Joseph Clarke (1819/20-1888): an unexpectedly deft safe pair of hands

Today’s post forms something of a pendant to the preceding post on Henry Woodyer, not least because it takes in the remarkable church of SS Peter and Paul in Foxearth, Essex. It deals with an architect who, like Woodyer, was active chiefly in the Home Counties. Again like Woodyer, he specialised in ecclesiastical work – new churches, restorations of ancient churches, church schools and charitable institutions. There, however, the similarity ends. Woodyer may have kept out of the limelight, but worked with an eye to posterity, preferring to take on commissions that allowed him to show his mettle and always guarding his aesthetic integrity, even in preference to retaining ancient fabric. The result was a highly distinctive body of work imprinted with a readily identifiable architectural personality. But the subject of today’s post is more elusive.

Holy Trinity, Sittingbourne, Kent: the tower and eastern arm added by Clarke in 1873-1874 to an incomplete building of c. 1867 commenced to a design by R.C. Hussey (1802-1887)

Joseph Clarke is someone who initially gives the impression of being one of Victorian architecture’s also-rans. His name crops up most frequently as a prolific restorer of medieval rural churches across a wide swathe of southeast England. He was surveyor to the Dioceses of Canterbury, Rochester and St Albans, meaning that his domain effectively consisted of the whole of Kent, Essex and Hertfordshire. He seems to have been the default choice in the numerous instances where there was no rich, well-connected patron able to bear the cost of more than a basic overhaul of the fabric or in a position to dictate his own aesthetic preferences. Men like Clarke undoubtedly saved the numerous ancient churches that were approaching the point of no return by the time they stepped in, but often at the expense of character, patina and atmosphere. Dressings were renewed in Bath stone, walling in knapped flint was relaid to achieve a uniform surface, roofs were replaced in their entirety, Stuart and Georgian fittings were discarded and replaced by pitch-pine substitutes with generic, unsophisticated detailing, bright interiors were made gloomy through the introduction of stained glass. In short, it is everything conveyed by a favourite term of 20th century architectural and topographical writers – ‘Victorianised’.

SS Peter and Paul, Foxearth, Essex: parclose screen and wall painting of the Company of Saints on the north side of the chancel

The implications of the term for readers schooled in that coded shorthand are always clear: ‘There is nothing here for the connoisseur, go elsewhere’. The inference in the case of an architect who specialised in such work is that he was an uninspired plodder, and certainly a passing acquaintance with Clarke is unlikely to produce any desire to explore further. Nor is it easy to do so, in any case. To the best of my current knowledge, there is no monograph on him and, surprisingly, he does not warrant a single entry even in The Faber Guide to Victorian Churches. My own acquaintance with his work has proceeded slowly and haphazardly. But a picture has gradually emerged of an architect who is far more interesting than usually imagined. Although it is far from complete, it deserves to be presented here.

The pulpit and tiled flooring introduced by Clarke at St Clement’s Church in Sandwich, Kent during his restoration of this 12th-15th century church in 1865-1870

Training and early years

Clarke’s early biography still awaits study, but it is known that he trained with John Griffith of Finsbury (1796-1888). For the moment, Griffith’s biography is also obscure and his reputation rests on a single, although most remarkable venture. In the early 19th century, London’s dead were still interred in burial grounds attached to parish churches and nonconformist chapels. These were fast running out of space, and it was also becoming evident that decaying corpses were polluting the water supply and spreading disease. The situation was clearly untenable and this stimulated interest in establishing a suburban, garden-style cemetery on the model of Paris’s Père Lachaise. A committee was set up, which purchased a site for the purpose bounded by the Harrow Road and Grand Union Canal in then-rural Middlesex, and in late 1831 it held an architectural competition to find a design. This was won by a Gothic entry contributed by Henry Edward Kendall (1776-1875) and in July the following year an Act of Parliament was passed to authorise a ‘General Cemetery Company for the interment of the Dead in the Neighbourhood of the Metropolis’. This led to the foundation of the General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, which became the first in a first wave of grand metropolitan cemeteries established during the course of the following 10 years known as ‘The Magnificent Seven’.

The Anglican Chapel at Kensal Green Cemetery (John Griffith, 1835-1836)

Despite the outcome of the competition, company chairman, banker Sir John Dean Paul (1775-1852), hankered after a Grecian design and Kendall’s scheme was eventually abandoned. Griffith, who had been one of the judges of the competition and was a shareholder in the company, was approached instead. Kendall’s picturesque landscaping was discarded in favour of an axial layout with a central avenue leading up to a grandly scaled Anglican chapel, taking the form of a Greek Doric temple with flanking colonnades and pavilions. The Dissenters’ Chapel at the opposite end of the site – the first purpose-built Nonconformist funerary chapel in a public cemetery – took the form of an Ionic temple, albeit more modestly scaled. The entrance gateway mixed Greek and Roman motifs, being treated as a triumphal arch but with attached Greek Doric giant orders.

