Vaulting Ambition

St Pancras Hotel, London

Vaulting Ambition

Angela Ellis-Jones appreciates a long overdue tome

GOTHIC FOR THE STEAM AGE, Gavin Stamp, Aurum Press, ISBN  978-1-78131-124-0 208pp, £30

Those of us who admire the Victorian age regret that we live in an era whose values and attitudes are diametrically opposed to all that it stood for. But there is one way in which the nineteenth century still loudly projects its presence: its architecture. And there is one architectural style above all which is associated with the nineteenth century: the Gothic Revival. Pioneered by Pugin, the genre was continued by George Gilbert Scott (1811-78).

In this excellent book, the eminent architectural historian Gavin Stamp provides an illustrated biography of Scott in A4 format. The first part consists mainly of text; the second, of illustrations of the buildings grouped by type. Scott, the son of a clergyman, began with workhouses, for which there was a demand in the wake of the 1834 New Poor Law. He and his then partner Moffatt designed over forty of these undistinguished pieces of work; it was only after he had designed several churches that he really got into his stride.

Scott’s most famous works were the National Memorial to the Prince Consort (the Albert Memorial, 1872), for which he was knighted, the Foreign Office (1868), in which he departed from the Gothic style on the insistence of Palmerston and the Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras Station (1865). All of these splendid buildings were restored to their pristine glory in the closing years of the twentieth century. In what must be one of the few ways in which the Major government was better than its predecessor, Major provided funding for the restoration of the endangered Albert Memorial, which the champion of ‘Victorian Values’ had inexplicably refused. Both the Foreign Office and the Midland Grand Hotel were faced with the prospect of demolition in the 1960s; this was averted owing to pressure from the Victorian Society, founded in 1958. It is perhaps no accident that the ‘Conservative’ (!) Minister of Public Building and Works, Geoffrey Rippon, who announced the replacement of the Foreign Office in 1963, was later to be Heath’s accomplice in handing over Britain’s fisheries to the European Community as a condition of entry into ‘Europe’ – one of the worst vandals to have besmirched British public life.

In addition to these highlights, Sir Gilbert Scott (as he became) designed cathedrals – in Edinburgh and the Empire, – major public works outside London, new buildings for Oxford (including Exeter College chapel, inspired by the Sainte Chapelle in Paris) and Cambridge, and also for the universities of Glasgow and Bombay, several large country houses, and churches, often with accompanying vicarages and village schools. Gladstone considered him “the best ecclesiastical architect in Europe, and therefore the world”. As a restorer, Scott was also involved with almost every ancient cathedral in England and Wales, starting with Ely in 1847, his contribution ranging from refurnishing or small repairs to large-scale reconstruction. He restored hundreds of mediaeval parish churches, in almost every county of England and Wales, for which he incurred as much censure as praise; his activities led William Morris to found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. In most cases, the buildings would have been worse off if he had not intervened; Stamp considers that ‘Scott’s restorations were scholarly and well-judged’. Like his hero Pugin, Scott designed many beautiful items of ecclesiastical furniture, like screens for Salisbury, Lichfield and Hereford Cathedrals; Hereford’s screen now stands in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Scott was not always successful in his endeavours; his designs for the Albert Hall, the Law Courts and the Parliament building of the German Empire in Berlin were rejected.

Like many of the great Victorians, Scott was a workaholic, although it is difficult in many cases to determine whether work was done by him personally or by his assistants who, at the zenith of his fame, numbered thirty-six in his office at Westminster. Many of his pupils became well-known architects, as did two of his sons and his grandson, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960).

Ely Cathedral Choir, Cambridgeshire, UK

Scott had significant contact with the Continent. During the 1840s and 1850s, he visited the German lands, Bohemia, Austria, Italy and France, ‘assiduously sketching all the while’. Although he won the competition for the design of the Hamburg Rathaus (the book contains a beautiful reproduction of a watercolour of the projected building), it was not executed. He was more successful with his design for the Nikolaikirche in Hamburg, which, during 1874-6, was the world’s tallest building.

In addition to his superb draughtsmanship, Scott was also a prolific writer. In Remarks on Secular and Domestic Architecture, Present and Future (1857), he argued, like Pugin, that Gothic, although the Christian style, was not just for churches, but should be used for all types of building. He denied that the Gothic Revival was an antiquarian movement, seeking to revive all that was ancient, when in fact it was ‘pre-eminently free, comprehensive, and practical; ready to adapt itself to every change in the habits of society, to embrace every new material or system of construction, and to adopt implicitly or naturally, and with hearty good will, every invention or improvements, whether artistic, constructional or directed to the increase of comfort and convenience’ (p58). He insisted that ‘I am no mediaevalist. I do not advocate the styles of the middle ages as such. If we had a distinctive architecture of our own day worthy of the greatness of our age, I should be content to follow it; but we have not’ (p58). Neither Scott nor Gavin Stamp venture to give reasons for this absence. Vaulting aspirational Gothic clearly chimed with the moral uplift which was the predominant tone of the age – no wonder that the louche Palmerston found it uncongenial. Scott also wrote and delivered many public lectures, including to the Royal Academy of Arts, on architecture and restoration, and wrote countless articles for periodicals. His Personal and Professional Recollections, published posthumously in 1879, was one of the first autobiographies of an architect. Also published posthumously were two volumes of Lectures on the Rise and Development of Mediaeval Architecture.

Much of Scott’s life revolved around Westminster Abbey – in 1849 he was appointed its Surveyor, ‘an appointment which has afforded me more pleasure than any other which I have held’. His funeral in the Abbey was ‘the grandest ever accorded to a British architect, before or since’, and he was honoured with burial in the national pantheon.

This book fills a major gap. Scott’s life and works deserve to be far better known than they are. It would have been an even better book if the author had compiled a list of all Scott’s works; one can be found on Wikipedia. It is surprising that no major work on Scott was issued on his bicentenary. Better late than never!

Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall

Angela Ellis-Jones is a legal historian and writer

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