William Whyte. Oxford Jackson: Architecture, Education, Status, and Style, 1835-1924. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. xvi + 268 pp. $150.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-929658-3.
Reviewed by Peter Mandler (Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge)
Published on H-Albion (April, 2008)
Architect to the Intellectual Aristocracy
"Poor Jackson," wrote the younger architect E. S. Prior in 1914, "is much better than his work" (p. 231). Something of the same could be said (for similar reasons) of this book, which is much better than its subject. As any earnest author must, William Whyte rails against the scholarly neglect of Thomas Graham Jackson, but you can understand why no one before Whyte had seriously tackled the subject. As a jobbing architect, Jackson almost single-handedly rebuilt ancient universities and older public schools, and built many of the newer ones, over decades of hard work from the 1870s to the 1920s. Like many of his generation, he designed promiscuously in the full range of eclectic styles demanded by contemporary taste, so that even Nikolaus Pevsner sometimes failed to match architect to building accurately. Trained by Gilbert Scott, he could (and did) create advanced Gothic perfectly satisfactorily, but his own tastes--echoing those of his clients--were more "progressive," inflected both by the arts and crafts movement (of which he was a semi-detached member) and by the "free classic" tendency. His best work was dressed in Queen Anne style and, especially, the neo-Jacobean style that he made his own--"Anglo-Jackson."
Since he left no personal archive, his substantial oeuvre has had to be pieced together laboriously by one hundred fieldtrips to boarding schools, record offices, and isolated rural churches. More conveniently, but also more irritatingly, Jackson left an enormous legacy in print. He wrote many volumes of architectural history; as holder of most of the honorific offices of his profession, he gave many speeches and addresses; and, worst of all, he was an inveterate correspondent to the Times. "Only a man used to writing--and to being read"--admits Whyte, "would dream of writing to The Times to report that a burglar had broken into his house" (p. 28). In short, the man was worthy but a bit of a bore. Nor did he improve with age; as Whyte wincingly grants, after his baronetcy (the only such honor ever awarded to an architect), he just got smugger. His letters to the editor ventured far from his fields of expertise: "on the suffragettes (he was antipathetic); on home rule (he was resigned); on war reparations (he was aggressive); on capital levies (he was aggrieved)" (p. 28). All of these assessments render Prior's judgment even more disturbing: if this was good, and the work was worse, what can be said for the work?
Whyte has quite a lot to say for the work and does a wonderful job of rescuing it from its present-day obscurity. The centerpiece is Oxford, which gave Jackson the sobriquet adopted by Whyte as his title. A fellow of Wadham at the right place at the right time, Jackson benefited from the cultural revolution sweeping through English education in the last third of the nineteenth century, which even touched Oxford. While the "Non Placet" faction of Oxford dons (which favored no change) would never provide much work for an architect, two other--increasingly dominant--groups provided plenty. Pedagogical liberals wishing to expand undergraduate education, broaden curriculum, and provide new facilities for living, working, and playing turned to Jackson for new buildings for colleges (he was responsible for substantially remaking Trinity, Corpus, Brasenose, Lincoln, and Hertford) and for the university (housing for noncollegiate students, a grand cricket pavilion in the Parks, and, his greatest achievement, the enormous Examination Schools on High Street). A third faction, emphasizing the university's mission for advanced research on a German model, asked Jackson for museums, laboratories, and central faculty buildings; Cambridge, which finally caught the Jackson bug around 1900, provided a new field of action in this latter category, notably the new buildings for law and science on the Downing site, now cruelly hemmed in and undeservedly obscured. On a smaller scale, the same forces for educational change operated to extend Jackson's operations to public schools--or at least those who could afford even cut-down versions of Oxbridge chapels, lecture halls, and dormitories. In these public schools, as Whyte neatly shows, all factions were united in desiring a Jacksonian makeover--not only progressives who wanted labs and airy new halls, but also those motivated by more nakedly commercial or aspirational desires, seeking to expand or to move up the public school pecking order, for which purpose looking more like Oxford now looked could only be beneficial.
For all these achievements in bricks and mortar, it still has been possible to ignore Jackson. Partly, this was a matter of changing fashion: Jackson was wrongfooted by the new fashion for the classical and baroque after 1900, and the odor of John Ruskin around him stank in the nostrils of the young. Yet, other Victorian architects have been easier to rediscover. Partly, it was a matter of Jackson's good manners. His designs worked so well in Oxford because they blended in so well with their surroundings. Whyte observes on a number of occasions how satisfied Jackson's clients were, but this was not an undiluted blessing. Jackson built no striking ensembles, inspiring passion, such as his contemporary Basil Champneys achieved at Newnham College, Cambridge. A lot of his competition successes arose because he was able to placate committees. He knew when to play safe, to capture that all-important "Common Room approval" (p. 100). Neither, for all his writing, was Jackson a great polemicist, still less a "theorist," as Whyte occasionally describes him (in either educational or architectural fields). In the battle of styles, he plumped for "judicious eclecticism" on pragmatic grounds (p. 35). "Something was bound to turn up, he seemed to say, it always had done before," is Whyte's own summation of his views (p. 51). One wonders whether even Whyte believes Jackson's his writing was "worthy of Ruskin or Reynolds," a contemporary verdict wisely left in inverted commas (p. 27).
Whyte's strategy for attracting wider interest to this safe but significant career is to hitch it to broader currents of educational reform, especially in Oxford, and to the coming-of-age of the "intellectual aristocracy"--using this term more expansively than does Noel Annan to refer to the whole cadre of liberal, reforming "public moralists," setting themselves up as a new ruling class in place of more conservative and more philistine-landed gentlemen. Not only the purposes to which his buildings were put, but also the idiom in which he couched them, were meant to send signals of change--away with the dark and brooding Gothic, and in with the lighter and more feminine "Queen Anne," and the more English and also more enlightened Jacobean, even a cheerier colored stone, with rich but not oppressive Ruskinian decoration. For the cognoscenti, there were a few (not too conspicuous) jokes, such as the dinosaurs that adorned nooks and crannies of the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge. There was undoubtedly a tendency here, but not a movement, still less a cause; and for good personal as well as professional reasons, Jackson was not its boldest exponent. Thus, there was a whiff of social reform in Jackson's work on the Oxford Boys' and Girls' High Schools, but it pales next to E. R. Robson's work for the London School Board. As if in compensation, Whyte oversells the social-reform commitments of the Drapers' Company for which Jackson designed the Science Library and Electrical Laboratory at Oxford. Needless to say, the reforming aspirations of his public school patrons were even more limited. And, as Whyte frequently admits, whichever his patron, Jackson's innovations in style rarely extended to innovations in plan, where "that very conventionality proved to be an important secret of his success" (p. 141).
While the via media is not as exciting as the extremes, it still deserves its historians. But walking the via media requires self-control that a talented historian may find difficult to apply. As we have seen, Whyte cannot help but fall into Jackson's view of the world--or, occasionally, he cannot help but take the obituarist's boilerplate at face value--making his protagonist's contributions more distinctive and influential and pioneering than they were. The effect is magnified by his terrifically engaging prose and a clever thematic organization that allows the book deftly to transcend biography. A rich diet of illustrations and a highly forensic copyediting job that shows Oxford University Press at its best--drawing a veil over the allowance of "homogenous" on page 53--completes the package. This is a book that slides down easily, and so instructively, but still makes one wish that the author would venture something bolder for his next trick.
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Peter Mandler. Review of Whyte, William, Oxford Jackson: Architecture, Education, Status, and Style, 1835-1924.
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