The Dissenters’ Chapel at Kensal Green Cemetery (John Griffith, 1831-1834) (Martin Brewster)

It is difficult to know what conclusions to draw from all this about Griffith’s influence on his pupil. Architects active during that period tended not to be stylistically dogmatic – the victory of Gothic in the ‘Battle of the Styles’ was a good 25 years in the future – and, as with Thomas Leverton Donaldson and J.P. Seddon, the training was probably most useful for a practical grounding in the field and the opportunities for networking which it brought the younger man. At any rate, Clarke seems to have wasted little time in embedding himself in the architectural establishment and cultivating professional contacts. He became an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1841, progressing to Fellow in 1853 and eventually serving as its Vice-President. The three posts of Diocesan Surveyor have been mentioned above; by 1852, he was also in the employ of the Diocesan Boards of Education of Oxford, Rochester and Canterbury. Drawing on his experience, that year he published Schools and School Houses: a series of views, plans, and details, for rural parishes, a book of designs to suit all situations and budgets.

School and college buildings

The book was reviewed in the Civil Engineer & Architect’s Journal in June that year, which welcomed the initiative, calling schoolhouses ‘a very satisfactory test of architectural capacity, because… the end has been that schools have been artistically and economically built, such as will serve of permanent utility, and in many cases of ornament to the localities in which they have been erected. The inference to be fairly drawn by the public from this experience is, that if an architect can be usefully employed on a small schoolroom costing only £120, he can be usefully employed on a small cottage of like outlay’. The reviewer added that hitherto reputable architects had tended to view taking on such commissions as beneath their dignity and that in the few instances where they had involved themselves by producing standard designs, this had done little to improve matters since an executive architect was still required to oversee the siting and construction. Clarke was quoted at length in the review, setting out the factors that needed to be taken into consideration in designing school buildings, such as providing a north light for the desks in the school room and positioning the main rooms of the schoolmaster’s residence so that they faced south. He mentions that in many cases gifts of land as a site for a school, though well intentioned, had done more harm than good, so ill-suited had they proved to be for the function.

The former Church of England school in Foxearth, Essex (Joseph Clarke, 1847)

The review was illustrated with a set of plans, elevations and sections, running to two full-page plates, of Clarke’s school at Foxearth in Essex, built in 1847. It should be noted briefly that the previous year there had been a major reorganisation of Anglican dioceses in the southeast of England, and Essex, which had previously fallen within the Diocese of London, was annexed to the Diocese of Rochester, along with all of Hertfordshire. In the previous post on Woodyer, I described how, following his appointment as rector of Foxearth in 1845, the Rev’d John Foster quickly set about restoring his church. Although this ultimately occupied him for several decades, the first phase of work seems to have been completed fairly quickly and Foster then turned his attention to the school. For the site, he purchased the village ale house, located on the main street only a stone’s throw from the church, ‘with the double object of appropriating it to the beneficial purposes of education, as well as removing the source of idleness and intemperance’, states Clarke in the commentary on the design quoted in the review. He notes that Foster paid entirely out of his own pocket not only for the site, but also for the cost of construction, which amounted to £900, hence ‘The detail is richer, and the whole building partakes more of medieval character and composition than can usually be adopted. The roof over the school is taken from one of the few good examples of domestic buildings which we have remaining of the fifteenth century’. As can be seen from the sections reproduced here, it was of crown-post construction, typical of the later Middle Ages.

Artist’s impression and plan of the Church of England school in Foxearth, Essex as illustrated in Joseph Clarke’s Schools and School Houses: a series of views, plans, and details, for rural parishes, published in 1852

Clarke’s antiquarian interests were evidently firmly established by this date and would remain with him for the rest of his life. He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and it was noted in his obituary in The Builder that ‘He was the author of many architectural and archaeological papers’. But he had clearly also imbued much from Pugin, as shown by the clear articulation of the component volumes of the building and the choice of early Decorated Gothic for the detailing and fenestration. The configuration of a large, chapel-like schoolroom with a more compactly massed dwelling for the schoolmaster attached to one end was widely used by Clarke’s contemporaries. It is not clear whether the discrepancies between the published design and the building as now extant, such as the absence of the corridor linking the schoolroom and dwelling house, is due to later alterations. The building is no longer used for its original function and is now a residential conversion.

