The Danger of Giving In

Andrew Saint

  • An Architect of Promise: George Gilbert Scott Jr (1839-97) and the Late Gothic Revival by Gavin Stamp
    Shaun Tyas, 427 pp, £49.50, July 2002, ISBN 1 900289 51 2

First, sort out your Scotts. George Gilbert Scott (1811-78), hereafter Sir Gilbert, designed the Albert Memorial, the Foreign Office and the tumultuous cliff of a hotel that shields St Pancras Station. A spiteful ditty, summing up the Victorian business of church restoration, also accounted him first among ‘the earnest band that spoiled half the churches in the land’. Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960), hereafter Sir Giles, was Sir Gilbert’s grandson. He designed Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral and the subtle profile of the erstwhile Bankside Power Station – now disfigured as Tate Modern, lest anyone doubt that it purveys art in place of electricity. After Lutyens, Sir Giles was perhaps England’s best architect during the first half of the last century.

These are the two celebrities from a prolific architectural dynasty, all church-builders and all linked to the long unfolding of that deeply English phenomenon, the Gothic Revival. Neither of the knighted Scotts has received the dues of a full study, though a good deal has been written about the omnipresent Sir Gilbert. This has much to do with the status of the Gothic Revival: a Betjemanic joke until the 1970s, then taken up briefly, and now out of fashion again. Churches, not railway stations, were Victorian architecture’s most sophisticated legacy. But to our most secularised of Western nations, the 19th century’s church-building craze now looks misdirected and alien. Its conservation moment has passed. Desperate to boost congregations, today’s parsons slam coffee bars and lavatories into fine churches or yank pews out of them with abandon. Churches, they say, are not museums. Instead, museums have turned into churches.

There is still curiosity about revived Gothic’s early romanticism and beefy middle years. Pugin got a show at the V&A in 1994, ‘paganised’ (so he would have said) to make it palatable; Ruskin studies are an industry; the Albert Memorial has been restored. But the later phases of the revival after 1870 feel like a backwater. Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, which occupied Sir Giles throughout his career, marks the true climax of the English Gothic Revival. Yet who really regards it now? It is as though by 1904 when it began, and a fortiori by 1978 when it was completed, architects ought to have grown out of Gothic.

The present book might do something to redress the balance. It concerns neither Sir Gilbert nor Sir Giles but the lesser achiever who came between them: George Gilbert Scott junior (1839-97), hereafter just Scott. A lesser achiever, but not a lesser talent. ‘Grandfather was the successful practical man . . . but Father was the artist,’ Sir Giles used to say.

Scott’s personal output spanned little more than a decade, and his two finest churches have been destroyed. He crossed scholarly intellectualism (even writing a treatise on Kant) with an architecture intent on spirituality. Unlike many in his circle, Scott was not a pervert in the Victorian sense of the word. Instead, he contrived to smash his own reputation by adultery and by ‘perverting’ to Catholicism, against his own interest as an architect of Anglican churches. In the most hapless of perversions, in 1883 he went spectacularly, notoriously mad.

At the root of Gavin Stamp’s study lies a question which makes it more than just an architectural monograph. How far was Scott’s madness brought on by a cultural crisis which beset the Gothic Revival round about 1880 and troubled all its abler partisans, and how far by temperamental instability? One might as well start with the personal history, which Stamp offers as book-ends to the architecture.

Scott was Sir Gilbert’s oldest and cleverest son. His parents were cousins; we hear nothing about his mother, Caroline Oldrid, save that she was reputed clever. As for Sir Gilbert, he is often dismissed as the businessman of the Gothic Revival: charming, organised, assertive, quick on the uptake, a sharp architect but not in the top league, too dogmatic a restorer. On closer enquiry he improves. Shrewd judgment and even humility coexisted alongside a habit of self-justification and a mania for work. ‘No time today!’ Sir Gilbert would cry as he swept out of his office to the next appointment, brushing assistants aside. There cannot have been much intimacy for the boy. Though he grew up in awe of his father, he came to nurture disagreements and perhaps resentments, too.

