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Recollections from our youth, decade by decade

Hugh Pearman

125 years of the RIBA Journal

2018 is the 125th year of the RIBA Journal. November 9 will be our actual birthday; that was when RIBA president John MacVicar Anderson announced ‘The New Journal’, created by a merger of two earlier RIBA publications, ‘Transactions’ and ‘Proceedings’. Every month this year we shall select a fascinating out-take from our archives, roughly decade by decade. And in November we will do something special.

So come to January 1900, when the RIBA invited architects to present a key building to its senior members, who then discussed it. At the dawn of a new century, what less progressive building to choose than Basil Champneys’ John Rylands Library in Manchester, an example of full-on decorated gothic?

The format was your classic show-and-tell, with lots of drawings and the odd photo, all reproduced in the RIBAJ. Champneys was just a little defensive about his chosen style: ‘Not that I consider that any special reason, still less apology, is needed for the adoption of Gothic which, in spite of some present unpopularity, I believe merely temporary, can, I think, never fade completely into disuse or fail to influence the architecture of the future’.

The John Rylands Library in Manchester as photographed for the RIBA Journal in 1900.
The John Rylands Library in Manchester as photographed for the RIBA Journal in 1900. Credit: RIBA Collections

This was and is a beautifully crafted building of Penrith ‘Shawk’ stone and oak with lashings of statuary, stained glass and exhortatory Latin texts. Mrs Rylands, who commissioned the library as a memorial to her cotton-merchant husband, had done some of her own research, said Champneys, especially visiting his Mansfield College Library in Oxford. It was a college-style library she desired – and one with a very imposing entrance lobby and staircase, she insisted.

Basil Champneys as photographed in 1894.
Basil Champneys as photographed in 1894. Credit: RIBA Collections

Then there was electric light (gaslight dried out book bindings too much, he disclosed) and his air filters: external air was warmed over hot pipes and drawn through 'screens loaded with cotton fibre which caught a very great quantity of dust'.  Champneys also made provision for water-spray air cleaning but this was not installed. And finally, plate glass for the bookcase doors. 'I have always been a hater of large sheets of plate-glass in any form whatever,' he said, '(this) has been an opportunity of overcoming a prejudice.'

I advised covering the entire site with a layer of cement concrete some four feet six inches deep

The job took up half of his time for nine years. In the discussion Beresford Pite, a progressive Free Classicist who had visited the building, declared himself  'dumb-struck with the scale and the wonderful construction of the vaulting' but was a bit sharp on the style. 'Mr Champneys has moved backwards, and his building could not be described  as in any way such a modern building as the Houses of Parliament,' said Pite. Ouch. Barry and Pugins’s Houses of Parliament were already 40 years old. But Pite continued: 'The Ryland Library might be, in the eye of the future New Zealander, the work of the most accomplished architect of the 15th century.'  Oh, and he didn’t like the ‘sombre’ colour of the stone much either.  Pite was the most outspoken, but you get the impression his whole audience saw Champneys as essentially an interesting throwback. Nonetheless he was to receive the Royal Gold Medal in 1912.

The John Rylands Library happily survives, and was restored and extended in 2007 by Austin-Smith:Lord.  Like his medieval forbears, Champneys (1842-1935) built to last.