Sections and elevations of the Church of England school in Foxearth, Essex as illustrated in Joseph Clarke’s Schools and School Houses: a series of views, plans, and details, for rural parishes, published in 1852

Schools require teachers and Clarke’s position as architect to the Diocesan Boards of Education of Rochester and Oxford led to his being commissioned to design two teacher training colleges. By drawing a deliberately unfavourable comparison in Contrasts between the Perpendicular Gothic gatehouse of Christ Church in Oxford and Sir Robert Smirke’s Strand entrance to King’s College London, Pugin had enjoined architects to take medieval collegiate architecture as their model when designing new educational buildings. Clarke took this up enthusiastically for the Diocese of Rochester’s college at Hockerill on the eastern side of Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire. The style he chose was Tudor Gothic – already a little old-fashioned for the date of 1852, though with an excellent historical pedigree for the building type, as exemplified by Queens’, St John’s and Magdalen Colleges in Cambridge. Features such as the crenellated oriel corbelled out over the arch leading into the main quadrangle, the diapered patterning of the wall surfaces, the gabled dormers and the splendid paired octagonal chimneys of moulded brick show that he must have studied the prototypes carefully. During the 20th century the fenestration was altered and the wooden bell turret above the gateway has been lost, but the original appearance is well recorded in this photograph of 1922. The complex was subsequently enlarged in several phases. In 1858, Clarke added a second practising school, apparently still neo-Tudor, then in 1878 a chapel – of brick, but in a plain lancet style. The complex is still used for educational purposes, but is now home to the Hockerill Anglo-European College.

Former Church of England school on The Moor in Hawkhurst, Kent (Joseph Clarke, 1863)

Around the same time, Clarke designed a training college at Culham for the Diocese of Oxford, founded at the initiative of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873). As at Hockerill, the building took the form of a ‘U’-shaped block enclosing a central quadrangle, but here Clarke returned to the manner of the school at Foxearth, employing the Middle-Pointed Gothic promoted during that period by the Ecclesiological Society. Devices such as wilfully asymmetrical elevations and emphatically positioned chimney breasts, together with a varied roofline of tall chimney stacks, dormers and turrets gave visual interest to the long two-storey ranges. Again, subsequent alterations have removed some of the detailing, and Clarke’s intentions are best conveyed by this photograph of the main front range from c. 1900. A chapel was incorporated from the outset, sited a short distance away from the main block and connected to it by a cloister arm. A single-cell, towerless structure, it was furnished internally in the collegiate manner with rows of pews facing each other and the walls were vividly patterned, as shown in this archive image. Whether this was part of Clarke’s original design is unclear, and in any case the chapel was heavily modified in c. 1960. As at Hockerill, the complex has remained in educational use, but is now an international school.

Middle-Pointed for the moneyed

St Mary the Virgin, Farnham, Essex (Joseph Clarke, 1858-1859): exterior from northeast
St Mary the Virgin, Farnham, Essex (Joseph Clarke, 1858-1859): the sanctuary – the opus sectile figures on a mosaic ground infilling the blind arcading of the reredos were added in 1890 by James Powell & Son (Malcolm Woods)

Clarke’s professional commitments could not have allowed him to move exclusively in the circles of wealthy patrons of the ideals of the Ecclesiological Society in the same way as Woodyer did. But from time to time, the opportunity arose to give more sumptuous treatment to a commission which did not obviously warrant it. In the case of the rebuilding in 1858-1859 of St Mary the Virgin, Farnham, a village just north of Bishop’s Stortford on the Essex side of the county border, this came about thanks to the generosity of Robert Gosling, owner of the Hassobury Estate. He contributed £4,000 of a total cost that eventually ran to £5,000, the remainder being gifted by the then-rector. For a church serving a tiny, sparsely populated rural parish, it is unexpectedly sumptuous. The exterior is faced with rubble coursing of flints and pebbles in the manner of medieval churches in the area, but otherwise this is a sustained and forceful essay in a florid brand of Geometrical Decorated Gothic. The expense lavished on the building shows itself even more clearly within, especially in the wealth of carved detail executed by William Farmer (1825-1879). Around 10 years after executing the work at Farnham, he would go into partnership with his employee William Brindley (1832-1919), forming one of the most celebrated firms of architectural sculptors in Victorian England. Ancaster stone was used for the dressings, with serpentine and various other kinds of coloured marble for the shafts of the reredos, the chancel arch, the lectern and so on. The stained glass in the east window was supplied by Hardman and Co at the time of construction, the remainder followed later.

St Mary the Virgin, Farnham, Essex (Joseph Clarke, 1858-1859): interior looking east (Malcolm Woods)
St Mary the Virgin, Farnham, Essex (Joseph Clarke, 1858-1859): label stop in a spandrel of the south nave arcade (Malcolm Woods)

The following year, an even more exciting opportunity in this vein presented itself, this time in the mill town of Heywood (originally in Lancashire, now Greater Manchester), where Clarke was commissioned to design a new parish church of St Luke to replace a humble 17th century chapel-of-ease. The circumstances of the commission are far from clear (a total of eight commissions in Lancashire, together with a thin scattering of others in Cheshire, Cumbria and West Yorkshire represent a geographical anomaly in Clarke’s output), but one surmises that it was intended as a statement of the self-assuredness brought by the burgeoning cotton industry, which in a few decades had transformed a moorland hamlet into a populous and flourishing town. The wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution in the northwest offered exciting opportunities to architects and Clarke seems to have been swift to exploit them. He evidently already had some standing in east Lancashire, where he had been busy since 1847. That year, he produced a cruciform neo-Norman design for St Michael’s Church in Lumb, Rossendale and a surprisingly sophisticated piece of revived Perpendicular, given its date, for St Bartholomew’s in Whitworth. Both are still extant, although the former is a residential conversion and the latter was much altered when it was rebuilt in 1988 after a serious fire.

