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.

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