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Unstable foundations

The unsound architecture of the Edwardian Baroque

If ever an architectural style of the British Empire existed, it would be the revival of the Baroque associated with Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723). Sometimes referred to as the “Wrenaissance”, its most magnificent exemplar is Belfast’s City Hall (1898–1906) by Alfred Brumwell Thomas. This outstanding work reflects not only the town’s recent elevation to the status of city, but its importance as an industrial power-house and its centrality in the political upheavals that centred on the Irish Home Rule question. That issue dominated British politics at the time and led to the Ulster Crisis immediately before the outbreak of the 1914–18 war. Its result was that the only part of Ireland that got Home Rule was the bit that did not want it. Brumwell Thomas’ great building links local, national, and imperial pride and aspirations with notions of political identity, drawing overwhelmingly from precedents designed by Wren and his colleagues, but with other influences suggested in the treatments of window-surrounds, rustication, keystones, voussoirs and various details.

Building Greater Britain: Architecture, Imperialism, and the Edwardian Baroque Revival c.1885-1920, G.A. Bremner (Yale University Press, £50) Front wrapper: Flinders Street Station, Melbourne (1899-1910), by James Fawcett & H.C.P.

Other cities and towns acquired municipal architecture of some grandeur at the time: they include Stockport and Woolwich (1906–08, again by Brumwell Thomas) and Colchester (1897–1902 by John Belcher). The last is an extraordinary ensemble, alluding to an earlier Empire (that of Rome), with an amazingly inventive confection in the spire topped by a statue of St Helena. The style was used throughout the Empire, notably with magnificent town and city halls at Durban (1905–10, by Stanley Hudson) and Johannesburg (1910–13, by Hawke & McKinlay), as well as legislative buildings at Regina, Canada (1908–12, by E. & W.S. Maxwell), the New Zealand Parliament Buildings at Wellington (1912–22, by John Campbell & Claude Paton) and the Union Buildings, Pretoria (1910–13, by Herbert Baker). Court-houses include the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey), London (1902–07, by Edward Mountford) and the Supreme Court, Victoria, Hong Kong (1898–1912, by Aston Webb & E. Ingress Bell). Amongst the commemorative buildings are the stupendously confident Ashton Memorial, Lancaster (1906–09, by John Belcher & J.J. Joass), the cleverly disposed geometries of the Admiralty Arch, London (1908–13, again by Webb & Bell) and the Monument to the Honoured Dead, Kimberley, South Africa (1902–04, by Herbert Baker). There are numerous fine works of architecture for other purposes, too, such as the headquarters of the Royal Insurance Company, Liverpool (1897–1903, by J. Francis Doyle with R. Norman Shaw), the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board headquarters, Liverpool (1903–07, by Briggs & Wolstenholme, F.B. Hobbs and Arnold Thornely) and the Australian Mutual Provident Society’s offices at Melbourne (1904–06, by Sulman & Power).

The greatest of all those architects contributing to the Imperial Baroque Revival undoubtedly included Herbert Baker (1862–1946), whose beautifully articulated war-memorial cloister at Winchester (1922–25) demonstrates a sensitivity absent in his grander buildings; as well as John Belcher (1841–1913), Edward Ingress Bell (1837–1914), Reginald Theodore Blomfield (1856–1942), John McKean Brydon (1840–1901), James Francis Doyle (1840–1913), John James Joass (1868–1952), Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869–1944), Edward William Mountford (1855–1908), Arthur Beresford Pite (1861–1934), Richard Norman Shaw (1831–1912), Henry Tanner (1849–1935), Alfred Brumwell Thomas (1868–1948), Arnold Thornely (1870–1953), Aston Webb (1849–1930) and William Young (1843–1900). There were many others, and Bremner gives them due acknowledgement. Belcher, with Pite, designed the remarkable hall of the Incorporated Chartered Accountants, Great Swan Alley, London (1888–93), but with Joass he produced two truly outstanding buildings: the aforementioned Ashton Memorial, Lancaster, and the Royal Insurance Office at the corner of Piccadilly and St James’s Street, London (1907–09). William Young’s superb War Office, Whitehall, London (1899–1906), proved to be very influential, with façades almost identically reproduced in the Municipal Technical Institute, Belfast (1902–07) by Samuel Stevenson (1859–1924).

