Baroque Extravaganza: Emerson Chambers in NewcastleOnline Learning
Keywords: baroque, architecture, edwardian era, newcastle upon tyne, edwardian, emerson chambers, blackett street, benjamin simpson
The Baroque style of architecture flourished in the Edwardian era, and numerous examples of this effusive, grandiose style can be found in the city of Newcastle Upon Tyne. The major example of Edwardian extravagance is Emerson Chambers (1903-4) on Blackett Street. This was primarily designed as a restaurant for the innkeeper Robert Emerson Junior, but it also contained a number of offices. Emerson Chambers is an overpowering fusion of Baroque and Art Nouveau devices. Designed by the firm of Simpson, Lawson and Rayne, it represents the pinnacle of Newcastle’s commercial architecture and forms one of the most exuberant buildings in the city. The eccentric Benjamin Simpson’s work is marked by bizarre contortions of Baroque elements. At Emerson Chambers, the keystones of the arches merge into the bases of the windows above and the columns are stunted, as though deformed by the weight they support. The pyramidal roof bristles with miniature pinnacled dormers and turrets are corbelled-out from the corners, ending in Simpson’s trademark copper ‘beehive’ motif, one featuring a clock and the other a vaguely Oriental finial. Sculptural cast iron columns support an oriel window. Art Nouveau woodwork is woven over the plate glass of the shop front and a heady concoction of swags, sinuous foliage and human and animal forms is sculpted onto the crowing entablature.
Simpson’s wilful distortion of Baroque elements was oddly compatible with the unrestrained, flowing lines of Art Nouveau, and during this period he continually invested his commercial buildings with flourishes of this avant-garde style. In his study of Simpson’s work, Leonard Gettings argues that Simpson was something of an outsider, pointing out that he never joined the Northern Architectural Association and that he was possibly excluded on the grounds of class. However, Emerson Chambers seems to have been admired among Newcastle’s architectural practitioners – the firms of Boyd and Grove and Badenoch and Bruce had their offices here, together with Simpson, Lawson and Rayne itself. More importantly, Simpson was never short of commissions, and was allowed to indulge his whims by clients who tended to be newly-rich entrepreneurs with little or no prior knowledge of architecture. They were not troubled by Simpson’s cavalier use of historical details, but recognised his exuberant panoply of forms as an eye-catching, suitably commercial idiom. Emerson’s restaurant was located in the basement and featured niches of fibrous plaster and a domed ceiling. The British Architect remarked, ‘In the basement of Emerson Buildings, the handsome erection at the corner of Blackett Street, Newcastle, there was opened on Wednesday one of the finest restaurants to be found out of London, says the Newcastle Chronicle.’ The wallpaper manufacturers J. Dunn and Son subsequently opened a showroom in the ground floor.