St Luke’s Church, Heywood, Greater Manchester (Joseph Clarke, 1860-1862): view from west (© Dave Kelly and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.)
St Luke’s Church, Heywood, Greater Manchester (Joseph Clarke, 1860-1862): ground plan in Clarke’s hand from Incorporated Church Building Society file No 5416 – east is to the left and the Fenton Chapel extending out from the chancel can be clearly seen.

In 1854, Clarke built Dunster House in Rochdale, a Gothic suburban mansion for the wealthy stockbroker Jonathan Neild, who was a managing partner in the bank of J. & J. Fenton and Sons. It was opulently finished internally, with an elaborate decorative scheme, much stained glass and a cantilevered stone staircase, and it was hung with the owner’s extensive collection of paintings. It was the only house in Lancashire to be included in the gazetteer of Charles Eastlake’s A History of the Gothic Revival of 1872. Clarke was brought back to extend the house in 1862, but Neild was ruined by the failure of the bank in 1878 and sold the property, which was subsequently divided into flats and then demolished in 1968 following the discovery of an outbreak of dry rot. A tiny fragment salvaged at the time of demolition, which was put up for sale at auction five years ago, hints at the richness of the lost interiors.

Artist’s impression of the interior of St Luke’s in Heywood as illustrated in the Building News of 10th May 1861
Dunster House, Rochdale, Greater Manchester (Joseph Clarke, 1854): entrance front

At Heywood the budget was generous, and circumstantial evidence suggests that this was due to the munificence of the Fentons, for whom Clarke incorporated a private chapel extending out from the north side of the chancel. Clarke produced a thoroughly Puginian essay in best Middle Pointed on a grand scale, with a lofty interior (unusually, the chancel is clerestoried and almost the same height as the nave) and soaring tower and spire rising to 189 feet (57.6m). It was completed in 1862, although works to embellish the interior continued for long afterwards. Some of these, such as the reredos, pulpit and font, introduced in the 1880s, were executed under Clarke’s supervision. Others were not, such as the windows by Belgian stained glass artist Jean-Baptiste Capronnier in the Fenton chapel.

St Alban’s, Rochdale, Greater Manchester (Joseph Clarke, 1855-1856): exterior from southeast photographed around the time the church was made redundant in 1971 (Historic England)
Artist’s impression of the chancel of St Alban’s in Rochdale depicting the intended decorative scheme, as illustrated in The Builder of 29th August 1863

Thanks to another generous local benefactor, shortly after St Luke’s was completed, Clarke was given full rein to execute a substantial decorative scheme at the church of St Alban in Rochdale (originally Lancashire, now Greater Manchester). Originally built to his designs in 1855-1856, this was another Puginian essay in Middle-Pointed. On 28th August 1863, The Builder reported that ‘It is proposed, for the reredos, to paint a triptych, after the manner of the early Florentine painters, the subjects to be ‘The Lord’s Supper’ with others supplementary. The east wall, above the string-course, will be painted in fresco, adopting the new water-glass process [i.e. treating the painted surface with potassium silicate or sodium silicate to create a protective film, thought at the time to be capable of guarding against the effects of atmospheric pollution], with subjects from the Incarnation of Our Lord; whilst the lower part, in a line with the reredos, is proposed to be enriched with Algerian onyx marbles, and ceramic work. A series painted similarly in fresco, the subjects taken from the miracles or parables of Christ, or from the lives of the saints, will occupy the upper part of the north and south walls. The lower part of these walls will be coloured, in diaper or otherwise. The roof [will be] painted with a representation of a choir of Angels. The stonework of the arches, &c, will be slightly enriched with colour. At the sides of the chancel-arch, the Commandments will be written; and above, will be the seven Acts of Mercy, or other subjects. The present tiles will be removed and a more appropriate floor relaid’.

