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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.