Three Oxford Architects


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Three Oxford Architects1


THE local professional architect is a new figure in the social and commercial life of English provincial towns in the early 19th century. In Oxford this is especially noticeable. From the time of Wren onwards, the largest and most prestigious of university commissions tended to fall into the hands of London architects or educated Oxford dilettanti, and the town and surrounding countryside provided no comparable alternatives. Therefore local men like the Birds and the Townesends happily combined the professions of architect, mason, and builder. However, after about 1820, the national increase of population encouraged the growth in London and elsewhere of an architec­tural profession, and Oxford was not slow to attract a number of vigorous practitioners. The two earliest figures of any interest are Daniel Robertson (fl. 1826-33), designer of St. Clement’s Church and the University Press, and Henry Jones Underwood (1804-52), who was accomplished in ‘either style’ and is now most often remembered for Littlemore Church, a landmark of early ecclesiology, and St. Paul’s Church, Walton Street.

Of course, there was a natural tendency for the more talented or ambitious architects to move to London once they had secured a flourishing practice. George Edmund Street is a good example; he laid the foundations of his career at Wantage (1850-2), and at Oxford (1852-5), and then removed to London, although he remained Diocesan Architect until his death in 1881. Another scholarly architect of the Gothic Revival not content with municipal and diocesan work was Scott’s young pupil Charles Buckeridge (1832/3-73). Behind them they left a remunerative field open to those whose ambitions were less keen or whose architectural training was less sophisticated. Chiefly there springs to mind the great expansion of Oxford in the period 1850 to 1914. This was in main the work of unfamiliar local designers: Edward George Bruton (d. 1899), James Castle, Frederick Codd, Harry George Walter Drinkwater (1844-95), John Charles Gray, John W. Messenger, Harry Wilkinson Moore (1850-1915), Alfred William Mardon Mowbray (1849-­1915), Herbert Quinton, Samuel Lipscomb Seckham, George Shirley, Henry James Tollit (1835-1904), and William Wilkinson (1819-1901) .

Of these architects, two stand out for the quantity, and often for the quality, of their contributions to the architecture of Oxford and its environs. These are William Wilkinson and his nephew Harry Wilkinson Moore. The third architect to be here discussed is again a local man, but one rather different in character and achievement from the men I have mentioned. Clapton Crabb Rolfe (1845-1907) was another nephew of Wilkinson’s. His practice at Oxford yielded less conspicuous results than that of his uncle, but though he was not so prolific his quality is unquestionable. A reconstruction of the lives of these men, together with as complete an assessment of their works as is possible, throws light on the importance of the architectural profession in the provinces at the time. In their careers one often senses an uneasy co­existence between the contemporary demands of scholarship and the practical training always necessary for an architect. Rolfe is always something of the unsuccessful gentleman architect, whereas Wilkinson, and to a lesser extent Moore, pay the price for their considerable success with a lack of full sophisti­cation almost always discernible. The dichotomy is typical for a profession only just achieving permanent social standing.

William Wilkinson’s family is said to have come from Yorkshire,2 but a William Wilkinson who may have been his great-grandfather and who died in 1793 is commemorated on a tomb in the churchyard at Witney, Oxon.3 His grandfather George (1748/9-1802) was a carpenter,4 and his father William Anthony Wilkinson (1782/3-1838) is variously listed as a carpenter, auctioneer and builder at Witney.5 Family origin therefore suggests the close acquaintance with the building trade normal for 18th century local men. More remarkable is the rapid rise to architectural success of two brothers, apparently quite independently, and the excellent marriages made by two of their three sisters. The elder brother was George Wilkinson, born in late 1813 or 1814.6 As early as 1835 he won the competition for the workhouse at Thame, Oxon. (now the Rycotewood College).7 Other early buildings in Oxfordshire by George Wilkinson include the Town Hall at Bampton (1838),8 and among several workhouses the remarkable ones at Witney and Chipping Norton, where the main blocks are built in the form of a cross, with central hexagon and lantern. He was briefly County Surveyor, but as a result of the Thame design he went out to Ireland as the chosen architect of the Poor Law Commissioners. There he built many further workhouses, including those at Kinsale (1842) and Carlow (1843). He came back to marry Mary Clinch, a Witney girl, in 1850,9 but settled permanently in Ireland. Later works included the classical-style terminus of the Dublin and Wicklow Railway at Harcourt Street, Dublin (1858-9), and large additions to the court-house at Castlebar, Mayo (1860).10 More interesting to the general reader is his Practical Geology and Ancient Architecture of Ireland (London and Dublin, 1845) which, besides giving detailed and pioneering geological information on Irish building materials, includes incidental remarks of great social interest on the difficulties of practising as an architect of poor-houses in Ireland at the time of the great famines.11 George Wilkinson finally left Dublin in about 1888, went to live near Twickenham, and died soon after.

