In 1867, Sir George Gilbert Scott in his lectures, described Durham Cathedral as ‘a glorious temple erected by Norman bishops over the shrine of a British saint, St. Cuthbert’, but he does not appear to have seen the cathedral until after 1858. This was the year that one of the brightest and most ambitious of the young men to enter Scott’s office in the wake of the Government Offices Competition appeared on the scene.
The ambitions of Edward Robert Robson (1835-1917) were fostered and greatly assisted by his father, Robert Robson (1804-1886), who was prominent in the local government of the City of Durham, as well as owning a large building and joinery business. In 1853 the young Robson was articled to John Dobson, the well-known architect of Newcastle, whose father-in-law was Sydney Smirke. It could have been Smirke’s introduction that enabled Robson to enter Scott’s office in 1857 ‘as an improver’. This meant that he had the run of the office in return for little or no remuneration, and worked for three years ‘with enthusiasm early and late’. George Gilbert Scott junior had just left Eton and Robson taught him to trace. But he could not have worked in the office very long, as his sketch books show that 1858 was spent in extensive Continental travel, at the same time that his father was elected Mayor of Durham.
In the same year young Robson, only twenty-four, not yet fully qualified and with practically no experience was appointed Architect to the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral. It is not surprising then that the cathedral authorities brought in Scott as a consultant although as Robson was nominally in Scott’s office. It could well be that Robson suggested to his Durham employers that his chief would provide the necessary authority to their somewhat daring appointment.
Robson’s first task was to restore the great tower of the cathedral. This is a mighty structure, 218 feet tall, begun in 1465 on Norman piers and arches, with a higher stage added between 1483 and 1490. Scott’s central tower experience would, if nothing else, be a good reason for his involvement with this work. There are massive diagonal arches inside the upper stage of the tower, suggesting that the medieval builders intended to complete the tower with either a spire or an octagon. Scott suggested adding an open-work structure, similar to the crown of St. Nicholas’s Church in Newcastle, but according to Robson’s son Philip, his father prevented Scott from adding a spire to the tower of Durham, for which obstruction, ‘Scott never quite forgave him’.
The work on the tower took three years, during which time, in 1860, Robson left Scott’s office while Scott was in the throes of the Foreign Office and apparently lost interest in the work. Robson restored the tower and was working on the Galilee Chapel at the west end of the cathedral when in 1864, he was appointed City Architect of Liverpool, and Charles Hodgson Fowler took over as Clerk of Works completing the Galilee to Robson’s ‘good antiquarian designs’. Hodgson Fowler was from Scott’s office, where presumably he knew Robson, as he had just completed his articles. It could well have been Scott who suggested that Fowler should move to Durham to take over from Robson. Scott had already helped Robson in 1859 when, with Dobson and Sydney Smirke, he nominated him for election as an Associate of the Institute, and more importantly in 1864, he supported his application to be the City Architect of Liverpool.
If there was any rift between Robson and Scott it was perhaps due to Robson’s involvement with the Pre-Raphaelites and his important role in the origin of the so-called Queen Anne style, which Scott later called ‘a vexatious disturber of the Gothic Movement’. Scott does not mention Robson in any part of his writings, even when discussing Durham in his Recollections in 1877, although by that time Robson was very well-known for his innovative work as the Architect to the London School Board. Scott may have resented the way that Edward, in his short stay in his office, had used the contacts that he made there to further the Queen Anne style, and particularly how he campaigned for its application to the new secular board schools of London, with its deliberately unreligious function. The principal men involved in the development of the new style were largely graduates of the Spring Gardens Academy, and most of them were contempories of Robson. Scott’s oldest son played an important role in the Queen Anne Movement, as did R. J. Johnson, who was there at the time, and J. J. Stevenson, who became Robson’s partner. Bodley was also involved, and although he had left the office, contact was probably maintained through his future partner, Thomas Garner, who was in the office with Robson.
