One good turn deserves another: into the RIBA Journal thanks to Arthur Beresford Pite

In the days before so much human interaction took place virtually, the circumstances in which one struck up a lasting acquaintance tended to stick in one’s mind. When it begins on-line, they can be a lot harder to pinpoint. I think – although I can’t now be entirely sure – that I got to know Hugh Pearman thanks to the excellent ‘Classicism in Modernity’ Facebook group, which I enthusiastically recommend to anyone interested in the numerous ways in which the architectural language of antiquity has been kept vital and relevant since the late 19th century. But I can recall very clearly when we first came face-to-face.

The base of the corner oriel and railings around the area of No. 37 Harley Street, a block of chambers of flats built in 1899: this is the building depicted in the featured photograph at the top of this page.
Pite’s entrance front on the north side of Piccadilly to the Burlington Arcade: he was initially commissioned in 1911 to add an extra storey to the original structure of 1818-1819 by Samuel Ware (1781-1860), whose balustrade was reused, split to make space for the arms of the 4th Lord Chesham, owner of the Arcade at that time. For this he adopted a Renaissance manner, a little like Scott’s Victorian interpretation of it at the Foreign Office, although with imaginative touches such as the basket weave finish to the baskets of the capitals replacing the usual tiers of acanthus leaves – a pleasant architectural witticism. In 1931 Pite was brought back to create a new, broader entrance, and this time produced a design in a Michelangelesque vein with a single, broad segmental arch, enormous consoles (the upper ones morphing into pilasters), a great swooping split pediment and much figure sculpture by Benjamin Clemens (1875–1957).

It happened on a grey and chilly spring evening almost exactly four years ago, when he, Tim Brittain-Catlin, Adam Furman and I went on a tour of buildings in Fitzrovia by Arthur Beresford Pite (1861-1934), prompted by a series of posts in the group which had generated a good deal of discussion. At that point I was working in an office on Great Titchfield Street and would see Pite’s buildings on a daily basis. He was very active in Fitzrovia from the late 1890s onwards when he was employed by a firm of speculative builders called Matthews, Rogers and Company that did a lot of work on the Horward de Walden Estate, which covers most of the area. His own office was always located in Marylebone and he was an active member of the congregation of All Souls, Langham Place, the church next to Broadcasting House which was once a close neighbour of T.E. Knightley’s Queen’s Hall. For this he executed several commissions, including the school on Foley Street featured in the post on H.S. Goodhart-Rendel, who was a great admirer of Pite.

Pite’s City War Memorial of 1921 on the Buttermarket in Canterbury – the sculpture is again the work of Benjamin Clemens (1875-1957).
The view from the window of my former office of Ames House of 1903-1905 at Nos. 42-44 Mortimer Street: the building is named after Alfred Ames, a philanthropist who provided the funds to put up four storeys of dormitories for the YWCA with shops on the ground floor to provide an income.

Until last year, Hugh was editor of the RIBA Journal. He has paid me the huge compliment of writing for the latest issue of his old magazine a piece about this blog. Here, posted in gratitude, is a small selection of images of the buildings in the West End by the architect who first brought us into contact. In due course, there will be a longer post to do this wonderful legacy proper justice. But I think that even a brief glimpse cannot fail to whet the appetite. Though commuting into central London on a daily basis could often be exhausting and aggravating, Pite’s architecture never failed, in a memorable phrase of Ian Nairn, to give a kick to the ammeter, no matter how tired or disaffected I was feeling. I clocked out of the office on Great Tichfield Street for the last time on 31st October 2017, but Pite followed me to my new job: his is the excellent war memorial on the Butter Market in Canterbury, which until COVID struck I would see every day on the way into my new workplace in the Precincts.

Detail of the sculpture loosely based on Michelangelo’s figures on the Medici tombs in Florence adorning at second-floor level the front of No. 82 Mortimer Street, a former doctor’s house and surgery of 1896

Published by Edmund Harris

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

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