The Office of Works wrote to Sir George Gilbert Scott on 29 November 1858, informing him that he had been appointed the architect of the new Foreign Office and instructing him to proceed with ‘probationary sketches’, omitting the Foreign Secretary’s residence and replacing the War Office with India Office. The news must have travelled fast as Pearson and Burges wrote to Scott on the same day to congratulate him on the appointment. Ever since the Hamburg Rathaus competition, Scott was longing for the chance to build a major public building in his modern version of Gothic. Now, at last, he had achieved his ambition. He was instructed to arrange for the Foreign Office to face St. James’s Park on the west side of the site, and with the formation of the India Office after the Indian Mutiny, the eastern part of the site facing Whitehall seemed to be an ideal location for its new building. Here it would be a very visible statement of Disraeli’s intention to provide a better government for India.
On 14 December 1858, Hunt reported that he had worked out that the site was adequate for the India Office. The next day the new Secretary of State, Lord Edward Stanley, told the India Council, the new governing body for India, that the site would be available for the Indian Government to purchase from the British Government and, ‘as unity of design is essential’ with the Foreign Office, Scott should also be appointed to design their building. The India Office was to be funded entirely out of its own revenues and the Office of Works was not involved in its building. Therefore, on 1 January 1859, Scott received his letter of appointment, as architect for the new India Office, from Stanley.
In the meantime, Digby Wyatt, who had been the Surveyor of the East India Company since 1855, discovered that Scott was to be appointed and wrote off a strongly worded protest to Stanley. He claimed that both offices would be too much for one architect to handle. However, this produced no response from Stanley, so, on 17 December, Wyatt went to see Scott. Scott immediately handed over half of this lucrative job to Wyatt. Based on Hunt’s costings, it would mean that Scott calmly gave away about £6,000 in fees. Scott was certainly quite capable of undertaking both buildings at the same time. In fact, when the two offices were being built a few years later, Scott’s contract was much more smoothly run than that of Wyatt. It seems that it was Scott’s basic generosity, with a dislike of arguments, that led him to so willingly agree to his friend’s request for a share of the work. This is one of the several strange decisions that Scott made during the Foreign Office affair, when presumably Caroline was away from home. Perhaps in view of his numerous professional successes, he felt that he could afford to be magnanimous. He had agreed with Wyatt that he would have ‘general command of the external design’ of the India Office and that Wyatt would have ‘more especial direction of the interior’.
Scott heard that the Institute was to ask the Queen to confer its highest award for architecture on him, the Royal Gold Medal, and he was described in The Gentleman’s Magazine as ‘the leading living architect’. He could, with some justification, have assumed that he would go from strength to strength, but the rest of his career was to be tainted by the Government Offices affair.
On 11 February 1859, Tite had asked Manners in Parliament why Barry’s design had been passed over as Scott’s was inconvenient and expensive. Manners pointed out that the Committee could find no difference between the Gothic and the classical designs in terms of ‘economy, commodiousness and public utility’, and he had chosen the Gothic design as the most appropriate for the site. Hope told the House that Scott had obtained the ‘sum total of merit’ on the judges lists and it would be a great injury ‘to a most distinguished man’, and a ridiculous situation would arise if the Foreign Office were to built in one style and the India Office, over which the Treasury had no control, in another. Palmerston then rose and, apparently in his best parliamentary form, made what was later described as ‘a dashing rattling sort of speech which the House cheered and laughed at’. If Scott, he asked, had been selected because he was second in both the War Office as well as the Foreign Office, now that the War office was no longer required, then surely his claim was reduced. Gothic was going back ‘to the barbarism of the Dark Ages’. Scott was ‘a person of great talent’ and he had seen from the Committee Report that he had studied Greek and Italian styles, so if he was to be the architect, he hoped that he would put ‘a more lively and enlightened front to his buildings’.
This was a real threat. At any time the Liberals in opposition could sink their differences and defeat the Conservative Government. Scott, perhaps only too conscious of this peril, was badly upset by Palmerston’s comments, and ‘wrote to the Times the next day, showing their utter fallacy’. The letter was published on 14 February and, although it is very long, it has all the appearances of having been dashed off in a fit of pique, with little consideration of its effect on its readers. He refuted the arguments raised in the debate against his design:
I really think that any unprejudiced person would come to the conclusion that, if compared with the Post-office, the Museum, the Palace, or even the Board of Trade or Whitehall Chapel, my design would carry the palm…
and ‘friends and foes have agreed in praising’ his design.
