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Material values

masters of building: Concrete, flint, stone and tile are combined to richly decorative effect in one of the finest houses of the Arts and Crafts movement - E S Prior’s Home Place in Norfolk

When Edward Schroeder Prior died in August 1932 an era died with him. He was one of the last living members of Richard Norman Shaw’s office, which, during the last decades of the nineteenth century, had included a remarkable number of distinguished designers who were to point British architecture in a new direction. Shaw was a rare master. As his biographer Andrew Saint wrote: ‘Once the pupils had shown seriousness of purpose Shaw would give them rein [including] the freedom young talents asked for and too rarely got - the freedom of responsibility and design.’1

 

Among the architects that Shaw’s office nurtured were Ernest Newton, W R Lethaby, and Prior - ‘A triumvirate of eminent, disparate talents,’ wrote Saint, with the young Prior ‘perhaps the most gifted of them all.’2 The author of Prior’s obituary in The Architect and Building News also emphasised the extraordinary importance of Shaw, ‘a regenerating factor in British architecture in the late nineteenth century’; whose pupils became the ‘nucleus of the movement’ that brought about a major and beneficial change in British architecture.3

 

Arts and Crafts

 

The change manifested itself most clearly in that diverse late phase of the Gothic Revival - the Arts and Crafts movement - which looked to sources such as the ‘Old English’ timber-frame tradition and the country’s rich vein of vernacular building. Indeed, it was the appreciation of sixteenth and seventeenth century modest vernacular building - Classical as well as Gothic in detail - which gave the Arts and Crafts movement its distinct visual character.

 

Buildings of this type - asymmetrical, with a rich mix of regional materials and details rooting them to their location - were seen as possessing an honest functional relationship between design, construction, materials and place. History and precedent were looked at in a different way from before. Historical reference was still acceptable (even desirable), but the vernacular prototypes drawn on by C F A Voysey and Lethaby, and the creative way in which they were used, was something new.

 

Their work involved the inventive interpretation of modest domestic prototypes of a kind which had never been closely studied before, as well as a creative mixing of sources. More important still, these young architects were willing to utilise the potential of new building materials and construction techniques, and were ready to investigate and experiment with new plan types and building forms.

 

Older members of the Gothic Revival - Philip Webb, William Butterfield, Alfred Waterhouse and George Gilbert Scott - had already pioneered aspects of this approach, but it was left to Prior’s generation to fulfil the promise. It was this readiness and ability to realise radical new ideas that distinguished Shaw’s pupils from the innovative members of the earlier generation of Goths such as E W Godwin. Godwin may have written in 1875 that ‘the day of architectural revivals may be setting - I for one sincerely hope it is,’4 but his work actually expressed little of this radical attitude - perhaps his clients would have none of it.

 

Godwin’s long-lost White House in Tite Street, Chelsea for Whistler, with its simple horizontal lines and asymmetrical entrance elevation reflecting the disposition of interior spaces, has often been hailed as a harbinger of twentieth-century Modernism. Nikolaus Pevsner, for example, in his 1936 Pioneers of the Modern Movement praised it as one of the most interesting houses of its age - ‘original, challenging and witty’.5 Yet its simple lines and asymmetry were really a form of historicism and architectural revivalism - albeit one inspired by Japan rather than European Gothic. Moreover, it contained much attenuated Classical detailing (as did all of Godwin’s late works in Chelsea), and materials and construction were entirely traditional. In the work of Prior the exciting sentiments expressed by Godwin were to be realised more fully.

 

An eminent Victorian

 

Prior, born in 1854, was something of an original. He went to Harrow and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he was an athletics blue. He could have been taken for yet one more hearty and bluff product of late-Victorian public school and Cambridge culture. But he was far more curious and paradoxical, possessing the apparently contradictory qualities found in a number of eminent Victorians.

 

As well as a successful athlete, Prior was a profoundly sensitive and thoughtful artist and - as his perceptive writings on Gothic architecture reveal - an inquiring and original thinker. Prior also seems to have been an eccentric and prankster in the best British tradition. His oddball antics at Shaw’s office are well described by Saint: ‘He would take off his trousers one day in the office because they were wet, or on another occasion he would tie up O’Neill, one of the dimmer pupils, in a brown paper parcel and leave him in the lobby.’6

 

Prior was articled to Shaw in 1874 and by 1878 was clerk of works at St Margaret’s Church and a house, St John’s, both of which were being erected to Shaw’s designs in Ilkley, Yorkshire. The fact that Prior was given this responsibility suggests his rapid grasp of the practicalities of building. The education he received in Shaw’s office was supplemented by sketching tours (with Lethaby and Newton) in England, Belgium and France.

 

By 1880 Prior felt confident enough to set up his own practice and, initially, produced buildings much in the manner of Shaw’s Old English and Queen Anne styles, such as High Grove at Eastcote, Harrow (1880-81). During the first half of the 1880s Prior’s growing fascination and respect for vernacular architecture - no doubt fuelled by Webb’s works and writings - began to distinguish his work from Shaw’s.

