[Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from the book under review, and all illustrations come from our own architecture section. Click on the thumbnails for larger images, sources and more information.]
Left: Stamp's cover shows the grand entrance hall of the Imperial Institute, South Kensington, which he later describes as "the first major undamaged Victorian building to be demolished after the Second World War" (126). Right: Early 20c. photograph of the exterior.
At first sight, Lost Victorian Britain seems terribly depressing. A catalogue of vandalism on an enormous scale, it chronicles the destruction of numerous fine Victorian buildings, many of which have been replaced by vastly inferior structures. It seems patently obvious now that most of them could and should have been saved for posterity. In his Acknowledgements, Gavin Stamp explains that his "sad survey" (186) had its origins in a commission to collect material for the Victorian Society's fiftieth anniversary exhibition: most of the losses occurred before that organisation was founded in 1958, and in the early years of the society, when the tide of public taste was still changing. The society, and the enlightened architectural historians associated with and/or inspired by it, have made their impact now. However, the book reminds us of what happens if neglect takes over from prejudice, and allows more casualties to occur. And there is plenty to take away from it besides regret and awful warnings.
Left to right: (a) Sydenham Hill, the "desolate" second site of the Crystal Palace: view of the Italian terrace from the upper terrace steps. (b) The "Great Stove" conservatory at Chatsworth in Derbyshire. (c) The West Pier at Brighton, in its heyday.
In the first place, Lost Victorian Britain serves as a dazzling tribute to Victorian architecture. Because of its successive revivals, the age has sometimes been called an age of nostalgia, but this does it no justice at all. Here were architects whose works were bold, daring and original, feasts for the eye at every level, inside and out. A shining example in the first chapter ("Iron and Glass") is, of course, the Crystal Palace at Sydenham Hill, even bigger and taller than its original in Hyde Park. The main culprit here was the 1936 fire; then the last water towers were demolished to prevent German bombers using them as navigational aids. "There would be nothing sentimental in rebuilding this greatest of Victorian cathedrals," pleaded John Betjeman after the fire (qtd. in Stamp 33). But the plea fell on deaf ears, and the site has been allowed to deteriorate further. As Stamp so accurately says, it is one of the most melancholy sights in London. Another of Joseph Paxton's spectacular glasshouses, the earlier "Great Conservatory" or "Great Stove" at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, the largest glass building anywhere in the world in its time (the late 1830s), proved expensive to maintain. It was so solidly constructed that five attempts to demolish it failed. Ironically enough, it was Paxton's grandson who finally succeeded in blowing it up. That was in 1920. In our own times, Eugenius Birch's West Pier at Brighton became a cause célèbre. But to no avail. Victim of a deadly combination of neglect, delay, storms and (finally) arson, its remains are currently being dismantled. This too was beautiful once, "the loveliest of piers" as Stamp himself says (37). What visions they had, these Victorian architects!
Philip Hardwick's Euston Arch (or, rather, propylaeum), demolished only in the 60s.
The next three chapters deal with railways, hotels and "buildings for pleasure" (meaning theatres and pubs rather than more titillating venues); and commerce (banks, insurance companies and so forth). Again, the heartbreak: the loss of Philip Hardwick's grand Doric propylaeum at Euston, for instance, which the recently founded Victorian Society fought tooth and nail to preserve, again without success. Apart from anything else, it must have complemented the early nineteenth-century St Pancras New Church on the other side of the Euston Road, a Greek Revival building complete with Ionic portico, and pavilion roofs supported by caryatids. At least that has survived, and been restored and maintained. But railway stations, termini, and railway hotels were lost all over the country, and one of the strengths as well as the sorrows of Stamp's book is its nationwide reach. For example, he chronicles one after another the destruction of Bradford Exchange Station, with its magnificent twin-arched train sheds and warehouses; Glasgow's St Enoch's Station, with a train shed designed by Sir John Fowler of Forth Railway Bridge fame; and Birkenhead Woodside in the Wirral, with its huge Gothic booking hall. The latest of these to be demolished, as recently as 1976, was Bradford Exchange Station. Stamp's postscripts to such accounts are often bitter complaints about the buildings' replacements. In the case of the St Enoch, for example, the new space was used for "a very large greenhouse, containing a shopping centre of no architectural merit" — no wonder he talks of "an incomprehensibly foolish waste of a solidly built, well sited and potentially useful asset to Glasgow" (53).
