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09.24.2010
Review> Intuitively English
Andrew Saint relishes the Old English style of Richard Norman Shaw in his exemplary new edition
Albert Hall Mansion, 1881.
Martin Charles

Richard Norman Shaw
Andrew Saint
Yale University Press
$65.00

In 1895, a writer from The Builders’ Journal went to interview Norman Shaw, then one of Britain’s most eminent architects. Describing Shaw as having “the aspect of a Cabinet Minister,” the journalist asked him what he thought was his best work. Shaw replied, “I have no best! I have never yet been satisfied. I have never yet conceived a work which has not fallen miserably short of my conception.”

Central Hall, Bryanston, 1894.

Front Detail, Craigside
Bryanston, Central Hall, 1894 (top), and Craigside, Front Detail, 1870 (above).  
Martin Charles
 

This from a man who had built numerous town and country houses, some on a grand scale; who had won such notable commissions as New Scotland Yard (the police headquarters by the River Thames in London); and whose work had been hugely influential both at home and abroad, especially in the U.S. It’s hard to imagine any of today’s celebrity architects showing quite such humility.

When the first edition of this book appeared in 1976, its author Andrew Saint was almost as self-deprecating as Shaw. The book was “meant to inform and entertain rather than pretend to profundities,” he wrote, and it was, “firstly a work of biography and only secondarily one of art history.” These comments didn’t really reflect the amount of architectural analysis that Saint wove into his narrative, nor his ability to evoke Shaw’s era in such depth and detail. The book duly received many plaudits (“a masterpiece,” “outstanding”), which the publisher of this revised edition, Yale University Press, naturally quotes on the jacket.

But confined as it was to often rather murky black-and-white photographs, that first edition was a visual disappointment. Archive images will always be vital to any account of Shaw’s work, because much of it has been altered or lost, but with their warm red brickwork and red-tiled roofs, his buildings call out for color. Profiting from new color photographs by Martin Charles and color reproductions of some of Shaw’s drawings, this revised edition is much more attractive, though still quite restrained. Yale’s designers don’t run images across the gutter, so while portrait- format photos sometimes have a whole page, the landscape-format ones can never occupy more than a half-page and consequently look cramped. Surely Yale could loosen up a little without seeming less academic?

In its overall structure, the book is unchanged. Saint calls it “a light to middling sort of revision” that often just addresses factual errors or infelicities of style. So we proceed chronologically from Shaw’s apprenticeship in the late 1840s to his death in 1912, with a decisive moment coming in 1862 when Shaw and fellow-architect Eden Nesfield began sketching the manors, farmhouses, and old town houses of the Weald, an alluring region of narrow lanes, woods, and sandstone outcrops some 30 miles south of London.

Here was the basis of Shaw’s “Old English” style, with its half-timbered gables, tall chimneystacks, and generous bay windows, and this was where he built his first houses. But his most spectacular country house, Cragside, was 300 miles further north, in the wilder landscape of Northumberland, and Saint’s enlarged account of it is one of the more substantial revisions in his book. While Shaw usually made the plan pre-eminent (“it was the real skill of architecture as he understood it,” writes Saint), he had to compromise at Cragside, but the house is memorable for three major rooms that are still as Shaw left them, and above all for its dramatic site, exploited to the full.

Adcote, Front Entrance
Adcote, Front Entrance, 1878
Martin Charles

Yet Shaw’s architecture was equally suited to such fashionable parts of London as Kensington and Chelsea, where he designed houses for bankers and artists in a style imperfectly called Queen Anne. Saint goes on to explore Shaw’s later move to classicism, as architectural culture evolved and England became more consciously imperialist. A cynic might ask if this was opportunism on Shaw’s part, but Saint thinks he was “intuitively” in sympathy with the national mood.

What the first edition lacked, apart from color, was an evaluation of Shaw’s career with the benefit of hindsight; it ended rather abruptly with his death. Saint supplies this overview in his new introduction, acknowledging some unevenness and inconsistency in Shaw’s work but praising him as “one of the great imaginative free spirits of English architecture.” You’re unlikely to question that claim after studying this exemplary book.

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Andrew Mead

Andrew Mead is a frequent contributor to AN.