The practice did well enough for Scott to be sent as a scholar to Eton. There he was well taught and met the rich men’s sons who would be his best future clients. But there were ambiguities. Scott was meant to succeed his father. In those days English architects like Sir Gilbert stood halfway between trade and gentility, and acquired their skills in offices, not universities. On leaving school, Scott therefore entered his father’s firm and soon proved among the most capable of the assistants. When, for instance, the tower and spire of Chichester Cathedral collapsed in 1861, Sir Gilbert took charge and ‘stationed my son Gilbert’ on site to sort out the debris. Scott superintended much of the rebuilding and when all was complete five years later, set up the weathercock on the new spire – during a thunderstorm.

Scott also looked after his father’s jobs in Cambridge, probably including the grand new chapel for St John’s College. Then, suddenly, according to Stamp, ‘some of his old Eton friends persuaded him to enter the University.’ At 24, his was a mature admission. He graduated top of the Moral Sciences Tripos for 1866. Next, he won a prize for an essay on ‘The Intellectual Character of the First Cause, as affected by Recent Investigations of Physical Science’. Here in code was the conundrum that was plaguing the mid-Victorian universities: could traditional theology be reconciled with Darwinism? The question was one for philosophers, not architects. Scott was duly elected a fellow of Jesus in 1869, an honour that he always flaunted, although he had to resign when he married. But he never gave up architecture. We must picture him, even while ‘keeping term’, strolling down after lectures to inspect one of Sir Gilbert’s Cambridge building operations.

Scott parted from his father by degrees. His own jobs began with restorations of churches and other buildings, nominally under Sir Gilbert, but more delicate and more respectful of post-medieval fabric. William Morris’s firm came in to do glass and tiles. Soon he had a separate office and had turned aesthete. Greek Thomson, the Glasgow classicist, encountered him at dinner in 1871, where Scott ‘made his appearance in black knee breeks black silk stockings high heeled shoes with large buckles, blue coat, yellow vest white neck cloth with stiffner and frilled shirt – he is one of the Queen Ann folks’.

The pretty brick so-called Queen Anne style of the 1870s which Thomson thus mocked was the architecture of a perplexed generation. Invented largely by ex-assistants of Sir Gilbert bored or disillusioned by Gothic, Queen Anne was a halfway house: half-Gothic, half-classic; half-progressive, half-reactionary; half-masculine, half-feminine. It represented a midpoint between the preachiness of Ruskin and the affectation of Wilde, and could embrace both the public enlightenment of Matthew Arnold and the personal aestheticism of that donnish subversive, Walter Pater.

Despite the party costume, Stamp tells us that Scott disapproved of Pater’s effeminacy. Fear of effeminacy runs like a phobia through his thinking and art. For Goths, this was a touchy subject. Charles Kingsley and other Victorian evangelicals had condemned medievalism as effeminate. Like all his contemporaries, Scott reacted against the ‘muscularity’ of his father’s generation and preached refinement. At the same time he tried to defend the male ideal by recourse to an obstinate austerity. ‘There is a danger of giving in too much to the tone and general moral effect of a modern house even when improving the details,’ he told a friend, the house-architect J.J. Stevenson. ‘Effeminacy – called commonly comfort – and desire of display never produced good art and never can.’ When Stevenson suggested that he include a bathroom in an otherwise lavish vicarage at Leamington, Scott fought against it. Eventually the builder had to write: ‘The Revd C.C. Wilson wishes to have a Bath. I told him what you said but he decided to have one.’ Later, Scott condemned church benches with backs as tokens of ‘advancing effeminacy’.

For his handful of houses, many of them like the one at Leamington for wealthy parsons, Scott handsomely adopted the Queen Anne style. But the churches that he and his contemporaries, Bodley, Sedding and Norman Shaw, built alongside them still tended to be Gothic. This was Gothic with a difference, however. Pugin in the 1840s had hypnotised Sir Gilbert’s generation into supposing that moral perfectibility depended on a universal Gothic architecture. The younger men just could not believe that any more. Gothic, they knew, looked gloomy and incongruous in the home. But in a spiritual setting it could still uplift and calm. Instead of ardour and passion, the late Victorian church architects sought beauty. At the same time they recognised that the impetus of the revival had abated. The secularising and modernising current of the age had proved irreversible. By clinging to a historic ideal of beauty and to traditional materials and crafts, they condemned themselves to a limited adventure on the margins of mainstream architecture.