Scott was called back to Durham in 1873 and says that he was ‘only engaged here on internal work in or about the Choir’. He produced a scheme for rearranging the fittings, followed by a design for repaving the choir in the Italian Cosmati style, with geometric patterns of different coloured marbles and mosaics. Scott liked this bold style and used it where he thought appropriate, such as here at Durham, with its powerful round-arch architecture. The work was carried out by Farmer and Brindley in 1874. He brought the seventeenth-century choir stalls back towards the centre of the cathedral and erected a new screen under the east crossing arch. This is in Scott’s High Victorian style and is also by Farmer and Brindley. He also provided a new metal lectern and matching altar book stand which were made by Skidmore. The refitting of the choir cost £9,938-8s-0d, and was completed in 1876, but in the following February, Scott, typically, was still bearing a grudge about a criticism of his design by some of the clergy. He wrote: ‘A stupid idiotic opposition was raised against this work by 2 Canons, who thought to curry favour with the Bishop, but I believe this challenge of ignorant folly has subsided’.
Scott gives Fowler the credit for the repair of the choir stalls and the design of a new organ case, and when the choir was completed he left everything in Fowler’s hands, although Fowler was not officially appointed the Architect to the Dean and Chapter until 1885. Fowler’s move to Durham, presumably at Scott’s suggestion, had become permanent and was the start of a lifetime involvement with the great cathedral. In 1895 he rebuilt the east end of the Chapter House which Wyatt had destroyed in 1796, but he also carried on the Scott tradition of restoring cathedrals and building or restoring numerous parish churches throughout the country. He became the cathedral architect of Rochester in 1898 and Lincoln in 1900, and he was also the diocesan architect of York and Durham. His last works included his extension to one of Scott’s earliest churches, St. Nicholas’s at Lincoln.
With Durham in safe hands, and perhaps thinking that his critics might reopen the argument over his design, Scott seems to have deferred his request for fees. It was only after his death that his executors, in June 1878, rendered his account of £566-14s.-0d. and this was not paid until February 1880.
Scott, G., Sir, Lectures on the Rise and Development of Medieval Architecture delivered at the Royal Academy (John Murray, London, 1879), vol. II, p. 125.
Directory of British Architects 1834-1914 (Continium, London, 2001), p. 780.
Durham Directory, 1887, p. 37.
Robson, P., ‘Obituary of Edward Robson’, RIBA Journal, 1917, vol. XXIV, pp. 92-3.
Colvin, H., A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995), p. 314.
Pevsner, N., and Metcalf, P., The Cathedrals of England: Midland, Eastern and Northern England (Viking, Harmondsworth, 1985), pp. 75, 78.
Victoria County History, p. 109.
Pevsner, N., Northumberland, Buildings of England (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1992), p. 418.
Fisher, G., Stamp, G. and Heseltine, J., (eds), The Scott Family, Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Avebury Publishing, Amersham, 1981), 29 [a], 62 [c].
Pevsner, N., and Williamson, E., County Durham, Buildings of England (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1983), p. 167, 202.
Crook, J. Mordaunt, John Carter and the Mind of the Gothic Revival (The Society of Antiquaries of London, London, 1995), p. 35.
Jackson, Sir T. G., Bt. R. A., Recollections, The Life and Travels of a Victorian Architect (Unicorn Press, London, 2003), p. 60.
RIBA Nomination Form, 1859.
Scott’s Recollections, IV 203-5, V 23.
Girouard, M., Sweetness and Light, The ‘Queen Anne’ Movement, 1860-1900 (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1977), pp.32-3, 64-5.
Scott, G. G., Gleanings from Westminster Abbey (John Henry and James Parker, London and Oxford, 1863, 2nd edition), p. 99.
Ledger of Scott, 1875-1914, p. 40.
Clarke, B. F. L., Church Builders of the Nineteenth Century, A Study of the Gothic Revival in England (David and Charles, Newton Abbot, 1969), p. 254.
Pevsner, N., Harris, J. and Antram, N., Lincolnshire in the Buildings of England (Penguin Books, London, 1989), p. 499.