 

West Bay, Bridport

 

A fascinating example of Prior’s early individualistic work is his design for a terrace of lodging houses and hotel for a seaside site in West Bay, near Bridport, Dorset. The location is significant. During the 1880s Prior and his artistic set held a sort of informal summer school at Bridport. As The Architect and Buildings News put it: ‘The inner ring would repair’, with a collection of current publications, to keep ‘itself abreast of contemporary architectural thought at home and abroad’.7

 

Prior had connections with the neighbourhood through his maternal grandfather, which perhaps helped him secure the commission to design the terrace in West Bay for Bridport Harbour and the Bridport Land and Building Company8. Prior’s terrace, with its holiday accommodation and hotel, was intended to turn the little fishing village into a holiday resort of the type taking shape along the north Norfolk coast.

 

He designed it in 1884 and it was a remarkable affair. The initial design shows a composition of urban scale with vernacular Classical detail of seventeenth-century character and a dazzling array of gables, bays and jetties. It may be partly inspired by Shaw’s New Zealand Chambers, Leadenhall Street (1873) - which had oriel windows of early seventeenth-century type - and anticipates by 10 years C R Ashbee’s famous (but far tamer) houses on Chelsea’s riverside.

 

Prior’s terrace was to be constructed in an astonishing variety of materials, many of them local and used in the local manner. They are described on the drawings: ‘stone slabs, Portland stone rubble, local stone or concrete rough casted’, with tiles for both wall-hanging and for the roof. This initial richly-detailed scheme was not built and when construction started in 1885 it was on a far simpler and bolder composition. Prior’s major reference appears to have shifted from highly individual seventeenth-century terraced houses to - appropriately, given the harbourside site - a warehouse.

 

In the process, most historical detail was abandoned. Gables and eaves cornices were replaced by a massive gambrel roof, formed of two separate pitches and incorporating the top-floor windows in its lower slope. Ogee- roofed oriels were replaced by simple bay windows while materials were limited to rubble walling with dressed stone openings, traditional tile- hanging on the bays and Roman tiles for the roof.

 

Despite the reduction in complexity, the design remains far from simple. Prior appears to be demonstrating that an apparently austere terrace can be given movement and presence merely by the way in which windows are formed, detailed and disposed. This is, of course, what speculative house- builders had been doing in Britain’s towns and countryside for over 200 years, such as in a number of fine Georgian houses - which must have been well known to Prior - standing in nearby Bridport High Street.

 

The Georgian technique was to vary window depth, but not width, on each floor to proportions ranging from 1:1 for attic windows to 2:1 or even 3:1 for the first-floor piano nobile. Prior takes this design tradition and subtly transforms it, making every storey, as Christophe Grillet puts it, ‘a surprise in itself’.9 On the ground floor of the main elevation there are no doors, which are instead placed within wide stone arches set in the rear elevation. Meanwhile the windows, of different sizes and proportions and with varying sill heights, give the impression that, in medieval manner, they reflect the varied scale, importance and use of the rooms they serve. This variety was, no doubt, intended to simulate the character of local vernacular buildings but appears somewhat bizarre in a large scale and essentially formal terrace.

 

On the first floor Prior hung pairs of mullioned and transomed bay windows between pairs of narrow windows, with each pair of bays divided between neighbouring houses. On the second floor, windows are large, oblong, mullioned and transomed and uniform with the fourth floor windows, tucked within the roof.

 

In his initial design - conceived as a terrace of individual houses - each house stepped up towards the sea. In the design as built Prior still responds to the sloping terrain, but in a much more mechanical manner. The horizontal composition is divided into two sections (the third section of the terrace nearest the sea is a later addition), with the section nearer the sea rising slightly higher than its neighbour.

 

The butterfly plan

 

Prior was not to start work on Home Place, Norfolk, for nearly 20 years after the West Bay terrace was completed. In fact, given his energy, determination and commitment to architecture, not a great deal happened in the years between these two projects - no doubt partly due to the economic recession which slowed building during the 1890s. But the commissions that Prior won, and the buildings that he designed and completed, mark a fascinating route to the creation of Home Place.

 

Byron Cross, designed for a site in Harrow in 1891, appears to be a wilful exercise in the avoidance of right-angled interior spaces, with the plan having an almost organic form.10 This experiment was followed by the first of Prior’s butterfly or X-plan houses - a form for which he developed something of a passion.

 

The butterfly-plan house became a vogue in Britain through the 1890s and up to the First World War. Its curious story has been told in detail by Jill Franklin11 who points out that the form enjoyed its first major nineteenth-century manifestation at Chesters, a house remodelled in 1891 by Shaw. The plan largely came about as a pragmatic solution to the problem of enlarging an existing 1770s house without robbing it of vistas or light. Shaw set new rooms diagonal to, and on three corners of, the oblong original house. Existing prospects were preserved while the rooms in the new wings also enjoyed spectacular and uninterrupted views of the surrounding countryside.

 

The architectural language used at Chesters was Classical, with more than a touch of Beaux Arts pomp, and the fact that he was working in the Classical tradition allowed Shaw to deal deftly with a major problem intrinsic to houses of butterfly form: namely, the awkward triangular internal spaces left between the wings and the central portion of the house, and the potentially awkward external junctions between diagonal wings and the rectangular main body.

