In a former paper some of Mr. Ernest George's town-buildings were considered; or, to speak more accurately, some by Messrs. Ernest George and Peto, for the credit was never claimed by the senior partner alone. Yet in going on to chronicle other houses designed by these two architects, it will be less tautologic to continue to attribute them as before to one only of their joint authors. But such reference must be taken merely as the shortened title of the firm used colloquially. At the same time one cannot help feeling that the spirit of Mr. Ernest George's most admirable water colours, etchings and drawings, is so exactly akin to that shown in the buildings by the partners, that in all probability that aspect of the work which appeals more directly to readers of The Studio might be credited chiefly to him. This, however, is merely surmise; one has no right to attempt to go behind the scenes. Mr. Ernest George, loyally and invariably, refers to all his work as the joint-product of himself and Mr. Peto (or in a few earlier and later cases as the joint-work of himself and others), consequently we must do the same. For this is a point upon which the artist lays stress. "I believe," he says, "in a wise arrangement of partnership, although partnership is not usual with architects. By its means I have been saved from the worry of general business and the constant interruptions that distress an artist at his work. I think that the buildings gain in all practical details by being more carefully and constantly supervised than they could be by an artist working alone."
In going on to record briefly the chief works erected after the designs of these architects, one is confronted more than ever with the difiiculty of describing objects that owe no little of their beauty to mere size, in a few bare sentences, or representing them in an illustration, that hardly equals the dimension of a tenth part of a single brick. The man who carried about a brick as sample of his house, was scarcely equipped more meagrely than one who tries to re-edify, in imagination, solid and stately buildings. For not merely is colour absent, and the efifect of light and shade, which is a still more important factor in architecture; but reduced to quite insignificant proportions the breadth of a facade which cannot be seen as a whole within the focus of any ordinary vision, is made to appear like a toy, which can be examined minutely without shifting the eyes. Again, a satisfactory building owes no little to its environment — certainly the problem to make it accord with its surroundings, harmoniously but not too arrogantly, is one of the most difficult that confronts the architect. This again is rarely capable of proof in black and white illustration, for if you take enough of the surroundings to show the building as it appears in reality, you reduce the main subject to an accessory; if you concentrate your attention upon it alone, and ignore the environment, then again you are not doing it justice. Nor can you distinguish the texture of the materials employed, which counts for so much in the original. Even if a highly elaborate list of them accompanied each picture, the bald catalogue would not convey the effect of them to the average person. Yet the colour of the terra cotta, the sharpness or otherwise of the stone mouldings, the particular tiles and slates employed for the roof, and a thousand such items, are those which make or mar the work.
Mr. Ernest George is one who lays great stress on the importance of these matters. With the instinct of a painter, he realises that beauty is a complex quality depending no less upon practical than upon purely aasthetic factors. He also feels that certain substances suit certain places, and has more than once found a local material, despised by reason of its cheapness, far more happy in its effect than the costly imported substance which less artistic architects would have employed. It is this attention to really vital qualities — proportion, colour, and texture — • which marks the work of the artist as opposed to the mere ornamentist. Mr. George believes in proportion and the right disposition of the parts, and reckons details of ornament as quite subsidiary to these qualities. So in woodwork; he prefers to employ moulding rather than carving, to keep the details simple, and never to confuse the effect of the whole by undue prominence given to decorative adjuncts. These things are the common places of theory, but for a hundred who accept their creed on paper, scarce one has courage to reduce them to practice. Not only does ornament cover up second-rate work; but it is so much easier to make a thing attractive to the majority of critics by plenty of applied decoration. The simple beauty of proportion is not a quality that arrests the chance passer-by; indeed only an artist can ever appreciate fully the reticence of an artist. Clients are not always capable of judging the effect of a building from a drawing, and the less eager they chance to be for economy, the more dangerous will be their influence. That Mr. Ernest George, who seems to have almost a monopoly of palaces, has convinced his clients that the higher beauty of a building is uncornered with carving and meretricious adornment, counts peculiarly to his credit. The architect today has rarely enough an unfettered hand. Either his estimates are pared down, his carefully chosen decoration spoilt by parsimonious clients, or else he has to battle against unbridled taste of a sort that wants all the resources of modern craft lavished on a single building. The honour of victory over temptation is usually considered to be based on the temptation it encountered, and that Mr. Ernest George has been reticent and austere when blank cheques were available, and his clients secretly, or perhaps openly, pined for florid embellishment, is surely a proof of very great loyalty to the ideal he has set up and maintained so nobly. In our complex life to-day, poverty of idea is accompanied, as a rule, by extravagant expression. Your man who has something to say, whether an old truth or a new interpretation of it, tries to set it forth clearly and simply; but if he is not quite sure whether what he has to say be true or new, he clothes the idea with all the fashions of the moment, and tries to make it appear the very latest expression of modern culture. In all the arts one has a right to suspect that language was given man to conceal thought, or that ornament was given to conceal invention; it matters not how you paraphrase the epigram.
