony. By supplying clergy and parishioners with familiar liturgical and architectural settings Gray was also supplying vital reassurances that they were, in many senses, ‘home’.  Sophia was able to apply her enduring ethos in practice through her role in building St Saviour’s, Claremont, the Gray family parish church.

At her burial in April 1871, Sophia Gray’s husband Bishop Robert Gray wrote to their son Charles, “We buried your dear mother yesterday in Claremont Cemetery, under the shadow of our unfinished parish church, of which she was the architect, and in which she took so deep an interest”.[6] A highly personal endeavour, St Saviour’s was established within two years of their arrival in the Cape, serving the needs of not only the Grays’ young family, but those of a rapidly increasing settler-farmer population spreading across a vast geographical area lying to the south east of Table Mountain, and the mountainous terrain flanking Cape Town and Table Bay.[7]

In A Few Words to Church Builders the Cambridge Camden Society asserts that when determining a ground plan “only two parts (are) essential to a church: chancel and nave”; and by beginning with the construction of the chancel in 1850 Sophia Gray was cannily allowing for the planned addition of a nave that could be extended to meet the needs of an expanding congregation.[8] Cambridge Camden Society tenets continued to inform Gray’s work, with the architectural designs of one of the Society’s favoured church architects William Butterfield argued as serving as much of her source material for several churches.[9]

Gray’s own pencil sketch of St Saviour’s, circa 1857, presents a small church alive with Early English features, including pointed windows and doorways, all with trefoil and quatrefoil headers. The deceptively simple sketch shows this parish church flanked by indeterminate types of trees, and at first glance it could be an illustration of many an English parish church; only the looming flat-topped Table Mountain ridge to the north west, the defining feature of the landscape in this region of South Africa, and South Africa itself, serves to locate it far beyond English shores.

Redressing the partisan portrait of Sophia Gray

To date, rigorous interrogation of the possible means by which Gray might have acquired the skill and capability essential to her role as “architect to the diocese” has been lacking.[10] When Sophia Gray, née Wharton Myddleton, was born on 5 January 1814, at the family home of Grinkle Park in the parish of Easington in the North Riding of Yorkshire, there would have been no obvious indication that the path she would follow might in any way differ from that laid down for her sisters, and mother before her; in many respects it did not. She was the sixth of seven children, six of whom were girls, with one boy, Richard, born some 19 years earlier in 1795. The limited writings that are available offer little consideration to how Gray’s young life and position as the daughter of a member of the northern landed gentry may have directly impacted her unquestionable abilities in the service of Church and empire.

A flurry of South African publications on the history of the Cape and Cape Town appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, with an enhanced interest in the mid- to late- nineteenth century when Cape Town was at the heart of the South African British empire.[11] A feature of these South African sources is to determinedly couch Sophia Gray’s considerable personal achievements solely within the boundaries of her marriage to a minister of the Anglican church. The resulting biographical material referencing Gray equates to Lois Banner’s description of an outdated form of biography as “an ethical endeavour focused on surveying the heroic lives of eminent men in order to uplift and inspire its readers”.[12]

Only one biography of Sophia Gray has been written. Published in South Africa in 1970 The Bishop’s Wife erroneously describes the Wharton Myddleton family as aristocratic, while heralding Robert Gray as Sophia’s saviour, responsible for arousing “unsuspected qualities in her character”.[13] These examples of social and marital stricture function illustrate those “imperialist and patriarchal discourses” seen by Jenny Coleman as emphasising the performative and reliant nature of women’s roles “within the imperial endeavour”.[14]

A revised consideration of Sophia Gray’s accomplishments

The development, since the 1970s, of feminist and gender theories has widened the lens through which historical scholarship has viewed women and their achievements. However, recent architectural historical scholarship, with a tendency to resort to mid-twentieth century South African secondary source publications, serves to perpetuate unfounded claims while retaining outdated patriarchal attitudes to Sophia Gray and her work.  Martin’s declaration that Gray’s role in imperial church building was deliberately suppressed, stating “(it) would have been imprudent for the Bishop, considering the non-acceptance by Victorian society of women in professions, least of all those monopolized by men”, is not supported by, for example, Robert Gray’s letters to architect William Butterfield, on the event of Sophia’s death.[15] Butterfield was in fact commissioned by Bishop Gray to design the still in place modifications to Sophia Gray’s beloved St Saviour’s; a fitting, memorial to the woman, her life and her work.

