The imposing buildings of Quarr Abbey impress themselves upon the mind of many visitors to the Isle of Wight. But few people know much about either the buildings or who built them. Indeed, a first view of the Abbey towers seen from the Fishbourne ferry has led to their mistaken identification as the Island’s Anglican cathedral, or even one of the Island prisons.
Quarr Abbey was built as a monastery for the French Benedictine community of Solesmes who were living in exile on the Isle of Wight at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its architect was one of the monks, Dom Paul Bellot (1876-1944).
Paul Bellot received his architectural training in Paris, at the École des Beaux Arts (1894-1901), where he was a student of Marcel Lambert. When he entered upon monastic life in 1902 he had no expectation of continuing the profession he had so recently assumed. But shortly after taking monastic vows, he was sent to the Netherlands in 1906 to help construct a monastery for the exiled community of Wisques at Oosterhout, near Breda. His choice to build in brick, out of deference to local practice was the beginning of a lifelong devotion to this building material.
The work at Oosterhout was a success and in 1907 Dom Bellot was recalled to the Isle of Wight and asked to design another monastery, this time for his own community which had just purchased Quarr Abbey House, near Ryde.
Dom Bellot chose to retain most of the older, Victorian buildings, and build the new monastery onto the south front. The new monastery, as we see it today, was built in three stages. First of all, in the years 1907-1908, the refectory, library, chapter house and living accommodation of the monks were built around three sides of the cloister. Then, in 1911-1912 the abbey church was raised, to the south east. Finally, the guesthouse and parlours were built, along with the south side of the cloister in 1913-1914.
The monk-architect chose to work with cheap, imported Belgian bricks throughout. And he showed himself a pioneer in breaking away from contemporary French practice which preferred to hide the humble brick beneath stone and plaster. Dom Bellot showed that it was possible to build on a monumental scale with brick alone, and he achieved a sense of massive solemnity, which appeared modern at the time, and has since been called a brilliant example of twentieth century expressionism in architecture.
This solemnity however was achieved without sacrificing grace and style. As a student, Dom Bellot had been much impressed by Moorish architecture while travelling through Spain. Certain arches at Quarr show something of this oriental heritage. Others, with their neat triangular heads, are more contemporary in character, arising from the very angular nature of the bricks themselves. The great variety of stylistic features at Quarr Abbey explains why Dom Bellot has been called a juggler with bricks.
Dom Bellot did not neglect the colour of his favoured material. The Belgian bricks might have been cheap, hard and rough, but in a changing light they exhibit an extraordinary diversity of colours, ranging from warm pinks and oranges to cool blue-greys and violets. In his sensitive arrangement of brick and glass, Dom Bellot achieved his desire of making the light dance in his buildings.
Quarr Abbey was built entirely by local workmen, few of whom could have had any experience of building on such a scale or in such a style. Dom Bellot had to keep a close eye on proceedings to ensure that his intricate plans were adhered to. And there is a suggestion that the confidence he had in his own ability was not universally shared. The Sanctuary tower in particular was viewed with suspicion. Many were convinced that such a soaring brick structure could not stand. But stand it did, and Dom Bellot went on to build many more churches and monasteries in Europe and North America.
He died in Canada in 1944, while overseeing the building of another Benedictine Abbey, that of Saint Benoit du Lac in Quebec. He had moved a long way from the Isle of Wight, but on a return trip to Quarr in 1937, he stood for a long time looking up at the Sanctuary tower, before pronouncing it his finest piece of work.