The number of buildings for which Messrs. George and Peto are responsible demands a still further subdivision, so that this paper will illustrate only his smaller houses, leaving the palatial mansions — and for once the bombastic term is fully justified — to consideration in a final paper.
Cottage at Harpenden
But in these less pretentious houses the artistic excellence differs merely in degree. The delightful little Cottage at Harpenden is merely small in size; it is not small in idea nor in treatment. Nor is it one you could call "quaint" with any show of fitness. The simplicity of its main features, even when reduced to "black and white," and the absence of an inch of ornament, bespeaks the artist. Here are no ridge-tiles, barge-boards, or other architectural trimmings. Solidity and dignity are gained with very simple use of material. It is monumental, because its practical features, evident at a glance, appear sturdy enough to withstand the wear and tear of centuries; but although built after the manner of Elizabethan houses, it does not look a sham antique. The delightful verandah, an integral part of the construction, be it noted, and no afterthought, the simple device which connects a small lean-to of the study with the chimney-shafts, the overhanging bay of the centre gable, which forms in effect a porch — all these features are obviously structural rather than merely picturesque adornments. Only the dovecot is an applied feature, all the others are as essentially part of the house as its foundation or its chimneys.
A House with Studio, near Guildford
In A House with Studio, near Guildford, still greater simplicity of mass is effected, the projecting bays alone break the plain cube. The porch is distinctly original in treatment; by it you see that although it is evidently the main entrance, yet that it is not the front of the house. It is also pleasant to notice how the halftimber framework emphasises the fall of the ground, which adds a basement to the building on one side.
Cottages and Village Shops, Leigh, Kent
In a row of Cottages, Village Shops, &c., Leigh, Kent, we find a typical group of simple dwellings, welded into a harmonious whole, by no sham façade, but by the arrangement of the larger buildings at each end. In this group the unity of each house is preserved, and yet its individuality is not insisted upon unduly. The recurrent gable imparts a sense of restfulness, without any monotonous feeling of repetition. The sketch does not explain whether the penultimate house at each side is slightly larger than its neighbour; the one to the left undoubtedly is, but but the one to the right is hidden. Even the spouting for the rain-water is characteristic of its author; it is neither hidden nor treated as decoration, but simply and unobtrusively arranged, so that it helps to detach each house from its neighbour. In A House at Ascot, the fine gables are treated more architecturally, yet so far as the drawing shows they hardly interest you so much, nor do you quite feel that the date is sufficiently subordinate; possibly in the actual fabric it does not throw the whole out of scale as it seems to do in the sketch. Another house at Ascot for the same owner, and one at Easthill erected about the same time, are both more full of picturesque arrangement of mass; but the one illustrated here sufficiently shows the effect this architect gains by most straightforward mass. Another House at Ascot (for Charles Stroud, Esq.), is a most enviable dwelling, so picturesque that it might be reproduced on the stage, or as a background to an historical picture with no sense of anachronism, and yet it fulfils quietly and most unmistakably the purposes of a nineteenth-century residence. The Knoll, Barton; Beechwood, Kent; Littlecroft, New Forest (Morton Peto, Esq.); four small country-houses (illustrated in The Architect, June i, 1888); a house near Henley-on-Thames; cottages at Chiselhurst Common : a Lodge and Cottages, Hayden, near Pinner; The Coca Tree, Pinner, a delightful wayside hostel with an out-of-door staircase; and many another come to mind as examples worthy of illustration and detailed description. But space forbids more than a passing mention.