High Victorianism for the capital

Proposed quadrangle with chapel, refectory and dormitories at the House of St Barnabas on Greek Street in Soho, London, as originally conceived by Clarke and as illustrated in The Builder of 7th June 1862

Impressive and competent though all these designs are, they do not evidence a particularly strong artistic personality. There is little unequivocally identifiable as the work of Clarke and no one else. But shortly afterwards, his architecture took a different turn. Unless further scholarship provides grounds for a revision of this assessment, it seems to have happened in 1862, when he was commissioned to design a chapel for the House of Charity (later known as the House of St Barnabas) in London’s Soho. Founded in 1846 to provide relief for the destitute and homeless, this institution initially occupied premises on Manette Street. In 1862, it moved a short distance to No. 1 Greek Street, a splendid mansion originally built c. 1746 as a speculative venture. In 1754, the lease on the property was sold to Richard Beckford (1712-1756), brother of MP and twice-Lord Mayor of London, William Beckford (bap. 1709, d. 1770), who lived nearby at No. 22 Soho Square. Both Beckfords were extremely wealthy men, who owned their fortunes to the extensive plantations that their family owned in Jamaica, where Richard had resided until taking up residence at No. 1 Greek Street. In the event, he occupied the property for only around 12 months, but during that time (the evidence is not absolutely conclusive) he had what may have an empty shell at the time of acquisition opulently fitted out in a Rococo manner. In 1811, the property was taken over as office accommodation by the Westminster Commissioners of Sewers, passing in due course to the Metropolitan Board of Works.

Chapel of the House of St Barnabas in Soho, London (Joseph Clarke, 1862-1863): apse and sanctuary (John Salmon)

The House of Charity’s first list of associated members included several august figures, among them William Gladstone. Conceivably, Clarke’s engagement came about as a result of the position he held, recorded in his obituary in The Builder, as consulting architect to the Charity Commissioners, although it is not currently known when he took this up. ‘It is a fine house; and in all the alterations made by the charity, at an expense of nearly £2,000, all its decorative features have been preserved’, proudly reported The Builder in its issue of 7th June 1862. ‘The elaborate plaster ceilings, with the carved chimneypieces and wainscot panelling, have come out quite fresh again. Considerable alterations have been made; and the old members of the Board would now hardly find their way about’. But if the work carried out on the Georgian property respected its character, the next phase would be profoundly at odds with it.

Chapel of the House of St Barnabas in Soho, London (Joseph Clarke, 1862-1863): interior looking northwest – the object suspended from the ceiling is an artwork. (John Salmon)

Clarke’s brief was to build over a vacant site to the rear of the property with a complex of new buildings. The site fronted Manette Street at its southern end, and here he proposed to erect a large chapel to enclose the space, which would be turned into a quadrangle. Dormitories would extend out from a refectory on the northern side and all the parts of the complex would be interconnected by a cloister walk at ground-floor level. ‘The walls of the chapel are fast rising’ reported The Builder, but when the shell was completed the following year, it emerged that there was a considerable shortfall in the funding and the remaining elements of the scheme were abandoned. The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris was a popular model for institutional places of worship at the time and something of that building comes across in the tall, narrow proportions of the main volume with its apsidal east end and the flèche perched on the roof ridge. But the style that Clarke chose was not the Rayonnant Gothic of the original, but a muscular Gothic based on earlier French models, which has a close kindship with the work of William Burges. The planning was also unexpected: essentially, it was to be seated internally like a college chapel, with staff, council members and the choir facing each other in the nave, but behind these banks of pews there extended out pairs of lateral apses on either side, where the inmates of the House were to sit. Funds sufficed for an opulent interior incorporating shafts of serpentine and green Irish and Devon marbles, mosaics, much foliate carving, marble revetments and stained glass (all destroyed during World War II). But the flèche, intended to have been executed by Skidmore of Coventry, seems to have been much simplified in execution and later disappeared entirely.

Street front of the Royal Architectural Museum on Tufton Street in Westminster by Joseph Clarke and Ewan Christian, as illustrated in The Builder of 24th July 1869 around the time of its completion

Much of Clarke’s vigorous High Victorian manner also comes across in the splendidly chunky village school of 1863 in the village of Hawkhurst on the western edge of Kent that he designed in his capacity as architect to the Canterbury Diocesan Board of Education. It also comes across in what little is recorded of the appearance of the long lost Royal Architectural Museum. Pugin had enjoined students of Gothic to treat England’s medieval heritage as a school, and to study buildings on the ground to understand the true principles of the style. But at a time when the railway network was still limited in its extent, this was easier said than done. Printed illustrations alone could not suffice, and it was believed necessary to establish a publicly accessible collection of examples of Gothic detailing and ornament to uphold good standards. In 1851, George Gilbert Scott wrote to The Builder setting out a plan for a Government-funded ‘Public Museum of Mediaeval Art’ and the initiative was enthusiastically supported by Clarke, who in due course became vice-president. The museum was in operation by the following year and a collection of plaster casts was soon complemented by original examples of decorative ironwork, tiles, woodcarving, sculptural stonework, stained glass, architectural models and drawings. The Museum also incorporated a school for art-workmen. But its early history was precarious, threatened by poor quality accommodation and a lack of funding. Despite the patronage of Prince Albert and the support of John Ruskin, an attempt to relocate it to the South Kensington Museum proved unsuccessful and it became clear that it needed its own premises.

