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An architect drawn into the limelight

16 November 2010

William Whyte on a study that transforms his view of his (almost) namesake


William White: Pioneer Victorian architect
Gill Hunter
Spire Books £37.95
Church Times Bookshop £34.15

UNTIL recently, almost all that we knew about the Victorian architect William White could be summed up in the historian Mark Girouard’s comment that he “spent much of his life balanced on the boundary between crankiness and brilliance; in the end he fell off on the wrong side”. Like that of so many 19th-century designers, his work quickly fell out of fashion — and in the 20th century many of his buildings were demolished, and many of his furnishings and vestments were discarded. No complete list of his projects exists, and perhaps as many as 100 of his churches are still unaccounted for.

As one who (almost) shares his name, I can also sympathise with the fact that he was not the only William White to reach prominence in the world of Victorian architecture. There was William H. White, who became President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. There was also Sir William White, who was knighted for his work as a naval architect. Both these men were celebrated in their lives and mourned at their deaths. Plain William White, however, died in relative obscurity and was buried in what was effectively an unmarked grave. Little wonder that he has sometimes seemed a rather shadowy figure.

With this meticulously researched book, Gill Hunter has transformed our understanding of William White. She reveals him to be a first-rate architect and a significant writer: the author not just of works on design, but also of such useful essays as “Funerals in Inclement Weather”.

This study began life as a Ph.D. thesis — and to some extent it still reads like it. But it firmly establishes White’s importance, and will be of interest to all enthusiasts for Victorian design.

It will also appeal to the church-goers of Cornwall, Hampshire, Battersea, South Africa, and — for that matter — Madagascar, where he did so much of his work.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Tutorial Fellow in Modern History of St John’s College, Oxford, and Assistant Curate of Kidlington.

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