One house, however, Redroofs, Streatham Common, has peculiar interest, since it is Mr. Ernest George's home. The view we illustrate hardly does justice to the architectural interest of this house, although it proves how readily each of his buildings makes a picture. A drawing published in The Architect, June i, 1888, showing another facade, with the carved gables ending in pediments of a more pronounced Elizabethan fashion, as in the four centred arch of the doorway. The drawing-room of this house, with its timbered ceiling showing the joists, is a most interesting apartment. A specially admirable feature is noticeable in a screen, with a beam running across the room at about two-thirds of its height. On this are placed wooden statues. By this screen it is possible to curtain off a portion of the room, and so to impart an air of privacy should the occupants desire it. A corner of a bedroom at Redroofs, which is illustrated here, must suffice to prove that the interior of this interesting house is worthy of its author.
Coffee Tavern and Hostelry, Newark-on-Trent
The very dignified Coffee Tavern and Hostelry, Newark-on-Trent, is one of Mr. George's public buildings that exhibits a most admirable combination of utility and beauty. One has but to contrast tliis with the hideously ornate average publichouses to see how admirably a genuine artist can give you, all and more in the way of comfort and fitness that they give, and at the same time add a distinctly beautiful building to the town. Another isolated structure — Rnksdale Hall, Moreton-on-Marsh — is a model of a town-hall for a country town. As represented in the architect's own drawing, it might easily be taken for a peculiarly fine and picturesque example of the best secular Gothic of the past. Its open court, its wellplanned tower, the solidity of the angle buttresses, in fact its every detail, unite in making it a building any artist might delight to paint.
To describe seriously even one of the domestic buildings by Messrs. George and Peto might well exhaust a complete number of The Studio. The folly of endeavouring to reduce to order the varied aspects of so large an enterprise as his record offers, is almost sufficient to prevent any word but undiscriminating praise being set down. Yet at the risk of reiteration, the second paper must not close without calling attention again to the sobriety of knowledge it betrays. To know so much — that you can dispense with any attempt to prove the learning — -is in itself a high achievement. Mr. Ernest George never wearies you with a display of technical skill; if he re-adapts old features he does so not with a pedantic air of accuracy to precedent, but so naturally that you forget whether they have or have not been used before. The little tricks of manner that beset the lesser men, and are not always absent from the work of great architects, are hardly to be found here. True, that the style Mr. Ernest George and his partners have infused into their work is personal and as easily recognised as if it were signed with a conspicuous autograph, but is only the largest characteristics of handling and ihe absence of affectation that have imparted to it distinction and style. Here, again, as in all art, the qualities worth imitating are inimitable, because it is only when they occur as the natural outcome of a distinct habit of mind, influenced by long and wide study, that they can be expressed completely. The truest disciples of any master are those who choose their own manner and ultimately work out their artistic salvation as he worked out his. On the other hand, no enemy can do so much harm as the imitator who travesties the work of his hero, recomposes his themes into futile combinations, and mimics ignorantly the details which impress him, without ever suspecting that the beauty of the whole mass must needs be far greater than that of any single part. G.
“The Revival of English Domestic Architecture. IV. The Work of Mr. Ernest George.” The Studio. 8 (1896): 27-32. Internet Archive. Web. 3 April 2012
Last modified 3 April 2012