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W. H. Crossland: An architectural biography, by Sheila Binns

02 July 2021

Ayla Lepine considers the architectural life of W. H. Crossland

THE architect George Gilbert Scott designed hundreds of churches and in the mid-19th century his office had become so large that even he had trouble keeping track. One contemporary told a story of when Scott “admired a new church from the railway-carriage window and was told it was one of his own”.

In this frenetic Gothic Revival environment, the Yorkshireman W. H. Crossland built the foundations of his career, which began with a Sunday-school building in Huddersfield (his name was misspelled when the local press covered it) and culminated in Royal Holloway College. Sheila Binns’s detailed study of Crossland’s life and work — the first biography on this significant architect — brings his career to light in a compelling way for specialists and wider audiences alike.

AlamyA view into Crossland’s Royal Holloway College, in Egham, Surrey

After a successful commission for Rochdale Town Hall, Crossland was invited to oversee the restoration of the medieval St Chad’s, Rochdale. This was a highly sensitive project, as the previous architect had already alienated the parish by suggesting, with the bravura characteristic of many Victorian architects, that the medieval tower should be razed. Crossland fell into the same trap, much to the vicar’s dismay. One gets a sense of the prickly atmosphere from an 1870s pamphlet about the church: “the steps are among our most cherished possessions . . . with which it would be very unwise to intermeddle to the great prejudice of the inhabitants.”

In the 1880s, Crossland was at the height of his career. Royal Holloway College was his masterpiece, inspired by the French opulence of the Château de Chambord. He was widely praised for blending styles to create something genuinely original and suited to its purpose. The chapel’s mix of medieval and Renaissance elements is aglow with symbolism and saints. The Holloway Sanatorium at Virginia Water was a major project, too. Its Great Hall hammer-beam roof was inspired by Westminster Hall.

Crossland destroyed many of his own papers, and archival trails often go cold, despite his leadership in large offices in Halifax, Leeds, and London. Exploring Crossland’s work for civic, ecclesiastical, health, education, and domestic contexts, Binns has left no stone unturned and gathered together an impressive range of information to create a well-rounded portrait of a quintessentially Victorian architect.

The Revd Dr Ayla Lepine is the Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery.


W. H. Crossland: An architectural biography
Sheila Binns
The Lutterworth Press £30

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