If one were to single out a figure who embodies all the tantalising yet exasperating complexities and lacunae of the byways of 19th century architecture, it might well be John Croft. Two works have come down to us which demonstrate an impressively fertile architectural imagination. Even by the standards of the 1860s – the high-water mark of Victorian wilfulness – they are outstanding achievements. Yet we know nothing of Croft’s training or professional practice. Indeed, certain basic facts of his biography still remain to be established. We know precious little about the remainder of his output and – unless in time evidence emerges to the contrary – we have no reason to think that he trained any pupils or led to the formation of any kind of school. In that sense, he conformed absolutely to Goodhart-Rendel’s definition of a ‘rogue architect’. Yet of Croft – and this the work of someone with a huge card index of 19th century churches – his lecture of 1949, ‘Rogue Architects of the Victorian Era’, contains not a word.
The digitalisation of censuses and parish registers now makes it possible to fill in some of the gaps which have defied architectural historians in the past, and here I am much obliged to Peter C.W. Taylor for his invaluable help. In the 1851 census, Croft is recorded at living in Hatton, a village just outside Warwick to the northwest of that town. His age is given as 50, which would imply a birth date of somewhere between 8th April 1799 and 7th April 1800, and he is recorded as being a native of Bilston in Staffordshire, a small town southeast of Wolverhampton. One surmises that Croft had moved to London as a young man and there met his wife Emma, a native of Gillingham in Kent – all seven of their children are recorded as having been born in Paddington over a period between the late 1820s and the early 1840s. His second son, Adolphus Croft (1831-1893), followed his father into the architectural profession, joining the practice of Gillow & Co. (from 1897 Waring & Gillow), for which he designed South Park in Wadhurst, East Sussex, a riotous and highly eclectic mix of Olde English, the Queen Anne style and some decidedly Rhenish touches. Completed in c. 1885, it was commissioned by a local landowner called John Bruce, but he resided there only for a short period before selling it in 1890 to the architect’s eldest brother, Arthur Croft (1828-1893/1902), a landscape artist who specialised in mountain scenery.
It is still unknown when or how the older Croft entered the architectural profession, and during the period when he was residing in Hatton he was acting as clerk of works at the Warwick County Lunatic Asylum, then under construction at a site in the parish. It was a major project, which was commenced in 1847 and not completed until 1852. The architect was Frederick John Francis (1818-1896), working on conjunction with James Harris. The latter is currently obscure, but the former was prominent among the first generation of Anglican Gothic revivalists. A pupil of Thomas Hopper (1776-1856), he designed numerous town, suburban and, sometimes, rural churches in partnership with his brother Horace (1821-1894), usually in a Middle-Pointed style and occasionally quite florid in the details. For the Warwick County Asylum, Francis and Harris produced a design in the neo-Jacobean style commonly used during the period for institutional buildings. It was a grand, spreading, symmetrical composition, with a three-storey central block housing the main entrance and rising to a clock tower, with long wings extending out and then forward either side. The complex was much augmented over the course of the following decades, although some of the later additions were demolished after it closed in 1995 and the site was redeveloped for housing.
By 1861, Croft and his family were living at No. 26 Wellington Street in Islington. But he seems to have maintained links with Warwickshire, which brought about the commission to rebuild the church of St John the Baptist in Lower Shuckburgh, a pretty estate village in rolling country on the A425 between Daventry and Leamington Spa. Built in 1863-1864, it is among the most outlandish and bizarrely original churches that Victorian England produced, which is saying a lot. Here is Romanticism writ as large as it can be, for this is architecture intended to appeal primarily to the emotions and the senses. It is a sumptuous, mind-bogglingly varied feast of colours, textures and forms. Externally, the constructional polychromy is achieved by mixing local blue lias and ironstone, all picturesquely rubble-coursed, with even purple gravel used for the infill of some of the gables. The south elevation, which forms its principal aspect, is a self-consciously picturesque assembly of highly varied forms with steeply pitched gables, used even for the ingenious hexagonal tower. The tracery resembles paper cut-outs, flush with the wall surface yet chamfered to within an inch of its life and with the glazing deeply recessed.
Entry is through a hexagonal porch in the base of the tower. This functions as a kind of visual overture, rehearsing and bringing together what will be seen to be the main themes of the interior – serrated and acutely pointed brick arches, vault webs formed of hexagonal clay pots. What lies beyond is sheer phantasmagoria, spectacular visual display and such a wealth of spatial and formal invention that it is difficult to know where to rest one’s gaze. Croft’s imagination never flags, his creative energy vivifying features that his peers might well have accorded fairly cursory treatment: note the complex carpentry of the roof with its outsize cusping and the doily-like forms on the end of the hammerbeams, also the grotesque, fantastical bench ends like exotic blooms.