William Wilkinson, the younger of the two brothers, was born in Witney in 1819.12 In the last months of his father’s lifetime in 1838, he was co­opted into the family auctioneering firm, and in this trade he continued for some years.13 Notices of his auctions appear at intervals in the local papers. As was common at the time, the business was not clearly limited. Wilkinson sold building materials, livestock, furniture, timber, houses, or real estate, and the local directories call him variously auctioneer, appraiser, land surveyor, estate agent, architect, builder, agent for the Royal Farmers’ Insurance Office, and coal, timber, stone, and lime merchant.14 As with his brother, it is very unlikely that he received formal architectural training. Yet his first known building is a new church, that at Lew on the road from Witney to Bampton, built in 1841 when Wilkinson was 21 or 22.15 This gaunt church shows as much sophistication as most architects were bringing to ecclesiastical work at this date in the revival of ‘Christian architecture’. However, architecture could hardly be a full-time employment for anyone in Witney in the 1840s, so he continued his other occupations till 1856. This background enables one to understand how it was that Wilkinson depended first and foremost on severely practical abilities. All that is known of his later life and works suggests that he was never the man to get his specifications wrong or to underestimate any practical contingency. This reliability, combined with a modest sense of the picturesque and a lively interest in grouping and planning, took Wilkinson to a high and esteemed place among architects, if not to the top.

William Wilkinson left Witney in about March 1856, in which month he had offices at 2 St. Giles, Oxford, as well as in his home town.16 Shortly afterwards he was operating solely from Oxford,17 and by 1860 he had moved to 5 Beaumont Street, the seat of his practice until his retirement. From this point his career very rapidly blossomed. There were two or three crucial commissions which brought prosperity. Firstly, in about 1857, Wilkinson superseded J. C. Buckler as architect to the Oxfordshire Police Committee, at a period when numerous provincial police stations were scheduled for erection.18 Secondly, there was the vital commission from St. John’s College in 1860 to layout the Norham Manor Estate. This soon turned into a general brief of superintendence over the whole development of North Oxford. The precise extent of Wilkinson’s contribution to this will never be quite clear, but he certainly laid out the roads, decided on the sites of the villas, designed many himself, and as architect to St. John’s possessed certain powers of authorization and veto. These responsibilities passed with the practice to his nephew H. W. Moore, so that with the expansion of the St. John’s estate further and further north, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the whole of Oxford between St. Giles’ Church and Summertown, bordered on the west by the Oxford Canal and on the east by the Cherwell, is the conception of Wilkinson and Moore. A fuller description of the expansion of North Oxford under the aegis of Wilkinson and Moore will be found below on pp. 31-50.

