Image of Detail of the Sutton organ, Jesus chapel
Photo: Mark Williams

Sir John Sutton

Sir John Sutton (1820-1873) was a key figure in the restoration of the College Chapel and the re-establishment of a boys' choir.

Early life

Northamptonshire landowner Sir John Sutton was the eldest of seven brothers. Two became Anglican clergymen and were, like him, notable restorers of medieval churches, active in reviving the craft of stained glass, and great lovers of church music and of organs.

All three were friends and patrons of two of the ablest and most influential architects of the mid 19th century, A.W.N. Pugin and G.F. Bodley, both of whom were involved in the restoration of the College Chapel which was begun in 1846 and finished 30 years later.

As a boy John was shy, sensitive, and musically precocious – his father bought him a chamber organ when he was 13 – and except for two unhappy years at Eton he was educated privately. He was 20 when he entered the College as a pensioner in 1840 without, it seems, any intention of taking a degree.

Apart from the year in which he was briefly married – his young wife died within a month of their wedding – he lived in the College for the next 14 years, becoming a Fellow Commoner in 1846. Throughout he had one and, at times, two chamber organs in his rooms. 

At Jesus College

While living at Jesus, Sutton devoted himself to studying the history of organs. In 1847 he published A Short Account of Organs Built in England from the Reign of King Charles II to the Present Time, a work which remains authoritative. He guided all Pugin’s designs for church organ cases.

Though reputedly reclusive, he became a close and lifelong friend of the two Fellows most closely concerned in the Chapel’s restoration, John Gibson and Osmund Fisher, and of T.A. Walmisley, Professor of Music and leading organist.

Walmisley, like Sutton, lived in Jesus as a Fellow-Commoner and was a keen member of the Cambridge Camden Society, which sought to instil Oxford Tractarian principles into the practice of church restoration, decoration, and furnishing.

Gibson and Fisher soon became aware that Sutton “would do all he can in the money way for our Chapel”. He had an ample allowance and after his father's death in 1855 he enjoyed an annual income of between £40,000 and £60,000. But “the possession of a large income is” he wrote “a great grief to me” and for more than 25 years he devoted much of it to a series of church projects, of which the College Chapel’s restoration was the first, and most of the remainder he gave to the poor.

He lived simply, even frugally, in College. After he became a Roman Catholic in 1855 he lived in Germany, lodging in the parish priest’s house at Kiedrich-im-Rheingau, and in Belgium, where he bought a small 17th century house on a canal in Bruges.

He kept two elderly servants: a cook who was past cooking, and a manservant whom Sutton spent more time caring for than the man spent looking after him. Back in England an agent managed the family estates.

Collaboration with Pugin

Sutton’s friendship with Pugin probably began while the architect was working for his father at West Tofts Church near a family home at Lynford Hall on the Cambridgeshire and Norfolk border. By 1846 they were firm friends and Pugin was encouraging the young widower to travel on the continent to study medieval art and architecture, giving him introductions to several friends.

Meanwhile Sutton, who had already contributed £100 to the College Chapel Restoration Fund in memory of his wife, had also promised to provide an organ. He commissioned Pugin to design its case and loft, with choir screen and stalls, a design made even before Pugin first visited the Chapel.

When Pugin did visit the Chapel he found that the stability of its central late 12th century tower was causing concern, and that the College had lost confidence in the architect it had previously hired, who was now in poor health.

The College agreed to Pugin’s plan for supporting the north east crossing pillar, and commissioned him to carry out the rest of the works. These were mostly paid for by Sutton, including the reconstruction of the early English lancets in the east wall, the painted decoration of the inner chapel’s ceiling, the screen (costing him £120), standing candlesticks, some stained glass, and the magnificent brass lectern (£200), together with a set of anthem books.

It's unsurprising that Pugin wrote in November 1848 that Sutton was "such a glorious man that I wish to take any pains". In the matter of church layout, furnishing, and decoration he was as faithful a disciple as Pugin could have wished for.

Some in the College had reservations, however. The Master (William French) told Gibson that “I would not have the College draw too deeply on his kindness,” and in old age Fisher recalled that “Sutton employed the power of the purse to get some things his own way which we did not quite wish for.”

Establishing a boys' choir

Sutton did not stop at the restoration and refurnishing of the Chapel. On returning to Cambridge after his wife’s death, Sutton recruited from the town a small group of boy choristers to whom, for the next ten years, he himself taught not only singing and music but also basic elementary school subjects. While the restoration work proceeded he accompanied them at services held in the Hall on one of his chamber organs, probably the one he had found in the brewhouse at New College, Oxford in 1845 and bought for £10.

After it reopened on All Saints’ Day 1849 the choir sang services in the new Chapel, in the manner of the ancient cathedrals and Colleges. In this musical revival Jesus College, inspired by Sutton, led the way in Cambridge. Before this the only Colleges to have sung services were King’s, Trinity, and (on Sundays) St John’s.

A group of paid choirmen (and their organist) went from College to College, with service times arranged to accommodate them. Jesus’ example was soon to be followed at Queens’.

So long as he remained in Cambridge Sutton continued to act as the College’s organist and choir and schoolmaster, teaching the boys in University vacations as well as during term.

Departure from Cambridge

Within a year of the Chapel’s reopening, G.E. Corrie became Master. Corrie was an evangelical who disliked any form of “popery”, and was out of sympathy with much that Gibson, Fisher, Sutton, and his own predecessor stood for.

Sutton’s continental travels in pursuit of ancient organs continued, bringing him to Kiedrich-im-Rheingau whose famous but dilapidated organ dated from the 16th century. Increasingly attracted to Catholic religious practices and worship, Sutton became a Roman Catholic.

Remaining at Jesus College was now out of the question, and in 1857 Sutton resolved to settle in Kiedrich, restore its organ, and endow a chantry college and choir school there. Gibson and Fisher also left the College shortly afterwards, leaving the choral services in the Chapel to fade away. The Kiedrich choir, the second church choir founded by Sutton, still thrives.

His final project

Sutton’s final project, which he began in 1859, was to create an Anglo-Belgian training college for Roman Catholic priests. After a short illness Sutton died in 1873 at the age of 53. 

The sketches Sutton made shortly before he died of the permanent home he planned for his own training college reveal a striking resemblance in plan, in its various buildings, and in architectural style, to the Jesus College of the 1840s and 1850s to which he had contributed so much.