Sketch by Rickards (1908) of the Bohemian Court Chancellery, Wipplingerstraße, Vienna (1709-14), designed by J.B. Fischer von Erlach, showing the richness of architectural sculpture that was to be such a feature of Rickards’s own work (from Arnold Bennett [ed.]: The Art of E A Rickards, with an appreciation by H.V. Lanchester, and technical notes by Amor Fenn [London: Technical Journals Ltd., 1920]).

Rickards remembered

A fine tribute to an industrious architectural eccentric

Artillery Row
Front cover of the book showing part of the exuberant crowning element over Lanchester & Rickards’s Methodist Central Hall, Westminster (1905-12) (courtesy of Robin Forster).

Edwin Rickards in the series Victorian Architects
by Timothy Brittain-Catlin
Liverpool University Press on behalf of Historic England and The Victorian Society, 2023
156 pp., many b&w and col. illus., £24.00  
ISBN: 978-1-83764-507-7 softback

Edwin Alfred Rickards (1872-1920) was perhaps one of the most dapper of late-Victorian and Edwardian English architects, always impeccably dressed, and was responsible for some of the most flamboyantly Baroque architecture of that glorious era before the catastrophe of 1914-18 ruined everything. He was also a great talker, his utterances being “exceedingly good and original”, as his friend, the novelist Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was to note, although he could be guilty of “exasperated egoism”. These impressions date from 1909, when the huge Methodist Central Hall, designed by Rickards and his partner, Henry Vaughan Lanchester (1863-1953), was going up just across the road from Westminster Abbey: it was a building really unlike any other in Edwardian London, one of the most exuberant monuments of its time, with more than a touch of fin-de-siècle Viennese worldliness about it. A contemporary critic accurately described Rickards’s work  as combining “opulence and taste with a touch of refined swagger”, qualities owing something to the marvellously fluent decorations by the great sculptors Henry Poole (1873-1928) and Henry Charles Fehr (1867-1940). 

Portrait of Rickards (1911) by Frank Waldo Murray (c.1884-1956) (RIBA Collections RIBA100474).

Rickards was an extremely gifted draughtsman: his sketches are enchanting, and his caricatures very amusing and remarkably astute. His tastes were catholic: he absorbed the assured showiness of the grand architecture he saw in Paris and Vienna, and recorded specimens with wonderful élan in exquisite drawings, some of which were published in 1920 as The Art of E. A. Rickards, edited by Arnold Bennett. Brittain-Catlin reproduces a selection of them in this delightful and beautifully illustrated book: one of the finest is that of the Böhmische Hofkanzlei in Vienna (1709-14), a noble work of Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723), which features much robust and very vigorous sculpture, something which Rickards clearly attempted to emulate in his grander creations.

One his first recorded and realised designs was for George Sherrin (1843-1909): this was the lantern that crowns the steel-framed dome (1892-6) of the London Oratory of St Philip Neri and the church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Brompton, but shortly afterwards he formed a partnership with Lanchester and James Stewart (1860-1904): as Lanchester, Stewart, & Rickards the firm entered competitions, as a result of which they became architects for the new city hall and law courts, Cathays Park, Cardiff (1897-1905), the first planned civic centre in Great Britain, suitably enlivened with powerful sculpture by Poole, Fehr, and Albert Hemstock Hodge (1875-1917). Brittain-Catlin describes and illustrates this marvellous group of buildings: their overall effect is “powerful and coherent”, and the photographs by Robin Forster are stupendous.

Entrance to Cardiff city hall (town hall until 1905) (1897-1906) (courtesy of Robin Forster).
Hull School of Art, 50 Anlaby Road, Kingston upon Hull (1902-5) (courtesy of Robin Forster).

Then followed the Hull School of Art (now the Northern Academy of Performing Arts), Anlaby Road, Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire (1902-5), which Brittain-Catlin aptly dubs “exquisite …, still complete today in its details, excellent even in comparison to the city’s very high quality late Victorian and Edwardian architecture”: “the genius of this building is in the way in which a few bold elements are placed up against one another within or on a very small space without overcrowding”. It is also filled with a Palladian spirit, an echo of a villa from the Veneto, perhaps, wonderfully transmogrified. Many, many years ago (too many, it seems now), I recall giving a lecture there: I was enchanted by some of the interior details and spaces, but the exterior is very memorable too. Brittain-Catlin’s assessment here, as elsewhere, is spot-on

Deptford town hall, New Cross Road, London (1902-5), showing the four figures which, like Fischer von Erlach’s work, are an integral part of the architecture, not stuck on (courtesy of Robin Forster).

