The Architecture of Sir Ernest George

July 7, 2011

London-born Ernest George (1839-1922) was one of the most interesting, yet in recent years one of the most undersung, architects of his time. From 1856 to 1860 he was articled to Samuel Hewitt, and from 1857 attended the Royal Academy Schools, where he won the Gold Medal in 1859. After a short stretch in the office of Allen Boulnois, he went on a sketching tour (he was a gifted and very skilled draughtsman) of France and Germany, an experience that informed much of his subsequent work. On his return to London, he set up his own architectural practice with Thomas Vaughan.

In 1869, the partners succeeded to the business of Frederick Hering, and thereafter the firm rapidly became fashionable, making its country-house debut with Rousdon, Devon, for Sir Henry William Peek, of Peek Frean biscuits. It is a splendid pile in which timber-framed gables, massive brick chimneys, mullioned and transomed windows, clever use of materials, and a massive tower (obviously strongly influenced by George's continental travels) all merged in a powerful, muscular brew to pose a challenge to the work of more celebrated contemporaries such as Richard Norman Shaw and William Eden Nesfield.

After Vaughan's death, George entered into partnership with Harold Ainsworth Peto, son of the public-works contractor, Samuel Morton Peto, and thereafter the firm enjoyed spectacular success through Peto's connections. Among its best works can be mentioned the Ossington Coffee Palace, Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, and the remarkable Flemish- and German-inspired houses in Harrington Gardens and Collingham Gardens, Kensington, in which imaginative use of terracotta and decorative brickwork features to great effect.

Many distinguished architects worked as articled pupils or assistants in the practice, including Edwin Landseer Lutyens and Herbert Baker, and there is no doubt of the quality of the architecture produced. George's last partner (from the time of Peto's retirement in 1892) was Alfred Bowman Yeates: the firm designed several fine country houses as well as Southwark Bridge, the Royal Academy of Music, and the Lombardic-Romanesque Golders Green Crematorium, which was designed in collaboration with William Robinson, the gardener and supporter of cremation.

George was a first-rate architect. This superb book has done justice to him and his work, helped by Martin Charles' wonderful photographs. I have always considered the magnificent buildings in Collingham Gardens and Harrington Gardens to be among the finest examples of domestic architecture in these islands, not least No 39 Harrington Gardens, the spectacular house designed for William Schwenck Gilbert. Here, in this massive tome, they get treatment worthy of their quality, with numerous historical photographs of interiors as well.

But it is not only these beautifully crafted houses that Hilary Grainger covers in her admirable work: the smaller houses, cottages and so on also get mention with illustrations, and some are very fine indeed, comparing favourably with the designs of more lauded architects of the time. Occasionally, there are illustrations included that do nothing for the building: among these are the author's dim and distorted snapshot of the Ossington Coffee Palace which, given that the noble perspective by George himself on the opposite page does the job, should have been quietly dropped.

Spire Books has been doing architecture great service over the past few years: this noble monograph on a great designer is a tremendous addition to its catalogue. Although extremely heavy (it really requires a lectern to support its weight as it cannot be held for long), it is warmly recommended.

The Architecture of Sir Ernest George

By Hilary J. Grainger. Spire Books, 480pp, £65.00. ISBN 9781904965312. Published 19 May 2011

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