Great British Architects: Sir Gilbert Scott 1811-78

Sir Gilbert Scott was responsible for some of the most conspicuous public buildings of the Victorian age and left his mark on almost every English cathedral. At the height of his career, in the 1860s, he was running one of the largest architectural offices in Europe, employing some 30 people. Several of his pupils and assistants went on to achieve distinction on their own, which suggests that Scott was not personally responsible for all the works connected with his name.

As H. S. Goodhart-Rendel noted: ‘That the designs he issued… should mostly possess a strong flavour of their issuer’s idiosyncrasy is as remarkable as it might be unexpected.’ However, when he took a personal interest in a project, the result could be magnificent. Through his patronage and by his intelligent writings, Scott exercised a strong influence on the development of the Gothic Revival and he proved adept at using what was essentially an ecclesiastical style for secular purposes. It was his many church restorations that did most to sully his reputation, but modern opinion increasingly finds his work in this field to have been necessary, careful and scholarly. Perhaps we can now appreciate again that this very endearing man fully deserved his great fame.

Early career

George Gilbert Scott was born in 1811 at Gawcott in Buckinghamshire, the son of an Anglican clergyman, and his many clerical relations would subsequently assist his career. He was articled to the architect and hymn-writer James Edmeston from 1827 to 1831, and the death of his father in 1835 forced him to set up on his own. He entered into partnership with William Bonython Moffatt and, together, they worked hard to secure commissions for the new union workhouses being built under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Many of these buildings were severely utilitarian, but some were more elaborate, such as that at Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Because of Moffatt’s dangerous involvement in railway speculation, the partnership was terminated by Scott’s wife, Caroline Oldrid, whom he had married in 1838.

Gothic architecture

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Scott had taken an interest in medieval architecture since childhood, and the revival of the Church of England enabled him to apply this to the design of new churches. He was later ashamed of his first efforts, but his work improved when, as he recorded in his posthumously published autobiography, Personal and Professional Recollections, he was ‘awakened from my slumbers by the thunder of Pugin’s writings… I was from that moment a new man’. Converted to ‘correct’ ecclesiological Gothic, Scott won a competition in 1842 for rebuilding the church of St Giles, Camberwell.

He entered two alternative designs in his secular Gothic manner in the farcically mis-managed Government Offices competition for Whitehall in 1857, and somehow managed to wangle the job. However, Lord Palmerston later told him in no uncertain terms to produce ‘something more like modern architecture’-that is, Classical. After a compromise design in an Italian-Byzantine style was dismissed as ‘neither one thing nor t’other-a regular mongrel affair’, Scott was faced with resignation or betraying his principles.

The issue was never seriously in doubt and a new Classical design was accepted by Parliament in 1861. The resulting building for the Foreign Office has some magnificent interiors, recently restored, which enabled it to become ‘a kind of national palace, or drawing room for the nation’, as Scott’s ally, A. J. B. Beresford Hope, put it.

Although Scott subsequently lost moral authority as a leader in the Gothic Revival, he was nevertheless able to employ his secular Gothic style in other important works such as Preston Town Hall (demolished), Leeds Infirmary, the Universities of Glasgow and Bombay, and, above all, in the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station.

Cathedral work

Much of Scott’s practice consisted of the restoration of churches and cathedrals. His first cathedral was Ely in 1847, and he became surveyor to Westminster Abbey two years later, ‘a great and lasting source of delight’. Much of his work consisted of refurnishing choirs for modern choral worship and introducing screens.

Restoration work also consisted of necessary repair and strengthening after years of neglect-the collapse of the crossing tower of Chichester Cathedral in 1861, which Scott rebuilt, revealed what a parlous state many ancient buildings were in but the controversial aspect was the reinstatement of lost features based on archaeological evidence, or hypothesis. Scott was brilliant at this, but it provoked the hostility of John Ruskin and, above all, William Morris, who founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877. Even critics, however, would not wish away his careful, scholarly reconstruction of the mutilated Chapter House of Westminster Abbey.

Scott became a scapegoat for his profession’s indulgence in church restoration, and his last years were saddened by attacks on his work as well as being marred by illness.  He was also dismayed when a younger generation took up the ‘Queen Anne’ style in the 1870s, in reaction to Gothic.
Scott began to wind down his practice before his death by heart failure in 1878. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, a building he loved, and Queen Victoria sent a carriage to join the funeral procession. No other British architect, before or since, has received such a send-off.