French Renaissance Architecture in England
Keywords: Newcastle architecture, Neo-Classical, Neo-Classicism, Newcastle, John Dobson, French Renaissance, North East, Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Sunderland Museum and Library, French château, Newcastle Union Club, Westgate Road, Newcastle and Gateshead Gas Company Offices, Grainger Street, François Ier, M.P. Manning, French Renaissance style, George Stephenson, Chambord, W.G. Armstrong, Joseph Cowen, Isaac Lowthian Bell, Richard Burdon Sanderson, Joseph Heald One of the more short-lived stylistic affectations to impinge upon architecture in England was that of the French Renaissance, which had a sporadic influence in the 1870s and 80s. The Builder published a series of illustrated articles on the subject in 1884. 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.
Designed by M.P. Manning, the Union Club (1877) utilised the inherent domesticity of the French Renaissance style. Executed in local Prudham stone, it stands upon a plinth of grey Aberdeen granite. Oriel windows merge into domesticated dormers, and elongated chimneys impart an informal feeling that was eminently suitable for a club house. As such, the building was frequented by some of Newcastle’s most successful and powerful citizens, including W.G. Armstrong, Joseph Cowen, Isaac Lowthian Bell, Richard Burdon Sanderson, and Joseph Heald. As well as providing a venue for social interaction and discussion, the club allowed these figures to operate as a cultivated elite, and the interior design reflected this image back on themselves. The entrance hall was illuminated with stained glass windows and a domed ceiling; the windows featured a veritable pantheon of British cultural heroes – Chaucer, Spencer, Shakespeare and Milton – as well as characters from their works. Representations of Poetry and Music were depicted, along with the arms of the club. It has been argued that the culture of Victorian and Edwardian club-houses was aggressively masculine and this is borne out in the Union Club. The first floor accommodated the principal rooms of the club-house, including a drawing room and smoking room. Bedrooms for the club members were on the second floor and domestic accommodation for servants on the third. The lavish interior was fitted by notable craftsmen; marble chimney-pieces were supplied by Walker and Emley, a firm based nearby in Pudding Chare. The total cost of the building and its fittings was £40,000.
Union Club, designed by M.P. Manning, 1877.
Stained glass window, Union Club, 1877.
Plan of the Union Club.
The Post Office Directory of 1879 praised the Union Club as ‘a very handsome structure built of stone,’ but observed that ‘its massive stone gables stand out in conspicuous contrast to the venerable outline of St. John’s Church.’ In fact, an alternative design in the Gothic style had been produced by Alexander and Henman of Stockton and Middlesbrough. As illustrated in the British Architect (vol.3, 1875, p68), the building is seen in conjunction with the medieval church of St. John the Baptist, suggesting that the neo-Gothic design was meant to accord with the historic building. The image also depicts the monument to the engineer George Stephenson, but this Grecian statue has been displaced to the margins – the statue stares away blankly, as if oblivious to the upsurge of Gothic ornament behind it. Designed by Gothic specialists, this alternative design attempted to stage a Gothic coup in Newcastle.
Alexander and Henman’s unexecuted design for the Union Club.
Newcastle and Gateshead Gas Company Offices, designed by John Johnstone 1884-6.
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. Andrew Greg has pointed out that the details, if not the overall form, are derived from the famous château at Chambord, a potent source of influence which 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.’
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