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Ernest Shearman: Ecclesiastical architect by Diana Beckett

27 May 2022

William Whyte notes a Sandringham link

ERNEST SHEARMAN is not a name to conjure with. An architect who built little and wrote less, he doesn’t rate so much as a mention in any of the standard works on the subject. Any real hopes of recognition rested on his charitable endeavours, raising money for ex-servicemen, but even that eventually came to nothing. As Diana Beckett observes in this study, “his daughter believes that his behaviour regarding the attractions of other women later in life caused him to lose a potential knighthood.”

Shearman’s life story is simple to relate. The son of a Sheffield doctor, he trained as an architect and then spent three years in Argentina, working for the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway, for which he erected a series of stations, described by one authority as “very English”. Returning to England in 1891, he first found work at Sandringham, rebuilding the royal family’s retreat after a fire, and then became a specialist in ecclesiastical architecture.

His was never a large practice. Aside from a handful of minor schemes, he was responsible for half a dozen churches, built between 1909 and his death, 30 years later. Diana Beckett grew up in one of Shearman’s few secular projects — a rather nice late Arts and Crafts house in Winchester. Though not a historian by training, she spent lockdown pursuing this elusive architect.

St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, in London, designed by Ernest Shearman, in the author’s photo from the book

The result is a lovely little book, fewer than 100 pages long, and yet well illustrated and full of intriguing details. To be sure, it is not the first study of the subject. That was John Salmon’s biography, published in 2009. But Beckett’s book is made distinctive by its colour plates and by her attempt to set Shearman’s work within the wider context of architectural thought at the time.

In what is far from a conventional biography, thematic chapters build up into a composite picture of an always somewhat shadowy figure. But these glimpses do much to recapture the way in which Shearman brought together Gothic architecture and Anglo-Catholicism to create a small set of distinctive buildings. This book will appeal to all those who want to know about the inter-war Church and 20th-century architecture.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.


Ernest Shearman: Ecclesiastical architect
Diana Beckett
2QT Publishing £15.99

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