The Royal Courts of Justice in London, designed by G.E. Street
On Architecture

Why there has been no Street life

G.E. Street built or restored 113 churches for the Oxford diocese alone

This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The bicentenary of G.E. Street’s birth is on 20 June 2024, although you can be forgiven for not having noticed. Only the Victorian Society is celebrating with a special issue of their in-house magazine, The Victorian, a new monograph written by the late Geoff Brandwood, and a big dinner in St. James-the-Less, Pimlico, Street’s intensely atmospheric church south of Victoria Station.

Street owed his success as an architect to his great skill at drawing, evident at an early age; his training alongside William Butterfield as an architect in Sir George Gilbert Scott’s office, where he helped with the drawings which enabled Scott to win the competition for the new Nikolaikirche in Hamburg; and his involvement with the Cambridge Camden Society, including friendship with its secretary, Benjamin Webb.

It was Webb who introduced Street to the Rev. George Rundle Prynne, a Tractarian clergyman who commissioned him to design a small church at Biscovry in Cornwall. By the time Street was 30, he had designed more Cornwall churches, a vicarage in Wantage, been taken on as architect for Oxford diocese, made friends with its bishop Samuel Wilberforce, and designed the theological college in Cuddesdon — which opened in June 1854 on a hill outside Oxford for the training of a new generation of high church priests. He moved from Wantage to Beaumont Street, Oxford, married, and had taken on Philip Webb as an assistant the previous month.

He had also discovered the glories of mediaeval architecture in northern Italy, travelling from Milan to Venice, Verona, Padua and Bologna in 1853, information from which filled Brick and Marble Architecture in the Middle Ages: Notes on Tours in the North of Italy.

Perspective drawing of a church interior

There is something heroic about the way, throughout his life, Street was able to travel round England designing vicarages and parish churches and then take off for short trips on what he called “the railroad” round France, Germany, Italy and, in the early 1860s, Spain, visiting several cathedrals a day, climbing an occasional mountain, filling his mind with ideas for buildings and his sketchbooks with Ruskinian detail. In those days, travel was cheap, and the trains ran on time.

In 1856, the year that Street briefly took on William Morris as a pupil (Morris couldn’t stand office life), he moved to Montagu Place in Bloomsbury. By now, his style was fortified by his knowledge of European architecture, his commitment to the use of decorated brickwork, and his devotion to other crafts, all of which is evident in St. James-the-Less. Amongst its many beauties, the church has wonderful ornamental metalwork by James Leaver and Clayton & Bell stained glass.

I am not convinced that Street was always able to keep up the quality and originality of his early work during the 1860s and 1870s when he was in demand all over the country not just for new churches, but church restoration. He built or restored 113 churches for the Oxford diocese alone.

He was diocesan architect to Ripon, York and Winchester. Paul Joyce, the great scholar of Street’s work in the 1960s and 1970s, compiled a card index of 150 new churches and chapels, including work in Genoa, two particularly fine churches in Rome, and the Crimea Memorial Church in Istanbul. Then there were 50 parsonages and 300 works of church restoration.

This volume of work, and the amount of time and energy he had to put into wrangling over the new Law Courts after he won the competition to design them in 1868, inevitably led to some level of standardisation. Yet, he was still capable of original and interesting work. He promised the Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1879 that he would be responsible for “every detail, even the smallest, would, as his custom is, be drawn by him”.

In 1863, he was commissioned to design a subsidiary church for All Saints, Margaret Street in the slums of Paddington for a high church, Eton-educated vicar, Father Richard Temple West. He produced a beautifully slender, tall church with a steeple now visible from Westway.

In 1872, the Streets, by now affluent and wanting a retreat from London, bought a plot of land in the Surrey Hills at Holmbury St. Mary south of Dorking. Street set about designing a medievalised house, matched by a small parish church which he designed as a memorial to his second wife, Jessie, who died in 1876 on her return from their honeymoon in Rome.

It is worth considering in the year of his bicentenary why it is that Street is less well regarded than other Victorian architects, including Pugin, Butterfield and Norman Shaw, and only now the subject of a comprehensive monograph.

Part of the problem is that he was not an obvious pioneer. He was on the wrong side of the debate with William Morris about church restoration. In spite of his admiration for William Gladstone, he was a High Church Tory.

He also led a blameless life. Any private papers that he left were destroyed when the house of a descendant was bombed in the Second World War. Hard-working, high-minded and industrious makes him too good to be true, without the peccadilloes which might have attracted a biographer. It’s not good for one’s future reputation to have been keen on tennis and walking one’s dogs, to have retired to a big house in Surrey and then to have died of overwork.

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