Plaster casts displayed in the Royal Architectural Museum (Cornell University Library @ Flickr Commons)

A lease was taken out on a site at Nos 18-20 Tufton Street in Westminster and a new building erected, which opened in 1869. It was a joint effort by Clarke and Ewan Christian (1814-1895), but the exact nature of their collaboration is unknown and the design lacks features which could be confidently and unequivocally attributed to either man – Christian was every bit as proficient as Clarke in the High Victorian manner. The site, in the centre of a city block bounded by thoroughfares on all four sides, was constricted and allowed for only a relatively narrow street frontage. The slightly top-heavy composition of the elevation, with blind arches encompassing the upper two storeys and a tall parapet to hide the roof, was in the Ruskinian line. The media and subject matter of the prominent frieze and reliefs are unknown, although one suspects majolica or terracotta. The internal layout is a mystery: all that can be deduced from surviving illustrations, in which the structure of the building is all but obscured by the displayed plaster casts, is that there was a top-lit, atrium-like space rising the height of the building with galleries running round it at first- and second-floor levels. On Scott’s death in 1878, J.P. Seddon became President and in 1884 he published a guide illustrated by T. Raffles Davison to a collection that now numbered over 6,000 items. In 1904 the Museum was subsumed by the Architectural Association, whose school occupied part of the premises until 1915, when it was decided that conditions were too cramped. The collections were dispersed, primarily to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the building was sold the following year, serving as the National Library for the Blind until it was demolished in 1935.

Church restorations and not only

The medieval church of St Margaret’s in Hucking, Kent, restored by Clarke in 1867-1868: exterior from southwest
The medieval church of St Margaret’s in Hucking, Kent, restored by Clarke in 1867-1868: sanctuary and reredos

It would be disingenuous to pretend that all the numerous restorations that Clarke carried out on medieval churches reward close study. But at his best, he was capable of adding a great deal of interest and character, and this is well illustrated by St Margaret’s Church in Hucking, a tiny village on the Kent Downs between Maidstone and Sittingbourne. Resemblance to the medieval church, recorded in Petrie’s watercolour of 1807, is largely coincidental. Clarke’s restoration of 1867-1868 was very extensive and none of the original fabric seems to have survived untouched: the walls were refaced, all the dressings were renewed, the roof and bell turret were replaced in their entirety and the building was refurnished. The work bears an unmistakably High Victorian stamp and the east window, replacing a three-light, Perpendicular predecessor, is entirely Clarke’s invention. The interior is dimly lit and rustic, with simple, robust furnishings, but as one progresses to the chancel, where two-light windows dispel some of the gloom, a dazzling display of tiles comes into view. The floor of the sanctuary is laid to an extensive variety of patterned encaustic tiles, used also for the reredos, where the palette is expanded and chevron banding and borders with stylised plant motifs are brought into play. Above is a window of stained glass by Clayton and Bell, installed at the time of the restoration, depicting events from the Life of Christ. Encountering such richness and colour as the unexpected culmination of a plain, rustic interior achieves a memorable coup de théâtre and embodies a precept of the Ecclesiological Society applied with similar skill in the designs of rural churches by R.J. Withers. The immense font of alabaster and Devon marble at the opposite end of the building forms an effective counterpoint.

The medieval church of St Margaret’s in Hucking, Kent, restored by Clarke in 1867-1868: interior looking east
The medieval church of St Margaret’s in Hucking, Kent, restored by Clarke in 1867-1868: the font

If decorative effects had to be deployed tactfully in a simple rural church, no such strictures applied at St Mary’s in Beddington, one of Clarke’s most notable ecclesiastical commissions. By the end of the 19th century, the Surrey village that this large medieval parish church served would effectively have been subsumed into the outer suburbs of the capital (it is now part of the London Borough of Sutton), but at this date it was still positively bucolic relative to the over-populated, heavily polluted centre of the metropolis. This circumstance may have brought about Clarke’s introduction to the place. During the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the capital’s public schools and charitable institutions began to move out of central London to more salubrious suburban and rural locations. One such was the Lambeth Female Orphan Asylum, which had originally been established in 1758 in premises on the South Bank to house orphan girls whose parents’ abode could not be established, meaning that there was no parish to which their upkeep could be assigned. This would have left them destitute and at risk of being drawn into prostitution. Girls were admitted between the ages of nine and twelve, housed and educated, and then apprenticed as a domestic servant or into a trade from the age of about fifteen.

