J.P. Seddon at Birchington-on-Sea: from ‘Vigour and Go’ to Sweetness and Light

The subject of this post is a particular favourite of mine. Over the course of his long life, he was hugely industrious, not just in architecture but also in the applied arts – furniture, ceramics, stained glass, wall and ceiling painting, textiles and metalwork. Active as an author, polemicist and lecturer, he wrote almost prolifically as he designed. He was clubbable, a good committee man who served on numerous worthy bodies, and enviably well connected. All this begs the question of whether he really deserves to be classified as ‘less eminent’. But for all that, he is a difficult figure to get to know and a connoisseur’s architect rather than a household name. His two designs for public buildings in London, which would undoubtedly have brought national and, quite probably, international fame, never got off the drawing board. Moreover, scholars have tended to focus on a handful of celebrated buildings and to ignore the rest of his output. Though usually rewarding to investigate, it is unpredictable: no single work quite prepares you for the rest of his oeuvre, and he did not always operate at the same level of inspiration.

John Pollard Seddon, portrait from The Building News of 17th January 1890

Like many grand old men in a particular field, he was respected rather than loved by the end of his life, praise in his obituaries being tempered by the acknowledgement that he had resisted the influence of new tendencies that by then had largely eclipsed the High Victorian manner in which he was formed. As with so many generalisations, that is a truth, but it is not the truth, and I want to show you here a fascinating piece of design which gives the lie to that notion and is by any standard most striking for its date. But I cannot explain why it is unexpected in Seddon’s output without setting it in context, and that requires me first to give you an overview of his life and career. I shall indulge myself by lingering on buildings that are particular favourites and, I think, illustrate the architect’s particular strengths. There are two sources of information about his work on which I have drawn extensively. The first, Michael Darby’s John Pollard Seddon, was published by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1983 and is an impressively well detailed catalogue of its extensive collection of his architectural drawings, prefaced by a useful biographical sketch. But it has one major defect, which is that only those works for which drawings were deposited in the collection are covered. Then there is ‘‘An architect of many churches’: John Pollard Seddon’, a survey of his ecclesiastical work that appeared back in 2010 in issue 42 of Ecclesiology Today (‘Seven Church Architects 1830-1930’). The author, Tye R. Blackshaw, obtained a PhD in 2001 from the Courtauld Institute on Seddon’s life and work up to 1885 and went on to write the entry on him for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

St Catherine’s, Hoarwithy, Herefordshire: the ambo on the north side of the chancel arch, richly carved and decorated with Cosmati work

Background and training

Seddon was born in London into a family that ran a well-established cabinet-making firm and was sent to study at Bedford Grammar School. But the influence that had the greatest bearing on his future development was not his formal education, but his elder brother, landscape artist Thomas Seddon (1821-1856). Under pressure to enter the family business and looking to acquire the skills needed to set him up as a furniture designer, between 1842 and 1847 the older Seddon had attended the architecture course at University College, London taught by Thomas Leverton Donaldson (1795-1885), the first professor of architecture at that institution. A luminary in Victorian architectural circles who pioneered the academic study of the subject and was a founding member of the RIBA in 1834, Donaldson was awarded the Institute’s royal gold medal in 1851 and served as President in 1863-1864. The older Seddon’s period of study with Donaldson brought about an introduction to him of his younger brother, to whom he offered a pupillage in 1847.

Thomas Seddon, Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehoshaphat from the Hill of Evil Counsel, 1854 (Tate Gallery)

No doubt Donaldson gave Seddon a thorough practical grounding in architecture, but he can have had little lasting influence on his stylistic development. Though able to turn his hand to popular styles of the time – neo-Jacobean for Lambourn Place in Berkshire of 1843, neo-Tudor for University Hall on Gordon Square, London of 1848 – Donaldson was essentially a classicist. Instead, it was the wider artistic and intellectual milieu of the period that shaped the young architect. While training with Donaldson, Seddon had fallen under the spell of Gothic architecture, thanks in part to John Ruskin, whose Seven Lamps of Architecture appeared in 1849. It was not merely an apology for a style, but a manifesto for an entire aesthetic philosophy, which promoted the notion of the creative autonomy of designer and craftsman, and of a building as a collaborative effort involving practitioners of all the arts. Thanks again to his older brother, Seddon had the good fortune to make connections that would allow him in due course to put these ideas into practice. While attending life classes at the studios of portraitist and history painter Charles Lucy (1814-1873), Thomas Seddon had met Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), who became his artistic mentor and introduced him to Pre-Raphaelite circles. He subsequently set up a drawing school in Camden Town, where his younger brother was in turn able to forge his own connections with the Pre-Raphaelites, among them a lasting friendship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882).

St Oudoceus, Llandogo, Monmouthshire (J.P. Seddon, 1859-1861): writing in The Buildings of Wales, John Newman calls the belfry ‘a sort of pulpit in the sky’, noting also that the twin two-light windows of the west front were copied from clerestory windows in the transepts at nearby Tintern Abbey. The constructional polychromy is achieved by using local Old Red Sandstone and Bath stone. The stubby columns and capitals rising out of the set-offs of the buttresses, apparently entirely capricious at first sight, turn out on closer inspection to be hopper heads.