Left: The new Gaiety Theatre on the corner of the Strand and Aldwych, by Ernest Runtz but "improved" by Richard Norman Shaw. Right: The splendidly restored St Pancras Station and Grand Midland Hotel, by Sir George Gilbert Scott.
On the more positive side, as Stamp himself points out in his Acknowledgements, all this supplies "both a history and historiography of Victorian architecture," of great interest to students of the period, even when illustrated with buildings now lost to us. Here, for instance, is the two-acre Columbia Market in Bethnal Green, financed by Angela Burdett-Coutts and built by her usual architect Henry Darbishire, with the intention of selling goods cheaply to impoverished East Enders. By all accounts, the project brought about "one of the most dramatic transformations ever known in London," since the market building had "gigantic walls, towers, turrets, and pinnacles on the scale of the Houses of Parliament, and in some ways not unlike them" (Mee 757). But the whole scheme proved totally impracticable, and even though Niklaus Pevsner declared in 1952 that the structure itself should be "preserved at all costs" (qtd. in Stamp 80), demolition work began later in the 50s. Interesting from economic, social and historical points of view, the failure of this venture at least had the virtue of reinforcing the will to prevent more such debacles. Nevertheless, there were more to come. The 50s also saw the demise of Norman Shaw's frontage of the new Gaiety Theatre on the corner of the Strand and Aldwych, while the 60s and 70s brought the destruction not only of Bradford Exchange, but of the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square, an even more fabulously eclectic and flamboyant edifice than its slightly earlier and still surviving neighbour, the Russell Hotel. The Imperial and the Russell were designed by the same architect, Charles Fitzroy Doll, and must have been an astonishing sight alongside each other. Nearby in the City, James Bunning's wonderful Coal Exchange, which had been opened with much fanfare by Prince Albert in 1849, was also lost. It had a revolutionary cast-iron rotunda, and Pevsner described it as being "[a]mong the twelve irreplaceable buildings of nineteenth-century England" (qtd. in Stamp, "What did We Do for the Victorians?" 10). Many characterful pubs vanished in these years too. But growing outrage ensured that a major landmark like Sir George Gilbert Scott's St Pancras Station and Grand Midland Hotel would not similarly fall prey to crass "redevelopment."
John Johnson's redundant St Mary, Tidworth, in Wiltshire.
The high ambitions, lively imaginations and sheer brio of Victorian architects found expression even in their industrial buildings, while their spiritual aspirations soared upwards in countless houses of worship. The chapter on wharves, mills, and so on, is the shortest in the book; few people bewail their loss, although nowadays we often find new uses for them. Not unexpectedly, the chapter on churches, chapels and synagogues is the longest. The sheer number and size of many churches, along with bomb damage, changing demographics, growing secularism and rising maintenance costs, have all played their parts here, and some attrition must have been unavoidable. Nevertheless, it is hard not to mourn the disappearance of so many beautiful buildings. These range from Pugin's little Jesus Chapel at Ackworth Grange near Pontefract, which Stamp describes as an "exquisite creation" (99), to George Gilbert Scott's much larger Holy Trinity in Rugby, demolished in 1981 by what Stamp calls a "delinquent diocese" (103). The stately Great Synagogue in Manchester went only in 1986. Both Holy Trinity and the synagogue were listed and campaigned for, and this chapter is the most worrying of all, because here the trend continues. Perhaps everyone can think of a church under threat, and charities like the Churches Conservation Trust and Friends of Friendless face almost insuperable tasks in preserving even the finest works of some of our finest architects. An example here is John Johnson's St Mary, South Tidworth, currently under the care of the former organisation, utterly desolate when approached from the road yet still glowing like a gem inside. Lost Victorian Britain is plentifully illustrated with poignant images of churches like this which we can no longer visit.
