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Book review: George Edmund Street by Geoff Brandwood, edited by Peter Howell and Peter C. W. Taylor

05 July 2024

William Whyte reviews a monograph on G. E. Street, devout architect

I AM biased, I know; and, after writing a book on the subject, this might also be thought a sort of special pleading, but I’ll come out with it: the Victorians were the greatest church-builders of all time. Even if you disagree on quality, you can’t deny the quantity. By the 1850s, the Anglican craze for church-building had reached such a pitch that a new church was consecrated every four or five days. The other denominations built at a similarly staggering rate. The result was a forest of spires and towers, a church or two — and sometimes many more — in every street across the land.

This phenomenon depended on a variety of forces: the colossal wealth of the nation, the frantic energy of its inhabitants, the ruthless competition between denominations, the general anxiety about the forces of secularisation. It was given physical form by a new breed of architects, specialists in church-building who were also experts in medieval architecture. Among the giants of this new generation of professionals was George Edmund Street, who was responsible for the construction of 150 new churches and the restoration (which sometimes meant the reconstruction) of another 300 more.

Street was not the most prolific of these architects — that was perhaps the extraordinarily productive Ewan Christian, with a career that encompassed something like 2000 projects. Street was not the most celebrated or the most influential. Like almost all his contemporaries, he owed an enormous debt to the brilliant and controversial Augustus Pugin. Street’s celebrity was also somewhat less than that of his master George Gilbert Scott, whose empire (the word is not too much of an exaggeration) included hundreds of churches, cathedrals from Newfoundland to New Zealand, and — in the shape of the University of Glasgow — almost certainly the largest building project in the land.

courtesy of the authorsG. E. Street was the architect of St Paul’s Within the Walls (the American Church), in Rome. From the book

Yet, Street was undeniably important. His work is instantly recognisable, and his methods were wholly distinctive. Scott had a practice so large that he scarcely knew what it produced. Stories arose of his arriving at one building site and giving instructions to the clerk of works, only to be told “You know, Mr Scott, this is not your church; this is Mr Street’s, your church is down the road.” Admiring a church in another town, he enquired about its authorship and was surprised to learn that he himself was the architect. “The extent of my business”, Scott recalled in his memoirs, “has always been too much for my capacity of attending to it.”

Street recoiled from this approach, and so obsessively insisted on overseeing everything that his assistants complained that he would not allow them to design even as much as a keyhole.

It was, in many respects, an impossible ambition. It was also dangerous — and Street was widely believed to have killed himself through overwork as he sought to complete the designs for the Law Courts on the Strand, in London. Street’s intensity of vision was not, however, purely professional. It grew out of his faith. Indeed, as this short but informative study makes clear, “For Street, life, art and architecture and his Christian faith were inseparable.” A committed High Churchman (and churchwarden at that bastion of Anglo-Catholicism All Saints’, Margaret Street), he built primarily for those who shared his views: hence Cuddesdon College; St Margaret’s Convent, East Grinstead; and St Mary’s Convent, Wantage, as well as a slew of other Tractarian projects.

Street’s papers were destroyed in the Blitz. His single-mindedness and the sternness of his architecture also ensured that he has not attracted the biographical attention that one might otherwise have expected. Aside from a memoir by his son, published in 1888, and a brilliant account of the Law Courts produced by Professor David Brownlee nearly a century later, we have lacked a full treatment of Street’s life and works. This is not quite that. It is, instead, a short introduction to its subject. It is, none the less, very welcome, well-informed, and beautifully illustrated.

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

George Edmund Street
Geoff Brandwood, author
Peter Howell and Peter C. W. Taylor, editors
Liverpool University Press £40
Church Times Bookshop £36

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