Dan Cruickshank’s Gothic masterpieces

Ahead of his new documentary Dan Cruickshank and the Family That Built Gothic Britain, the architectural historian takes a look at the best work of his subjects, the Gilbert Scott family

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Midland Grand Hotel, St Pancras

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“This brilliant building, designed by George Gilbert Scott and opened in 1873, lay derelict for decades but is now, thankfully, restored to something like its original grandeur. The quality and quantity of decoration is phenomenal. Money was a huge factor in the design – it’s built from brick, which was cheaper than stone, and there are niches for statues that never got built, but it’s full of witty little details referencing the railway. Inside is the very latest Victorian technology – exposed, cast-iron beams, hot water, central heating and the first Otis lift in London. Basically, it’s a highly modern building in the guise of history.” 

Exeter College chapel

“Gothic art had been dead for centuries by the time George Gilbert Scott came along, so how the hell did he teach himself to be a master of the Gothic? We know that, as a young man, he went on walking tours of France, visiting the great medieval churches and building up his reservoir of vocabulary and detail. This Oxford chapel, begun in 1853, is a brilliant copy of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Scott is re-creating the Gothic world as perfectly as possible, trying to recapture authentic Gothic materials and authentic Gothic construction. Nonetheless, there’s an element of living creation and adventure that gives it a vitality beyond mere copying.”

The Albert Memorial

“Erected in 1872 to the memory of Queen Victoria’s husband, this was George Gilbert Scott’s great success and earned him his knighthood, but it was built in the shadow of the death of his own beloved son Albert Henry. Gothic revivalists believed that the Gothic was the physical token of the Christian contribution to the policy of Empire — one of the memorial’s outriding groups of statuary shows Europe wagging her finger at Africa. All in all, it’s a marvellous evocation of the aspirations of its time.” 

Church of St Mary Magdalene

“Sadly, the two best buildings by George Gilbert Scott Jr, the ‘Middle Scott’, St Agnes in Kennington, and All Hallows in Southwark, were destroyed during the Second World War, so there are only fragments to appreciate him by, but this little church in East Moors, Yorkshire, designed by George Jr [then completed by Temple Moore in 1882], is amazing. It’s minuscule in size, but big in its intentions, quite modern with its sculptural form and use of colour – almost Japanese. We don’t know why poor George Jr went so spectacularly off the rails, but between his bouts of drinking and periods of madness, he managed to function brilliantly as an architect.” 

K6 Telephone box

“Giles Gilbert Scott’s K6 telephone box, designed in 1935, became the universal telephone box. The prototype for his earlier K2 phone box dates from 1924 and survives in the entrance to London’s Royal Academy. Giles got the idea when he was wandering round the John Soane museum. Soane, the architect of the Bank of England, was obsessed with the pendentive – domes on squares. Giles took this idea and ran with it for his phone boxes. One normally only comes upon the K2s in London (though there’s one beside Liverpool Town Hall), but the later K6 went into mass production. To make something entirely utilitarian into a much-loved urban ornament, to me that’s a great achievement.” 

Anglican Cathedral, Liverpool

“When Giles Gilbert Scott won the competition to build Liverpool Cathedral aged 22 in 1903, the only thing he had designed was a pipe rack. He worked on the cathedral all his life [he died in 1960] and built it in this weirdly inventive Gothic manner. At the East end, it starts off as Catholic Spanish Gothic and as it progresses it gets more and more art deco. It’s a fascinating modernist construction in brick and concrete: Giles is using new materials in a bigger way than either his father or his grandfather, but because he remains true to the Gothic tradition of ornamentation, he falls out of the mainstream and is regarded as something of an oddity.”

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Dan Cruickshank and the Family That Built Gothic Britain is on BBC4 tonight (21 October)