Before the days when you could look up anything and everything on line, and when Wikipedia was not even a glint in the eyes of Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, if we needed information we relied hugely on books.
For architectural historians, there was an increasing number of specialist volumes that could be consulted – histories of particular buildings, monographs on individual architects, general histories of architecture.
There were books like Pevsner’s ‘History of Building Types’, which takes the reader through an examination of the history of, for example, hotels, hospitals, exchanges and banks, museums and factories.
And, of course, Pevsner carved out a special niche for himself, and earned the gratitude of everyone interested in architectural history, with his mammoth, self-imposed task of compiling the many ‘Buildings of England’ volumes – since supplemented by volumes on Scottish and Welsh buildings and by the as yet incomplete ‘Buildings of Ireland’.
But if you came across the name of an architect that you didn’t know much about – or had never heard of – and wanted speedy and concise information about his (or sometimes her) life and works, that was more difficult. The Dictionary of National Biography might be available in a local library. Specialist architectural libraries would probably help, but they were (and are) few and far between.
An accessible, popular book, ‘A Short Dictionary of British Architects’ was published in 1967 by Dora Ware.
It has brief biographies of more than 500 architects, from Adam of Walsingham, who died about 1364 and was the designer and engineer of the wonderfully-impressive octagonal lantern over the crossing of Ely Cathedral, to Francis York, who died in 1962 and was responsible for, among other projects, Gatwick Airport.
Dora Ware’s book is valuable in its breadth of dates, and her choice of architects is, on the whole, wise and judicious, though we may today quibble with some of the more modern entries, whose work has not really stood the test of time. But as she acknowledged in her ‘author’s note, ‘No dictionary of this character could have been compiled without reference to the extensive and invaluable research work of Mr H M Colvin, for the period 1660 to 1840, embodied in his ‘Biographical Dictionary of English Architects’.
Colvin’s book (he became Sir Howard Colvin in 1995) was as important an effort of gargantuan research as Pevsner’s ‘Buildings of England’.
It first came out in 1954; it was said to have ‘changed the face of English architectural history’ on publication, because it put into the hands of its users the most comprehensive survey of the architects of the country between the Restoration and the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign that had ever – or indeed has ever – been produced.
By the third edition, which appeared in 1995, Colvin had increased the scope of his book to encompass Welsh and Scottish architects, too. That third edition runs to 1264 page of double-column, small-print information, starting with John Able (died 1675), an ‘architector’ from Herefordshire whose work was very local, to the equally-obscure William Yoxall of Nantwich (died 1770) who worked at Chirk Castle and designed Chester Infirmary.
In some ways these first and last entries in the Dictionary give the essence of the work; you can look up a local architect and see a brief biography (based on original research in record offices and contemporary memoirs and notebooks) as well as a list of works. A comprehensive index also allows you to look up a place and see who had been at work there. So for Ripon we have references to ‘Bishop’s ho; (ie the palace on Palace Road) by William Railton; ‘Deanery’ by Henage Dering, (subject of this column some time ago); ‘Holy Trinity Ch’ by Thomas Taylor of Leeds; ‘Minster’, which lists Railton again as well as Edward Blore’s restoration of 1829 – 31, and ‘Town Hall’ by James Wyatt.
Ripon is also mentioned as the schooling-place of Sir William Chambers.
Wyatt and Chambers are the most important of these names. The biography for Chambers occupies six columns, and his list of works another seven; Wyatt gets even more – seven and half columns plus 21 for the works. These are substantial entries, as you might expect; as are those for all the major architects of the period – Christopher Wren, Robert Adam, James Gibbs, William Kent and Sir John Soane for example.
Yet much of the interest of the Dictionary lies in the discovery of little-known people who pursued their art in quiet places. Men like William Belwood, son of a York shoemaker, who designed the stables at Newby Hall and at Ripley Castle. Or John Foss from Richmond, who designed for Swinton Park and Clifton Castle, Charles Watson from Wakefield, who remodelled Hollin Hall, south of Ripon, and John Harper from Blackburn, who practised in York and designed the Catholic chapel at Everingham in East Yorkshire, as well as York’s St Leonard’s Place and the church at Crakehall.
The only downside of the Dictionary is, of course, its limited range. The starting point of 1660 precludes figures like Inigo Jones or the great medieval mason-architects like Henry Yevele and William Ramsey.
To stop in 1840 unbalances the consideration of later architects, so while Blore, born in 1787 and Railton, born 1801, are in, because they had substantial practices before 1840, the other, most-important restorer of Ripon Cathedral, Sir Gilbert Scott, is not; he was born in 1811. Nor, of course do we find the later generation of the Victorians, like G F Bodley or G E Street.
But we should not complain; Colvin achieved a monumental masterpiece of detection and writing, and produced an invaluable aid to anyone interested in architecture, whether on the local or national level.
It should be as natural for us to talk about, and reach for, our ‘Colvin’ as we do for our ‘Pevsner’ – perhaps even before taking the ‘Google’ option.