Lululaund, Henry Hobson Herkomer's house in Hertfordshire, by Henry Hobson Richardson.
Finally, there are chapters on public buildings, public and private institutions, and domestic architecture, with (unsurprisingly again) a separate chapter on country houses. Here are more irreplaceable buildings, from the Thomas Edward Colcutt's grand Imperial Institute in South Kensington ("a supreme example of the eclectic taste of the 1880s," 126), to C. R. Ashbee's delightful home in Cheyne Walk, with a house-name as idiosyncratic as its style, Magpie & Stump, after the pub that had previously stood on the site. Built in 1893-94, Ashbee's own house was his very first building, and arguably his most original. Also from this later period, and unarguably unique, was the American architect Henry Hobson Richardson's house for the artist Sir Hubert von Herkomer in Bushey, Hertfordshire. The only example of Richardson's work in the entire country, Lululaund had a long, low wide arch joining two conical towers, and was surely an important influence on Charles Harrison Townsend. Herkomer's Germanic interiors too, says Stamp, "must have been amazing":
The hall and staircase were lined with huge panels of redwood; his bedroom had a copper ceiling and walls covered in gold leaf; the dining room was decorated with a relief frieze of female figures painted by the artist and the great drawing room had a music gallery and a vast arched chimneypiece with interlaced mouldings. (171)
The loss of such a house, partly due to post-war anti-German feeling, is one of the saddest in these concluding chapters. It is no consolation that the great front door and its tympanum were kept as the entrance to a club.
Left to right: (a) Craigends in Renfrewshire, by David Bryce, a fine example of the Scottish Baronial style. (b) Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Alfred Waterhouse's enormous mad enormously expensive house for the Duke of Westminster. (c) Leys Wood, Richard Norman Shaw's "early masterpiece."
While Lulualand would have been hard to adapt for institutional use, there is no such excuse for most of the country houses featured in the concluding chapter. The 150-bedroom Eaton Hall in Cheshire, as rebuilt by the young Alfred Waterhouse, could surely have been converted to a school or college, or a conference centre, but after being used for some years as an officers' training college, it was nearly all demolished early in the 1960s. Now, only the stable court and chapel remain. Not even that much was left of David Bryce's Craigends. As for Richard Norman Shaw's highly influential Leys Wood, this was also used by the military, and left in such a bad condition that restoration was not an option. This time only the gatehouse was spared. "The disappearance of Shaw's early masterpiece is a major loss to English architecture," writes Stamp (181).
New architecture can be every bit as exciting and aspirational as the old. Twenty-first century London needs the Gherkin as well as St Paul's if it is not to become fossilised. But how many more prime examples of our built heritage need to be sacrificed to make way for new structures? And if some Victorian buildings do have to be condemned, how do we decide amongst them? "What kind of amount of art, style, or other interest in a building makes it worth protecting?" asked William Morris in his Manifesto for SPAB (the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings). His reply sounds vague: "anything which can be looked on as artistic, picturesque, historical, antique, or substantial: any work, in short, over which educated people would think it worthwhile to argue at all." But what it comes to is this: when the consensus among interested and informed people is that a certain building should be saved, every effort must be made to ensure that it is. One hopes that Gavin Stamp's case histories, dramatic tales of human folly, greed, inertia and sometimes wilful destruction, will help to produce enough "educated people" to defend the magnificent Victorian buildings that remain with us today.
Book under Review
Stamp, Gavin. Lost Victorian Britain: How the Twentieth Century Destroyed the Nineteenth Century's Architectural Masterpieces. London: Aurum Press, 2010. 187pp. £25.00. ISBN: 9 781845 135324.
Mee, Arthur. London: Heart of the Empire and Wonder of the World. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1937.
Morris, William. Manifesto. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.
Stamp, Gavin. "What Did We Do for the Victorians?" Victorians Revalued: What the Twentieth Century Thought of Nineteenth-Century Architecture. Studies in Victorian Architecture and Design (the journal of the Victorian Society). Vol.2 (2010): 7-25.
Last modified 25 February 2011