Great British Architects: John Cowper 1453-84

John Cowper 1453-84

John Cowper was a leading figure in a generation of masons responsible for reinvigorating the Perpendicular style in the 15th century with ideas borrowed from Continental architecture. As part of this process, he helped naturalise a new material within the English tradition of fine architecture.

The expertise necessary for making high-quality bricks on an industrial scale was imported to England from northern France and the Baltic from the 1420s onwards. Cowper was exposed to this material when he was apprenticed as a mason and went on brilliantly to explore its decorative possibilities.

In so doing, he developed the ornamental language of brick architecture that was to be employed in the Tudor period. Cowper was trained in the orbit of the royal works and was capable of extremely sophisticated designs in the Perpendicular style, as it had developed since the late 1340s. As well as creating idiomatic architecture, he could also produced mannered designs distinguished by bold conception and simplified forms.

The Collegiate church


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Cowper is first documented in 1453 as an apprentice working on one of the most important architectural projects in 15th-century England: the construction of a college dedicated to the Virgin under the shadow of Windsor Castle at Eton. Seven years later, in 1460, he was entered in the pay rolls of the college as a mason.

This training was to be of immense importance in his subsequent career. The domestic buildings at Eton, designed by the king’s mason, Robert Westerley, were the first in England to combine cut stone and high-quality brickwork for decorative effect.

The wall surfaces of the college buildings were further enriched by elaborate patterns laid using dark bricks-a type of ornament termed diaper-and the parapets sported brick chimneys with rich abstract surface decoration. All these treatments of brick were to have a long subsequent history in English architecture, extending far beyond the end of the Middle Ages.

Bishop Waynflete

Cowper subsequently passed into the service of Winchester College, where he is recorded as repairing a chimney in 1466-67. This connection probably brought him into contact with one of the most important patrons of architecture in late-15th-century England, William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester.

From 1475, Cowper was at work on the collegiate church at Tattershall, a project being overseen by Waynflete. This magnificent church stands immediately beside one of the grandest brick buildings constructed in 15th-century England: the great tower of Tattershall Castle, probably begun in 1440. It is quite possible that Cowper’s own castle designs were influenced by this ambitious building.

Cowper’s close connection with Waynflete is further attested in a contract of 1477 between the two men, when Cowper, des-cribed as ‘a mason of Winchester’, agreed to build a bridge at Bramber (Sussex).

It is likely that Cowper served Waynflete in much the same way that the mason William Wynford had served the bishop’s great pre-decessor, William Wykeham (Country Life, July 15, 2009). If so, a series of important but undocumented operations undertaken by the bishop might plausibly be associated with him.

These include Waynflete’s superb chantry chapel at Winchester Cathedral and two sumptuous residential projects executed in brick: the addition of a new gatehouse tower to Farnham Castle, Surrey, between 1470-77, and the reconstruction of Esher, Surrey, probably complete by 1484.

Lord Hastings

From 1480 to 1483, Cowper was employed by William, Lord Hastings, as the master mason responsible for a new castle, Kirby Muxloe. This appointment reflects his status as an established mason with a wide practice.

Cowper did not only work in brick. He may already have worked for Lord Hastings on the redevelopment of his principal seat at Ashby de la Zouche from 1472/73. The great tower of the castle, built throughout of cut stone, is one of the prodigy buildings of the late 15th century. Its detailing suggests a connection with the later works to the chapel of St George’s College, Windsor, and the Spy Tower at Warwick Castle. Half of the building was destroyed in 1646,
following a siege in the Civil War.

Loss of documentation may have obscured Cowper’s involvement in this and other major commissions of the period. He probably died in about 1484, when his name dis-
appears from the documentary record.

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