Book review - Essays in Scots and English Architectural History

20 July 2012
imports_CESC_0-cauxybc4-100000_45811.jpg Book review - Essays in Scots and English Architectural History
A review ofp { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }Essays in Scots and English Architectural History: A Festschrift for John Frew. ...

A review of Essays in Scots and English Architectural History: A Festschrift for John Frew.

Essays in Scots and English Architectural History: A Festschrift for John Frew

By David Jones and Sam McKinstry (eds)

Paul Watkins Publishing, 2009

227 pages; 104 illustrations

Hardback; £35, available by contacting [email protected]

ISBN: 978-1900289948

This beautifully produced volume is a festschrift for John Frew, lecturer in architectural history at St Andrew’s University, most of whose contributors were at one time his students, using this volume to get arcana off their chest that can find no other home. Since the only common theme is Frew himself, the essays reflecting Frew’s own interests are pretty various, from small shops - the history of the Tom Morris golf shop in St Andrews - to post-war planning or 18th-century Gothic. Sixteen contributors (three from the Walker architectural history dynasty) fill a cabinet of curiosities whose curios range from waymarks in Fife to objets d’art, such as Nick Haynes’ discussion of Robert Adam at Culzean. It is no mean volume that contains Sir Howard Colvin’s last essay.

Content continues after advertisements

Some are simply stories, such as James MacAulay’s tale of the construction of Glasgow University, David Walker (Senior) on the curious seaside Marine Hotel at Elie by John Burnet, David Walker (Junior) on the Blythswood Holm hotel in Glasgow - so gargantuan that it bankrupted its company, Annette Carruthers on the construction of Robert Lorimer’s house of Wayside in St Andrews (a plan would have helped most materially), and Robin Evetts on Madras College in St Andrews. These are useful pieces of research, even if Evetts is rather too gentle on William Burn as a restoration architect (contemporary drawings reveal that in his ‘restoration’ of St Giles in Edinburgh he entirely stripped away the outer walls and chapels, leaving its arcades shivering in the blast, before clothing them again in his own fake dress). His treatment of the Blackfriars in St Andrews was unlikely to have been much more sympathetic. Equally, MacAulay accepts Glasgow University’s Gothic architecture without question, implying that Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s opposition was due entirely to professional jealousy. Nonsense. Thomson regarded Gothic as irrational because of its outward forces, and irreligious by reason of being irrational. He called Gothic ‘the architecture of the woods and the forests’. So some of these tales take a rather unquestioning approach to their architect.

The most distinguished of seven shorter – incidental, almost whimsical – pieces is Sir Howard Colvin’s delicate esquisse identifying the designer of Shobden Church, Hereford, whose exceptionally lacy interior was formed entirely from various William Kent designs. David Adshead traces the redecoration of some rooms in Tyttenhanger, Herts to Henry Flitcroft; David Jones ruminates upon boundary stones in Fife; Sheila Walker examines the history of her grandfather Tom Morris’s golf shop in St Andrews; and Harriet Richardson seeks to persuade us that the brilliance in the planning of hospitals of the Manchester architect C.E. Elcock should excuse the fact that some were positively ugly. Alan Tait uncovers an abortive if unexceptional design by Robert Adam for the landscape architect Thomas White, with whom he had worked at Dalquharran; and Jeremy Howard traces a family from Aberdeen to Germany through the houses they inhabited.

Debbie Mays outlines the effect of legislation upon the built environment, generally viewing all legislation as unquestionably beneficial, thus sidestepping the recent independent HEACS report that came to a rather different view. Moreover, her focus upon national legislation overlooks how burghs themselves exercised powers over prisons and courts, and omits the odd tale of how county buildings arrived in Scotland at the end of the 18th century. Sam McKinstry’s intriguing promise to analyse how such a place as Ibrox football stadium impacts upon its aficionados is sadly not quite fulfilled.

The two most thought-provoking contributions are those of Nick Haynes on Robert Adam’s ‘bridge’ at Culzean, and John Lowrie's examination of Edinburgh City Architect Ebenezer McRae’s involvement in the Abercrombie and Plumstead 1949 Plan for Edinburgh. By assiduous hunting in multiple depositories, Hayes uncovers the design development of what he calls ‘the most personal architectural creation’ of Robert Adam’s career. Whereas his father William had linked Cullen House, on a similar peninsula to Culzean, to the mainland with a single-arched modern bridge, the son did not want to detract from the picturesque medievalism of Culzean, so the bridge mutated and eventually included an archway that acted like a threshold to an enchanted site.

John Lowrie’s thoughtful investigation of Edinburgh’s 1949 Abercrombie Plan analyses the role accorded to historic buildings in the world of modern, numbers-based town planning against the yardstick of Patrick Geddes. MacRae is revealed to have been a child of the Enlightenment with Arts and Crafts overtones, who did not understand the ancient architecture of Old Edinburgh. Patrick Abercrombie, customarily portrayed as a technocrat, was perhaps more subtle. MacRae’s reputation as a conservationist – i.e. a good egg – is not entirely unscathed by this depiction of him as a man of the Enlightenment who did not comprehend the European nature of Old Edinburgh on its rock, and whose vision was skewed by his admiration for the New Town as British. Neither had the vision of Patrick Geddes. It is thought provoking stuff.

So what do the pieces of this book contribute to the history of our architecture? First, they emphasise that architecture is complicated, and people are always tinkering with it, amending it and altering it, and social fashion changes. Few places remain as intended – making the Tom Morris shop rare. Secondly, Scottish architectural history is what is left after the accidents of fire, bankruptcy and war. What we see now is neither the total of what we once produced, nor what we wanted to produce.

Charles McKean, University of Dundee

For reviews of the latest Scottish history and Scottish archaeology books, see each issue of History Scotland and Scottish Memories.

Sign up now for our FREE e-newsletter for more news stories, sneak previews, exclusive content and special offers.