Jobs also soon abounded for Wilkinson outside the immediate environs of Oxford. In virtue of an office block which he designed in Bishopsgate, London (1860-1), the Saturday Review19 rather rashly but impressively com­pared him with Gilbert Scott as one of the foremost English architects. Then came the third great commission, the Randolph Hotel, Oxford (1864-6) . At the opening, Dr. Adams, a Fellow of St. John’s, was able to claim that ‘his fame as an architect was not confined to Oxford, and even had it been so hitherto, this fabric would have entitled him to a European reputation ... Had they (the Directors) not had a man like Mr. Wilkinson, who threw his whole soul into the work, they would never have raised this noble structure. It was the emanation of his brain, and to him was due the credit not only of the exterior but of every internal arrangement.’20

The 1860’s were the climax of his career, and were marked by the publica­tion in 187021 of a book of his designs called English Country Houses. Forty-five Views and Plans of recently erected Mansions, Private Residences, Parsonage-Houses, Farm-Houses, Lodges and Cottages; with sketches of furniture and fittings; and a practical treatise on house-building. A second and augmented edition with sixty-one views was published in 1875. This book gives a clear picture of Wilkinson’s mature style. Up to 1870 the majority of his important works incorporate elements of strictly Gothic detail in picturesque and asymmetrical facades. The lighting, however, is better than in most houses of this style, and the detailing is rarely overemphasized. There are, of course, exceptions, such as the Oxford University Gymnasium, a solid, four-square brick building with undecorated round-headed windows. Wilkinson’s known church restorations are unostentatious but uninspired. He was primarily a practical architect who catered by preference for the wealthy middle classes. He built in Gothic not out of strong religious belief, but because he was most familiar with the style. In English Country Houses there is not a contentious word about the ‘true’ style, and the treatise on house-building which accom­panies the plates is severely limited to practical matters, as befits a book designed as an advertisement to potential clients. But the book did achieve some notice; the final accolade to Wilkinson’s success as an architect was the illustration of five of his works in Habitations Modernes, by the internationally famous architect Viollet-le-Duc, who must first have noticed Wilkinson from English Country Houses.22­

The second edition suggests a change in Wilkinson’s style in the early 1870’s, reflecting a national trend. Gentler elements are favoured, and he tries often to sound a more restrained domestic Tudor note familiar to him from the stone-built houses of West Oxfordshire. The compositions are frankly less interesting but they continue to be well and originally planned. Foremost among the later works is St. Edward’s School, Oxford (pl. XIVA) (1872 etc.), where the great formal quadrangle possesses a natural dignity unmatched in many schools designed by better architects. But by the late 1870s, many of Wilkinson’s buildings have ceased to be distinctive. Lord Williams’ Grammar School at Thame (1878-9), for instance, is competent but unremarkable handling of domestic Tudor motifs. In 1881 Wilkinson took into official partnership his nephew H. Wilkinson Moore, who had aided him since about 1875, and until 1886 the partnership of Messrs. Wilkinson and Moore operated at 5-6 Beaumont Street.23 This period is chiefly known from North Oxford, and contains few really good designs, since the older man was flagging and left most of the work to Moore, who had yet to develop a distinctive touch of his own. The villas of these years are often sharp and angular in outline, having lost the Gothic detailing of the 1860s but not yet acquired the Jacobean ornamentation which T. G. Jackson was to make fashionable in Oxford. However some of the works of the 1870’s and of the years of partnership show that Wilkinson had become competent in a variety of styles. Most untypical but impressive is the large house at Shelswell, Oxon., for Edward Slater Harrison (1875-7), which is entirely and formally classical. French Renaissance is the style favoured in what is probably Wilkinson’s work at the Warneford Hospital (1877), and many of the later villas do incorporate tentative Dutch or Renaissance details. Wilkinson retired in 1886, and at some time between then and 1900 he moved into his nearby masterpiece, the Randolph Hotel.24 He died on 24 January 1901,25 and is buried under a modest tombstone in Witney Cemetery, which had been one of his earlier designs.