Much energy was expended from the late eighteenth century, and well into the Victorian era, in attempting to clarify, and by extension differentiate, male and female roles within every stratum of society.  One aspect of this complex wide-ranging debate was to seek to determine what constituted valid realms of activity for men and women, the spaces in which it was deemed appropriate for them to function, and to what end.  An extension of this attempt at differentiation sought to define the paradigmatic features of ‘womanhood’.[16] Education of young women from the late eighteenth, and into the nineteenth, century sought to foster such notions of womanhood by encouraging, through formal and informal means, the acquisition of desirable feminine accomplishments, and competent involvement in acceptable leisure activities. These feminine accomplishments could be taught and perfected within the space designated most suitable for young women: the home, more particularly the drawing room.[17] Sophia Gray’s metaphorical, and indeed geographical, removal from this domestic terrain has to date been dealt with in a cursory and dismissive manner, and mostly by way of the tropes of romantic fiction.[18]

Anthony Webster notes “a peculiar separation by historians of British domestic history from the nation’s imperial past”.[19] A restrictive biographical presentation of Gray is an example of this “peculiar separation”. The dislocation of Gray from her own domestic history serves to dismiss and devalue those gendered educational and social factors that directly impacted her architectural ability.  The result is her near-total placement within the purview of her husband’s history, an ecclesiastical, and overwhelmingly masculine-oriented history. Gray’s role in Britain’s imperial past, however we might care to define this past, has been rendered little more than a quirky footnote: South Africa’s “first woman architect” is rarely presented in fully rounded terms.[20]

A more thorough examination of the available detail and context of Sophia Gray’s earlier life offers a means of re-evaluating the importance of her position within that group of recognised and dedicated churchmen, novelists, church architects, and artists whose lives and work have provided the basis of much of our understanding of the Anglican Church and empire in that period. Sophia Gray also presents as an intriguing example of someone who played a not-inconsiderable part in what Jonathan Crary considers “a history of vision”.[21] By absorbing a carefully packaged vision of imperial achievements abroad, nineteenth-century Britons were primed to value and thus support, in this example, the missionary work of the Grays.[22] Sophia Gray, as artist and architect, created a series of visual images and vistas of Church and of empire. By sharing these within and beyond the colony she materially illustrated the consolidation and validation of closely interwoven ecclesiastical and colonial intentions.[23]

Crinson describes the 1834 foundation of the Royal Institute of British Architects as “a springboard for modernisation: specifically demarcating the role of the architect within the specialised ranks of the building industry”.[24] For the Grays such demarcation was inconceivable, dealing as they were with financial, geographical and labour constraints, while tasked by the Church with rapidly establishing a comprehensive network of parish churches across the Cape. Sophia Gray, “architect to the diocese”, was a competent architect, while also fulfilling several other essential church-building and diocesan roles, including: site and project manager, purveyor of quality building materials, illustrator, book-keeper and administrator.

Gray redirected her artistic and administrative abilities, employing them as crucial components of her architectural success. These abilities, desirable nineteenth century feminine accomplishments deemed essential to homemaking and motherhood, served as the foundation for the pivotal and fascinating role Sophia Gray came to play in imperial, ecclesiastical and architectural history; a woman of her time, for all time.

Bibliography

Manuscripts

Johannesburg, William Cullen Library, Anglican Church of South Africa archive

Cape Town, National Library of South Africa, Society for the Propagation of the Gospel archive

Unpublished

Desmond Keith Martin, ‘The churches of Bishop Robert Gray and Mrs Sophia Gray: an historical and architectural review’, (Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Cape Town, 2002)

Published

Banner, Lois W., ‘Biography as History’, The American Historical Review CXIV, issue III, (2009), pp. 579-586

Baucom, Ian, Out of Place: Englishness, empire and the locations of identity, (Princeton, N.J., Chichester: Princeton University Press, 1999)

Langham-Carter, R.R., ‘South Africa’s First Woman Architect’, Architect and Builder XVII, pp.14-18

Coleman, Jenny, ‘The ‘inferior sex in the dominant race: feminist subversions or imperial apologies?’, Feminist Review CII, 2012, pp. 62-78

Crary, Jonathan, Techniques of the observer: on vision and modernity in the nineteenth century, (Cambridge, Mass., London: MIT Press, 1996)

Crinson, Mark, Architecture-art or profession?: three hundred years of architectural education in Britain, (Manchester, UK, New York, New York: Manchester University Press, 1994)

Davidoff, Leonore and Catherine Hall, Family fortunes: men and women of the English middle class, 1780-1850, (Rev. ed. London: Routledge, 2002)

Gray, Charles Norris, Life of Robert Gray, Bishop of Cape Town. (London: Rivingtons, Vols I & II, 1883)

Bishop Robert Gray of Cape Town, Three months’ visitation in the Autumn of 1855; with an account of his Voyage to the Island of Tristan d’Acunha, in March 1856, illustrations Mrs Sophia Gray (London: Bell and Daldy, 1856)

