The subject of my first post is someone who, if not exactly obscure, nonetheless is very much a connoisseur’s architect. W. Eden Nesfield (as he tended to call himself) was born into an affluent old Durham family. His father, William Andrews Nesfield (1793-1881), was a veteran of the Peninsula War who subsequently became a water colourist and landscape garden designer, working in the latter capacity for numerous prestigious clients – the terraces at Holkham Hall, for instance, are partly his work.
William Nesfield the younger was sent to Eton and then at the age of 15 articled to William Burn (1789-1870), a prolific architect active throughout England, Scotland and Ireland, who specialised in country houses. One of this most spectacular surviving works, the amazing Jacobean gatehouse of Eastwell, is only a short drive from Canterbury. Though it gave him a useful professional grounding, the pupillage was not a success and, after two years, Nesfield left Burn’s office for that of Anthony Salvin (1799-1881), the husband of his paternal aunt. He, too, was a prolific designer of country houses and was responsible for the astonishing Peckforton Castle in Cheshire, built in 1844-1852 in hilly country outside Chester and a vivid evocation of the Edwardian castles further to the west along the north Wales coast.
Though the period in Burn’s office may have been unhappy, it had a major bearing on Nesfield’s career by bringing him into contact with another pupil there, Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912), with whom he travelled extensively. They were both eager to see for themselves the most celebrated new works of the Gothic Revival – predictably enough, but their interests developed in a less expected direction in that they were no less taken by the vernacular architecture of southeast England, which they sketched extensively.
Tudorbethan piles with fake timbering and leaded lights are so much part of the architectural currency of the 20th and, indeed, early 21st centuries, that it now takes an effort of imagination to appreciate how radical a departure it was back then for architects to turn to such sources for inspiration. In the mid-19th century a country house might take any kind of a wide range of stylistic garb. It might be neo-Jacobean, Scottish baronial, a Gothic castle, an Italianate villa, a classical mansion, might even have touches of something exotic and orientalising, but not vernacular. That was the stuff of the cottage orné, a picturesque accent to be admired in a carefully composed view from the Big House, but not actually inhabited. As Andrew Saint writes in his overview of the architect’s life in A Deuce of an Uproar, ‘If we knew nothing of Nesfield’s life and had only his buildings, he would still rank in the forefront of Victorian architects, as a consummate designer, draughtsman and ornamentalist, and as one of three or four individuals who transformed the whole feeling and destiny of the larger English house in the ‘60s and ‘70s of the [nineteenth] century’.
For a while, Nesfield and Shaw worked closely together and in 1866-1869 were in formal partnership. But by the end of the decade, they were starting to drift apart. Shaw was a shrewd businessman, ambitious, industrious, clever at self-promotion and establishing and cultivating relations with clients. Though country houses loomed large in his output, he handled a very diverse range of commissions, taking office buildings, schools, garden suburbs and new churches in his stride. He ran a large practice and shaped numerous protégés who in turn shaped the Arts and Crafts architecture of the next generation. Nesfield, by contrast, ran a small office, seems to have disliked the exigencies of professional practice, did not actively seek commissions in the same way and, when eventually able to do so, gave up architecture at the age of 46 to concentrate on painting until, four years later, a lifetime of heavy drinking caught up with him.
As Andrew Saint asks, ‘Whose was this extraordinary, proud, quixotic, witty and melancholic temperament? […] Nesfield was an enigma. We know enough about him to discern ability amounting practically to genius, a career only half-fulfilled and a personality fraught with contradictions: high spirits vying with depression; bouts of industry alternating with lethargy; a strong sensuality coupled with lofty, snobbish standards of honour and behaviour; and a dedication to his calling as architect at seeming odds with his disdain for publicity or professional advancement. More knowledge might, or might not, help us to explain all this. The facts are that Nesfield had in extreme form the qualities of a certain type of mid-Victorian ‘art-architect’, coupled with the advantages and drawbacks or having been born with at least half of a silver spoon in his mouth’.
The mainstay of Nesfield’s practice was country house and associated domestic work – somewhat unfortunately for us, since many of his most important buildings fell victim to the downturn in the fortunes of large estates and the reaction against High Victorian taste after World War I. What survives has to be sought out and is not always readily accessible. The subject of this post is a rare exception – the bank that Nesfield built in 1873-1874 originally for the firm of Gibson, Tuke and Gibson on the east side of the Market Place in Saffron Walden. In 1868-1870, Nesfield had remodelled the medieval church at Radwinter (one of his few major ecclesiastical commissions) for the Rev’d John Frederick Watkinson Bullock, squire-parson there from 1865 to 1916, whose introductions appear to have broadened Nesfield’s range and given us one of his very few public secular buildings.
It is a commanding location and the massing of the bank, with its thick-set, tower-like proportions and expressive skyline, makes the best of it. But this is architecture intended to delight at close range as well as impress from a distance. As Saint notes, ‘It is the decoration of Nesfield’s architecture which is generally most startling. None of his building depends on ornament… [but] whenever he had the chance (and he must have had a silver tongue with his rich clients) he loved to break out into ornament; stamped leadwork, carved and moulded brickwork, stained glass, wrought iron finials, incised plasterwork, and even green bottle-bottoms stuck into external plastering. Among other Gothic Revivalists, only William Burges was as ornamental as Nesfield and Burges’s range of effects was stiffer and more limited. Where Nesfield got his ideas would take an essay to explore’. Note here the lovely bas-relief carvings of storks (Gibson’s emblem) in the spandrels of the main entrance, the crenellated hopper head, the leadwork parapet embossed with ‘pies’ (a favoured motif borrowed from the Japonaiserie of the Aesthetic Movement) and splendid wrought iron finial with its wind vane.