Wellington Arch, also known as Constitution Arch or (originally) as the Green Park Arch, is a triumphal arch by Decimus Burton that forms a centrepiece of Hyde Park Corner in central London,. Artist J Harris. Picture Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images

Flawed primer on a Classical master

A new book on Decimus Burton, Victorian England’s “pagan” architect

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Decimus Burton was one of the more interesting architects active in the UK from the 1820s, not least because his Classicism was free from the arid pedantry displayed in works of some of his more famous contemporaries such as Robert Smirke and William Wilkins. Like John Nash, he successfully melded Classicism with the Picturesque, notably at the Calverley Park Estate, Tunbridge Wells, Kent (from 1828), a development lovingly chronicled by Philip Whitbourn.

Although some of Burton’s works have been destroyed (notably the Colosseum, Regent’s Park [1823-7], which made the young man’s reputation), several of his great buildings survive in London alone, including the beautiful Athenæum Club, Waterloo Place (1827-30), with its Panathenaic frieze by John Henning Sr and Jr. and gilt copy of the Pallas Athena of Velletri by Edward Hodges Baily on top of the porch of paired Roman Doric columns.

Interior of the Athenæum Club, 1840. Picture Credit: API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The Henningses were also responsible for the fine frieze on the attic of Burton’s Ionic screen at Hyde Park Corner (built 1826-9), where Burton confidently combined a Greek Order with arches, in an easy, fluent, untroubled manner. Burton’s powerful Wellington Arch (also 1826-9), originally set parallel to the screen, was moved to its present position in 1883 on the axis of Constitution Hill. The Arch gets its name from an equestrian statue by Matthew Cotes Wyatt of the first Duke of Wellington which was set on top of it astride its axis, i.e. sideways on, thus causing much derision: “we are avenged,” gloated a visiting French officer.

Despite scornful comments, the Duke’s statue was not moved to Aldershot until 1883. The Arch is now crowned with a superb bronze group by Adrian Jones featuring the Angel of Peace descending on the Chariot of War pulled by vigorously plunging horses. Sadly, the whole area has been treated badly by traffic planners, so is an æsthetic mess nowadays, and desperately needs to be given back some cohesion and dignity. Between 1820 and 1823, Burton also designed Cornwall and Clarence Terraces at Regent’s Park under the overall direction of Nash, both highly accomplished works for such a young man.

Pugin denounced all Classicists as “pagans”

The Panathenaic procession from the Parthenon frieze was again featured in the interior of the exquisite villa in Regent’s Park (1822-4) which Burton designed for George Bellas Greenough MP, a founder member of the Athenæum and the Geological Society of London through whom the architect met some of his future clients. Athens also provided further precedents for this villa (The Grove), and the building was greatly admired by contemporaries. Greenough and Burton were also involved in the later development of St Leonards-on-Sea, near Hastings, Sussex, although the early history of that (from 1828) was almost entirely connected with Decimus’s father, James.

So far so good, but early on in this book I was jolted by the statement that Ancient Architecture Restored and Improved … (1742), reissued (1747) as Gothic Architecture, Improved by Rules and Proportions … etc., by Batty and Thomas Langley, did “not seem to have resulted in any actual buildings”. This is untrue: the pretty Gothic Octagon (1750) at Bramham Park, West Riding of Yorkshire, is closely based on a plate in the Langleys’ work, and the Great Hall at Wiston House, West Sussex (late 1740s), has Gothick details cribbed from Gothic Architecture. There are many other Langleyesque exemplars to be found elsewhere throughout Great Britain if one keeps one’s eyes peeled.

I also became concerned when Rabbitts cites a book purporting to recount “a Victorian architectural duel” between Burton and A.W.N. Pugin (1812-52). In that tome it was suggested that the “principal target” for Pugin’s venom was Burton, for, at the “very top of the list of the ‘pagan’ architects he most despises” in his Contrasts was the “hated name of Decimus Burton”. Well, Pugin denounced all Classicists as “pagans”, for only Gothic would do for him (even for cakes and wives), and I consulted all my copies of Contrasts to check on this statement: at the top of the lists printed in my copies is the name of William John Donthorne. Burton was far too gentlemanly to lower himself to sparring with Pugin, and Rabbitts should have been more cautious in his choice of sources. A one-sided “duel” is hardly a duel at all.

What ought to have been a very fine book is marred by certain aspects

Burton enjoyed great success as the designer of villas and small country houses, and as a planner with an eye to the Picturesque, such as Phoenix Park, Dublin (1832-49). He also had a reputation in the creation of iron-and-glass structures, including the splendid Palm House, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (1844-8 — with Richard Turner of Dublin). At Kew he was responsible for other structures, including the Temperate House (1859-62), and he planned the layout and designed several realised buildings for a New Town at Fleetwood, Lancashire (1836-43).

Other involvements included works at the Gervis Estate, Bournemouth (1845-59), and Beulah Spa, Upper Norwood (1828-31), for which see this reviewer’s Spas, Wells, & Pleasure-Gardens of London (London: Historical Publications Ltd., 2010), which Rabbitts does not cite.

The Palm House at Kew

For the Gothic Revival, Burton showed no enthusiasm, and this is obvious when studying his essays in that style: as Howard Colvin observed in his A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 (Yale University Press, 2008), “his lack of sympathy … is apparent … in the arid interiors and coarse detailing of the churches, which are among the least attractive of their period”.

Indeed that is all too clear, and the appalling photographs in Rabbitts’s book — including Holy Trinity, Tunbridge Wells, Kent (1827-9); St Mary’s, Goring-by-Sea, West Sussex (1836-8); St Peter’s, Southborough, Kent (1830-1); St Mary’s, Riverhead, Kent (1830-1); and St Mary’s, Bradford Peverell, Dorset (1849-51) — make the buildings look even worse.

Zaha Hadid’s amoeba plonked against the Powder Magazine

There is no excuse for photographs with unacceptable converging verticals: the publishers should have insisted upon replacement with better shots. Many illustrations are very fine, so it is amazing that the book should have been seriously marred by the inclusion of such obviously unprofessional, distorted snapshots.

One of the most depressing photographs is that of Burton’s Powder Magazine, Hyde Park, of 1823, with what to many observers is an inappropriate, ill-mannered extension by the over-rated Zaha Hadid. That such an amoebic blob should ever have been approved says much about the visual illiteracy and desensitisation now almost universal in these islands.

It is a pity that what ought to have been a very fine book is marred by certain aspects alluded to above. Nevertheless, it is a reasonable introduction to Burton’s work, but the problems could have been, and should have been, ironed out, especially at the price.


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