Gutsche, Thelma, The Bishop’s Wife, (Cape Town: H. Timmins, 1970)

Higonnet, Anne, ‘Secluded Vision: Images of Feminine Experience in 19th Century Europe’ in The Expanding Discourse, Feminism and Art History, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Icon Editions, 1992)

Neale, John M. and John F. Russell, A Few Hints on the Practical Study of Ecclesiastical Antiquities for the use of the Cambridge Camden Society, (Cambridge: 1840)

Webster, Anthony, The Debate on the Rise of the British Empire, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006)

Online

Charlotte Yonge letters, http:/discovery.ucl.ac.uk/13734/3/Yongesecondbatchto1859.pdf, Letters 82 and 83

[1] Desmond Keith Martin, ‘The churches of Bishop Robert Gray and Mrs Sophia Gray: an historical and architectural review’, (Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Cape Town, 2002), p. 282-283.

[2] Charlotte Yonge letters, http:/discovery.ucl.ac.uk/13734/3/Yongesecondbatchto1859.pdf, Letters 82 and 83; Johannesburg, William Cullen Library, Anglican Church of Southern Africa archive (ACSAa) fol. AB1161/A7

[3] Charles Norris Gray, Life of Robert Gray, Bishop of Cape Town, (London: Rivingtons, Vols I & II, 1883), p.102, 106, 114.

[4] Johannesburg, William Cullen Library, Anglican Church of South Africa archive (ACSAa), fol. AB2137.

[5] Cape Town, National Library of South Africa, Society for the Propagation of the Gospel archive (SPGa) fol. MS427.

[6] Charles Norris Gray, Life of Robert Gray, Bishop of Cape Town, (London: Rivingtons, Vols I & II, 1883), p. 435.

[7] Martin, ‘The churches of Bishop Robert Gray and Mrs Sophia Gray: an historical and architectural review’, p. 96-99.

[8] John M. Neale and John F. Russell, A Few Hints on the Practical Study of Ecclesiastical Antiquities for the use of the Cambridge Camden Society, (Cambridge: 1840), p. 4; ACSAa, fol. AB1159f.

[9] Neale & Russell, A Few Hints on the Practical Study of Ecclesiastical Antiquities for the use of the Cambridge Camden Society,p. 43, p. 96.

[10] Gray, Life of Robert Gray, Bishop of Cape Town, p. 382.

[11] Publishing houses C. Struik Ltd (1947-2008) and Howard Timmins (1936-1993) of Cape Town were the foremost publishers of works with a focus on local interest subjects and history, while A. Balkema’s Cape division specialised in reprints of works originally published in the mid-19th century.

[12] Lois W. Banner, ‘Biography as History’, The American Historical Review CXIV, issue III, (2009), 579-586, (p. 581).

[13] Thelma Gutsche, The Bishop’s Wife, (Cape Town: H. Timmins, 1970), p. 22, 23.

[14] Jenny Coleman, ‘The ‘inferior sex in the dominant race: feminist subversions or imperial apologies?’, Feminist Review CII, 2012, 62-78, 2012, (p. 62).

[15] Martin, ‘The churches of Bishop Robert Gray and Mrs Sophia Gray: an historical and architectural review’, p. 46; ACSa fol. AB1161.

[16] Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family fortunes: men and women of the English middle class, 1780-1850, (Rev. ed. London: Routledge, 2002), p. 155.

[17] Anne Higonnet ‘Secluded Vision: Images of Feminine Experience in 19th Century Europe’ in The Expanding Discourse, Feminism and Art History, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Icon Editions, 1992), pp. 171-185, (p.173).

[18] Gutsche, The Bishop’s Lady, p.15.

[19] Anthony Webster, The Debate on the Rise of the British Empire, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), p.1.

[20] R.R. Langham-Carter, ‘South Africa’s First Woman Architect’, Architect and Builder, XVII, pp.14-18.

[21] Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the observer: on vision and modernity in the nineteenth century, (Cambridge, Mass., London: MIT Press, 1996), p.5.

[22] Ian Baucom, Out of Place: Englishness, empire and the locations of identity, (Princeton, N.J., Chichester: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 77-83.

[23] Bishop Robert Gray of Cape Town, Three months’ visitation in the Autumn of 1855; with an account of his Voyage to the Island of Tristan d’Acunha, in March 1856, illustrations Mrs Sophia Gray (London: Bell and Daldy, 1856).

[24] Mark Crinson, Architecture-art or profession?: three hundred years of architectural education in Britain, (Manchester, UK, New York, New York: Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 38.

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