On completing his articles in 1851, Seddon went on a sketching tour of Europe which seems to have taken in Holland, Belgium, northern France, the Rhineland, Switzerland and northern Italy. On his return, he set up in practice in London and publicly exhibited views made on his travels. This detail of St Sauveur in Caen, Normandy, now held by Tate Britain, exemplifies their superlative quality. But despite his clear enthusiasm for Gothic and Ruskin’s theory, for the moment Seddon lacked the technical skill needed to design proficiently in the style. The opportunity to acquire it came in 1852, when he was appointed architect to the Dunraven Arms Hotel in Southerndown near Bridgend in Glamorganshire, which stood on an estate owned by his uncle. While visiting the site, he came into contact with John Prichard (1817-1886), architect to the Diocese of Llandaff. Prichard at that point was engaged in the lengthy project – begun in 1843, it carried on until 1869 – to restore the partly ruined hulk of Llandaff Cathedral, which had largely collapsed in the 18th century and then been patched up in a classical style by John Wood the Elder (1704-1754). Prichard had acquired a thorough schooling in Gothic thanks to his training with the Scottish-born architect Thomas Larkins Walker (c. 1811-1860). Walker had spent five years studying architectural draughtsmanship in London with Auguste Charles Pugin (1768/9-1832) and in due course became closely associated with his son, A.W.N. Pugin (1812-1852). He completed the elder Pugin’s last book, Examples of Gothic Architecture (published in three volumes in 1836-1838), adding three studies of his own. An unpublished Essay on the study of architecture of 1833 shows the extent to which Walker had fallen under his influence. On his return to London, Seddon discovered that Prichard had offered him a partnership. He accepted it, wound up his affairs in the capital and relocated to Llandaff.

The entrance front of Ettington Park (now a luxury hotel), southwest of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire: this 17th and 18th century house was completely recased by Prichard and Seddon in their remodelling of 1858-1863 for Evelyn Philip Shirley. Five different varieties and colours of stone were used to achieve the spectacular constructional polychromy. (Aidan McRae Thomson)

The exact nature of the working relationship between the two men is not clear, but, as Michael Darby comments, there is evidence that the dynamic was more that of mentor and pupil than partners working as equals. Prichard’s office handled a large number of commissions for church restorations, new churches, vicarages, schools and so on, and it may be that – at least initially – the less taxing work was delegated to the younger man while he cut his professional teeth. But Seddon quickly matured as an architect, as shown by St Odoceus, Llandogo, just north of Tintern in the Wye Valley, designed in 1859 and completed in 1861. It exemplifies the lush, florid brand of revived Decorated Gothic that Seddon made his trademark and late on in life, in an interview published in 1902, he singled it out as one of his favourite designs. Seddon was actively involved in the latter stages of the restoration of Llandaff Cathedral and must have had much to do with the commission given in 1855 to Dante Gabriel Rossetti for the reredos, not eventually delivered until 1865. In 1858, the Prichard and Seddon partnership opened an office in London, with the younger architect in charge. Four years later, Seddon married and bought a house on Park Street in Mayfair.

Independent practice and maturity

In 1863 the partnership was dissolved, ostensibly because the income was insufficient for two men, but more likely because Seddon was frustrated at having to deal on his own with the final stages of the remodelling of Ettington Park in Warwickshire, begun in 1858. He had been left to his own devices as a result of Prichard’s prolonged absence for a job in Spain, during which time an acrimonious dispute arose between client and contractor. It is a common enough career path for architects who feel they have hit a ceiling in their existing employer’s practice to strike out on their own, and Seddon had been using his time wisely to make a name for himself. He took part in the numerous well publicised architectural competitions for major projects: Whitehall Government Buildings in London (1856), the Crimea Memorial Church in Istanbul (1857), St Finn Barr’s Cathedral in Cork (1862), the Law Courts in London (1867) and Bradford Town Hall (1869). He was a mordant commentator in the architectural press on the work of his peers, pillorying E. Bassett Keeling’s Strand Music Hall (described in this preceding post) in the Building News as the ‘hair-stand-on-end style’. He cultivated contacts with prominent figures among his contemporaries, some of whom subsequently became collaborators. E.W. Godwin (1833-1886) was to be his partner for an entry for the competition held in 1871 for the Royal Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water, Surrey. In 1864, he became a Fellow of the RIBA.

Model (no longer extant) of J.P. Seddon’s entry for the competition for the Law Courts in London of 1867

He also cultivated contacts with suppliers of art materials – Hart and Sons for metalwork, Godwin’s of Lugwardine for tiles, Morris, Faulkner and Co for stained glass and his family firm for furniture. Following his return to London, he had renewed his contacts with the Pre-Raphaelites, working with them on King René’s Honeymoon Cabinet, displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1862. Ford Madox Brown suggested the overall theme – scenes from the life of the medieval King René of Anjou, a notable patron of the arts, as imagined in Sir Walter Scott’s novel of 1829, Anne of Geierstein. Brown designed the panel representing Architecture, in which Seddon was depicted as a lobster settling disputes with clients and builders as snakes. ‘Painting’ and ‘Sculpture’ were by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), while Rossetti was responsible for ‘Music’ and ‘Gardening’. William Morris (1834-1896) – depicted in ‘Ironwork’ as a blacksmith – designed the decorative backgrounds.

King René’s Honeymoon Cabinet of 1861 (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Old College, Aberystwyth

Seddon’s entries to the architectural competitions mentioned above were all unsuccessful and the one opportunity to design a major public building came about instead through his Welsh contacts, doing so in the most unexpected circumstances. Thomas Savin (1826-1889) was a railway engineer, entrepreneur and politician, who in 1857 had formed a partnership with David Davies (the same who commissioned Poundley and Walker to design his residence of Broneirion in Llandinam, as described in the post on that practice). They did so initially for the construction of the Vale of Clwyd railway from Rhyl to Denbigh, then went on to be principal contractor for many of the lines in Central Wales that became the Cambrian Railways. But Savin had a number of other business interests, which included the hotel trade – naturally enough, given the demand generated by the growing railway network – and when he initially contacted Seddon in 1864, he did so for advice on the completion of an unfinished hotel at Borth. That same year, he purchased the Georgian Gothick Castle House in Aberystwyth with a view to converting it to a hotel. Occupying a splendid location right on the seafront, it had originally been built in c. 1795 to the designs of John Nash (1752-1835) for Sir Uvedale Price (1747-1829), rural improver and theorist of the picturesque.

