An English Echo of Chambord
This article was inspired by my friend Francois Hagnere's study of Chambord, just as the building in question was inspired by this magnificent French chateau. You can find Francois's article at: https://knoji.com/chambord-a-gem-of-the-renaissance/
The architecture of Newcastle Upon Tyne is dominated by Neo-Classicism, but the city was not impervious to the feverishly eclectic climate of the Victorian era. Commercial patrons were keen to explore a range of styles and other Renaissance idioms were soon exploited. One of the more short-lived stylistic affectations to impinge upon Newcastle was that of the French Renaissance, which had a sporadic influence on British architecture in the 1870s and 80s. The style figured prominently in the North East, with both the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle (begun 1869) and Sunderland Museum and Library (1877-9) invoking the image of the French château. In Newcastle, the Union Club in Westgate Road and the Newcastle and Gateshead Gas Company Offices in Grainger Street West were executed in François Ier style.
The Newcastle and Gateshead Gas Company offices (1884-6) dominate a large open site on Grainger Street West. Designed by John Johnstone, the elevations abound with rounded oriel windows and the roof is clustered with finials, attenuated dormers and the distinctive mansard roofs that were the mainstay of the French Renaissance style. The details, if not the overall form, are derived from the famous château at Chambord, a potent source of influence which the Victorian critic James Fergusson had praised as a particularly graceful example of the style. According to The Builder, ‘The gas company’s offices, to the north of the church, make a very picturesque block, with their high roofs and François I dormers and forest of elaborate finials.’ This redevelopment coincided with the vogue for the French Renaissance style and the commercial buildings that sprang up at the base of Grainger Street West made flamboyant use of French idioms in order to compete for the attention of visitors arriving at Newcastle.
It is significant that the French Renaissance style was similar to Gothic in feeling, especially when compared to Italianate styles. Mansard roofs were recognised as a ‘legacy from the Gothic style of France,’ which had, ‘lately become very fashionable in England partly because they express the Gothic tendency to height.’ Fergusson makes this explicit when outlining the development of the French Renaissance style: ‘Soon there followed a group of palaces and châteaux that have all the play of plan and outline belonging to Gothic buildings, combined with refined Renaissance details.’ As it did not contrast dramatically with the Tyneside Classical tradition, it is likely that Newcastle architects used the French Renaissance style as a substitute for Gothic in their secular work.
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