Edmund Harris’ intriguing blog cataloguing Less Eminent Victorians is an engaging, enlightening and diverting investigation, finds Hugh Pearman
Why wait for a traditional publishing channel, argues architectural conservation specialist and historian Edmund Harris, when you can just get on and publish online for yourself? To say that ‘Less Eminent Victorians’ is a blog about overlooked architects is true, but it is very far indeed from being ‘just’ a blog. Harris has previously worked for SAVE, the Victorian Society, the Diocese of London and the Built Heritage Consultancy and is now Care of Churches Officer for the Diocese of Canterbury. He knows his stuff.
I have been following Less Eminent Victorians since Harris began his self-appointed task in the summer of 2020 with the intriguing William Eden Nesfield (1835-88), a one-time partner of Richard Norman Shaw. Harris has already written 28 wide-ranging accounts, and goes back to fill the gaps in his earlier pieces when he learns more. So the blog is already the length of a decent book, and amounts to a work of detection, searching for ‘missing persons’.
At a time when he says there is still scholarship to be done even on some of the Victorian big names – the likes of Street, Teulon, even Sir George Gilbert ‘Great’ Scott – what hope is there for all the fascinating less lauded talents – ‘who, though not household names, each made a distinctive, highly individual contribution to this rich legacy?’ he asks. Well, he’s made a decent start here.
He has a commendable weakness for those architects that another of his hard-to-categorise heroes, H S Goodhart-Rendel, memorably described as ‘rogue’. The ones who step confidently outside the mainstream. The instalments tend to get longer and more detailed as time goes on – you can tell that this is someone well versed in the business of writing reports and appraisals professionally.
What you get here is an insight into a live process, and this, as much as the format, makes reading it different to reading a finished book. Harris sometimes admits he has ‘run out of road’ on some of the architects who have piqued his interest. Why, for instance, did an obviously talented architect such as John Croft, who he bills as ‘the most mysterious rogue of all’ not build more? A glance at his photos of Croft’s church of John the Baptist in Lower Shuckburgh, Warwickshire, is enough to hook you, as is his description: ‘Built in 1863-1864, it is among the most outlandish and bizarrely original churches that Victorian England produced, which is saying a lot. Here is romanticism writ as large as it can be, for this is architecture intended to appeal primarily to the emotions and the senses. It is a sumptuous, mind-bogglingly varied feast of colours, textures and forms.’
Perhaps Croft’s tastes, like those of another of Harris’s subjects, the better known ‘rogue’ R L Roumieu, were just too eccentric (check out his remarkably unusual tower and spire on St Mark’s, Broadwater Down, Tunbridge Wells). But as he writes of Edward Lushington Blackburne (1803-88): ‘There are some Victorian architects whose neglect is genuinely inexplicable and it usually comes down to sheer bad luck – the destruction of major works, the absence of a scholar prepared to take on the task of providing an authoritative account of a life’s work. Do I think that Blackburne is a neglected genius? No – it would be silly to make that sort of claim for him. I doubt bringing him to light will fundamentally change our understanding of Victorian architecture. But he deserved to be written up.’
Harris reveals that the external examiners for his Cambridge dissertation on Joseph Peacock were Timothy Brittain-Catlin and the late Gavin Stamp. After Harris had talked himself to a standstill, ‘Gavin turned to me and said, “We couldn’t help wondering whether Peacock wasn’t actually all that good an architect”. This was a shock and it caught me rather off guard. It still rings in my ears.’
I’m inclined to think that if Harris says someone is worth the attention, he’s probably right. And he’s entertaining with it. He drops little apercus into his writing – such as this, from an account of the amateur architecture of the Welsh Marches: ‘I have long fancied that one of the principal drivers of architectural development in Victorian England was boredom.’
He will ramble off down by-ways – what Victorian clients got up to, other architects from the same family, Welsh sheep-breeding, French wind-turbines, Carthusian monasteries, that kind of thing – so you sometimes need to concentrate quite hard in order not to lose the thread. These digressions are fascinating however, and perhaps unintentionally echo the way many of his subjects work, which is often to do with overload, packing in the effects. It’s rich. Good to dip into, perhaps too much to read all 28 at one sitting.
It’s not all about churches and country houses. There’s the architect of London’s lost Queen’s Hall, Thomas Edward Knightley (1823-1905). Or Charles Henry Driver (1832-1900), a great user of finely-detailed cast iron in pumping stations (including two of the grandest, East London’s Abbey Mills and Crossness) many inventive railway stations in an impressive range of styles and sizes, pier and aquarium buildings, street lamps... he was a thoroughly versatile Victorian architect who certainly does, along with his colleagues in the blog, deserve to be rather more eminent. All in all, this is a site to lose yourself in.