Castle Hotel in Aberystwyth in 1865, showing the south wing added by Seddon to Nash’s Castle House: note the timber framing with cement panels to the first floor. (Ceredigion Museum)

It was an exciting commission, but also an onerous one, for Savin was both ambitious and impatient. Initially Seddon was engaged to design a large public restaurant with a flat roof to provide a viewing platform overlooking the sea. Everything had to be done at breakneck speed – Seddon’s sketches made during the day were approved by Savin in the evening so that work could begin on laying the foundations the next morning. The restaurant was extended upwards to provide more bedrooms, then a larger extension to the south with suites of rooms was added, then additions were made to Castle House itself, a ten-storey tower was erected and finally the sea wall was reconstructed to allow for the creation of a promenade, a major piece of civil engineering. There was no time to prepare project documentation – the work was directed using a rough wooden model, with detail drawings being provided as and when required. Five hundred men were employed on site and Seddon was expected to keep them all busy. Inevitably, shortcuts were taken.

The Old College at Aberystwyth as it appears today from the seaward side as a result of J.P. Seddon’s and John Coates Carter’s remodelling of 1886-1887 following the fire of 1885: the taller section in the centre of greyer stone was added by C.A. Ferguson in 1896 when Nash’s Castle House was finally demolished. (Wikipedia Commons)
The Old College at Aberystwyth as it appears today from King Street as a result of J.P. Seddon’s and John Coates Carter’s remodelling of 1886-1887 following the fire of 1885. (Wikipedia Commons)

The hotel opened in June 1865, but Savin, who had spent £80,000 on the project, was now in financial trouble and would be declared bankrupt the following year. The still incomplete property was put up for sale and in 1867 it was sold for £10,000 to the committee for the University of Wales as accommodation for their new establishment. Seddon was engaged to convert the hotel into University College, which opened in 1872. But work proceeded slowly and in July 1885 there was a major setback when a fire broke out in a chemistry laboratory, completely gutting the complex. Abandonment was contemplated and a competition for a new building even held, but Seddon succeeded in winning round the university authorities by showing how the existing building could be salvaged and repaired far more cheaply. The work was carried out in 1886-1887 and Seddon was assisted by John Coates Carter (1859-1927), whom he had taken on as a partner in 1884, the same year that he opened an office in Cardiff. The mosaic of Archimedes adorning the tower at the far end was designed by C.F.A. Voysey (1857-1941), who had been a pupil of Seddon between 1874 and 1879 and would go on to have a major influence on British domestic design of the Arts and Crafts movement. In the fenestration and massing of the staircase tower adjoining the ingenious triangular porch on the landward elevation to King Street, there are echoes of the gargantuan record tower proposed as part of his scheme for the Royal Courts of Justice, evidently too good an idea to be allowed to go to waste.

Old College at Aberystwyth, the mosaic of Archimedes designed by C.F.A. Voysey and executed by Rust & Co: note that the figure to the left is presenting him with a railway locomotive and that to the right with a steamship. (Wikipedia Commons)

Monumental Halls, London

In composition, the Aberystwyth building, now known as Old College, was somewhat rambling and disjointed, an inevitable consequence of its troubled construction history. This suggested the accretive development to be found in so many medieval buildings, which did not sit badly with the muscular early Gothic style that Seddon employed, full of the ‘vigour’ and ‘go’ beloved of High Victorian architects. But any such picturesque winsomeness was banished from his final design for a public building. By the middle of the 19th century, the amount of monumental masonry in Westminster Abbey had burgeoned, spilling out from the eastern arm of the church into the transepts and nave. The situation was clearly untenable, but despite Sir George Gilbert Scott’s putting forward two schemes for additional accommodation in the form of a cloister, nothing was done until 1890, when a Royal Commission was established to investigate possible solutions. Rather curiously, Seddon’s first drawing is dated two years previously.

South elevation of J.P. Seddon’s design of 1888 for the mausoleum forming part of the first version of the scheme for the Monumental Halls

Seddon, working in partnership with Laurence Harvey, Instructor of Scientific Masonry at the City and Guilds, was among a group of architects who contributed proposals. They envisaged giving the chapter house a diadem of six chapels, with a new ambulatory around the east end of the building to provide access to them. This would also connect with an immense new mausoleum fronting Abingdon Street, designed in Seddon’s favourite Geometric Decorated Gothic. There were to be emphatic octagonal towers at the corners and along the flank walls, where they broke through tiers of niches holding statues presumably representing the worthies commemorated within. The principal chamber was to be raised up above some sort of undercroft and to have a tierceron vault running for its entire length. Construction of the mausoleum alone would have run to £200,000 out of a total cost for the scheme estimated at £480,000, and buying out the properties occupying the proposed site on Abingdon Street would have inflated it by a further £100,000.

Artist’s impression of the 1904 version, bird’s eye view from south west: the central tower added to Westminister Abbey is not known to have formed part of the scheme and seems to have been pure artistic licence, added simply to counteract the crushing visual effect of the immense campanile. (RIBA Collections)

Nothing came of the project, but in 1901 Edward Beckitt Lamb (1857-1932), son of Edward Buckton Lamb (about whom see this recent post) exhibited a design for a National Monument to British Heroes at the Royal Academy. This seems to have inspired Seddon to approach him with a view to reviving and revising the 1890 scheme, which was eventually published in The Building News in March 1904. This time, everything was concentrated in a single separate mass linked to the Abbey by an arm running off the Great Cloister. This led into a reception hall, 64ft (19.5m) across, to be situated on the ground floor of an immense tower that was to rise to 550ft (168m) in height. Above it, this would accommodate a series of galleries for monuments and space for archives. There would be a walkway around the top of the tower and the lantern of the crown steeple above would house a belfry. Again, there would be an enormous vaulted memorial hall, 192ft (58.5m) in length, which at its southern end, fronting Great College Street, would expand into a huge transepts with polygonal ends, reaching 157ft (48m) in width. A chapel-like space interposed between the hall and the tower and terminating in a polygonal apse balanced the east-facing apse of the double transept to create a grand, spreading, symmetrical elevation. Towers with needle spires were to rise from the re-entrant angles. Stylistically, the project had undergone a metamorphosis, chaste Geometrical Decorated Gothic having given way to an overripe, heavily ornate version of Perpendicular, not entirely unlike that used by Lamb’s father.

