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

James Stevens Curl on an architect who designed some of the great Victorian buildings but was unjustly maligned

November 12, 2015
Review: Gothic for the Steam Age: An Illustrated Biography of George Gilbert Scott, by Gavin Stamp
Clockwise from top left: the Albert Memorial; the former Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras; Preston Town Hall

George Gilbert Scott (1811‑78), inspired by the “thunder” of A. W. N. Pugin’s writings, was a hugely successful and prolific architect, thanks to whose expertise many of our great cathedrals still stand. His ecclesiastical works, such as the unpicking of accretions to reveal the original beauty of Westminster Abbey’s chapter house and the restoration from broken fragments of the 14th-century shrine of St Alban in Hertfordshire, deserve respectful admiration, yet Scott’s interventions attracted unjust opprobrium during his lifetime and afterwards, either for not doing enough or doing too much.

Scott designed some of the greatest Victorian Gothic Revival buildings, including the Albert Memorial, glowing with colour and richness of detail, for which he was rewarded with a knighthood. It used to be fashionable to regard the memorial as worthy of mirth: similar attitudes grotesquely undervalued the former Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras, which, as a result, was within an ace of being demolished in 1966 thanks to the poisonous influence of philistines who looked with their ears and parroted the sniffy opinions of people such as Lytton Strachey or G. M. Trevelyan. The latter’s frequent use of “monstrosities” as a pejorative label for Victorian architecture did enormous and lasting damage. However, the restoration and reopening in 2011 of what is now the St Pancras London Renaissance Hotel was hailed by Sir Simon Jenkins as a victory over the “forces of darkness”: “sometimes, just sometimes, beauty wins”, he observed.

This building was not the only work of Scott that was almost lost. The Albert Memorial was on English Heritage’s “At Risk” register by 1993, for in the 1980s the misleadingly named “Conservative” government refused to fund its repair, and the spectacular Italianate pile of the Foreign and India Offices, one of the noblest picturesque urban compositions anywhere, was threatened in 1963 with demolition by the government of the day (also misnamed “Conservative”). The later unpicking of cack-handed alterations revealed magnificent Classical interiors that were not the “slums” smugly described in parliamentary debates.

However, there were losses as well as victories. Of Scott’s stupendous Nikolaikirche in Hamburg, only the handsome steeple remained after the Second World War. The cathedral authorities of Salisbury and Hereford distinguished themselves by throwing out Scott’s beautiful screens in the 1960s, although the Hereford exemplar survives in the Victoria and Albert Museum (where it is greatly admired), and the exquisite screen designed for Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire is still in situ within one of Scott’s most successful restorations.

Other notable buildings by Scott include St George’s church, Doncaster; All Souls church, Haley Hill, Halifax; Exeter College chapel, Oxford; St Mary’s Episcopal cathedral, Edinburgh; and the powerful church and vicarage of St Michael & All Angels, Leafield, Oxfordshire. His town hall in Preston, Lancashire, however, was gutted by fire in 1947; despite protests, the remains were demolished in 1962, and what would have been his finest civic building, the Rathaus in Hamburg, survives only on paper.

Gavin Stamp’s beautifully illustrated book begins to fill a huge gap. What is needed now is a comprehensive life and work of Scott, whose funeral in Westminster Abbey was the grandest ever accorded to any British architect. Steeped in the works of the Scott dynasty, Stamp possesses the sensitivity, perspicacity, intelligence and sound judgements to make him the ideal candidate to write it.

James Stevens Curl is a member of the Royal Irish Academy, and is author of Victorian Architecture: Diversity & Invention (2007).

Gothic for the Steam Age: An Illustrated Biography of George Gilbert Scott
By Gavin Stamp
Aurum, 208pp, £30.00
ISBN 9781781311240
Published 24 September 2015

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