William Wilkinson was not apparently sociable in character. He never married, nor did he join organizations like the Oxford Architectural Society or the Oxford Churchmen’s Union, which were strongly patronized by his brother architects. His correspondence was often conducted through clerks and pupils, perhaps because of a natural taciturnity encouraged by his lack of formal training and his small-town origin. In some ways this is welcome, since in his age architects were notorious for talking clap-trap, and his nephew C. C. Rolfe was among the worst offenders. Yet his local influence was pervasive. Besides Rolfe and Moore, Wilkinson had a number of other pupils who afterwards made good as Oxford architects in their own right; the most important were Frederick Codd, H. J. Tollit, and Frederick J. Connell, his invaluable chief clerk. He had modest antiquarian interests, and out of kindness gave a copy of Parker’s Introduction to the Study of Gothic Architecture to the young Harry Paintin, later a leading Oxford antiquarian.26 The special interest we know he took in farm work doubtless gave him wide and intimate contact with the landed gentry of the area, and it was perhaps in their company that he was able to indulge his hobbies of shooting and fishing. When he wanted a holiday, he would go to visit his brother in Ireland. Wilkinson retained an interest in his native town, contributing a drawing to J. A. Giles’ History of Witney (1852) and two photographs to W. J. Monk’s History of Witney (1894). As a draughtsman he was inferior to Moore, but he thrice exhibited at the Royal Academy in the early 1860s.27 His success was equalled by his frugal habits: at his death he left £21,859 5s. 9d.28

While the two brothers George and William Wilkinson ensured their own social rise and success by dint of hard work and solid accomplishment, two of their sisters, Ellen and Mary, kept pace by making good marriages. Their mother lived on at Witney till 1864,29 and the third known sister, Elizabeth, died there unmarried.30 Mary Wilkinson (b. 1821),31 no doubt during a family visit to her brother George in Ireland, met and later married Arthur Moore ‘of Drumcondra near Dublin, Gent’.32 Four children from this union were surviving in 1909. Francis Arthur Moore and Thomas William Moore were the first two sons, and the third was Harry Wilkinson Moore, born on 27 July 1850.33 There was also a daughter, Mary Katherine Moore, who eventually settled unmarried at Clifton; it was to her that Wilkinson left all his plans and most of his possessions34.

H. W. Moore is first heard of in March 1874, when he attracted notice in the school of Alexander Macdonald, the first Ruskin Master of Drawing, for his able draughtsmanship.35 He was therefore already living in Oxford at this date under his uncle’s tutelage, and perhaps already committed to an official apprenticeship in Wilkinson’s office. In these years one of his main occupations was to sketch the picturesque domestic architecture of Oxford, and the fruits of this was a modest publication of Twelve Sheets of Pen and Ink Sketches of the Old Domestic Architecture of Oxford,36 the drawings of which cover the period 1875 to 1882. They exhibit a light and neat hand and a good eye; the severity of mid-19th century drawing is already absent. Moore’s architec­tural drawings remained attractive and elegant throughout his professional career, and in this respect he differed from his more pedestrian uncle. His style reached a wider audience in a sketch of Old Nixon’s School, a pretty building of 1658 in the old Town Hall Yard, which was published in the Builder for 1880,37 and in drawings exhibited by him at the Royal Academy between 1882 and 1890.38 In 1884 Moore matriculated as a member of Turrell’s Hall, a short-lived private hall attached to the University which catered for older men, but he did not proceed to a degree.39

More important, he became his uncle’s official partner in 1881, and this arrangement continued till 1886, when Wilkinson retired. Moore was thus able to retain the ‘good will’ of the practice. Particularly valuable was the continued superintendence of the ever-expanding St. John’s Estates in North Oxford and of school designs at St. Edward’s, and at St. Kenelm’s School, Cowley Hill. Very little is known about Moore’s practice outside Oxford, but the fact that he won first prize in a Dairy Farm competition in 1879 should dissuade us from conceiving him as only a town architect. Yet he probably did limit himself more than Wilkinson, and it would be under­standable if the designs of streets and houses in North Oxford alone were enough to occupy his whole energies. Though the lay-out of these roads and villas in the 1880s and 1890s are Moore’s most characteristic work, they are by no means always his best. For this is worth looking at a building like the free­stone Lodge (1888) for the University Museum in Parks Road, which displays a delightful, unpretentious informality. Two sets of parish buildings, for St. Giles in Woodstock Road (1887-91) and for St. Clement’s at the corner of Boulter Street (1886-91), show that Moore could handle Gothic detail with a sophisticated freedom rare in provincial architects. The same elements are used in a quietly successful church at Kingsey, Bucks. (1892-3). It is a pity that he did not make more use of this style in his domestic work. Too often his designs are lacking in tension; the facades are pretty but there is little feeling for mass. The Clarendon Press Institute in Walton Street (1892-3) is an example of a building which has become too strung-out and squat. Increasing use of tile-hanging and of the occasional baroque detail in the 1890’s gives place to a plainer style at the turn of the century, culmi­nating in his Northmoor Road houses and the very successful 225 Iffley Road (1903).