Artist’s impression from Parliament Square and plan of the scheme, as published in The Building News of 25th March 1904

Without a doubt, it was hypertrophied Edwardian imperial triumphalism, albeit evocatively portrayed in artist’s impressions that suggested visionary architecture of a kind almost to rival Étienne-Louis Boullée. But it is difficult to believe that it was intended as a serious proposal (in any case, Seddon would retire from professional practice very shortly afterwards) and it does not show at its best an architect who generally performed better on a much smaller scale where his penchant for the applied arts could be properly appreciated. That is something that comes through well in his numerous designs for vicarages, villas and schools and is also in evidence at Sir William Powell’s Almshouses in Fulham, one of Seddon’s finest and most characteristic secular commissions.

Sir William Powell’s Almshouses

Sir William Powell’s almshouses, Fulham, London (J.P. Seddon, 1869-1871): the entrance to the complex from Church Gate and former library and water tower (Mark Berry)

This institution had originally been established in 1680 to provide accommodation for 12 poor women. In 1869 it was re-established on a new site on the northern boundary of the extensive graveyard of All Saints’ Church. In essence, it is an L-shaped terrace of 12 two-storey houses, but treated in a very sumptuous manner: The Building News of 12th May 1871 reported that the Rector and his wife had organised a subscription to supplement funds already raised through the sale of the old building ‘for the special purpose that the work might be made more architectural than would be otherwise justifiable under the circumstances’. The manner is Seddon’s ornate Geometrical Decorated Gothic, cleverly adapted to a domestic setting. He establishes an effective rhythm of repeated forms and alternating solid and void through the use of polygonal bay windows at ground floor level, joined by triple arches to create porch openings. That allows for a continuous pent roof to be sustained, running the whole length of the frontage. Invention in the vertical plane is complemented by the varied roofline – tall chimney stacks and traceried dormers at first floor level, and a tower with a hipped roof at the street entrance to the complex from Church Gate. This originally a housed a small library on the first floor and a water tank in its uppermost stage, where the external niches are filled with figures representing Miriam, Ann, Deborah, Dorcas, Ruth and the Virgin Mary.

Sir William Powell’s almshouses, Fulham, London (J.P. Seddon, 1869-1871): the inner courtyard (Wikipedia Commons)

St Peter’s, Ayot St Peter, St James’s, Great Yarmouth and St Catherine’s, Hoarwithy

This same flair for achieving great richness on a small scale can be even better appreciated at two important ecclesiastical commissions both begun in 1874. Of all Seddon’s churches, St Catherine’s in Hoarwithy, Herefordshire has probably attracted the most attention, not least for its glorious setting in the Wye Valley, from which it rises like a vision of Tuscany. Seddon’s involvement seems to have resulted from a typical case of an enthusiastic Victorian clergyman, finding no other outlet for his energy in a remote rural parish, directing it into a comprehensive remodelling and beautification of his church. When appointed to the living, the Rev’d William Poole found there a plain preaching box of 1843 in a round-arched style. This seems to have prompted him to direct Seddon (from whom in c. 1868 he had already commissioned a combined schoolroom and schoolmaster’s house) to produce a scheme in a Continental Romanesque manner. It is, as far as I am currently aware, Seddon’s only essay in the idiom and it is paradoxical that his best known church should be the least typical of his output.

St Catherine’s Church, Hoarwithy (remodelled by J.P. Seddon, 1874-1903) viewed from the south: note the cloister arm connecting the porch in the base of the tower with the narthex at the west end.
St Catherine’s Church, Hoarwithy (remodelled by J.P. Seddon, 1874-1903): the vault over the chancel supported on columns of Devonshire marble.

The work was carried out at Poole’s own expense, which may explain why it dragged and was completed only around the time of his death in 1903. Seddon recased the nave in the local red sandstone also used for the rest of his additions, refenestrating the older fabric and replacing the roof. He added a triple-apsed chancel adjoined by a tall campanile to the south. This accommodates a porch on the ground floor (it is the east end that faces the road) and leads through to a loggia running the length of the nave, which provides access to the narthex at the opposite end where the church is entered through the west door. The building is meticulously detailed – the capitals of the loggia alone would make it worth a special visit – and Seddon’s study of Romanesque prototypes in the Rhineland and Venice on his travels as a young man seem to have stood him in good stead. There are mosaic floors throughout, the timbers of the roof structure of the nave are adorned with painted decoration by George Edward Fox (1833-1908) and there is a gold mosaic of Christ Pantokrator in the central apse. The choir stalls of 1883, incorporating figures of saints and scriptural subjects, and prayer desk of 1884 were executed by Harry Hems of Exeter (1842-1916) and carved in oak from Poole’s estate. Some of the stained glass was by Hugh Arthur Kennedy (1854-1905), a favourite collaborator, while those windows in the apse that commemorate Poole were made to Seddon’s own designs.  

St Catherine’s Church, Hoarwithy (remodelled by J.P. Seddon, 1874-1903): the loggia running along the south side of the nave looking towards the porch in the base of the tower. A detail of the mosaic pavement is shown in the frontispiece at the top of the page.
St Catherine’s Church, Hoarwithy (remodelled by J.P. Seddon, 1874-1903): one of the windows in the apse depicting Christ and the Evangelists designed by the architect and installed in 1904.