‘This is the local Gaudí’ is a familiar cliché. But for once it might be warranted, not merely for the exuberance and eccentricity, but for devices that are genuinely redolent of the Catalan master’s works, such as the Güell Palace in Barcelona of 1886-1889 – specifically, the dome faced in hexagonal tiles over the entrance and staircase hall. A yearning for the exotic is as important a component of Romanticism as a direct appeal to emotion, and there is reason to think that the evocation of architecture far beyond rural Warwickshire is more than coincidental. The church was commissioned by Sir George Shuckburgh (1829-1884) of Shuckburgh Hall, who had taken part in the Crimean War and reputedly wished to evoke what he had seen there. But what was source of inspiration? A place with a long and diverse history, Crimea is a rich seam of possible influences, from the Byzantine church in Kerch to Genoese fortifications in Sudak to the palace of the Crimean Tatar khan in Bakhchisarai. Without more research, it is difficult to know what was taken from that and thrown into this heady mix.
Shuckburgh’s purported influence begs the question of whether Croft was capable of such originality of his own accord or propelled towards it at his client’s instigation. One of his other known works supports such an assessment, while the other would seem to disprove it. Over a protracted period (the work began in 1861, but did not finish until 1873), Croft remodelled the fairly humble medieval church of St Laurence in Seale, a Surrey village just off the Hog’s Back to the southwest of Guildford. The exterior is good value for money: ‘shaggily picturesque’, Ian Nairn called it in the Surrey volume of The Buildings of England, and that sums it up well. The churchyard is entered through a lychgate with an overscaled hipped roof and cusped framework, wholly characteristic of Croft, and the central tower of brown Bargate stone with its pyramidal roof is a very effective accent in the landscape. But the interior is a disappointment: well crafted, touches of originality in the chamfered forms of the piers of the nave arcade and crossing, some nicely carved foliate label stops, but nothing especially memorable, nothing that was not done more interestingly or better elsewhere.
So the earliest work is a disappointment. And yet the third building by Croft shows a substantial increase in his powers. In 1863, Commodore Peter Cracroft rebuilt the medieval church of All Saints in Cold Hanworth, a tiny village to the northeast of Lincoln, as a monument to his father. How Croft won the commission is currently a mystery, but Cracroft must have had deep pockets and his architect rose to the occasion. In plan, it is a simple enough building – a nave of three bays with a bell turret at the west end and a chancel of two. Yet again, Croft lavishes a wealth of highly imaginative detailing on diminutive forms.
There is the same delight as at Lower Shuckburgh in varied textures and the interplay between rustication and ashlar masonry, which extends all the way to the top of the spire of the stumpy octagonal bell turret, its form echoing that of the polygonal vestry on the opposite side. Round the belfry stage, louvered windows alternative with blind, vesica-like openings, the jambs and arrises bitten away, notched and chamfered in bewildering array. Gothic tracery is taken apart, reassembled and contorted with writhing curved forms that prefigure Art Nouveau, especially in the outrageous west window. From the south side of the nave – placed off-centre above the porch for good measure – rises an extraordinarily intricate sculptural form that must have once been a chimney for a boiler or stove. There is no fall-off in the treatment of the equally intricate lychgate with its outsize voussoirs and roof with deep eaves supported on brackets borne on outsize gablets, supported on squashed foliate capitals which rest on chamfered shafts rising out of steeply battered set-offs. Even the piers of the churchyard wall are turned into vivid sculptural forms.
Unfortunately, Croft’s interior is now impossible to appreciate since the church was made redundant in 1980 – a predictable consequence of its location in a sparsely populated rural area – and subsequently converted to a private house, which entailed much subdivision. It could and should have been vested in the Redundant Churches Fund or Friends of Friendless Churches. But its appearance does at least survive in archive photographs, which confirm that it fulfilled all the expectations engendered by the exterior. One of the constants in the work of the ‘rogues’ is a love of baroque complexity for its own sake, of never using one word when 10 will do, of cramming the maximum amount of architectural effect into the minimum of space, and it is clear that that was the guiding principle in this instance.
