High-Anglican clergyman at the centre of London literary life, immortalised as a fictional character by Iris Murdoch and C. P. Snow and former vicar of St Matthew's Westminster.
A dedicated Anglican priest who was also much else — poet, pamphleteer, critic, man of letters, amateur but serious cultural historian, particularly of architecture and the visual arts — Gerard Irvine was very much a part of the overlapping worlds of smart bohemia, academia, the London literary scene, and other aspects of modern life in the latter part of the 20th century. He was so often mentioned in biographies, diaries and memoirs of the famous that, if not quite as famous himself, he was sometimes thought to be.
He was a “name”, a figure to be pointed out and remembered, talked about. How he became all these things is surprising, since his family was none of them. On his mother’s side, Gerard Irvine’s family had been soldiers for three centuries; his parents met in Chatham, where his father and his maternal grandfather were both generals. His parents had been married in Rochester Cathedral and Gerard was born in the city in 1920 and baptised in the cathedral. Three years later the family set off for India, where Urdu, learnt from his ayah, became his first language, and a sister, Rosemary, later the closest to him of his siblings, was born.
A soldier’s life , even at a high level, was likely to keep him on the move, and the family’s next posting was back in England, in York. Another daughter was born there, and then came a further move to Northern Ireland, where a second son, later a high court judge, was born. A third son was born after the father’s retirement to Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire. With five children to educate, scholarships were hoped for and needed. Gerard was clearly bright, and had been destined for Winchester, but before sitting for the scholarship there he sat for one at Haileybury, and got it. The risk of waiting for Winchester perhaps seeming too great, it was decided to take up the proferred place, although Haileybury was a school that specialised in preparing boys for the Indian Civil Service, not at all Gerard’s idea of a future career. He already knew what he was going to do. From early childhood he had known he had a vocation for the Anglican priesthood.
At Merton College, Oxford, he won a postmastership (another scholarship) and read Greats. Iris Murdoch, also reading Greats, was a fellow student, and Peter Brook made his first film, A Sentimental Journey, in which Irvine played a part. He was also in a production of Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog Beneath the Skin. From these diversions he went on to a theological college, St Stephen’s House, but remained in Oxford. He was always at the highest point of the Anglo-Catholic church, as his mother had been (his father, once a Presbyterian, was mainstream Church of England).
His first curacy was in Bristol, which he loved, followed by one in the Potteries, a very different landscape, which he also loved. Then came London, where he was fortunate in living for some years in an Anglo-Catholic house, St Anne’s in Soho, frequented by high church intellectuals such as T. S. Eliot, Dorothy L. Sayers, Rose Macaulay, Charles Williams and Christopher Fry. Meetings were held, lectures given, friendships made: it was the beginning of much of Irvine’s later busy social life. Rose Macaulay, in particular, became one of his closest friends; as did John Betjeman.
During much of the 1950s he was priest-in-charge at Cranford, where open house was normal. Later, when he moved to the church of St Cuthbert and St Matthias in Kensington, the same simple but in its way lavish hospitality continued. Finally Irvine became vicar of St Matthew’s, Great Peter Street, near Westminster Abbey, where he had 17 successful years and was made a Prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral, an honorific post that entitled him to a stall there and secured him a place at important events.
Disaster then struck: St Matthew’s was burnt down; but Irvine was deeply moved when his Roman Catholic friends down the road at Westminster Cathedral offered him a chapel to use while waiting for the rebuilding of his own church. That was a long and, for legal reasons, a complicated business. But Irvine was resilient and optimistic and the new St Matthew’s (“more Catholic than the Pope”, as some of his friends were slyly to call it) rose beautifully on the ashes of the old. His final church, to which he was attached and where he concelebrated, was St Michael and All Angels in Brighton, where he retired with Rosemary, who had been headmistress of North Foreland Lodge.
Their home was a beautiful early 19th-century house full of the collections of two busy lifetimes, chosen with taste and panache — paintings, books, bibelots, objects of all kinds that had a point and interest, and, for much of the time, two much-loved cats. All his life Irvine had been a collector. As a schoolboy he wrote to Eric Gill, whose work he much admired, asking if he would make a tablet for him, for which he could pay £5. By that time Gill’s works were fetching hundreds of pounds but he treated the youngster very well, inviting him to tea, discussing the form his proposed work was to take, and accepting the tiny payment as if it were a serious sum and producing something Irvine treasured for the rest of his life.
Irvine had an exceptional gift for friendship and a happy way of combining friends, who then became friends of one another. He was tolerant and charitable, giving those he knew the benefit of the doubt if there was ever a chance of it. He loved celebrations and his birthday parties were memorable: his 70th was held in the medieval Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey; his 80th in the hall of St Matthew’s, after he had said Mass there.
Books in which he was mentioned included biographies of William Plomer, Princess Andrew of Greece (the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother), John Betjeman, Mervyn Stockwood, Tom Driberg, Rose Macaulay, Barbara Pym, Stevie Smith, Philip Larkin, and Sir Maurice Oldfield; the memoirs and letters of Anthony Powell, Betjeman again (plentifully), Roy Strong, Antonia White, Peter Vansittart, Lady Violet Powell, and James Lees-Milne; and collections and social histories such as Humphrey Carpenter’s The Brideshead Generation or Duncan Fallowell’s 20th Century Characters or, for his opinions, Mary Loudon’s Revelations: the Clergy Questioned and Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s The Church Hesitant.
Apart from his connection with many at the centre of contemporary life, Irvine was himself a seriously intentioned and considered writer. He published a book of poetry, wrote pamphlets on religious subjects, reviewed for the TLS, The Tablet and The Observer, and wrote entries for Tom Driberg and Sir Ninian Comper, whose architecture he warmly admired, for the Dictionary of National Biography. He did a piece of half-jokey research on Barbara Pym by preparing a long list of all the clerical characters in her novels, set out with details that would appear in Crockford’s Clerical Directory, as if they were real people. Pym fans loved it.
He was also very knowledgeable about places and buildings, his help being acknowledged in the Shell Guides to Lincolnshire, Stafford, Derbyshire, Durham and Nottingham, in Elizabeth and Wayland Young’s London Churches, and in Collins’s Cathedrals, Abbeys and Priories. He appeared in a number of novels under fictitious names, including Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, two novels by C. P. Snow and Alan Ross’s Blindfold Games.
Altogether, his life was full and interesting, and he claimed, in old age, to have enjoyed it. For all its extraneous involvements, it was his faith that stood at its centre and gave it meaning. He is survived by his sister, who cared for him in his final years.
The Rev Prebendary Gerard Irvine, vicar of St Matthew’s Church, Westminster, was born on November 19, 1920. He died on January 13, 2011, aged 90
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