To work against the grain of the times in architecture requires both obduracy and inwardness. Bodley was the figure who fitted that bill the best. Between 1870 and his death in 1907, building often for the aristocracy, Bodley produced a set of wonderfully graceful and subtle churches: Pendlebury in a Manchester suburb, Hoar Cross in Staffordshire and Clumber in Nottinghamshire are the outstanding examples. Perfect in their own terms, more so than the medieval models they emulate, these buildings exude a cool remoteness which tallies with the temperament of their creator. ‘The wages of good taste is death,’ the architect-critic Goodhart-Rendel said of Bodley and his followers.

Scott was more of a heart-searcher than Bodley. His churches were therefore seldom so icy, as far as we can tell. The qualification is needed because the two most famous, St Agnes, Kennington Park (1874-89) and All Hallows, Copperfield Street (1879-92), were both dismantled after bomb-damage. Stamp has to re-create them from old pictures and reminiscences. Raised on unforgiving South London sites, they revelled in what Charles Booth dubbed the ‘bare style’: that is to say, they were lofty, bricky and plain outside, bright and bejewelled inside. Scott used them to inject virility and ‘interesting little uglinesses’ into Bodley’s refinement. The unorthodoxy of St Agnes in particular made an impact on all who saw it, admirers and critics alike. Not only did it blend different styles of English Gothic, but its interior was perfumed, as Goodhart-Rendel put it, with ‘the mysterious but unmistakable smell of Renaissance’. Wainscotted walls, as in a Wren City church, were juxtaposed with piers cased in timber at the base which then rose into arches without capitals in between – all most irregular. It took years to furnish St Agnes with the wealth of screens and fittings Scott wanted. All Hallows never got that far before funds ran dry.

It is often said that the late Victorian church-builders reverted to indigenous Gothic styles after Sir Gilbert’s generation went pillaging French and Italian motifs for their churches of the 1850s and 1860s, and that this too is a sign of the drawing-in of horns. Stamp shows that to be a simplification. The basic Gothic languages deployed by Scott, Bodley and their disciples down to Ninian Comper tended indeed to be English, only extended to embrace the once scorned Perpendicular – championed in Scott’s Essay on the History of English Church Architecture of 1881. But the broad high spaces of their urban churches were often decidedly Germanic, while the decorating drew on Flemish art. In the era of Sir Giles, a dash of Spanish Gothic entered the equation, as in his exquisite Lady Chapel at Liverpool Cathedral. These things go unnoticed, however, because foreign motifs were blended into the later churches of the Gothic Revival without the ostentation of the mid-Victorians.

The third of Scott’s major churches is a disappointment. In 1880, his father two years dead, he sought out Newman’s guidance and converted to Catholicism. His brother John Oldrid Scott, who had succeeded to Sir Gilbert’s practice, reacted badly, as did the vicar of St Agnes, Kennington Park. Scott had slit his own throat as an architect of Anglican churches. Then the Duke of Norfolk came to the rescue: he proposed to build a big Catholic church regardless of expense in Norwich. It ought to have been Scott’s great moment. But the Duke wanted it in Early English, too weighty and immobile for Scott’s nervous genius. ‘A man working in such a style is like one labouring “with a clog at his heel”!’ a friend wrote. He was right. Norwich’s Catholic cathedral, as the church now is, has the studied lifelessness of one of Sir Gilbert’s less happy efforts.

A year after the foundations had gone in at Norwich, Scott went mad. Somehow he had boxed himself into a corner. The change of sect had not calmed him. His notebooks had often taken on a frantic or bigoted tone; now he became openly quarrelsome and excitable. In 1883 he started disappearing from his Hampstead home at night, harbouring delusions of conspiracy, drinking and wielding knives. His family confined him to Bedlam, but after two months he escaped and made his way to Rouen. Despite attempts to retrieve him, Scott kept going back to link up with an unnamed Frenchwoman, clearly his mistress, who sometimes accompanied him to England. Details came out in a public hearing at which his wife, Ellen, needing to educate their three young sons, tried to bar him from dissipating the fortune that he had inherited from his father. Before it ended, Scott absconded once more to France. ‘I am in rather a droll position,’ he told a friend:

I have been declared legally a lunatic and, though perfectly capable of managing other people’s affairs, incapable of managing my own affairs in England, while here in France I have been examined by the official medicals, and have been pronounced with equal certainty to be perfectly sane, and quite competent to manage both other people’s affairs and my own. I am thus insane in the Kingdom of England and sane in the Republic of France. What a difference the Channel makes.