The medieval church of St Margaret’s in Hucking, Kent, restored by Clarke in 1867-1868: stained glass in the east window by Clayton and Bell
Beddington Place as remodelled by Joseph Clarke in 1865-1866, view of the entrance front from west (© Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence)

In 1866, the Asylum moved to Beddington Place, the former home of the Carew family. In origin this was a Tudor mansion, but only the great hall had survived a major remodelling carried out in 1702-1714, which incorporated it into the central wing of a half-H-plan house. As shown by the illustration of the main front in Vitruvius Britannicus, its Perpendicular Gothic forms were disguised externally by an English Baroque recasing with a central entrance and giant order Corinthian pilasters. Clarke was commissioned to undertake a second remodelling carried out in 1865-1866 to adapt the building to its new function and, although the hypothesis has yet to be corroborated, it seems likely that this came about thanks to his position as consulting architect to the Charity Commissioners. He demolished the end wings, substituting replacements which extended outwards to form a courtyard, which he enclosed on the fourth side with a single-storey walkway and entrance pavilion. The clocktower over the main entrance to the great hall was remodelled and heightened. All the English Baroque detail was planed off the great hall, which was refaced in brick with Perpendicular Gothic fenestration, the remainder of the complex being treated in a loose neo-Tudor manner to harmonise with it. It was an unhappy compromise and the retention of the symmetrical layout initiated by the English Baroque remodelling, combined with the weakness of the detailing that lacks the conviction of Hockerill College, would reinforce many prejudices about Victorian institutional buildings. The Asylum later moved again, this time to High Wycombe, and its former premises are now occupied by the Carew Academy.

St Mary’s, Beddington, Surrey (medieval, restored by Joseph Clarke, 1867-1869): general view of the interior looking east (Andrew Wood)
St Mary’s, Beddington, Surrey: the organ case on the north side of the chancel of 1869 with decorations by Morris & Co (Andrew Wood)

It is hardly surprising in the circumstances that the year after the Asylum took up residence at Beddington Place, Clarke was commissioned to undertake a restoration of neighbouring St Mary’s Church by the Rev’d A.H. Bridges, who had been appointed rector in 1864. To an extent, the one commission grew naturally out of the other – the Asylum’s original premises had incorporated a chapel, and Clarke’s brief included the addition of a new outer north aisle to provide accommodation for the inmates. But the wealthy Bridges had ambitious plans for the building and the scheme, carried out in 1867-1869, went a long way beyond the provision of extra seating. Much of the chiefly 14th century fabric of the building was renewed – the walls were refaced, dressings recut, a chancel arch constructed and the roofs rebuilt. A two-storey vestry was added in the angle of the new outer north aisle and the north side of the tower. It is strikingly modelled, with double gables, a prominent chimney and fenestration that is more obviously High Victorian than the Decorated Gothic with reticulated tracery that Clarke used for the adjacent elevation of the aisle. Internally, the church was refurnished and acquired a spectacular scheme of painted decoration applied to the walls and roof structure. The quality is considerable and one would like to know more, but research is needed to establish who devised the iconography, who was responsible for the design and who executed it. The pièce de résistance is the organ, a personal gift of Bridges, housed in a case with exuberant painted decoration by Morris & Co. It is in many ways a typical product of the firm, but, as with the wall paintings, whether Clarke was involved in the design and, if so, what the nature of his involvement was, remains to be elucidated.

St Mary’s, Beddington, Surrey (medieval, restored by Joseph Clarke, 1867-1869): the chancel roof (Andrew Wood)
St Mary’s, Beddington, Surrey: Joseph Clarke’s gatehouse to the new burial ground of c.1868 (Angela Parker Photography)

At some point no later than when the restoration was carried out, the churchyard was extended with the addition of a new detached burial ground on the opposite side of Church Road. For this, Clarke provided a charming gatehouse with separate hipped roofs over the pedestrian and vehicle entrances, with what looks like it may be a sexton’s hut under a lean-to roof. Bridges had acquired much of the former parkland of Beddington Place, which he had enclosed and where he carried out all sorts of improvements. This included the provision of a lodge at the entrance to the park and for the design he turned once again to Clarke. This went up in 1878, and the time lag between this and the work carried out on the church is immediately evident, for stylistically it is worlds apart from any other building by the architect discussed here. Though the genealogy is that of the cottage orné, as shown by features such as the imitation half-timbering and overscaled bargeboards, the influence of the Queen Anne style is unmistakable, and indeed carried almost to the point of parody. The prominent spreading roof with its tall central chimney owes more than a little to W.E. Nesfield’s Avenue Lodge of 1866 at Kew Gardens, a locus classicus for the early development of the style. The deep coving running beneath the eaves is another device to be found there which was much taken up by practitioners of the style, as was the elaborate pargeted decoration applied both to that and to the panels in the timbering. The planning is ingenious, the main volume taking the form of a slightly elongated octagon to allow the building to address both of the arms of Church Road, which forks in front of it. The hipped dormer above the porch is crowned by a wrought iron finial in the shape of a sunflower, the badge of the Aesthetic Movement which was inextricably linked with the Queen Anne style. It is a sustained performance carried off with huge flair, and it would be interesting to know whether it has any counterparts or remained unique in Clarke’s output.

