Monday, May 30, 2022

Hastings, Sussex

Palace of the people

When I saw this building a bell rang in my memory. I’d noticed it before and admired it, but had forgotten for a moment what it was. The lettering on the front quickly reminded me: ‘Brassey Institute’. This time I let my eyes linger on its architectural details. I also tried to look at it as a whole, but this isn’t easy because the Victorian gothic pile is so crowded around by other buildings, and on such a narrow street, that it’s difficult to take in, and hard to photograph.* But here’s an image of much of the street front, to give you an idea of its mass of gothic detail – pointed arches, loggias, a landmark tower, and enough windows to make at least some of the rooms inside pleasantly light in spite of the densely packed buildings round about. And what is it for? Victorian institutes were usually multi-purpose buildings with some kind educational and community use. The Brassey Institute was built in the late-1870s to provide a library, assembly room, and school of art and science.

The name comes from the man who founded and paid for the building, Thomas Brassey. Brassey was the son of another Thomas, who amassed enormous wealth from the railways. Beginning as a surveyor, the earlier Brassey was involved in the construction of vast parts of Britain’s (and indeed the world’s) railway network and in the building of everything from steamships to sewers. He began to put up a palatial house near Hastings, but died before it was completed, leaving his son Thomas to complete the project. Thomas Junior, later Sir Thomas Brassey, became MP for Hastings and a notable philanthropist. His first wife Annie was a pioneering photographer, whose work is now being appreciated after being in the shadow of the achievements of her male relations. The Brassey Institute is an example of the way many of the Victorian newly rich put some of their money back into the places where they lived.

The architect Brassey commissioned for the institute was Walter Liberty Vernon. Although not one of the most famous Victorian architects, Vernon was clearly a man of great ability. Several features of this facade show the influence of the Gothic style of Venice: the large windows, the design of some of the arches, the small balcony on the left, the loggia on the upper floor – all are ‘Venetian’ features. Venetian Gothic was much in the air in the late-19th century. John Ruskin had published The Stones of Venice back in the 1850s and two decades on, the style was favoured by some Victorian architects as a form of Gothic they could adapt to domestic and civic buildings (leaving English or French Gothic for churches), lending a palatial aspect to public buildings. Vernon showed himself at home in the style, and he would be better known in Britain if he had not emigrated to Australia (for his health – he had athsma) in the 1880s. He produced for Hastings a building that is still used and valued, as the home of the town’s main public library.

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* The church in the left is Holy Trinity, designed by the Victorian architect S. S. Teulon, and the windows visible in my photograph give a hint of his ornate style.

1 comment:

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I am enjoying this building a lot - especially the centre big cheeky in-your-face-Gothic window at the lower level. It is INTERESTING, in that you can look at it again and again and notice something new. As mentioned, it also has a sense of humour: "You don't quite know what style(s) I'm supposed to be in, but here I am anyway." "Stones of Venice" just the starting point, methinks.