George Edmund Street, 1824-81

Street was born at Woodford, Essex, and at an early age acquired an interest in medieval architecture. In 1841 he was articled to Owen Carter of Winchester, where in the cathedral city he was able to further his interest in old buildings, particularly as Carter was an illustrator of antiquarian books. As an architect Carter had designed some Gothic churches, but his best known building was the classical Corn Exchange in Winchester which he built after Street had left his office. Thus Sreet was already qualified when he entered Scott’s office to work on the design for St Nicholas, Hamburg. The fact that Scott was able to attract young architects to his office who were anxious to build in Gothic style, is a clear indication of the extent that he was becoming known for the quality of his work in that style. The upsurge of German nationalism would mean that a Gothic design would stand a good chance, and Street, with his knowledge and enthusiasm for the style, as Edwin Nash who gave him a letter of introduction would have pointed out, would be a great asset to Scott in the competition. In fact Scott was so impressed with Street’s abilities that he whisked him off to Avenue Road to work out the scheme, ‘under his eye’. At the start Street had no guarantee of employment for more than a few weeks, but in the end he stayed with Scott for five years until 1849.

Street started taking on his own work while still employed by Scott including several restorations and a new church at Par in Cornwall, very close to Moffatt’s restoration at St. Blazey. He started the church in 1847, two years before he left Scott to set up on his own and became one of the leaders of the Gothic Revival, even, many consider, outshining Scott. This probably explains Scott’s somewhat terse comment, made in 1864, that with his Hamburg drawings Street came out ‘now for the first time to my observation, in the prominent way which has since characterised him’.

On the strength of his few days in northern Italy, in 1851, Scott delivered a lecture at the annual meeting of the Ecclesiological Society in 1855 which was published in the June number of The Ecclesiologist. In this he refers to Street’s study of Italian brick architecture, which was the result of a month-long tour of Italy that Street made in 1853 and was published early in 1855 as Brick and Marble in the Middle Ages: Notes of Tours in the North of Italy. In the final chapter, Street makes an analysis of the difference between Italian and English Gothic architecture, particularly noticing the harmful effects of the persistence of the round-headed arch on Italian work, but he is enthusiastic about the effect of different coloured materials on the buildings that he saw. He urges English architects, with the vast range of materials at their command, to look at the way that colour can be used to give structural expression to their work, and he refers them to the coloured measured drawings of details, usually incorporating brickwork, in the book. Here Street provided the architects of the Gothic Revival with a new source of ideas, with special emphasis on brickwork, perhaps more useful in an industrialised Britain, than the established source-books, such as Pugin, with their emphasis on native building. Street acknowledges help from Ruskin’s Stones of Venice and says that he used Murray’s Handbook of Northern Italy as his guide, but makes no mention of having consulted Scott before he set out, which seems surprising as he was intending to travel much the same route that Scott and Ferrey had taken just two years earlier. Perhaps Scott felt some resentment that he was forty years-of-age before he could undertake the trip, while Street was still only in his twenties. There was never any clear rift between the two men, but judging by the tone of his remarks about Street, Scott seems slightly upset that having first helped him, Street then moved away from Scott’s form of Gothic architecture and achieved some remarkable successes, culminating with his appointment to the Oxford diocese at the age of twenty-six.

Scott was obviously determined not to be out-shone by his former assistant, and it is perhaps significant that although he gave a short paper in 1855, Scott describes Siena Cathedral and discusses Genoa at considerable length, perhaps inferring that their details could have an important role in the Revival. Street was not able to go to either Siena or Genoa. Two years later, in 1857, when Scott published the first edition of his Remarks on Secular & Domestic Architecture, he drew heavily on his experiences in Italy, particularly in the section on ‘Buildings in Towns’. Here, he felt, there were lessons to be learnt from ‘the land of street-palaces’. Street’s design for the Law Courts in 1867, which Scott felt ‘a poor plan’, ‘unworthy of his talent and had evidently been much hurried’, won the competition, beating his old master although Scott stated ‘I heartily wish him the highest success’. Numerous alterations and disputes meant that work on the new Law Courts did not start until May 1874. The same year, with Scott as President, the Institute offered the Royal Gold Medal to Street in the face of Ruskin’s rejection of it. Scott siad that the Institute ‘may go the length of congratulating ourselves on having been led by force of circumstances to better choice than we had at first made’. Perhaps he was trying to assure Street that he was not a second-best substitute and said that when he went to the original Council meeting that chose Ruskin, his intention had been to propose Street. However Street did not come to the Institute to receive his medal. His wife had just died after a short illness and, as Scott said, Street had ‘deputed his valued friend and ours, Mr Pearson, to receive it in his name’.

After Scott’s death, Street designed the brass to be laid over Scott’s grave. The uncovering of the brass took place on 13 July 1881 with Irvine present. After he saw it he said that it was ‘most unworthy of Mr Street’s handywork. The office boy I think at Spring Gardens would have designed a better [one]’. Later that year and less than one year before the opening of what had proved to be his finest building, the Law Courts, Street died on 18 December 1881 at the age of fifty-seven. Two days later Charles Baker King wrote a mournful letter to Irvine saying that Street ‘did not long survive his old master Sir Gilbert. I had always looked forward to him becoming Sir Edmund’. The Law Courts had brought Street acclaim and honours, but is generally agreed that they also killed him. He too, was buried in Westminster Abbey.