The chancel is a miraculous toy – monumental in conception, yet miniature in execution. It appears to be a scaled-down version of a spatial arrangement first tried in one of Seddon’s most intriguing schemes for an urban church – St James’s in Great Yarmouth. In 1862, Seddon had been approached to carry out a comprehensive restoration of the town’s vast medieval parish church of St Nicholas. It was in a badly dilapidated state and this turned out to be a major project that would occupy him for the best part of 10 years. Great Yarmouth was expanding rapidly at the time and the place of worship serving its new suburb of Camperdown was intended to rival the medieval mother church in magnificence and scale. In c. 1869, Seddon produced a most unusual design based on a cross-in-square plan, a favourite device of Stuart church designers derived ultimately from Dutch models. An evocative artist’s impression of the interior, published in The Architect in 1882, shows a central dome supported on squinch arches, with what infers to be a colourful decorative scheme complementing the vigorous structural polychromy. According to a paper entitled ‘Sundry Working Drawings’, which had been read by Seddon to the Architectural Association on 24th November that same year and was published the following month in two installments by The Architect, accompanied by this and other illustrations of his work, the internal walls were to have been faced in buff-coloured brick diapered in red, while the dome was to have been built of concrete, faced internally by mosaics executed by Rust & Co. Mosaics by the same firm were also to be set into the pulpit, which was to be made of stoneware from Fulham Pottery and to be set upon a base of polished serpentine. The history of the project is somewhat obscure, but it seems that only the central aisle was completed to Seddon’s design and the original scheme was then abandoned. The crossing was dismantled and four-bay arcades substituted for the three immense openings to the central vessel when Bottle and Olley added lean-to aisles in their completion of 1902-1908.

St James’s Church, Great Yarmouth: artist’s impression of the exterior as published in The Building News of 20th December 1872
St James’s Church, Great Yarmouth: view of the interior based on a coloured perspective drawing by Howard Gaye as published in The Architect of 2nd December 1882
St Peter’s Church, Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire (J.P. Seddon, 1875): view from north west
St Peter’s Church, Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire (J.P. Seddon, 1875): the chancel ceiling – the wrought iron chancel screen is a later addition of 1908 by an unknown designer

Despite the renown of Hoarwithy, if one were to pick a single building to stand for all of Seddon’s new churches and his aesthetic ideals, St Peter’s at Ayot St Peter in Hertfordshire would be the better choice. The commission came about in unusual circumstances. In 1862, John Loughborough Pearson (1817–1897) had provided a new church for the village to replace a curious octagonal Georgian predecessor of 1750-1751, which itself had superseded a medieval building. But in 1874 it was hit by lightning and badly damaged. The decision was taken to abandon everything other than the chancel, which was retained as a mortuary chapel, and to construct a replacement on a new site located nearer the village centre. A competition was held that same year, from which Seddon emerged victorious, and the new building was completed within the course of 10 months in 1875. In form, it is typical enough for the period – a simple, two-cell building with an apsidal chancel and a small tower and spire adjoining the nave to the south, all handled in a muscular Gothic style with much constructional polychromy. But the geometrical games played in the design of the tower – an octagonal belfry stage with broaches in the angles – and the colourful clock face already hint at a very different temperament to that in evidence at its numerous counterparts from the period.

St Peter’s Church, Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire (J.P. Seddon, 1875): the floor of the sanctuary, with Godwin tiles set in a mosaic pavement by Rust & Co
St Peter’s Church, Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire (J.P. Seddon, 1875): the lectern

This is confirmed by the interior, a deliciously pretty confection of bright colours and varied patterns and textures. It is spanned by a wagon roof, a favourite device of Seddon’s. That in the nave is a trefoil in section, that in the chancel is richly painted, with Christ in a mandorla in the centre over the altar and symbols of the Evangelists, the Company of Angels, suns and stars in the other panels. It was the work of a ‘Mr Gage’ (perhaps Howard Gaye) and J.R. Thompson, who executed it partly on canvas and partly directly on the panelling using stencils. The painted scheme was to have been extended to the nave, but fell victim to economies. The encaustic tiles in the chancel were manufactured by Godwin’s of Lugwardine. Such features are noteworthy, but by no means peculiar to Seddon’s churches and other devices, such as the colonettes of polished coloured marble to the pulpit and font, are commonplace in the period. But more unusual media are brought into play, too. The chancel arch is clad in blue-grey glazed stoneware by Walter Frazer Martin of Fulham Pottery, the concern originally established in the 1670s by John Dwight and revived by C.J.C. Bailey, who purchased it in 1864. This is reputedly the firm’s only ecclesiastical commission.

St Peter’s Church, Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire (J.P. Seddon, 1875): the font, executed by Henry Poole & Sons of London to Seddon’s design with mosaics by Rust & Co
St Peter’s Church, Ayot St Peter, Hertfordshire (J.P. Seddon, 1875): the east face of the belfry with the mosaic clock face by Rust & Co

Mosaics play an especially important role. These were executed by Rust & Co, a firm established in Lambeth in 1856 by Jesse Rust, who around 1864 devised a method of producing coloured and gold- or silver-enamelled vitreous mosaics from recycled glass, intended to be sufficiently durable to be usable for exterior features. It was heavily promoted by Sir Henry Cole (1808–1882), who commissioned floors and mosaic panels from Rust for the first phase of the South Kensington (subsequently Victoria and Albert) Museum. The mosaic dial to the clock has already been mentioned; Rust provided something similar for Seddon’s church of St Mary’s at Ullenhall in Warwickshire of 1875, where design of the tower and spire is a verbatim quotation of that at Ayot St Peter, and also executed the mosaic for the Old College in Aberystwyth mentioned above. Rust was responsible for the mosaic floor in the sanctuary, which forms a sort of matrix for the Godwin tiles, and the delightful frieze depicting fish and lilies that runs around the tub of the font. It was originally intended that slabs of vitreous mosaic by Rust should decorate the walls, and that the door and window dressings should be made of terracotta, but this proposal had to be abandoned on grounds of cost. The church retains its original fittings, all designed by Seddon.

Tower Bungalows, Birchington-on-Sea

Detail of Sea Tower, the tallest of all the eponymous towers of Tower Bungalows: it delivered no less than the name promised – commanding views over the North Sea, which begins quite literally at the bottom of the garden.