This letter was a disastrous mistake and, significantly, was written at the time when Caroline was usually away at St. Leonards. It had completely the opposite effect to what he had intended. He comes over as arrogant, conceited and blatantly unprofessional in claiming that his work was superior to fellow architects, such as Sir Robert Smirke at the General Post Office and the British Museum, Blore at Buckingham Palace, and his friend Sir Charles Barry at the Board of Trade. He even had the audacity to claim that his building would be better than one of the great icons of English architecture, Inigo Jones’s splendid Banqueting House in Whitehall, which at that time was used as one the royal chapels. When he saw his letter in print, he realised his mistake and, on the same day, sent off another to The Times. He now said that he had spoken ‘with unbecoming censure respecting the works of contemporary architects, and somewhat boastfully of my own design’ because he had written ‘in great haste and under some excitement’. That evening, on 14 February 1859, a special meeting was held at the Institute to ratify the Council’s recommendations for prizes and awards. According to Scott:
Professor Donaldson was so irate at my letter in The Times, which he considered to reflect on English architects in general, that he proposed moving the Institute to reverse the recommendation of their council to award me the annual Royal Medal of the Institute, & was only dissuaded from attempting to inflict that gratuitous dishonour upon me by strong remonstrances.
Donaldson’s motion is not even mentioned in the minutes of the meeting, but his second thoughts, and that is probably all they were, about awarding the medal to Scott badly upset the ultra-sensitive Scott. Donaldson, as the upholder of professionalism, must have been concerned over Scott’s disparaging remarks about other living architects. The first letter was an appalling error, although Scott later describes it as ‘vigorous’.
Scott later discovered that Donaldson was ‘Lord Palmerstons private backer up with architectural lore!’ Donaldson had carried out work for Palmerston at Broadlands, his country house in Hampshire in 1854, and in 1859 he dedicated his book, Architecture Numismatica, to Palmerston, ‘the enlightened advocate of classical architecture’. So it is somewhat surprising if Scott was unaware of Donaldson’s connections with Palmerston, as he obviously knew him well and may have obtained work through him at St. Albans. As he says, Donaldson ‘had been my introducer to the Institute and to the Graphic Society and had for many years acted in a very friendly way to me’. He felt badly betrayed to discover that the person whom he thought was his friend was actually helping Palmerston to oppose his design.
Criticism of Scott’s appointment was mounting in the House and in a debate on 18 February 1859, William Coningham, the Liberal M.P. for Brighton, said that he had looked at Scott’s scheme and he ‘could not acquiesce in the high opinion which that gentleman appeared to entertain of himself, judging by the long string of superlatives in his own praise with which he wound up his recent letter in The Times.’ Palmerston concluded the debate with what Scott called ‘a quantity of poor buffoonery which only Lord P.s age permits’. In fact, he warned the Government against becoming committed to a large expense in the preparation of drawings and estimates, which ‘may be wholly thrown away’. He had looked at the Broad Sanctuary houses and it ‘would excite one’s horror, if one were to imagine that any portion of London was to [be] covered with such edifices’.
However enthusiastic support for Scott appeared in the professional journals. The Civil Engineer and Architects Journal said that his appointment was justified by his reputation and having been chosen for the India Office, he should not now lose the Foreign Office. Scott wrote that:
It was comforting under these dejecting circumstances to observe how generously a certain select number of persons of influence rallied round me & cheered me in the conflict. Not only was I warmly & vigorously aided by the Saturday Review, The Ecclesiologist & by the Gothic party pretty generally but a number of members of Parliament stuck nobly by me.
One of these was Akroyd, who certainly helped Scott at the Select Committee in 1858, but gave him no further support in the chamber of the House before he lost his seat in the 1859 General Election. Scott’s most vocal supporter after Hope stood down at the General Election the following April, was the anti-reform Whig, Francis Wemyss-Charteris (1818-1914), the son of the Earl of Wemyss and March, who was known in the House of Commons, where he sat as M.P. for Haddingtonshire, by the courtesy title of Lord Elcho. He was considered to be clever but lacked tact and discretion. He had been a junior minister in Lord Aberdeen’s Government in 1853 and, although he was an M. P. for another twenty-eight years, he never held office again. He had supported Scott in the Select Committee and was to play an important part in the subsequent discussions in the House on the style of the new Foreign Office.