After Hull came Deptford town hall (1902-5), the exterior massing of which has certain affinities with the Hull building, but here everything is far more intense, with shades of Netherlandish influences through Rochester’s Guildhall (1687) and Corn Exchange (1706), and perhaps a pinch of seasoning drawn from Genoese palazzi, but it also seems to have been inspired by an earlier design by the firm for a town hall at Godalming, Surrey (1898), which was never realised. The splendid front is enlivened by statues of four naval heroes by Poole: these are Francis Drake (c.1540-96), Robert Blake (1598-1657), Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), and a figure intended to suggest an admiral contemporary with the building, though no particular personality of the time seems to have been intended. It is shameful that these statues, essential parts of the building’s architecture, as they are actually in relief, and are integral with the stonework of the wall behind them, were attacked recently by so-called students objecting to their supposed “imperial” imagery, ovinely following other vandalistic impulses in Bristol and Oxford. These self-righteous contemporary iconoclasts, rampaging in the unedifying footsteps of puritanical wreckers, fanatical destroyers, and the Taliban, seem oblivious to the fact that the statues are not stuck on (like much “modern art”), but are inseparable from the building’s character, just as the treatment of Fischer von Erlach’s façades merges sculpture and architecture in a satisfying whole. One wonders if the inconoclasts ever bothered to delve at all into the lives of those worthies so commemorated. Given that some now hold that the chap on top of the Corinthian column (1839-43) designed by William Railton (c.1801-77) in Trafalgar Square, London, is someone other than Viscount Nelson of the Nile, one despairs for the fate of truth, unwarped uncorrupted history, and even sanity. The lions at the base of the column, incidentally, were not part of the original Railton design: by Edwin Landseer (1802-73), they were added in 1867.

Front of premises originally for Colnaghi & Obach, 144-6, New Bond Street, London (1911-14) (courtesy of Robin Forster).

Stewart’s death left the partnership as Lanchester and Rickards, and so Methodist Central Hall was theirs, as was the Third Church of Christ Scientist, Curzon Street (1908-11) — a powerful composition featuring on its street frontage a massive variation on a serliana (with echoes, perhaps,  of Christ Church Spitalfields, of 1714-29, by Nicholas Hawksmoor [1661-1736], the whole possibly influenced by the First Church of Christ Scientist in New York City, designed by the American architects John Merven Carrère [1858-1911] & Thomas Hastings [1860-1929], which had been published in 1904). Colnaghi & Obach’s establishment at 144-6 New Bond Street (1911-14), and a few other projects followed, until the catastrophe of 1914-18 intervened, and “Little Rickards” was sent to do mundane clerical work on the Western Front, where his fragile health broke down, and he succumbed to tuberculous meningitis. He had lived in a pseudo-Bohemian world, according to Lanchester, combining architecture and showgirls, exuding passion and curiosity, all mixed in with a manic creativity. His “common” accent (something he shared with Herbert George Wells [1866-1946] and Arnold Bennett), his exhausting company, his preoccupation with sex, and his often perceived bad manners did tend to alienate many, but the tributes after his untimely death recognised his genius and qualities as a creative artist. This volume contains many interesting vignettes, including a poignant sight of John Francis Bentley (1839-1902), then dying of cancer of the tongue, in his unfinished masterpiece, Westminster Cathedral; mention of a cocotte mûlatresse with whom Rickards was “sleeping”, later offering to “lend” her to Bennett (who fastidiously turned down the suggestion); and an account of a perfomance of Swan Lake, when a feather flew off a dancer’s dress and someone in the audience muttered sotto voce that she was “moulting”, to general hilarity. 

No mean wordsmith, Brittain-Catlin has done a fine job, erudite and entertaining, informative and perceptive, with a splendid choice of visual matter. Very oddly, though, there is no mention of where Rickards’s corpse ended up, though sympathetic mention is made of his widow, Mina, at his funeral (“beautiful & powerful, & passionately devoted to Rickards”). 

This is an excellent addition to a series that has sometimes previously been marred by dreadful, distorted photographs which should never have been published (the volume on Pugin [2021] was a real stinker in this respect). This time they are all bang-on, and Robin Forster’s work is spectacularly fine.

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