George Gilbert Scott Junior (1839-1897) is not an overlooked architect. At any rate, he shouldn’t be. He was recognised in his time as a hugely talented designer, yet never received his posthumous due for a number of reasons. One, inevitably, was that he was overshadowed by his more famous namesake father, but his breakdown, relatively early death and consequently limited output also contributed towards his obscurity. Two of his most celebrated churches are now known to us only from drawings and black and white photographs, since both were casualties of German bombing and post-war philistinism. All Hallows, Southwark (designed 1877, built in stages 1879-1892) was probably a hopeless case, having suffered not only blast damage in 1941, but also a hit from a flying bomb in 1944. But St Agnes, Kennington (designed 1874, consecrated 1877 but not complete until 1891) was capable of being saved, something encouraged very strongly by architect Stephen Dykes Bower (1903-1994), who recognised its exceptional significance and had prepared a scheme for the restoration – alas, in vain. The Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Norwich is, by any standard, a major achievement, but is overlooked by the many visitors to the city because it is a Victorian building in somewhere most celebrated for its medieval and Georgian architecture, and also because it is Roman Catholic (the faith to which Scott himself converted) rather than Anglican. Moreover, to appreciate the true significance of Scott’s refined and original work, one must first understand that he was reacting against the stridency of High Victorianism – something difficult to appreciate for anyone not steeped in the complex world of 19th century architectural polemic and theory.
The late and sorely missed Gavin Stamp did a huge amount to redress Scott’s obscurity by producing a splendid monograph, based on his doctoral thesis, called An Architect of Promise, George Gilbert Scott Junior (1839-1897) and the late Gothic Revival (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2002). It is well worth having, although long out of print and consequently expensive. Like any architectural monograph worth its salt, it contains a gazetteer of its subject’s works, and, as one would expect from its author, that is meticulous and exhaustive. But there’s one commission which ought to be featured in it and isn’t. And here it is.
In 1870-1872, a restoration was carried out on the medieval church of All Saints in Chillenden, a tiny village in a picturesque fold of rolling countryside about half way between Canterbury and Deal. Petrie’s watercolour of 1807 showing the building as it was before depicts a tiny, two-cell structure with a funny little offset bell turret. It remained a modestly-scaled building after the restoration, but hugely enriched. It was reseated throughout and gained a new floor in the chancel and sanctuary with delicately patterned encaustic tiles. The Jacobean pulpit – which, unusually, retains its sounding board – was set up on a new base with new stairs, all detailed with sympathy for such a piece that was rare at the time, even if it did slightly accentuate its already gangly proportions. Externally, the old bellcote was removed to make way for a larger, centrally-positioned replacement, covered in shingles and with an elegant spire to give the church a bit more presence in the landscape. The porch shown in Petrie’s watercolour was replaced with a new structure whose bargeboards are handsomely cusped.
But the pièce de resistance is the chancel screen, a really exquisite design that bears all the hallmarks of Scott’s sophisticated and fluent handling of Gothic. The prototypes of the tracery are to be found in English work of the early 14th century – Geometrical Decorated on the cusp (pun intended) of going Flamboyant. But in the spandrels of the central opening, the thickets of tortuous mouchettes are already redolent of the whiplash curvature of Art Nouveau. One wouldn’t want to push the point – all that was still 30 years in the future – but the sensibility is totally different to that of the stridency and vigour of the High Victorian Gothic of the period. The ground plan in the collection of the Incorporated Church Building Society at Lambeth Palace Library is signed ‘G.G. Scott, RA, Arch’t, Spring Gardens, London’ (i.e. the older man’s office), yet Scott Jr had been in independent practice since 1863. But Gavin’s monograph states that the son carried on assisting the father for some years afterwards and his stylistic fingerprints are all over the work at Chillenden, the true authorship of which cannot be in any doubt. The attribution to the older Scott in The Buildings of England wants correction.
Scott Junior was, in any case, active elsewhere in Kent at this period and there are two major commissions within easy reach of Chillenden that are well worth seeking out. One is the cemetery chapel in Ramsgate, probably commissioned in 1869 and opened in 1872, and untypical of what by that point was already a widespread building type. A typical formula at the time was for the two cemetery chapels – one for Anglicans, one for non-conformists – to be positioned in a symmetrically composed group either side of a gatehouse, which was sometimes combined with a bell tower. Scott’s design takes its cue from that, then fights very strongly against the underlying symmetry with the irregular placing of the fenestration and prominent stair turret and buttress to the central tower. It has all the sophistication and elegance of the work at Chillenden, even if the attempt to get pass it off as a country church slightly falls flat in its very municipal, formally planned setting. Aligned with it on the same axis is a splendid gatehouse, which looks like it ought to be opening onto the precinct of a great abbey or cathedral church.
The other is St Dunstan’s in Frinsted, an estate village high up on the Kent Downs south of Sittingbourne. Here, Scott Junior sumptuously embellished the eastern half of an originally medieval church that had already been enlarged by R.C. Hussey in 1856-1861. The work was carried out in two phases, the first in 1867 for Lord Kingsdown, and the second in 1877 for his brother, Edward Leigh-Pemberton. The church was refurnished throughout and a sumptuously tiled floor introduced in the chancel and sanctuary. The walls and roof of the chancel and Kingsdown Chapel to the north were lavishly adorned with painted decoration and a huge chancel screen installed, reaching from floor to ceiling in a mass of intricately jagged cusping.