Saturday, 12 April 2008

‘Queen Anne’ and the London School Board

Those interested in other matters, forgive me for the moment. I'm on a roll with the school board and its buildings.
Click to enlarge

That's Lavender Hill School, Clapham Junction, 1891.

The School Board for London (SBL) took the appearance of their schools seriously. (Contrast many more recent education authorities.) From their final report:

'The policy of the School Board has almost always been to give these buildings, as public buildings, some dignity of appearance, and make them ornaments rather than disfigurements to the neighbourhood in which they are erected.... It was found that the difference of cost between bare utilitarianism and buildings designed in some sort of style and with regard for materials and colour was rather less than 5 per cent. At the same time this ornamental appearance may be secured either by richness of detail or by a dignified grouping of masses; it is the policy of the Board, while studying in the first instance suitable arrangements for teaching, not to set aside the dignity and attractiveness of buildings which the Board have always felt should be a contrast to their poor surroundings.’

Each SBL school is unique and there is great variety in their architecture. Nevertheless, the dominant style is the one called ‘Queen Anne’. The SBL’s first architect, E.R. Robson, explaining that the need for cheapness dictated the use of brick and that the search had been made for the most suitable brick style from London’s past, wrote:

'the only really simple brick style available as a foundation is that of the time of the Jameses, Queen Anne and the early Georges, whatever some enthusiasts may think of its value in point of art.’

The introduction of this style into school buildings is attributed, though not universally, to Robson’s assistant John J. Stevenson, who wrote in justification of it:

'Take the ordinary conditions of London building -- stock bricks and sliding sash windows. A flat arch of red cut bricks is the cheapest mode of forming a window-head: the red colour is naturally carried down the sides of the window, forming a frame: and is used also to emphasise the angles of the building. As the gables rise above the roofs it costs nothing, and gives interest and character... to mould them into curves and sweeps. The appearance of wall surface carried over the openings, which, in Gothic, the tracery and iron bars and reflecting surface of thick stained glass had taught us to appreciate, is obtained by massive wooden frames and sash bars set, where the silly interference of the Building Act does not prevent, almost flush with the walls, while to the rooms inside these thick sash bars give a feeling of enclosure and comfort. With these simple elements the style is complete, without any expenditure whatever on ornament. ... there is nothing but harmony and proportion to depend on for effect. We may, if we have money to spare, get horizontal division of the facade, in this style as in Gothic, by string courses and cornices, and we have the advantage over Gothic that we can obtain vertical division by pilasters…. The style in all its forms has the merit of truthfulness; it is the outcome of our common modern wants picturesquely expressed. In its mode of working and details it is the common vernacular style in which the British workman has been apprenticed, with some new life from Gothic added….'

Lavender Hill School again.

All the above quotes from Kelsall’s chapter in Ringshall, R., Miles, M., Dame, & Kelsall, F. (1983). The urban school : buildings for education in London, 1870-1980. London: Greater London Council in association with Architectural Press.

So what was this Queen Anne style, and what was it that those ‘enthusiasts’ Robson mentions said about it? Here’s a modern historian of Victorian architecture, Mark Girouard:

''Queen Anne' has comparatively little to do with Queen Anne. It was the nickname applied to a style which became enormously popular in the 1870s and survived into the early years of this century. 'Queen Anne' came with red brick and white-painted sash windows, with curly pedimented gables and delicate brick panels of sunflowers, swags, or cherubs, with small window panes, steep roofs, and curving bay windows, with wooden balconies and little fancy oriels jutting out where one would least expect them. It was a kind of architectural cocktail, with a little genuine Queen Anne in it, a little Dutch, a little Flemish, a squeeze of Robert Adam, a generous dash of Wren, and a touch of François I"er. It combined all these elements and a number of others into a mixture that had a strong character of its own -- particularly when they were mixed with skill and gaiety, as they very often were.

The mixture can easily be savoured today, for the style survives in large quantities. 'Queen Anne' covers large stretches of Chelsea, from Pont Street and Cadogan Square down to the Embankment. It breaks out in islands of red brick amid the stucco seas of Kensington and Bayswater; in houses built for artists or the artistic in Hampstead and Bedford Park; in riverside residences or seaside hotels, lively with balconies, turrets, gables, and green copper domes; in the pink and white daintiness of Newnham College, Cambridge, and the immediately recognizable silhouettes of the early London Board Schools….

It was a style which set out to please, and yet it was greeted on its appearance with howls of anger or derision. 'A bastard style', 'a contortion of every feature of architecture', 'abject copyism', 'effete feebleness and prettiness', 'excessively ugly', 'a regular tea-tray style', 'disgrace of the country', 'entirely contradicting the taste and feeling of the day', 'baneful influence over students', 'brilliant but dangerous', 'utterly commonplace' were among the expressions used about it. There were acrimonious and heated discussions wherever architects were gathered together. Aged Academicians wrote furious letters to the newspapers. The public were not deterred, and took to it with almost excessive enthusiasm.'

Starting in 1870 with no useful English precedents, the architects of the School Board for London invented a building type that worked admirably, and, suitably modified, still does. Here’s why, according to Girouard, it was so successful:

‘The 'Queen Anne' Board Schools succeeded because they were cheap, convenient, attractive, and easily recognizable. They were built on small budgets and usually on constricted sites. They were planned in accordance with the educational standards of the day, which required complete separation of boys from girls, as well as separate, co-educational infant schools. All three divisions had to have their own big schoolroom in which all members of the division could be seated, as well as large separate classrooms. The prevalent pupil-teacher system, which meant that many of the teachers had to be supervised as much as the children, made it desirable that it should be easy to see from one classroom into another, and from the schoolroom into the classrooms. Other requirements included lavatories, cloakrooms, teachers' rooms, a certain amount of covered but not enclosed space for playgrounds in wet weather, openings to either side of the classrooms to provide cross-ventilation, thirty square inches of glass to each square foot of floor, and (for reasons which remain obscure) a ceiling height of at least fourteen feet for both classrooms and schoolrooms.’

(Not sure what this school was. It's on the same site as Lavender Hill but seems earlier.)

The board schools didn’t just work; they proved powerful symbols.

‘Towering above terraces of little houses all over London, the Board Schools captured the imagination of the public as impressive and immediately recognizable symbols of enlightenment. They also helped to convert it to ‘Queen Anne’, as the style of the moment and the style of progress.’

Imagine a new building style today starting with schools and spreading to all public buildings, pubs, office buildings and even houses!

Girouard, M. (1977). Sweetness and Light. The Queen Anne Movement 1860-1900. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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