Stevenson, like Jackson, entered architecture late, having first attended Glasgow University and trained for the ministry in Edinburgh. After a tour of Italy he decided to become an architect, and in 1856 joined the office of David Bryce in Edinburgh, where he stayed for two years before coming south to enter Scott’s office. He then returned to Glasgow, where he built many new churches in partnership with Campbell Douglas, and although he is not notable as a church restorer, this did not prevent him from delivering an outspoken attack on Scott’s church restorations at the Institute in 1877.
After 1866, when Stevenson was involved in ‘Greek’ Thomson’s assault against Sir George Gilbert Scott over the Glasgow University commission, he had inherited a fortune, dissolved his Glasgow partnership and ‘spent two leisurely years writing and holidaying in Paris and Broadstairs’. In 1870 he settled in London and built his own house, the Red House on Bayswater Hill, which became the prototype Queen Anne town house. He was now in the fore-front of the Queen Anne Movement with other well-heeled alumni of Scott’s, such as Bodley, Garner and Jackson. He entered into partnership with E. R. Robson in 1871. Robson had been a member of the Institute since 1860 and had probably invited Stevenson to Conduit Street to give a paper although Stevenson did not become a member until the year after Scott’s death. On 28 May 1877, with the President, Charles Barry, in the chair, Stevenson delivered his bombshell. It was entitled ‘Architectural Restoration: its principles and practice’. In it he cites Scott’s ‘admirable address on the evils of restoration’, read to the Institute in 1862 and then said:
It is difficult after reading his address to believe that any more old churches would be destroyed by restoration. Yet the process has been going steadily on, approved by clergy and architects, the press and the public.
However a paper published by the Institute in 1865, as a result of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s address, he says, ‘seems to me to consist largely of recommendations for their destruction’. This was a short pamphlet entitled Conservation of Ancient Monument and Remains – General Advice to the Promoters of the Restoration of Ancient Buildings, which Scott as a member of the sub-committee of the Institute drew up as a directive for builders and Clerks of Works. In spite of Stevenson’s criticisms it was re-issued in 1888 in a revised and enlarged form.
Stevenson bewailed the fact that in the last thirty years so many old churches have lost valuable features, particularly those installed since the Reformation. He partly blamed the muddled nature of the Advice, as he called the pamphlet, where one paragraph said ‘a vigilant guard should be kept … against the theory that a restored church must be purged of all features subsequent to some favourite period’, while another stated that ‘one main object should be to get rid of modern additions put up without regard to architectural propriety’. He then spitefully said that he assumed that Sir Gilbert Scott had applied the word ‘modern’ in the case of the screen at Canterbury Cathedral to include work from the period of Charles II ‘or probably even of Edward VI’. Stevenson had probably seen Scott’s report of March 1875 in The Archaeological Journal, where he hoped that the fourteenth century screens would be faithfully restored from existing evidence ‘untampered with by modern ideas or prepossessions!’ But two days before he delivered his paper, Stevenson had gone to Canterbury and, although the work had been approved by the church authorities, he must have been somewhat dismayed to find that nothing of Scott’s was to be seen. Scott was, so Stevenson claimed, excluding churches from Ruskin’s advice that old buildings should be carefully preserved and he was encouraging clergy ‘to restore their churches from motives of religion’. He then quoted Ruskin’s famous passage from ‘The Lamp of Memory’ in The Seven Lamps of Architecture:
Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them … Watch an old building with anxious care; guard it as best you may, and at any cost, from the influence of dilapidation. Count its stones as you would the jewels of a crown; set watches about it as if at the gates of a besieged city; bind it together with iron where it loosens; stay it with timber where it declines; do not care about the unsightliness of the aid; better a crutch than a lost limb; and do this tenderly, and reverently, and continually, and many a generation will still be born and pass away beneath its shadow.
Scott had used this passage as the basis of an additional note to the Plea in 1850, and again in his address of 1862, but Stevenson was now resurrecting it to attack Scott. However it was not only Scott who was under fire: Street was criticised as were Waterhouse, Butterfield and even Bodley. Modern medieval restorers have filled old buildings with those:
dreary ranges of long benches covered with sticky-looking varnish, the Minton tile pavements, the new stained glass, harsh gaudy purple or dull and colourless, or the gimcrack brasswork in screens and gas-brackets, with their vulgar blue paint, from the eminent firm of Skidmore.
Stevenson’s paper was a long, wide-ranging and somewhat repetitive attack, but in his closing remarks he made it clear whom he felt were the main culprits. It is ‘the knowledge and skill of the architect which destroys the authenticity of the building as a record of the past. He is by profession a clever forger of old documents’.
Stevenson is now well-known as a designer of houses in the so-called Queen Anne style, and, as Jackson said, for his work on the London Board Schools, which he did in association with another graduate of the ‘Spring Gardens Academy’, Edward Robert Robson (1835-1917), whom Jackson does not mention. In 1866 he was elected an honorary member of the Spring Gardens Sketching Club until its dissolution in 1890.