St Peter’s has been characterised as proto-Arts and Crafts. That is true of the ethos that informed it, with the building treated not so much as a definitive statement of an architectural concept as a vehicle for contributions by practitioners of the applied arts. But stylistically, for all the individuality of some of the devices employed, it is resolutely Gothic. Moreover, it is the work of an architect who had little truck with the fundamental stylistic shifts that were taking place in Victorian architecture at the time. Around the late 1860s, architects had begun to rediscover the heritage of the early 18th century, embracing a tradition which had been anathema to the followers of Pugin and Ruskin. This took domestic design in a very different direction, as recounted at length by Mark Girouard in Sweetness and Light, his study of the Queen Anne movement. Inveighing against this new trend, Seddon thundered from The Building News (9th July 1872), ‘Of réchauffés, of even Elizabethan architecture, and certainly of the Queen Anne style, lately come into fashion, we had had more than enough… their hybrid jumbles of detail are not sufficiently eclectic in any good sense to deserve imitation at our hands’. And again, three years later (Comments on H.H. Stannus’s paper, ‘The Queen Anne movement and its relationship to Gothic and Classic’, read to the Architectural Association on 17th April 1875 and printed in the Building News shortly afterwards): ‘There was no point of merit of interest in the work of Queen Anne’s time that was original, inherent or due to the style. There was no style whatever about it. The few desirable points which it possessed… [are] wholly independent of the senseless, trashy nature of the details used. Let architects go back… to that whence it derived all that it had of inspiration, and beyond that whence it got all its impurity and absurdity. And whither should we go but to Gothic?’

One of John Taylor’s bungalows at Birchington-on-Sea, as illustrated in The Building News of 15th August 1873. Quoting Sir Erasmus Wilson’s words of approbation, the accompanying article on p. 166 laid great stress on the simplicity and practicality of the construction. The roofs were composed of common rafters rather than full trusses and covered in patent tiles of Taylor’s own invention, which locked into one another and thus were not prone to being dislodged by winter storms or the vortex effect. The gap between the inner and outer skins of the wall was filled with overlapping slates, which protected the building from damp ingress caused by driving rain or sea sprays. It was claimed that this would also insulate the house during winter and prevent solar gain during the summer. Cornices had been omitted internally, ‘as also all other ornaments and decorative features, usual even in speculating builders’ erections, and for which no one but the plasterers are ever one whit the better’.
An as yet-unidentified property (possibly Birce Bungalow), also put up as part of John Taylor’s development at Birchington-on-Sea, pictured around a century after its construction. At the time it was unoccupied and would shortly succumb to redevelopment, along with most of its neighbours.

And yet five years later, Seddon produced a remarkable group of buildings that give every indication of the readiness to abandon Gothic that he so deplored in architects of the younger generation. Something of the context from which they emerged first needs to be sketched in. The growth of resorts along the Kent Coast, particularly on the Isle of Thanet, began early and predated the railway age. It was stimulated in part by the enthusiasm for sea-bathing with its perceived curative properties, in part by pleasure-trippers from London who arrived by paddle steamer. Towns such as Margate and Ramsgate expanded rapidly, and by the mid-19th century, developers were turning their attention to the area to the west, which had yet to be built up, but was now served by a rail connection.

View by Raffles Davison of Station Hotel at Birchington-on-Sea as originally proposed by Seddon, published in British Architect of 12th May 1882
View of the six Tower Bungalows as originally proposed by Seddon from the landward side by Raffles Davison, published in British Architect of 12th May 1882

In the late 1860s, work began on laying out what would become the new resort of Westgate-on-Sea to a scheme devised by architect Charles Nightingale Beazley (1834-1897). The potential for speculative development attracted an architect by the name of John Taylor (1818-1884), who had previously designed a number of stations for the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, the operator of the line running through the settlement. In 1869, he constructed six single-storey villas believed to be the first bungalows in the country. Four of them were bought by the dermatologist and philanthropist Sir Erasmus Wilson (1809-1884) and the venture, which was covered by The Building News, was successful enough for Taylor to look at another development further west in Birchington. There, he put up a number of bungalows on a clifftop site to the northeast of the original village near Coleman’s Stairs, a path leading down to the seashore. ‘Fair Outlook’, built in 1872-1873, survives, albeit hemmed in by much later development, and is listed at Grade II. Two of the others named ‘Haun’ and ‘Thor’, built in 1873 and 1874 respectively, though no longer extant, were covered in some detail by The Building News. As originally built, the bungalows stood in isolation on the cliff top, some distance from the medieval village centre. This was an entirely conscious ploy: Taylor intended his development to appeal to buyers seeking to escape the already overcrowded, overbuilt established resort towns, such as those further east along the Thanet Coast, and to return to a way of life that was simpler and closer to nature, playing on the associations of this novel building type with the Indian hill towns where it had originated. Nothing would hinder communion with nature, enjoyment of marine views and partaking of bracing sea air. By all these tokens, it was also a very exclusive kind of simplicity. All but the affluent upper-middle classes were priced out, while there was little chance of day-trippers and holidaymakers disturbing the occupants’ peace, not least because each of the houses had its own access to the beach via an underground flight of steps.

Satellite view of Tower Bungalows from the north showing (right to left) Sea Tower, Tresco House, Whitecliff and Del Monte (Google Earth)
The entrance to the private road providing access to Tower Bungalows, showing (left to right), Sea Tower, Tresco House, Whitecliff and Poet’s Corner

It seems that for a while Seddon had some kind of professional involvement with Taylor and around this date was engaged to produce a master plan for the development of the area between the railway and the sea front, which was to be called ‘The Cliff Estate’. Streets began to be laid out and Seddon produced an imposing design for a hotel that was to go up on a site immediately to the north of the railway station. Editor of British Architect Raffles Davison (1853-1937) visited in 1882 to report on the project, producing views of some of the buildings. These must have been based on Seddon’s drawings, since he reported that little progress had been made with the scheme. Davison’s view of the hotel shows a sprawling complex in a robust High Victorian manner, leavened by more informal touches in the vein of Norman Shaw’s ‘Olde English’ style, such as the areas of half-timbering. To the right of the octagonal tower directly above the platform shelter is an intriguing building with a semi-circular veranda and suggestions of painted or incised decoration on the plastered areas between the timbering, which looks like it might well have been intended to be purely cosmetic. This may represent the re-emergence of an idea first tried at Aberystwyth, where Seddon substituted timber framing with incised and coloured cement panels for stonework since it could be executed more quickly by Savin’s men. There are medievalising overtones, but very little that is explicitly Gothic. The design did not leave the paper it was drawn on and the hotel that was eventually built on the site (which does not survive) was far more modest in all respects. But it provides some fascinating clues to what was in Seddon’s mind at the time and informed the design of the one part of his scheme to be realised.