After 1896 or so Moore was distinctly less energetic, and was once or twice in trouble with St. John’s for his sloth.40 In 1905-8 he joined with William H. Warwick in a partnership called Messrs. Wilkinson Moore and Warwick,41 but this cannot have been a success, for Moore remained at 6 Beaumont Street in 1910, while Warwick was working separately at Summertown.42 His only other known pupil was N. W. Harrison, subsequently a successful Oxford architect. Little of Moore’s 20th century work is known, but there may not be much of it. He retired in 1913 and moved into lodgings at 19 Museum Road.43 He died aged 64 on 1 March 1915, and was buried at Wolvercote Cemetery.44 His life followed the same uneventful pattern as his uncle’s, but his success was less remarkable in view of his origins. But in a testimonial letter to the Oxford Times after his death, the Vicar of St. Mary Magdalen, the Rev. Horace E. Clayton, wrote: ‘A kinder and more skilful man I never knew.’45 Moore lived and died unmarried.

If Mary Wilkinson made a good marriage, her sister Ellen (1816-86)46 succeeded equally well, and married a more interesting husband. The Rev. George Crabb Rolfe (181l-93) was from a branch of the Rolfe family from Rayne, Essex.47 He became a scholar of St. John’s College, Cambridge, obtaining his B.A. in 1834. After ordination he became curate to the Rev. Charles Jerram48 at Witney, and in 1838 was presented to the perpetual curacy of the nearby village of Hailey on the road to Charlbury. This living he retained until his death. G. C. Rolfe was a typical example of the new mould of clergyman, energetic, conscientious and perhaps insensitive. In 1843 he delivered at Witney and subsequently published a sermon called The Church of England, Apostolical, not Patristical.49 It is an able, intellectual sermon of broad-church principles, disdaining Roman authority but conscious of the need for reformation and change. Certain passages show awareness of the importance of church-building, and recommend the study of emblematic decoration for its usefulness in modern church architecture. This interest was to bear fruit.

Ellen Wilkinson married George Crabb Rolfe at Witney on 13 September 1842. The union was fertile and the offspring strong; all nine children still lived in 1907. First came George Wilkinson Rolfe (1843-1912), educated at Christ Church, and from 1884 Rector of Swanton Novers, Norfolk. Next came Clapton Crabb Rolfe (1845-1907), with whom we are most concerned. Then there are two daughters, Mary Ellen (b. 1846) and Lucy (b. 1848).50

Next is William Andrew Rolfe (b. 1850), who followed his brother Clapton into architecture. In 1880 he was a signatory of an open letter to the R.I.B.A. from a large number of architects, including Wilkinson and Moore, denouncing the unsatisfactory state of architectural competitions.51 He gives his address as Oxford, where no doubt he was studying with his uncle. But in 1881 he set up a practice in London with the assistance of his brother, who was with him at 68 Chancery Lane for about two years.52 On C. C. Rolfe’s departure for Oxford in 1883, W. A. Rolfe moved to 17a Great George Street, where he practised between 1884 and 1898.53 He then took a partner to form the successful but dull firm of Rolfe and Mathews, which specialized in the design of luxury London flats in the period 1899 to 1909.54 The partner­ship had ended by 1910, and William Rolfe went on practising by himself in London until the middle of the First World War.55

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