I am delighted to announce that I am the winner of this year’s annual Stephen Croad Essay Prize of the Ancient Monuments Society. My entry, ‘From Georgian antiquarian to Victorian rogue’, was an account of the life and work of the architect Edward Lushington Blackburne (1803-1888). It is, to the best of my knowledge, the only study of this figure. The news was embargoed when it was first communicated to me about two months ago, but since it was announced to the Society’s members at this afternoon’s AGM, I trust I can broadcast it from here without fear of breaking any confidences.
The essay will be published next year in the Society’s annual Transactions, so I shall limit myself here just to a few works about how the project came into being. I first came across Blackburne many years ago as the designer of the upper stages of the tower added in 1877-1880 to St Mark’s Church in Dalston, east London. Now that building is one of the most spectacular extravaganzas of rogue Gothic anywhere in the country, full of notched and stripy brickwork, vertiginously slender cast iron columns and with stained glass panels in the roof to boot. It was built in 1864-1866 to the designs of Chester Cheston Junior, surveyor to the Tyssen-Amhurst Estate, where it stands. Cheston seems to have been out of his depth where technical matters of construction were concerned (reputedly, he provided no drains for the building) and was dismissed for incompetence before the tower and spire could be completed to his design.
That leaves Blackburne as little more than a minor footnote, one might imagine. But some years later I discovered that he had remodelled the church of SS Peter and Paul in Ospringe, just south of Faversham in Kent. It was difficult to know just what he had done, but it was clear from photographs that the imposing saddleback tower was his work. This, by contrast, was something to conjure with and it stuck in the memory. Four years ago, by chance I came across an illustrated description of the Smithfield Martyrs’ (Memorial) Church, built to his designs in 1869-1871 on a site on St John Street in Clerkenwell (alas, it no longer exists, having been demolished in 1955-1956, partly as a result of sustaining bomb damage). This was even better – a rogue Gothic extravaganza to rival St Mark’s – and immediately left me wondering what other forgotten masterpieces by him there might be out there, waiting to be discovered.
A little over two years ago, my job provided an opportunity to see inside Ospringe church. The tower did not disappoint, but the interior was an even greater delight – a riot of brightly patterned tilework, entertaining grotesques and intricately detailed joinery, with even the doors to the nave pews sporting decorative hinges. Until the 1950s, all this was complemented by a richly patterned scheme of wall paintings. Now there was no doubt about it, Blackburne was someone who deserved proper investigation. As it happened, the parish was contemplating a reordering project and it seemed like an opportune moment to offer help with writing a Statement of Significance on the building. I knew from my own research that there was no authoritative account of Blackburne’s life and work and feared that otherwise they might struggle.
Initially I planned to write no more than a couple of pages. But the project drew me in far further than I had expected. After some desktop research at home, I headed to the Library of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to see what was in the biographical file there and what I could glean from Victorian architectural periodicals. Quickly, numerous leads opened up. Though a search of the National Heritage List for England had revealed only a tiny handful of buildings where Blackburne had been involved – not of them listed solely on the merit of his contribution – it quickly emerged that his catalogue was much more substantial than I had anticipated. Between Christmas and New Year 2018 I started writing up my findings, and in the process quickly discovered more leads to investigate. These led to sessions in a number of different archives, where I had the opportunity to examine surviving contract drawings from Blackburne’s office, and field trips to examine surviving works.
I won’t repeat here what will be published in due course in the Transactions. Suffice it to say that Blackburne turned out to be an intriguingly multi-faceted architect. Although he trained with John Henry Taylor (c. 1792-1867), a founder member of the RIBA, he initially was more antiquarian than architect, thanks probably to a generous inheritance from his father (a wealthy inhabitant of the Caribbean island of St Vincent, raising the spectre of contested heritage). The voluminous Blackburne files in the Norfolk Record Office testify to his lifelong interest in medieval architecture, as does his second book, published in 1847, Sketches Graphic and Descriptive for a History of the Decorative Painting Applied to English Architecture during the Middle Ages. It is gorgeously illustrated and I can thoroughly recommend perusing the digitalised version available here.
As one might expect for someone of this bent, he worked on the restoration of medieval churches, mostly in the capacity of surveyor to the Diocese of Norwich and mostly in Suffolk, which it then covered. He advised Mildred Holland when she embarked on her wonderful painted scheme for the roof of St Mary’s in Huntingfield, carried out between 1859 and 1866, thanks to which he appears in a supporting role in Pamela Holmes’s novel of 2016, The Huntingfield Paintress. Like many ecclesiastical architects, he was also kept busy designing schools and vicarages, one of the latter going up in the parish of Westwell outside Ashford in Kent, of which his brother-in-law was rector. This survives, apparently unstudied and certainly unlisted – identifying it and establishing the attribution was one of my biggest discoveries.
Evidently not someone to let good designs go to waste, he published the design for the Westwell vicarage – albeit considerably reworked – in a pattern book that came out in 1869 entitled Suburban & rural architecture: English & foreign, of which he was the editor and to which he contributed ten of a total of 44 entries. Just like Sketches Graphic and Descriptive, it is a handsomely illustrated volume and a pleasure to peruse, an opportunity available to everyone, since it has also been digitalised and is available here. If your pockets are deep enough, copies sometimes turn up on the antiquarian books market. Whether this promoted his practice as a domestic architect is unclear, but certainly his line in villas and lodges seems to have been more successful than his sole venture into country houses, the ill-fated Pantglas Hall in Carmarthenshire, with which he began his architectural career.
There are some Victorian architects whose neglect is genuinely inexplicable and it usually comes down to sheer bad luck – the destruction of major works, the absence of a scholar prepared to take on the task of providing an authoritative account of a life’s work. Do I think that Blackburne is a neglected genius? No – it would be silly to make that sort of claim for him. I doubt bringing him to light will fundamentally change our understanding of Victorian architecture. But he deserved to be written up and I am very glad that, thanks to the Ancient Monuments Society, anyone whose curiosity is pricked in the same way that mine was all those years ago will be able to find something in print to satisfy it. That matters a great deal more than prizes, welcome though they are.