A glimpse of Arcadia in Central Wales

Thomas Henry Wyatt (1807-1880) and David Brandon (1813-1897) have a reputation of being among the also-rans of Victorian architecture. In the earlier part of their careers, the two architects had a professional partnership which lasted from 1838 until 1851, whereupon they went their separate ways. They were commercially successful, taking on the full range of commissions typically handled by architects of the time – from lunatic asylums to railway stations – but have seldom been viewed as more than merely competent. In The Victorian Country House, Mark Girouard notes somewhat sniffily that Brandon was ‘Predominantly a country house architect, and kept undeviatingly to the Jacobean style, which he and Wyatt made only too much their own’.

Thomas Henry Wyatt as depicted by George Landseer (1829-1878) (National Portrait Gallery)

Nor has such an assessment been confined to commentators of our own time. Wyatt’s copious output was more respected for its volume than admired for its quality, and even as august a periodical as The Building News damned it with faint praise in its obituary of him as ‘not distinguished for any marked originality or power of expression’. Perhaps he was felt to have buckled under the weight of expectations – he was, after all, a scion of a famous architectural dynasty (James Wyatt was a cousin, Matthew Digby Wyatt his younger brother) and the risk of unfavourable comparisons was high.

General view looking west of the nave of Wyatt and Brandon’s church of St Mary and St Nicholas in Wilton, Wiltshire: it was built in 1841-1845 for the Russian-born Countess of Pembroke (1783–1856) and her son, Sidney, later Lord Herbert of Lea (1810-1861). The latter was a connoisseur and collector of medieval Italian art, much of which is incorporated in the church, and this no doubt accounts for the choice of style. (Mark Kirby)

But as so often happens with prolific figures in almost any branch of the arts, they have been dismissed on the basis of lazy generalisations. No one who has seen, for example, T.H. Wyatt’s splendid estate churches at Bemerton (1859-1861) and Fonthill Gifford (1866) in Wiltshire could be left in any doubt that he was an architect of real ability. While still in partnership with Brandon, he designed at Wilton in the same county a grand and lavish church in an Italian Romanesque style, built in 1841-1845 and among the finest ecclesiastical works of that decade.

The main entrance front to The Bulwark of the former Shire Hall in Brecon by Wyatt and Brandon of 1839-1843
The Law Courts and County Police Office on Northgate Street in Devizes, Wiltshire, designed by T.H. Wyatt in 1835. Abandoned in the 1980s, it was recently saved from dereliction by a building preservation trust that aims to convert it into premises for the Wiltshire Museum. (Historic England)

And then we have this – the former Shire Hall and Assize Court (now Y Gaer Museum, Art Gallery and Library) in Brecon of 1839-1843. It is an unexpected thing to find in Wyatt and Brandon’s output and indeed unexpected generally for the period, when the Greek Revival was already on the wane. But it is notable for far more than that, as this is a cleverly crafted piece of design and an intelligent response to its site.

Exterior from southwest and the chancel of Wyatt and Brandon’s church of Holy Trinity on Clarence Way in Kentish Town, as pictured in The Illustrated London News of 19th October 1850 shortly after its consecration. The spire, which rose to 160ft (48.7m), was destroyed in World War II and not rebuilt.

The big problem with neo-classicism generally and the Greek Revival in particular is the dominance of the temple front. That is to say, an archaeologically pure motif necessary to declare allegiance to the heritage of antiquity somehow has to be incorporated into building types that have nothing whatsoever to do temples. The result in unimaginative hands is usually a dull symmetrical box with a regular grid of sash windows and a portico in the centre, and there are enough examples up and down the land to prove the point. The need for all openings to be trabeated rather than arched all too often exacerbates the dullness.

