What hideous drawings! Did anyone ever see such Vulgar looking things
– I am quite ashamed of them!
Richard Norman Shaw‘s vehement criticism, annotating a set of drawings created by a clerk in his own office, shows the passion and perfection with which this exacting architect imbued his work and that of his office. One of the greatest of the Victorian architects, Shaw exemplified the ideals of the age; the ability to create beauty in many architectural forms, but also in the high standards of production and construction. His work helped shape the modern concept of what the Victorian age created, not only through his many urban projects but through the creativity he brought to his country house commissions, including new builds such as Leyswood, East Sussex, or grand additions such as at Chesters, Northumberland.
Despite his lofty reputation during his lifetime, Shaw’s eclectic use of styles, combined with his own resolute disinterest in letting anyone produce books on his work, meant that by the 1950s, the man and his work had been somewhat forgotten in the then prevailing Modernist fervour. Thankfully, other architects recognised the singular influence he’d had through his practice and which deserved to be better remembered and appreciated. Shaw was born in 1831, an exciting time at the cusp of the Georgian period as it moved into the variety of the Victorian age.
It has been said that there is no ‘Victorian’ style as what we think of from that age was often derived from earlier forms. For a versatile and thoughtful architect such as Shaw, it was this flexibility which was to give him the scope to develop a skilled yet playful understanding of architectural vocabulary. Shaw’s work can be broadly categorised as working in ‘Old English’, ‘Gothic, ‘Queen Anne’ and the reformed classicism of his later works.
What Shaw offered his clients was all part of an intelligent English Vernacular, a distinct style which flourished in the Victorian era, which combined local building traditions with skilful use of earlier traditions of English architecture, though primarily influenced by Gothic Revival. Although this movement dominated the latter half of the 19th-century and the first decades of the 20th-century, it was largely ended by the domestic impact of the First World War. After that, the influence of the Continental movements such as the Bauhaus heralded the ascendancy of Modernism.
His first new house was a development of the local Sussex vernacular with an intelligent and thoughtful response to the dramatic hilltop site. Glen Andred, Groombridge, East Sussex (designed 1866-68) was an important influence for the ‘Old English’ Arts & Crafts style, as later practised and developed further by Voysey and Lutyens, in Sussex and Surrey. One house does not a movement make and it was two related houses nearby which helped push the aesthetic which was to become so widely adopted not only within these counties but across south east England.
Leyswood was designed and built contemporaneously with Glen Andred for a related site in Groombridge, close to Shaw’s first project. Taking the ideas he had started to develop, Shaw took full advantage of the prominent hill-side site and created a bold re-imagination of the Elizabethan courtyard house, tailored for the needs of the modern Victorian gentleman. Perched over a rocky incline, Leyswood combined vernacular elements of the English castle, such as the gatehouse, with more domestic features such as the full-height, half-timbered entrance front. Shaw also indulged what was to be a trademark (and one that can be seen in Lutyens’ work too), that of multiple, tall, finely executed brick chimneys. These chimneys punctuated the roofline, creating a clear rhythm and emphasis to the house.
Shaw had clearly been sharing ideas with his fellow student and partner, William Eden Nesfield, who was building Cloverley Hall, Shropshire, between 1866-68, and which was architecturally kin. Sadly, both Leyswood and Cloverley were both dramatically reduced in size, both losing the principal sections of the house, leaving only the entrance towers and service wings to suggest what was there before.
Still standing in all its glory, thanks to the National Trust, is Shaw’s next commission, Cragside, Northumberland, built 1869-85. Although technically a rebuilding of an existing lodge, this house was to give Shaw the scope to work at a larger scale for an ambitious and very wealthy client. For more on this remarkable house, see my earlier article: ‘A theatre of innovation: Cragside, Northumberland‘
Further houses in this now well developed ‘Old English’ style followed, including Preen Manor, Preen, Shropshire (1869), Hillside, Groombridge, Shropshire (1870-71), and Grims Dyke, Harrow Weald, Middlesex (1870-72). The latter was praised by John Betjeman in ‘Metroland’ (1972) as ‘a prototype of all suburban houses in southern England‘ – it’s now a hotel so you can appreciate Shaw’s work over a drink.
Other houses in the ‘Old English’ style:
- Boldre Grange, Boldre, Hampshire (1872)
- Wispers, Stedham, West Sussex (1874-76)
- Pierrepont, Frensham, Surrey (1875)
- Piccards Rough, Guildford, Surrey (1877)
- Allerton Beeches, Allerton, Liverpool (1883-84)
- The Hallams, Shamley Green, Surrey (1894-95)
As Shaw explored the use of vernacular, one variation was a more ‘manorial’ interpretation of the ‘Old English’; designs which used a more austere style, primarily of plainer brick elevations, omitting the tile-hanging and half-timbers. These houses took what his biographer Andrew Saint described as drawing on ‘Haddon Hall‘, to create a more castellated, almost defensive style. An early version of this can be seen at Adcote, Shropshire, designed in 1875. Buttressed walls, punctuated with mullioned windows of various sizes, created the impression of a more medieval property which had grown into a modern country house.