In such a small building, one of Croft’s peers might well have contented himself with using corbels to support the trusses of the nave roof. But here the corbels are pulled down to the level of the springing of the arches of the nave windows, the trusses instead resting on spindly colonettes, square in section and twisted by 45 degrees for good measure (primarily an aesthetic conceit, perhaps, since most of the weight of the roof structure is probably transferred to the wall plate instead). This impression, at once toylike and slightly claustrophobic, reached fever pitch in the tiny, vaulted baptistery occupying the lowermost stage of the west tower. There is a love of hypertrophied devices, such as the overscaled statues of angels adorning the reredos. The lotus flower-like motif encountered at Lower Shuckburgh is tried out here for the first time, used not only for the bench ends of the pews, but also for the tracery of the east window with its strange, bifurcated mullions. Bizarre, jagged foliate carving is deployed liberally for capitals and corbels, in a manner that sometimes oversteps the bounds of architectural logic.
By the time he came to design the churches at Cold Hanworth and Lower Shuckburgh, Croft was not a young man. How much longer he lived after their completion is unknown. He crops up in the 1871 census at No. (?)154 (the number is not wholly legible) Alexandra Road in Hampstead, the home of his son Arthur. Whether he was permanently resident there or simply happened to be visiting on the night the census was taken is unclear, and the trail goes cold after that. His places of death and burial have yet to be discovered. So too does the remainder of his architectural career. Research for this blog – for which I am again indebted to Peter Taylor – has brought to light only three more buildings, all in his known domain of activity in Warwickshire. At Haseley, barely a mile to the northwest of the County Asylum in Hatton, in 1855 Croft remodelled the (now former) rectory of 1825, adding a complex of outbuildings, now much altered. In 1858-1859 he was involved at Shuckburgh Hall, where is apparently remodelled the entrance hall as part of a grand scheme of works begun by Henry Kendall Junior (1805-1885), who in 1844 had remodelled the entrance front. Access to the hall (which is still the private residence of the Shuckburgh family) is difficult to obtain and even the entry for the revision of the revised Warwickshire volume of The Buildings of England, published in 2016, had to be made on the basis of a cursory inspection.
But fleeting views of Croft’s work are available from a surprising source – series 12 of the television programme Salvage Hunters, in which the presenters visit the house and linger briefly in the entrance hall before going to inspect items of furniture being offered for disposal. Much of what can be made out seems in spirit to have a distinct kinship with Croft’s rogue gothic. There is an enormous neo-Jacobean fireplace incorporating an overmantel with stocky pilasters and an extraordinary fretted pediment and antefixae, which is treated very similarly to the adjacent doorcases. The geometrical patterning of the plaster ceiling is a free reinterpretation of early 17th century prototypes. Any such subjective conjecture made on the basis of inadequate visual information must, of course, be advanced with extreme caution. All that can be said for the moment, until the opportunity arises to study in depth the interior of Shuckburgh Hall, is that none of this has anything to do with the comparatively chaste free Renaissance of Kendall’s entrance front.
In 1860-1861, Croft restored the nave and transepts of the medieval church of St Lawrence in Napton on the Hill west of Lower Shuckburgh, adding a clerestory and reseating the western arm of the building. There are one or two wilful touches and the pulpit is clearly by his hand, but in most other respects it seems to have been a fairly workaday job. Perhaps there are papers detailing Croft’s life and work still waiting to be unearthed, which might help us understand how the extraordinary buildings at Cold Hanworth and Lower Shuckburgh came to be and why they look as they do. Perhaps there are even lost masterpieces and unexecuted designs awaiting discovery.
Or perhaps not. When we chance upon a work by a clearly original and distinctive artist, we want to believe that we are entering a new world. Such talent implies a will to create – it is a natural human impulse to want to find a lasting outlet for such ability, after all, therefore we want to believe that this is not a one-off. When we find that there is, in fact, no substantial oeuvre awaiting recognition and acclaim, or else what exists turns out not to rise to our expectations, we feel disappointed, even short-changed, and we seek an explanation. There are plenty of tales of thwarted potential in all the arts, of careers curtailed by ill luck and circumstances. But there are also individuals whose contribution to their field might well have been wholly unremarkable – architects who shunned the limelight and contented themselves with minor commissions – but for a rare handful of occasions when the stars aligned correctly and unlocked a powerful, yet limited reserve of creative energy. Perhaps that is what we are dealing with here. At any rate, Cold Hanworth and Lower Shuckburgh are such inspired works as to yield ideas for dozens more buildings, and that is more than enough.
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