St David’s Church, Pantasaph, Flintshire: this church was begun in 1849 and commissioned from T.H. Wyatt (apparently not working in partnership with Brandon on this occasion) by Viscount Feilding, later 8th Earl of Denbigh (1823-1892). The donor’s ample means allowed for an elaborate, generously proportioned essay in Puginian Gothic with some surprisingly wilful touches, such as the buttress to the stair turret rising out of the doorway. Feiding converted to Catholicism in 1850 and changed the denomination, as a result of which churches had to be built in lieu in the nearby villages of Brynford and Gorsedd. A.W.N. Pugin was brought in to fit out the church in a manner suitable for Catholic worship and supplied a scheme of furnishings, including a number of items which had been exhibited in the Medieval Court at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The church eventually opened in 1852. The adjoining Franciscan friary of 1858-1862, which may also by Wyatt’s work, is partly visible in the background.
‘In dealing with [commissions for country houses] he has generally adhered to the late Tudor type of architecture, to which rural squires of the last generation gave a decided preference, and which certainly presents many advantages as to convenience of plan and distribution of window space’, wrote Charles Eastlake, adding that, ‘in Mr. Duckworth’s seat of Orchardleigh, Mr. Wyatt has shown of what artistic treatment the style is capable’. Here is that house of 1855-1858 near Frome in Somerset, as pictured in A History of the Gothic Revival of 1872.

But here the problem has been looked at anew. The main volume of the building is a longitudinal box placed end-on to the street, with taught, elegant proportions and a deep cornice and prominent triglyphs to emphasise the form. The tetrastyle Doric portico is placed on the flank wall – an unconventional solution, but a very effective one, since it creates a grand spreading frontage that commands its location overlooking the junction of two streets. This is locked into place with flanking pavilions, the windows skilfully articulated with pilasters to tie them visually into a grand vertical rhythm of solids and voids controlling the entire composition. To the rear, aligned with the portico, is the former courtroom with its polygonal apse, blind externally but with a grand Ionic exedra internally. The whole is seen against the spectacular backdrop of the Usk Valley. As Julian Orbach has noted, the composition owes more than a little to the Assize Court that Wyatt had designed four years earlier for the Wiltshire town of Devizes while still a sole practitioner, but the use of the Greek Doric rather than Ionic order gives it a great deal more punch.

St Matthias, Bethnal Green, as depicted in The Illustrated London News of 26th February 1848, accompanying a report of its consecration: one of the fruits of the ambitious programme of church-building in this part of the East End initiated by Bishop Blomfield, it was notable for reapplying the planning and stylistic language tried out at Wilton to a large urban church in a poor area. It stood on the corner of Hare Street (now Cheshire Street) and Chilton Street.
The interior of St Matthias, Bethnal Green, looking east: a casualty of the post-war depopulation of the East End, this church was closed in 1954 and demolished in 1958. (Historic England)

Young man’s architecture? Wyatt was in his 30s and Brandon was in his 20s when they designed Shire Hall and just starting out in their professional partnership. By the time of his death, Wyatt’s output stood at 400 works and The Builder concluded in its obituary ‘That one man could have, unaided, designed and superintended so large a number of buildings… is not probable and it was Mr Wyatt’s invariable habit to acknowledge the help rendered to him by his pupils and assistants’. One of these, incidentally, was almost certainly a young Joseph Peacock. Perhaps the variable quality of Wyatt’s work results less from a lack of talent than from circumstances diluting his personal contribution on occasions. If so, one regrets it, but it is some consolation to know that the 19th century practitioners were afflicted by the same ills as the ‘starchitects’ of our own time.

St John’s in Bemerton of 1859-1861 on the western outskirts of Salisbury, one of a crop of estate churches that T.H. Wyatt designed in Wiltshire in the years after the dissolution of his partnership with David Brandon. It was paid for by the Herberts of Wilton House and the foundation stone was laid by Elizabeth, wife of the same Lord Herbert of Lea who had commissioned St Mary and St Nicholas in Wilton. (Michael Day)

Published by Edmund Harris

Heritage professional and architectural historian residing in Suffolk. All views expressed here are my own and do not represent my employer.

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