Perhaps the closest to visually look related to Haddon was Flete House, Devon. Designed in 1877, the house was commissioned by the wealthiest of Shaw’s clients, H.B. Mildmay, a partner in Barings bank who was determined to emphasise his long Devonian family heritage with a suitably historic house. Although constrained by having to work with the original 1620s house along with various other restrictions (including the use of battlements, thwarting his usual gables), Shaw was partially successful, though it lacks the assured handling and confidence of equivalent castles by Anthony Salvin such as Peckforton. Interestingly, Shaw’s pupil, Lutyens, achieved far greater success with Castle Drogo, built four decades later.
In the same vein, Dawpool, Cheshire (1882-86) was built on an exposed site on the Wirral, overlooking the River Dee. Again, the exterior suffers from Shaw’s attempt to create a gabled castle, but as large sections were in his more familiar style, this felt more effective – though it was the interiors which were the greater success with the impressive picture gallery. Sadly, the house was to last just over 40 years, being demolished in 1927 – a history of the house is on my Lost Heritage website: ‘Dawpool‘
The 1870s was a decade in which the fashion for Gothic Revival started to wane with clients looking for a new style. Shaw’s versatility meant that although he continued to use and develop his ‘Old English’ style, he also explored the use of a more Classical or ‘Queen Anne’ style (aka ‘free-classic’, ‘Re-Renaissance’ or ‘classical freestyle’ – Dr Simon Thurley). Although other architects used it specifically for smaller-scale domestic houses, Shaw adopted and adapted it for both his larger public buildings but also some of the larger private country house commissions.
Shavington Hall, Shropshire (1885-86) shows how quickly the clients taste can change. The owner, A.P. Heywood-Lonsdale, already owned Cloverley Hall, designed by Shaw’s partner William Eden Nesfield in 1866, and yet just 20-years later, was asking Shaw to rebuild Shavington as a main seat but in the new ‘Queen Anne’ style. Sadly, again the larger Victorian houses suffered in the austerity of the mid-20th-century and Shavington was demolished c.1960.
Another significant commission was a monumental new house, Bryanston, Dorset (1889-94), for Viscount Portman, to replace an existing fine house by James Wyatt at the then vast cost of £200,000 (approx £20m). In some ways, this was an odd brief from the client; to build a house twice the size of the existing one and in a fashion which was as much about public statement as domestic practicalities. The new Bryanston would not have looked out of place on the Continent, taking on the aspect of a grand French château or German palace, despite the age of aristocratic living on this scale already fraying at the edges. For all this, Shaw certainly met the challenge, delivering a house that stands as testament to his skill, even if in 1928 the 4th Viscount Portman was forced by death duties to sell the house and 450-acres for just £35,000 for use as a school, which it has successfully done since then.
At the core of the success of Shaw’s architectural style was not only his bold imagination and understanding of internal planning but also his keen understanding of self-promotion. In the days before the internet and Twitter could furnish images of an architect’s work, Shaw ensured that his designs where regularly published in The Building News, the hugely influential weekly magazine which featured plans, layouts and beautiful woodcut impressions of the houses now springing up at that time. This constant publicity, both in the UK, and internationally, ensured that Shaw’s trademark ‘Old English’ style became almost a standard for the southern home counties and popular even further afield.
Shaw’s fame and reputation were based on a profoundly inventive handling and development of the English Vernacular styles combined with a very astute understanding of how to ensure the widest publicity for his work. Although his fame may have dimmed for a time, it is right that his work be brought firmly into the light.
Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London:
The RIBA hold a notable collection of Shaw’s drawings which can be seen online: ‘Richard Norman Shaw‘ [RIBA]
Other major commissions (chronological order):
- Jesmond Dene House, Newcastle, Northumberland (1870-85)
- Bannow, St Leonards, Sussex (1877-79)
- Greenham Lodge, Greenham, Berkshire (1878)
- Alderbrook, Cranleigh, Surrey (1879)
- Baldslow Place, Baldslow, East Sussex (1879-82)
- Holme Grange, Holme Green, Berkshire (1882-8)
- The Rookery, Bromley Common, Kent (1882)
- Didlington Hall, Didlington, Norfolk (1882)
- Walhampton House, Lymington, Hampshire (1883)
- Banstead Wood, Banstead, Surrey (1884-86)
- Overbury Court, Overbury, Worcestershire (1887-1900)
- Addington Park, Addington, Surrey (1898-1900)