One imagines there aren’t many architects whose birthday would compel Google to commission one of their special commemorative ‘doodles’ in their honour. But Sir George Gilbert Scott, who would have turned 200 today, is one. The great Victorian architect is one of the most prolific this country has ever produced and has bequeathed us an incredible portfolio of close to 800 new and restored buildings stretching from Britain to New Zealand. Moreover, his cultural influence was immense as he, arguably more than any other architect (including the visionary but maniacal Pugin) gave voice to the Victorian obsession with Gothic and forged an idealised romantic association with Britain’s medieval past that survives to this day.
Scott’s roll call of works is extraordinary. London houses three of his greatest achievements, the gilded Albert Memorial, the palatial Foreign Office and, perhaps most famously, the fantastical, riotous orgy that is the recently restored Grand Midland Hotel at St. Pancras Station. Elsewhere he designed scores of public buildings, churches, houses and workhouses, renovated dozens of cathedrals and brought his ebullient brand of Gothic romanticism to sites as far afield as Germany, India, Canada and South Africa.
Unlike many great architects, Scott was also a pragmatist as well as an idealist. When handed the plum commission to design the Foreign Office on Whitehall, Lord Palmserston, the then prime minister and no fan of Gothic, demanded the building be completed in the classical style. (Just imagine a Cameron, Thatcher or Blair taking such as interest in architecture today!) Unfazed, Scott essentially moved his preferred design from Whitehall to Euston Road and re-named it St. Pancras. But on top of that, working out of his preferred style, in the Foreign Office as built he created a magnificent, sculpted Italianate super-palazzo that stands as one of Europe’s grandest government offices.
Scott’s contribution to architecture didn’t just stop within his own lifetime; he also doubled as the Blake Carrington of English architecture by siring a veritable dynasty of architects that came after him. Two of his sons, George Gilbert Scott Jnr. and John Oldrid Scott were also architects. He was a great-uncle to Elisabeth Scott, arguably England’s first prominent female architect and the designer of the first Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Elisabeth’s third cousin is Richard Gilbert Scott, architect of modern and post-modern extensions to London’s Guildhall in the 1970s and 1990s respectively. And Richard’s father, son of George Gilbert Scott Jnr. and brother to architect Adrian Gilbert Scott, was the great Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of Liverpool Cathedral, Waterloo Bridge, Battersea Power Station, what is now the Tate Modern and the famous K2-series red telephone boxes. Incredibly, Sir George Gilbert Scott’s sprawling family has been influential in every period of English architecture for almost 200 years.
So if you happen to find yourself waiting for a train at St. Pancras today or, rather more exotically, milling around the Great Hall at Bombay University or even donating a penny for the campaign to rebuild New Zealand’s earthquake-damaged Christchurch Cathedral, spare a thought for a man who contributed so much to British architecture and the Gothic Revival both here and abroad and join me in wishing the great man a very Happy Birthday.