East Lodge, Beddington Park, Surrey (Joseph Clarke, 1878), view from south showing main entrance (Wikipedia Commons)
East Lodge, Beddington Park as illustrated in The Building News of 4th October 1878

Clarke returned to Foxearth late in his career, carrying out a third phase in Foster’s remodelling of the church of SS Peter and Paul in c. 1884. Frustratingly, the nature of his involvement remains unclear and, unless research can throw more light on the matter, has to be deduced through process of elimination. In the early years of his incumbency, Foster added the south porch and reputedly refurnished the building. The steeple, added in 1862, was the work of Henry Woodyer, but there is currently no reason to think that he did any more than that and nothing else in the building that bears obvious hallmarks of his style. Clarke’s contribution, most probably, was the wall paintings in the chancel. It would fit with his interest in painted decorative schemes and the drawing of the figures and composition (with a frieze-like band of full-height figures occupying the upper half of the wall) gives them a slight affinity with those at Beddington. The tympanum filling the roof truss at the junction of nave and chancel, decorated with a composition depicting Christ in Glory surrounded by the symbols of the Evangelists, appears to be part of the same scheme, as do the polychrome decoration of the roof structure and the figures of angels mounted on brackets extending out from the wall plate in the chancel. Conceivably at least some of the chancel fittings are also Clarke’s work. The upper part of the rood screen (though much restored, the dado with its figures of saints is early 16th century) is plausibly of this date – it would represent exceptionally sophisticated treatment of Perpendicular Gothic for the 1840s, to say nothing of still being liturgically contentious at that time. Perhaps the elaborate tiled pavement in the sanctuary is also Clarke’s work, but this, like all the other attributions, must remain a tentative conjecture.

SS Peter and Paul, Foxearth, Essex: the tympanum above the rood screen
SS Peter and Paul, Foxearth, Essex: interior looking west from the chancel


St Mary’s, Beddington, Surrey (medieval, restored by Joseph Clarke, 1867-1869): the sedilia and piscina on the south side of the sanctuary (Andrew Wood)

Clarke is representative of a particular group of Victorian architects, to whom one might add names such as Ewan Christian or A.W. Blomfield, often dismissed with the epithet ‘a safe pair of hands’. They were consummate professionals, well regarded by their peers and by the Establishment, who had an inordinate capacity for work and who could be depended upon to deliver proficient and durable results on time and on budget. They were the foot soldiers of the Gothic Revival – as the influence of the Ecclesiological Society spread to even the furthest flung corners of the British Isles and as the Established Church strove to keep pace with rapid urban expansion, so they were always on hand to design premises to further its mission through the cure of souls, education and relief of poverty. Figures such as Pugin and Ruskin had preached the Word, disciples such as Clarke would now go and teach the nations. At the same time, they were temperamentally the very inverse of art-architects such as Henry Woodyer. Stylistically, they were seldom in the vanguard. They founded no movements, nor did they cultivate individuality. They were good committee men, who would rather content themselves with a salaried post and dependable stream of commissions from a well-established employer than seeking out opportunities for self-expression and prestige. In short, they were worthy, but dull.

St Mary the Virgin, Farnham, Essex (Joseph Clarke, 1858-1859): exterior from west

Or so, at any rate, received opinion goes. But critical assessment in all branches of art history often falls back on generalisations, and never more so than when dealing with the legacy of prolific figures such as Clarke. Forming an objective view is impossible because of the dearth of scholarly literature. These are not figures through the study of whom academic reputations are made, and the sheer size of the subject in comparison to the rewards to be gained tends to act as a deterrent to would-be students of them. A brief survey such as this post cannot fill that gap, but it can at least whet the appetite of anyone curious about Clarke’s work and thereby help to make the case for devoting time and effort to a proper study of him and his collaborators. Fluency in his command of Gothic was matched by fluency in his command of the architectural language of his contemporaries: the chapel of St Barnabas is no mere pale imitation of William Burges, the lodge at Beddington Park much more than just derivative of W.E. Nesfield. But this is about far more than filling a lacuna in literature on the Victorian period. Ultimately, the strongest motivation for studying any architecture is its ability to bring pleasure and delight, and that is what I hope the reader has been above to derive from the examples of Clarke’s work selected for this post.

SS Peter and Paul, Foxearth, Essex: general view of the chancel – the stained glass in the east window is by Charles Clutterbuck the Elder (1806-1861) and dates from the mid-1850s.

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 “Joseph Clarke (1819/20-1888): an unexpectedly deft safe pair of hands

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: