Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why am I here?

For the last of my clutch of pre-Christmas reviews, I turn to a book about the life and works of one the great Victorian architects, George Gilbert Scott. It’s a revelation…

Gavin Stamp, Gothic for the Steam Age:An Illustrated Biography of George Gilbert Scott 
Published by Aurum Press

Until now, history has not done well by George Gilbert Scott. He was immensely productive and designed some major buildings, but a lot of his work seems dull beside, say, the polychrome dazzle of Butterfield, the vision of Street, or the souped-up inventiveness of Teulon. And yet you can’t get away from Scott, and if you actually look at his work, there’s much to admire. Gavin Stamp’s excellent new book shows us why, and tell us quite a lot about the work and the life of the man who created it.

The first half of the book covers Scott’s life (mainly his hyper-active professional life) and begins with a section on how his work in general has been received over the decades since his death, from the almost general dismissal of Victorian architecture that prevailed during the first half of the 20th century to the more open-minded approach to the period, pioneered by John Betjeman, since World War II. This turn-around has been accompanied by a less prejudiced way of looking at Scott’s restoration work – he’s seen now as a much more conservative restorer, respectful of old work, keen not to replace when he could repair, than was the case after his death: it took his reputation a long time to recover from the maulings administered by William Morris.

The section on the life begins with a brief account of his youth. Unlike most of his brothers, who went to Cambridge and became priests like their father, George Gilbert Scott was a difficult, solitary boy, who got most of what education he had at home. He was apprenticed to a London architect called Edmeston, who was no great shakes as a designer (and a classicist to boot), but gave his young pupil the rudiments of building and construction. After a spell as an assistant with Henry Roberts, he set up in practice with Moffatt, whom he’d known at Edmeston’s office. Scott and Moffat started at the right time, just after the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act created a demand for a new building type: workhouses. Scott designed dozens of them, honing his skills in Gothic and beginning his life of whizzing around the country (on mail coaches at this date, later on trains) to make client- and site-visits.

Scott built on his success with the mixture of dedication to Gothic architecture and sheer hard work that became his hallmark. Before long more interesting commissions were coming his way – the Martyr’s Memorial in Oxford, educational buildings (the universities were expanding), and countless churches. There were church restorations too, by the dozen, and a series of jobs restoring cathedrals; this side of his work lasted his whole life, and he was involved with the restoration or repair of virtually every English medieval cathedral. He, his assistants, and his many pupils (they included stars-to-be as such Street, Bodley, and T G Jackson) were so busy that it’s possible to believe the story of Scott told by W R Lethaby and others: ‘…having left town by the six o’clock train, “the office”, on slackly assembling, found a telegram from a Midland station asking, “Why am I here?”’.

Gavin Stamp summarizes this burgeoning career, telling briefly the story of such high-profile projects as the Albert Memorial, covering Scott’s fruitful relationships with craftsmen in metal, glass, and stone, and surveying the architect’s developing attitude to different kinds of Gothic. Scott is known for his use of a specific sort of Gothic (Geometric Middle Pointed), but Stamp shows how he also respected the later English Perpendicular style, and how he could be influenced by the medieval architecture of France and even Italy. There’s also a telling passage showing Scott’s openness to the use of ‘new’ materials such as iron, quoting a passage from one of Scott’s books reminding his readers that the Crystal Palace was more like a Gothic cathedral than a classical temple.

The government buildings in Whitehall, in which Scott had to contend with a badly run competition, a Prime Minister (Palmerston) who hated Gothic, and a very mixed reception from members of his own profession, are another key project. Scott had to abandon his Gothic design and re-do it in Classical form, and the book makes a case for treating these designs seriously, and not as the compromise that some observers have seen. The conception works, in spite of Scott’s admission that he had to mug up the classical style by investing in ‘some costly books on Italian architecture’.

Gothic For the Steam Age is a model of concision, covering all this material with vividness, sharp description, good well chosen illustrations, and a gift (born of looking at Scott’s work for years) for picking out the key aspects of each building. For anyone remotely interested in the period and its architecture, it’s a must.


Joe Treasure said...

Thanks, Phil, for this and the preceding reviews, all so enjoyable and informative.

Eileen Wright said...

Lovely cover photo of the Midland Grand hotel at St Pancras station. I remember seeing photos of it before it's recent restoration. I'm an unashamed fanatic about Victorian Gothic so Mr Scott definitely gets my thumbs up.
I have to echo Jo Treasure here, as I've really enjoyed reading your book reviews. I don't always take much notice of them but have bought and enjoyed some of your recommendations this year. Cheers. :)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you both very much: I'm mightily pleased that I'm being both entertaining and informative! Any fanatic of Victorian Gothic should certainly get Gavin Stamp's book on Scott.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I suppose one could run a whole blog on buildings somehow affected by Scott! And the over-plain fact remains that nobody would dare in this 21st century to build a public building in Gothic (as distinct from a church, which is also, of course, a public building...). Probably nobody could. The RC church in Wisbech, Cambs. had timid Gothic bits added in the 1950s or 60s. It would be interesting to find any other examples since the death of Scott.