Three Underrated Victorian Architects
Keywords: Victorian architects, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Benjamin Simpson, Thomas Oliver, Oliver and Leeson, Collingwood Buildings, Emerson Chambers, Sun Insurance Company, Joseph Oswald, Central Exchange
This article examines the work of three Victorian architects in the city of Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Benjamin Simpson was Newcastle’s most eccentric architect. His most extravagant building was Emerson Chambers (1903) in Blackett Street. This was designed as a restaurant for the brewer Robert Emerson. Emerson Chambers is an eruption of Baroque and Art Nouveau devices assembled into an overpowering agglomeration. Simpson’s work is marked by bizarre contortions of Classical elements. For example, here the keystones of the arches have become the bases of the windows above. The columns are stunted, as if they have been compressed by the weight. This represents the pinnacle of Newcastle’s commercial architecture and forms one of the most exuberant buildings in the city. Art Nouveau woodwork was woven over the plate glass of the shop front, reminding us that local architects were attentive to the latest artistic impulses.
Simpson’s trademark was the bizarre copper beehive motifs. He designed a building for the Newcastle and Gosforth Tram Company. This was actually a power station that generated the electricity used by the trams. It exhibits Simpson’s characteristic copper ‘beehive’ motifs.
Thomas Oliver Jr.
An important firm of Newcastle architects was Oliver and Leeson, who designed the Collingwood Buildings (1899) on Collingwood Street. This is wedged into an unusual site at the angle between Collingwood Street and Pudding Chare. It rises like the prow of a ship, responding to the site. This was commissioned as a hotel, but it was later converted into a bank and it’s now a bar. It has a grandiose façade, with arches of grey granite on the ground floor. The most striking feature is the corner drum that surges through all five storeys and terminates with a grand dormer.
Across the street is the office of the Sun Insurance Company, by the same architects, Oliver and Leeson (1902-4). The Sun was the world’s oldest insurance company and it had a very distinct corporate identity. Solar symbolism pervades the exterior. You have sunflower motifs on the pilasters. It also has sun emblems on the wrought iron balconies and a golden sunburst that fills the open pediment of this elevation. The dramatic doorway is flanked by figures of Atlas, which serve as emblems of strength and vigour. It’s using the human figure as architectural elements, which was very common in the Edwardian period.
Oliver and Leeson also designed the Cathedral Buildings, with their grotesque vampire rabbit.
Another Victorian giant by this firm was Milburn House for the shipbuilder William Milburn. The building stands in the shadow of the Piranesian railway bridge, forming one of the most sublime views in Newcastle.
Another interesting figure was Joseph Oswald. The Central Exchange was part of the Grainger development, but was damaged by fire in 1901. The building was reconstructed and transformed into the Central Arcade, which became Newcastle’s premier retail. Joseph Oswald and Son were the architects who carried out the conversion. Within the arcade, the walls were lined with faïence tiling that fuses Renaissance decoration with Art Nouveau details.
Joseph Oswald designed pubs throughout Newcastle and the North East, such as the Beehive in the Bigg Market (1902), where he made extensive use of glazed tiles. He also designed the head offices for Newcastle Breweries, on Newgate Street.
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