The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Neo-Georgian Architecture 1880 – 1970: a reappraisal

Julian Holder & Elizabeth McKellar (Historic England, 214pp, £50)

Reviewed by Timothy Brittain-Catlin

This collection of essays has emerged from a lively conference held over five years ago at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London. Neo-Georgian architecture is taken more seriously nowadays, and there is much more to discover. The most significant figures to emerge here are C H James, of the partnership that designed Norwich City Hall and the County Hall in Hertford, and E Vincent Harris. More is known of Harris but he is yet to achieve a sympathetic overall portrait: this essay by Julian Holder and Nick Holmes is a significant step towards a full appraisal. Holder has also contributed an excellent chapter on the architecture of the Office of Works, and Clare Taylor on inter-war interiors; Louise Campbell’s foreword and Alan Powers’ overall survey round it all up nicely. Illustrations throughout are many and excellent, even if Historic England’s graphic design is not as good as it was.

The chapter by Neil Burton on the architecture of high street banks needs some updating, because much has been published on this subject since he carried out his research, not least John Booker’s Temples of Mammon of 1990. Poor old Horace Field, whose pre-WWI branches at Wealdstone and Okehampton in the style of Restoration mansions were the prototype for countless others is once again forgotten. His 1924 design for the Ashford, Kent branch was approved by Lloyds Bank at the same meeting in which they adopted their now-lost guidelines for simpler, more or less standardised future designs. Events like these turned English high streets into neo-Georgian ones.

Finding, attributing and categorising buildings in a certain overall style is a necessary part of reviving the reputation of under-rated buildings, and it is magnificent that so much effort is being directed towards it; but it is of course only the initial step. The first question C20 is asked when defending a building is always why it is important, and being a little-known work, by, say, C H James is not something that Historic England, let alone a politician with a bulldozer, is going to heed. There is some discussion here of style, but the history of style across the last century is so disparate and disjointed that a collection of mini-histories does not yet add up to quite enough.

Powers begins by recalling Nicholas Taylor’s use of the term Quality Street to refer to that hybrid of ‘Queen Anne’ and ‘Regency’ that Field, for one, excelled in and others copied widely. But this is a refined artist’s style, so different from, for example, the type of tough orthogonal building that Harris was designing as to be scarcely containable within the same covers. Quality Street is surely defiant, knowingly almost fantastical, anti-modern and anti-establishment; but bright red town halls and public libraries by James and Harris are nothing of the kind. They are polar opposites, with neo-Georgian architects in between taking sides and imitating to some extent one style or the other, or a mixture of the two (very clumsily in the case of Seely and Paget, which makes them so endlessly fascinating); a large neo-mid-Georgian design by Albert Richardson might be a fantasy of power rather than a statement of it, a further hybrid of its own.

All this will eventually tell us something about the questions that arise in architects’ heads and their responses to their personal experience in what the historian Richard Overy calls ‘The Morbid Age’, the deeply pessimistic inter-war era. The horizontal survey, the one that looks across the work of architects practising at the same time, rather than the vertical one which follows a career from start to finish, will in time yield more. What is it about? What does it mean?