Tower Bungalows from north west viewed from Winston Court
The tower of ‘Sea Tower’ from south west: note the recessed panel with the sgraffito figure and, to the right, the stair tower with the monopitch roof. Immediately next to that is a glass lantern which presumably lights the main octagonal circulation space.

Evidently prompted by Taylor’s success, Seddon planned a development of bungalows between ‘Haun’ and ‘Thor’ and Coleman’s Stairs. They were to go up on a row of long, narrow plots running all the way down to the edge of the clifftop, fronting not Spenser Road – the main thoroughfare running east-west across the Cliff Estate – but a small private road looping out from it. The island site between the two was to be occupied by mews buildings. Six bungalows were planned, but only four were actually built – ‘Sea Tower’, ‘Tresco House’, ‘Whitecliff’ and ‘Del Monte’. Seddon seems to have borrowed several features from ‘Fair Outlook’ – the long, narrow massing, the spreading, low-pitched roof and the incorporation of a tower at the seaward end. The tower of the westernmost bungalow, Sea Tower, is one storey higher than those of the others and Davison’s view suggests that it was to be answered by a tower of equal height to the unbuilt easternmost bungalow at the opposite end of the group, giving the ensemble symmetry as a whole.

Floor plan of ‘Sea Tower’ as published in The Building News of 20th October 1905
The passage leading to the main entrance at ‘Whitecliff’

The bungalows vary slightly in size and configuration, but the general plan form was apparently the same. The principal rooms are all concentrated at the north end to take advantage of views over the garden and the open sea beyond. The entrance is surprisingly informal, set well back from the road front and to offset to one side. It leads through to a polygonal lobby and then into an octagonal circulation space, from which a long spine corridor extends back towards the road, terminating (in Sea Tower, at any rate) in a billiard room. In between these two points, rows of what must be bedrooms open off it. Mosaic flooring within was produced by Rust and Co and marble fireplace surrounds survive which supposedly were designed by Seddon.

The Old Coach House and Sunny Lodge (former mews buildings for Tower Bungalows) seen from Spenser Road, showing the sgraffito panels by George Frampton
West elevation of Poet’s Corner (former mews buildings for Tower Bungalows), showing the sgraffito panels by George Frampton

The exteriors of Tower Bungalows are plain whitewashed stucco and decorative touches are used sparingly – brackets for the broad eaves, glazing bars subdividing the upper lights or margins of the windows. The flank walls face narrow passageways, and thus would have hardly benefited from any decorative treatment, while the road fronts were not the main point of access. There is more visual interest in the garden fronts with their clever grouping together of two large bay windows under a single gable and advancing and receding planes, but only that of Sea Tower can really be viewed from the public realm over the garden wall. Architectural effects are concentrated on the upper stages of the towers (which Seddon’s drawings suggest may originally have been finished with dummy timber-framing), the powerful sculptural forms of the chimneys and the roofs, with bands of fishscale tiles and ridge cresting. The real swagger is reserved for the only part of the complex wholly visible from the public realm – the three mews buildings, where the panels between the dummy timbers are adorned with brightly coloured sgraffito panels by George Frampton (1860-1928) depicting putti and stylised plant motifs.

Detail of Frampton’s sgraffito decoration to Tresco Lodge and The Porch, another one of the mews buildings for Tower Bungalows: the difference in colour scheme reflects that fact that what was formerly a single property has been split into two.

Birchington-on-Sea and Dante Gabriel Rossetti

By popular repute, one of these bungalows was the final address of Seddon’s friend Rossetti, who moved to Birchington in February 1882. In fact, he resided not at Tower Bungalows, but at a different property a short distance away to the southwest. This was a most intriguing piece of design, put up in 1877 as part of Taylor’s original development, but built out of prefabricated timber components and with an asphalt roof. Despite the less substantial construction, it was set in spacious grounds and every bit as was well appointed, with six bedrooms, a lounge, library, dining room, a study and service accommodation. Regrettably the house is no longer extant. Sold to Irish millionaire H. Osbome O’Hagan after Rossetti’s death, it was subsequently inherited by his daughter, then, after she died in 1952, was subdivided into three smaller properties before being demolished for redevelopment in 1966.

The Rossetti bungalow on Beach Avenue in c. 1952: the construction techniques had numerous affinities with those employed at the Bungalow Hotel, put up in 1878, which Seddon’s scheme for the Station Hotel pictured above was presumably intended to supersede.
Ground plan of the Rossetti bungalow, as published in The Building News of 1st September 1905
Cross-section of the drawing room of the Rossetti bungalow, as published in The Building News of 1st September 1905: it is clearly identifiable in the photograph above by the prominent clerestory roof. This must be the interior depicted by Davison in the view published in British Architect of 12th May 1882, which suggests that it was furnished with items such as Japanese ceramics that were the badge of allegiance of a follower of the Aesthetic Movement.

Rossetti did not reside in Birchington for long. His health was already failing, the result of a stroke the previous December and many years of substance abuse, and he died on 9th April 1882. He was buried in the churchyard of All Saints’ Church, where his grave is marked by a cross designed by Ford Madox Brown and executed by Jane E. Patterson. Inside the church, he is commemorated by a stained-glass window in the south aisle by Heaton, Butler and Bayne, installed in 1884. But though short, the association seems to have been useful for raising the profile of Tower Bungalows, which later attracted the painters Arthur Gilbert (1819-1895) and Simeon Solomon (1840–1905). In due course, Seddon was approached to design a monument to his friend, which took the form of a drinking fountain in Chelsea Embankment Gardens opposite Rossetti’s house at 16 Cheyne Walk, where he had resided from 1862 until the move to Birchington. Unveiled in 1887, it is a ponderous piece of neo-Romanesque executed in granite, with a bronze portrait bust by Ford Madox Brown. As a brief aside, it might be noted that Seddon’s connection with Thanet did not cease at Rossetti’s death. In 1896-1897, Belham & Co executed to his design at the church of St Peter in Broadstairs an elaborate painted scheme to decorate the boarded chancel ceiling, originally introduced when he replaced the roofs throughout this substantial medieval building in a restoration of 1872.

