Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from the book under review. All illustrations except the first, of the cover of the book itself (showing the stunning double staircase of the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras) come from our own architecture section. Click on them for larger images, sources and more information.

Taking on George Gilbert Scott requires courage. Estimates of the total number of his architectural projects vary, but Gavin Stamp tells us that his last biographer, David Cole, put it at an astonishing 879 (15). No wonder his funeral at Westminster Abbey was on a scale never before or since accorded to a British architect. But reckoning with the extent of his achievement is not the only challenge for a biographer. Scott was criticised as well as respected. The size of his practice alone brought snide remarks from rivals: "his business is so enormous," said another well-known Scottish architect, the neo-classicist Alexander "Greek" Thomson, "that, to expect him to bestow more than the most casual consideration upon the work which passes through his office, is altogether unreasonable" (qtd. in Stamp 16). And there were worse objections too. Part One of Stamp's book, a little less than a half of it, consists of two sections, the first being entitled "The Fall and Rise of a Reputation." Here, Stamp introduces some of the charges levied against him before turning to his life and character in the second section, "Virtuous Man, Skilful Architect."

For all his evident liking for his subject, Stamp is very fair in dealing with the criticisms. For instance, he accepts that there is some truth in Thomson's complaint, because it would have been humanly impossible for even such a hard-working man as Scott to have followed every project closely — though he is careful to note that everything emanating from the practice did bear the stamp of a "recognisable style" (25). He also accepts the charge of mediocrity in certain run-of-the-mill structures, though again he offsets it by showing that Scott amply redeemed himself when throughly involved. There were more than enough such cases to ensure his long-term reputation.

Left: Holy Trinity, Westcott, Surrey — not so remarkable but perfect for its village location. Middle and right, two of the cathedrals that Scott restored. Middle: Ripon Cathedral. Right: Inside the choir of Rochester Cathedral. Scott wrote "The decoration of the walls behind the side stalls, and of the screen behind the returned stalls, followed exactly evidences clearly found..." (Recollections, 350).

The sharpest criticisms Scott faced, however, were of his restoration work. These constituted a huge part of his output and responsibilities: apart from all the buildings he designed himself, and all the churches he restored, he worked on "almost every ancient cathedral in England and Wales" (12). Imagine! Inevitably, this made him both the inspiration for, and the prime target of, the "Anti-Scrape" contingent. Ruskin's well-known refusal to accept the RIBA Gold Medal in 1873 while Scott was its president, citing the institute's failure to protect such buildings from crass interference, seemed aimed at Scott himself. As the architect said in his Personal and Professional Recollections, he was put in the invidious position of fighting "a double battle.... against those who would treat old buildings destructively, and ... those who accuse me of the principles against which I contend, and who oppose one's doing anything at all" (Recollections, 360).

Here again, Stamp is scrupulously fair. He refers to the "handful of cases" in which Scott did remove "genuine Medieval work in favour of a scholarly but hypothetical reconstruction of an earlier phase in the building's history" (14). He also mentions pressure from clergymen who wanted to modernise. Scott came from a clerical family, got on well with the clergy, owed much of his success to his good relations with them, and could not but negotiate with them on certain matters. But on the whole Stamp evidently agrees with architectural historian M. S. Briggs, whom he quotes at some length, and who says,

It must in justice be admitted that if it had not been for his marvellous constructive ingenuity, his painstaking thoroughness, and his profound knowledge of medieval architecture, many of our cathedrals would have collapsed, and many more would have been mangled by far less trustworthy hands than his own. [14]

Stamp's agreement with this comes out most clearly in Part Two, in the introduction to his section on Scott's restorations near the end of the book. Here he talks of Scott's "skill and sensitivity as a restorer of Medieval buildings" (190), and shows that, for its time, Scott's work was undoubtedly on the conservative side, and more sympathetic than that of many others. Some of his feats, notably the piecing together of the medieval shrine of the martyred St Albans at the Abbey Church, and the rescue (no less) of the even earlier medieval Cloister House at Westminster Abbey, deserve lasting gratitude.

Left to right: (a) St Alban's Shrine. (b) The Hereford Screen. (c) The Albert Memorial.

In Part One, Stamp goes on to show that Scott achieved his standing through conscientious research, practical common sense, hard work, confidence in his own ability, and geniality. He also shows what it cost him, in terms of family life and his health. Stamp's chief resource here, Scott's own Recollections, is readily available in the wonderful Internet Archive. But he has combed other resources, archival right up to recent articles (like Ingrid Brown's essay on the Hereford Screen in the Ecclesiology of July 2013), to present a rounded, detailed and appealing picture of one of the most energetic and talented men of his time. Anyone interested in the period is likely to find this part of the book of interest.

Many, however, will take even more pleasure in the second and longer part of the book. Part Two is not, of course, a complete gazetteer. That would have been impossibly long. But it is fair to say, as Stamp does in his preface, that his major secular works, and his most significant churches, are all illustrated, so this gives us the best of his work — including some specimens of his early workhouses and other institutions in partnership with William Bonython Moffatt. How lovely, for instance, to see their workhouse at Amersham now converted into impressive gated flats as "Gilbert Scott Court." Stamp moves on to Scott's churches and cathedrals, the latter mostly on distant shores, but beginning with St Mary's in Edinburgh. Then come the monuments and memorials, most famously the Albert Memorial, followed by his public, educational and commercial buildings, including the innovatory Leeds General Infirmary shown below, the attractive Vaughan Library at Harrow, and of course the landmark Grand Midland Hotel at St Pancras, its interior featured on the front cover. His domestic architecture, which is less well known, is represented too, with Stamp admitting that country houses were not really his line (the vicarage he built in Cambridge for his older brother John is very attractive, though). Finally, Stamp displays some of the many restorations. Such versatility, and such energy for this new age of steam! Whether contemporary or historic, the photographs and other illustrations (plans and drawings) are brilliant, and the accounts manage to be both informative and succinct, spiced with telling but not too highly technical details.

Left to right: (a) One of Scott's public buildings, Leeds General Infirmary. (b) Detail of a commercial building: windows of the Grand Midland Hotel. (c) On distant shores, the monument to Lord Elgin in St Paul's Cathedral, Kolkata.

Most valuable are probably those entries for structures that are either very far away, or can no longer be seen at all, one or two of the latter, such as Beckett's Bank, Leeds, overlapping with those in Stamp's earlier book, Lost Victorian Britain (2010). One cathedral is sadly in danger of falling into both categories. This is Christ Church, New Zealand, which was badly affected by the 2011 earthquake. Its fate has yet to be decided. But, thanks to the wide geographical spread of Scott's work in this country, readers may well find examples of his work that are perfectly accessible to them, but that they have never previously thought to visit, or may never even have realised are his. Accounts of buildings they already know are likely to send readers back to them, too, to see what they previously missed, or whether they agree with Stamp's verdicts on them (they probably will). If you like the Victorian period, and/or architecture generally, or even if you just enjoy photography, this is a book to treasure, written by someone who knows his subject, quite literally, inside out.

Scott's funeral procession at Westminster Abbey, from the Illustrated London News of 6 April 1878.

Related Material


[Book under Review] Stamp, Gavin. Gothic for the Steam Age: An Illustrated Biography of George Gilbert Scott. London: Aurum Press, 2015. 208pp. £30.00. ISBN: 978-1-78131-124-0.

Scott, Sir George Gilbert, R.A. Personal and Professional Recollections, edited by his son, G. Gilbert Scott, F.S.A. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1879. Internet Archive. Web. 11 September 2015.

Link added 18 March 2016