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Edward Schröeder Prior: A singular talent of a neglected period

David Valinsky’s self-published collection of writings throws new light on a forgotten architect

The architecture of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain is not well served by the presently available literature. Stuart Gray’s magisterial Edwardian Architecture: A Biographical Dictionary, has been out of print for almost 30 years while the work of a number of very significant figures of the era − most glaringly Arthur Beresford Pite and John James Joass − has yet to receive the attention of a monographic overview. The name of Edward Schröeder Prior (1857-1932) is another that might be added to that list, although here the oversight is perhaps less surprising. Even at the time of his death, Prior’s reputation rested more on his work as an educator than as a practising architect, most notably his role as Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge, in which capacity he established the university’s School of Architecture. David Valinsky’s fascinating new book makes no claim to be a comprehensive survey of Prior’s work but it does offer a first substantial introduction to the range of Prior’s activities, not least a highly individual body of built work that warrants far more attention than it has received to date.

One reason why his architectural achievements are perhaps not better known is their extraordinary stylistic diversity. Prior drew freely on Byzantine, Gothic, Classical and vernacular sources, indeed frequently combined them to disconcerting effect in a single project. The Barn in Exmouth (1897) − one of his better-known buildings, thanks to its inclusion in Muthesius’s Das Englische Haus − is a case in point. With its thatched roof and randomly coursed walls incorporating sea-washed stones dragged up from the nearby beach, the design communicates a strong attachment to the Devon vernacular but in its pioneering use of the butterfly plan presents a Classical formality too. Prior’s alternation of areas of free fenestration and symmetrically composed facades compounds the highly ambiguous sense of expression.

The overt builderliness that we encounter in The Barn proves one common denominator connecting Prior’s diverse oeuvre. He is invariably concerned with the use of local materials, but in later projects such as Voewood, a 1905 house in Norfolk, and the building that is arguably his masterpiece − St Andrew’s Church in Roker (1907) − he begins to explore the expressive possibilities of in-situ concrete. Significantly both were delivered without recourse to a principal contractor − the contributions of local craftsmen were rather coordinated by the young architect Randall Wells acting as on-site clerk of works. That working method allowed Prior to cultivate a quality that was always at the forefront of his concerns: the highly textured wall surface. He addresses the interest in an 1889 lecture, entitled ‘Texture as a Quality of Art and a Condition for Architecture’, which forms one of nine of his texts included in Valinsky’s book.  In a voice that suggests the strong influence of Ruskin’s thinking and rhetoric, he argues: ‘Texture is a magical garment when well woven, it can throw over the bricks and stone a veil which softens their outline, half concealing and adding mystery to beauty, giving our puny heaps something of the effect of Nature’s monuments.’

Roker

St Andrew’s Church in Roker (1907) is arguably Prior’s masterpiece

The texts that Valinsky has gathered − a number of which first appeared in The Architectural Review − all share a strongly polemical tone. The threatened professionalisation of architecture, the stipulation that Liverpool’s new Anglican cathedral should be built in a Gothic manner and the programme of decoration being undertaken at St Paul’s Cathedral by the artist William Richmond are all subjected to Prior’s blistering scorn. The story that, while articled to Norman Shaw, he wrapped a fellow pupil in brown paper and string and left him on the hall table for the family who lived above the office to discover, supports the sense of a rather overbearing, not to say bullying, character.  Writing at the time of Prior’s death, Beresford Pite framed the case more generously, observing that he had been a man who ‘loved controversy and was not to be convinced against his will [resulting in] his sincere affection for his friends being as often manifested by disagreement with as by acceptance of their opinions’.

One hopes that Prior might recognise Valinsky as a man after his own heart, for while the author’s enthusiasm for his subject radiates through the book he proves a penetrating critic too, picking apart inconsistencies of position in Prior’s writing and offering admirably measured critiques of the buildings. Developed from his research as an MPhil student at Cambridge, the book has been designed very beautifully by the author and self-published in a short run. He notes that a full monograph of Prior’s work is currently in production but Valinsky’s own contribution is certain to establish itself as a key text in the literature of this neglected period of British architecture and a vital introduction to the work of one of its most awkward and singular talents.

An Architect Speaks

Author: David Valinsky

Publisher: Shaun Tyas Press

An Architect Speaks, selected and introduced by David Valinsky is available from the RIBA bookshop or can be ordered at anarchitectspeaks@gmail.com

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