Window commemorating Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the south aisle of All Saints’ Church. Birchington-on-Sea by Heaton, Butler and Bayne of 1884
The Celtic cross over the grave of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the churchyard of All Saints in Birchington-on-Sea, designed by Ford Madox Brown and executed by Jane E. Patterson
The Dante Gabriel Rossetti Memorial in Chelsea Embankment Gardens, London (J.P. Seddon with bronze relief by Ford Madox Brown, 1887)


The former vicarage at Kenardington on the edge of Romney Marsh in Kent: J.P. Seddon’s contract drawings for the building, dating from late 1873, are in the RIBA Collection and the design bears several hallmarks of his style, but is not featured in The Buildings of England and is not statutorily listed.

Victorian architecture can throw up some bizarre and perplexing conundrums, few of them more so than Seddon’s Tower Bungalows. While a study of this length cannot do more than give a brief flavour of their architect’s prolific output, one does not need to assemble too many examples of his work to see that they are very uncharacteristic of it. In such situations, positing a division between an architect’s secular and ecclesiastical modes can sometimes elucidate matters. The Victorian age was dogmatic and prescriptive about what was acceptable for a church, whereas domestic commissions often offered much greater scope for innovation. But not here. Even allowing for the substantial differences in the nature of the commission, Seddon’s other notable speculative residential development, Victoria Terrace in Aberystwyth (just like Tower Bungalows, intended to be the first stage in a much larger project that proved abortive), is wholly characteristic of its date from the turn of the 1860s and 1870s. At the moment, forming an objective view is difficult in the absence of a comprehensive survey of Seddon’s life and career that would allow any one of his works to be placed in its proper context, and we must hope that Tye R. Blackshaw gets the chance to write the monograph that is so badly needed. Her published writings on Seddon suggest that she would be eminently capable of doing him justice.

West elevation of the church of St Andrew, Redruth in Cornwall, as published in The Architect of 9th December 1882: work on this essay in Seddon’s favourite Geometrical Decorated Gothic, which was produced jointly with local architect James Hicks (1846-1896), began the following year and construction commenced at the west end, although the planned tower was omitted at the outset. The use of a tall octagonal belfry stage to effect the transition from the tower to the spire was a favourite device, used not only at Ayot St Peter, as pictured above, but also at St Mary’s, Ullenhall in Warwickshire of 1875.
Long section of the church of St Andrew, Redruth in Cornwall, as published in The Architect of 9th December 1882: the design was based on a broad nave with narrow passage aisles and prominent transepts. Note how the nave is canted inwards at the east end where it meets the narrower chancel. The church was not completed until 1937-1938, by which point the original design by Seddon and Hicks had been abandoned in favour of a much simpler scheme by R.F. Wheatly of Truro.

It is a mistake to view any period in art history as a succession of avant-gardes – one will always end up with figures who do not fit into any discernable trend. But there is nevertheless a strong impulse to schematise Victorian architectural history because the field is so vast and so diverse. It is difficult to make sense of a period of huge artistic plurality without at least sometimes reaching for labels, and the polarising effect of the various polemics that raged for much of the 19th century only increases the temptation. The waters have been further muddied by twentieth century historians such as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, who seized on a select few works to support a teleological view of the emergence of modernism, even when they are not necessarily typical of their creator’s output as a whole or may not have spawned any direct descendants. To take one example, the handful of furniture and graphic designs of Arthur Mackmurdo (1851-1942), which have attracted so much attention for their use of the ‘whiplash’ motif, look less like a precursor of Art Nouveau when viewed in the context of his often gauche and stylistically indeterminate architecture and more like an intriguing flash in the pan.

The font at St Jerome’s in Llangwm Uchaf, Monmouthshire, a medieval church heavily restored in 1863-1869 by Seddon, who largely rebuilt the nave and south porch and refurnished the building. Here is one of the architect’s excursions into complex geometrical form, complemented by capitals depicting local flora.
The Annunciation, as depicted in the east window of St Jerome’s, Llangwm Uchaf: this was designed by Seddon in c. 1877 on the basis of a cartoon by Hugh Arthur Kennedy (1855-1905) and executed by S. Belham & Co using Rust’s ‘antique’ glass. ‘The nervous intensity of the figures, their pre-Raphaelite style and the unusual colouring in turquoise and brown make this an exceptional creation’ (John Newman, The Buildings of Wales).

But then architectural history is full of dead ends and they are problematic only when we insist on trying to make sense of them by demonstrating how they might fit into a wider pattern of development. By that token, we should not speculate about Tower Bungalows and what Seddon might have produced had he had the chance to complete the Cliff Estate and to continue his stylistic explorations. Unless scholarship can demonstrate otherwise, it is possible that the progressive treatment of the architecture was the one-off result of a chance convergence of external influences and circumstances. Perhaps, given the success demonstrated by Taylor’s innovations, there was even an element of opportunism. But I would like to think that it was a considered choice – Seddon was too careful, too thoughtful and indeed too strong-minded an architect to be meretricious. At any rate, we can only lament that the designers of 20th century successors to Tower Bungalows and developers of such large tracts of coastline in the vicinity lacked the ability to equal them in charm and individuality.

High Victorian Gothic unto the last: the School of Science and Art, Stroud, Gloucestershire, designed by J. P. Seddon in collaboration with W. H. C. Fisher and built in 1890-1899.

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.

2 thoughts on “J.P. Seddon at Birchington-on-Sea: from ‘Vigour and Go’ to Sweetness and Light

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