Gothic for the Steam Age
An Illustrated Biography of George Gilbert Scott
London: Aurum Press, 2015
Hardcover. 208 pages. ISBN 978-1781311240. £30
Reviewed by William Whyte
St John’s College, Oxford
George Gilbert Scott was probably the most important architect in Victorian Britain. His list of works was legion – indeed, he built and restored so much that we simply do not know quite how many buildings he touched. At a rough estimate, in a career which spanned fifty years, he oversaw around 800 projects, restoring more than a dozen cathedrals and scores of churches, building country houses and workhouses, prisons and schools, offices, banks, and hotels. Go to Mumbai – and there he is: the author of the university building. Go to Newfoundland – and there he is again, the architect of St John’s Cathedral. Visitors to London may recognise his Albert Memorial or his Foreign Office. Many visitors from France will be greeted by another, remarkable Scott building, for his recently-restored Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station now forms the gateway to England for those who take the Eurostar train.
Nor did Scott’s influence end there. He was a notable author, writing works of great scholarship as well as campaigning arguments for the Gothic Revival. He was a public figure and a leading advocate for design reform, not least through his role as champion of the Architectural Museum, now part of the V&A. He was a Royal Academician and professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, where his talks – later published as Lectures on the Rise and Development of Mediaeval Architecture – were attended by a generation of embryo architects. Still more importantly, because more immediately, Scott trained many – perhaps most – of the leading figures in nineteenth-century architecture. Through his office in the years between 1838 and 1878 passed such luminaries as George Edmund Street, George Frederick Bodley, E.R. Robson, T.G. Jackson, and perhaps as many as ninety others. That Street would go on to build the Royal Courts of Justice, Bodley design the cathedral in Washington DC, Robson erect Board Schools all across London, and Jackson transform the architecture of Oxford and Cambridge – and that all these men and Scott’s other pupils built very much more besides – is just another index of his importance.
Scott’s significance was acknowledged by his contemporaries and by posterity. He was knighted and awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects’ gold medal. At Queen Victoria’s insistence, he features on the Albert Memorial. She also sent a carriage to join the thirty-seven others which comprised Scott’s funeral cortège when he was interred – as part of a state funeral in all but name – at Westminster Abbey. Moreover, as the founder of a dynasty of architects, his name was perpetuated by his sons John Oldrid and George Gilbert Scott, junior. The latter, who died, drunk, mad, and – still worse for his career – a convert to Roman Catholicism, left architectural sons of his own, Adrian and Giles Gilbert Scott. Giles – later Sir Giles – designed Liverpool Cathedral, Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern), and the original red telephone box. Scott’s great niece Elisabeth Scott was the architect of the Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, and his great- and great-great-grandsons still work in the profession.
Surprisingly, however, these remarkable achievements and this extraordinary legacy have not spawned a substantial bibliography. There is just one – very brief – biography; a volume of collected essay; and a handful of scholarly articles about Scott. This is partly because of the scale of his accomplishments is so off-putting. It is much easier – and I write as one who did just this – to pick off one of the lesser or, any rate, less prolific Victorian architects. Thus we possess brilliant biographies of figures like William Burges, William Butterfield, and G.F. Bodley, but still lack a sustained monograph on Scott. He is, it seems, just too big a job to take on.
And the scale of Scott’s output is not the only bar to a big biography. There is, it seems, something a little unlovable about the man. His autobiography – typically, for such a colossus, the first ever autobiography by a British architect ever published – unhelpfully combines paragraphs of agonised self-rebuke with many pages of offputtingly self-serving celebration or justification. Given the scale of the enterprise, his architectural output was inevitably uneven in quality. Contemporaries came to condemn much of it, especially his restoration practice, and twentieth-century critics have, on the whole, tended to side with his opponents. Above all, historians and architects alike have seen Scott as the quintessential operator – a mercenary man, willing to toe the line, to change his style, to follow a trend: and to do all this just to make money. This does not fit well with heroic myth of the lone artist, nor attract writers like the passionate, idiosyncratic, even eccentric figures who have so often been the subject of architectural biography.
Gothic for the Steam Age is not the full-scale study that its subject so richly deserves. It is, however, written by one of the very few people who are capable of writing just such a book. Gavin Stamp has been researching modern British architecture for nearly as long as George Gilbert Scott was building it. Moreover, he is the acknowledged expert on Scott and the dynasty he created. He has written about Giles Gilbert Scott and published an important book on George Gilbert Scott junior. He was part of the team which produced the invaluable catalogue of Scott family drawings and he himself wrote the entries on George Gilbert junior and senior, Giles and Elisabeth Scott in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. A stalwart of the Victorian society, Stamp has visited – and lectured on – almost everything that George Gilbert Scott ever built.
The result of this long-term immersion in Scott’s life and work is a wonderful introduction to the subject. A brisk but informative and sympathetic biographical essay is followed by a beautifully-illustrated gazetteer, exploring in turn the ecclesiastical buildings and monuments, public buildings, schools and colleges, commercial projects, domestic commissions, and the restorations. The book will, as a result, be of value to all those who have encountered Scott’s work – and few in Britain can have escaped it. It is also invaluable as a teaching aid, not least because of the wonderfully well-selected and often very beautifully composed images the author has deployed throughout. Above all, one must hope that this marvellous entrée is the foretaste of still greater delights to come. Gothic in the Steam Age further confirms the importance of Scott and need for more work on his career.
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