In time he calmed down, submitted to the English authorities and resumed something like normal life. But in 1888 he was caught breaking windows in Yarmouth and cutting his toenails in a bank. He was taken now to the excellent St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton, where he enjoyed many amenities but contrived to destroy a piano. After nine months he was again discharged, but his wife had had enough and soon left Hampstead with the children. A third bout of lunacy landed Scott back in Northampton. This time his movements after discharge cannot be fully traced. But in May 1897 he lay dying, with horrible irony, in Sir Gilbert’s Midland Hotel, St Pancras. Here his children were just in time to see him before he succumbed, of ‘acute cirrhosis of liver and heart disease’.

From this unhappy story, Stamp singles out two salient facts. One is the enlightenment with which Scott was treated by both his family and the medical and legal authorities. Despite the rumpus over his conversion his brothers were supportive, while his beleaguered wife long proved stalwart in the face of infidelity, threatening behaviour and scandal. The hearing which made Scott’s vagaries public was something of a test case, pitting the new Married Women’s Property Act against the lunacy laws, and was thoroughly reported. It was conducted with forbearance, while the treatment Scott received was humane, especially so at Northampton.

What is more remarkable, Scott was to an extent able to carry on in practice as an architect during these years of chaos. When he was hospitalised again in 1888, his brother John could say that ‘his attacks have not affected his business capacity at all’; he even made a set of drawings for the Norwich church at that time. The Duke of Norfolk kept him on till 1893, so that the temptation to ascribe the dullness of that church to John Oldrid Scott must be resisted, Stamp thinks. Perhaps Scott’s powers were just waning.

In some ways his case compares with those of John Clare, also confined at Northampton, and Richard Dadd, who both managed to be creative under lock and key. But architecture, a more businesslike pursuit than poetry or painting, raises obvious obstacles for the unpredictable, the notorious or the lunatic. The professional hero of these years was Temple Moore, a young architect who had apprenticed himself to Scott in 1875, becoming his one true pupil. When the crisis came, Moore took over the practice with great discretion. Their respective contributions in the 1880s cannot be separated, in Stamp’s view. As an Anglican, Moore began to be offered the church-building jobs which no longer came to Scott. Many are in Yorkshire, where churches like the ‘bare-style’ St Peter, Barnsley marry strength with grace as masterfully as anything by Scott. An obituarist of Temple Moore claimed that he ‘summed up and completed the theory of the Gothic Revival’. That was to forget Sir Giles, who started to learn architecture from Moore two years after Scott’s death. By that route he learned to revere a father-figure he had hardly known. ‘I always think that my father was a genius,’ Sir Giles told John Betjeman.

A palpable sense of that genius in bricks and mortar has to be hunted out today. It can be run to ground in a cemetery chapel in Ramsgate; a set of suburban villas in Hull; a church and vicarage at Leamington; a range at St John’s College, Oxford; the rebuilt hall at Peterhouse, Cambridge; or, best of all, Pembroke College, Cambridge, which Scott rescued from the hamfisted clutches of Alfred Waterhouse, adding the subtlest Victorian collegiate range to grace either of the old universities. ‘I have aimed,’ Scott told the Pembroke bursar, ‘at a grave academical character, reticent and reserved rather than sensational, and without any exuberance of architectural detail.’ This book, written by Britain’s most formidable scholar-critic of 19th and 20th-century architecture, borrows something of the same tone. Stamp’s journalism is famously outspoken, but here he writes with a quiet authority and sobriety. As well as rehabilitating Scott, his study ought to help reopen the pages of a shamefully neglected chapter in English architecture.

As to why his subject faltered, Stamp ventures no definite answer. But the reader is left in no doubt that the causes of Scott’s collapse went beyond personal weakness. He lived in transitional times, and witnessed the ebbing away of a strong belief-system of the type that many architects need in order to be creative – one indeed that had driven his father’s whole career. Scott was too thoughtful to be satisfied with what he inherited, or, probably, with what he himself propounded. His history evokes the pain of someone keenly aware of being trapped between the illusions of Gothic and the reductive functional philosophy to come – the architectural equivalent of being torn between theocentric and mechanistic models of the universe. Seeping doubt surely did much to destroy him.