This overblown architecture is not always congenial, and it can repel

Brydon created one of the most interesting and significant buildings of the era: the vast Government Offices, Westminster (1899–1908/17), with its internal circular court and other features “in direct and knowing emulation (if not virtual imitation)” of Inigo Jones’s unrealised project for a huge Royal Palace of 1638. The influence of Wren was also apparent in the “quiet dignity” of this fine building, which demonstrated one of the great strengths of Edwardian Baroque: its “ability to punch through the surrounding urban fabric with a vigorous sobriety”, making overt the links with the past in a highly intelligent and sensitive manner.

Rear wrapper: Belfast City Hall central cupola (1898-1906), by Alfred Brunwell Thomas.

And yet, and yet … many have often asked ourselves how we react to this at times very overblown architectural style. It is not always congenial, and it can repel, as does the somewhat blowsy Lutheran Cathedral in the Lustgarten, Berlin (1888-1905) by Julius Karl Raschdorff (1823–1914). Raschdorff’s building encapsulates the rather aggressive, perhaps even vulgar loudness of a belligerent Wilhelmian Germany, a newly unified nation that was not quite sure of itself and over-compensated by brashness. In the United Kingdom, the public-school ethos of masculinity — playing the game, the officers’ training corps, serving the Empire (I can well remember Empire Day being commemorated at school) and so on — was very much a feature of late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain. That ethos was badly dented by the sensational fall of Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) in 1895 and by the disaster of the South African War (1899–1902), during which Britain was vilified by the Continental powers for “bullying” the “plucky Boers” (later themselves perceived as pariahs for other reasons) and made to look weak and impotent in such a long-drawn-out campaign. Matters were not improved by widespread social unrest, the violent campaigns of the suffragettes, the vast expenditure on the fleet in response to the growing threat from Imperial Germany’s naval ambitions, and the increasingly problematic Irish Question: was Edwardian Baroque one aspect of a national overstatement of power and confidence in the face of so many uncertainties?

An apparently widespread sense of national superiority was not really based on anything connected with the intellect — it was mere sophistry, without any substantial back-up. As for the nation’s fitness, medical examinations of potential recruits to the armed forces during the South African War showed an appalling state of health amongst the nation’s working classes, compared with similar examinations in Germany. From the publications of the period, though, it is very clear that architects, critics and clients involved in the creation of major public and commercial buildings throughout the Empire were more than aware of what they were doing. Their creations had meaning in their symbolism and architectural language, linked back to the times of Inigo Jones (1573–1652) and Wren, to an architecture that was perceived as essentially English. The best that could be achieved was an architecture of order, continuity and reason in an age of uncertainty, and it was exported throughout the Empire, closely associated with governance, law and commerce.

As Bremner cogently points out, the apparent stability and grandeur epitomised in the showy architecture of the time were built on unsound foundations. They attempted to disguise the serious underlying anxieties, even neuroses, that pervaded Britain and its Empire, concerning sustainable influence and durability, health, Great Power rivalry, Ireland, social unrest, masculinity (threatened, it seemed, by Suffragettes and effeteness) and much else. Some kind of formal political unity seemed to become less tenable, not least because of Ireland, so an arrangement involving closer social, economic and cultural ties was thought to be a more promising way of keeping the British world together. The English Baroque style of architecture was seen as a means to those ends, even though several of its more accomplished practitioners, like Brydon and Young, were Scots. Indeed, its powerful, confident, robust overstatement seemed to promise a kind of “bulwark against real and imagined imperial decline”. It was a “reflection of the broader assumptions and prejudices that underpinned the Victorians’ and Edwardians’ perceptions of themselves and the wider world”. It was certainly a global phenomenon, too. As Bremner states, “As a prevalent and conspicuous form of cultural expression, the Edwardian Baroque has a lot to offer in support of wider claims concerning late Victorian and Edwardian attitudes towards nationhood and empire.” As it appeared with increasing frequency throughout the British Empire, but especially in the British Isles and the settler Dominions, it signified notions of affiliation, unity and connectedness within the “broader diasporic framework of Britannic solidarity”.

This impressive book makes an excellent case for considering Edwardian Baroque part of the imperial project of building a Greater Britain. Thoroughly researched and splendidly illustrated, it covers an important period of history, with sensitive insights concerning the many uncertainties of the time, handled with intelligence and depth. Regrettably, given the existence of fine, competent, old-established printers in these islands, this weighty tome was printed in China — a fact that in itself speaks inelegantly of steep decline in contemporary Britain. It is an ominous portent of things to come.

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