 

At Chesters, Shaw transformed the triangular spaces between wings and house into elegant apsidal lobbies, while potentially awkward external junctions between wings and house were either concealed by means of doors and stairs or, on one elevation, by a giant curving colonnade, so that main house and wings form a gigantic Classical crescent.

 

Prior’s imagination was plainly gripped by this novel plan-form devised by his old master12 Three years later, in 1895, he came up with the second butterfly-plan house of the 1890s, now transformed from a Beaux Arts composition to the informal, essentially Gothic, vernacular manner beloved of the Arts and Crafts movement.

 

Prior’s design took the form of a ‘large scale’ model and drawings for display in the Royal Academy exhibition. It was merely described as being for a site in Dorset and appears to have been a theoretical project rather than an actual commission. Plans and a photograph of the model survive in the riba drawings collection13, and reveal that Prior was well able to realise the potential of the plan and resolve its problems.

 

The central portion of the house was reduced in scale and contained only one major room - the hall - which was to be screened from the front door by a substantial wall incorporating the hall fireplace. The entrance elevation was framed by diagonal wings set at 45degrees to the central portion of the house, containing service rooms with minor bedrooms above. Meanwhile the garden elevation, complete with a miniature rustic colonnade, was framed by large wings with canted bay windows. These contained the main reception rooms.

 

The junction between the diagonal wings and the central body of the house was resolved by making the entire ground floor of the central portion into one room. The oblong central portion was to rise to double-height while the lower, flanking, triangular spaces were simply expressed as eccentrically shaped vestibules - something Prior could get away with in a house conceived in a relaxed vernacular style.

 

The Barn and the ‘savage’

 

This Royal Academy model was clearly persuasive. Within the year Prior was commissioned to build a butterfly-plan house in the cottage-like vernacular manner for a site in Exmouth, Devon. The result is The Barn (1896-97) - one of the most individual country houses built during the last decades of the nineteenth century.

 

It is based very closely on the ra design but with a number of significant improvements. It has the same pair of reception rooms breaking forward at 45degrees from the central portion of the house, and the same strange half- hexagonal full-height bay on the entrance front (which contained front door and stairs above), as well as the same rustic colonnade. But the handling of the central hall is more satisfactory.

 

The geometry of the wings penetrates to the heart of the house to create a hall which is diamond-shaped at ground level with an oblong central portion rising to form a dramatic double-height space, in the manner of a medieval great hall.

 

The Barn is well oriented to its sloping coastal site, and enjoys fine views. Prior’s methods and materials of construction are also significant. A combination of local stones was used - ashlar with boulders and sea pebbles - to create what Peter Davey correctly observes is the sense of ‘savagery’ recommended by John Ruskin.14 In volume three of his Stones of Venice (1853), Ruskin had made a harsh attack on the design and construction of Classical buildings, while praising the Gothic. His observations established ground rules for the Gothic Revival and served as an inspiration for many a would-be Goth.

 

As Ruskin argued: ‘You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines and forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you will find his work perfect of its kind; but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.’15

 

It was this human imperfection, this creative individuality, which Ruskin saw as an ideal and which he characterised as ‘savage’; and it was this unlikely and elusive ideal which Prior must surely have been attempting to realise in his walling. At The Barn, Prior also used concrete for floors, reinforced by tree trunks, and treated the picturesque thatch with an ‘incombustible solution’. Unfortunately neither this ‘solution’ nor the concrete floors proved of much use when The Barn caught fire in 1905 and was left a gutted shell.

 

To understand the masterly manner in which Prior resolved the plan of The Barn - where potential difficulties are turned to good and dramatic effect through the integration and penetration of spaces - it is only necessary to look at a slightly later butterfly-plan house. Happisburgh Manor, Norfolk, was designed in 1900 by Detmar Blow with the participation of Ernest Gimson, who is supposed to have suggested the use of a butterfly plan. 16

 

It is an attractive house, detailed and constructed in the local vernacular manner, but by comparison with The Barn the plan is simplistic. Jill Franklin argues that this is partly because the house was intended only for seaside holidays, and thus Blow thought it appropriate to devise a simple plan in which uses (such as entrance hall and dining room) were combined. Consequently the centre portion of the house at ground level contains merely the single- storey hall-cum-dining room, which is flanked by triangular spaces crammed with corridors, staircases and triangular entrance vestibules. The four wings are simply set diagonally (at an angle of 60degrees) off the corridors beside the hall.

 

Within a few years of the completion of Happisburgh Manor, Prior won a commission to design a house in the same vicinity. Like Blow before him, he decided to build using local materials and means of construction and to employ a butterfly plan.

 

Home Place, Norfolk

 

Home Place, a couple of miles along the coast road from Holt, is Prior’s most successful domestic work and, with his St Andrew’s, Roker, Sunderland of 1905, marks the highpoint of his architectural achievement.

 

Constructed between 1904 and 1906 for the Rev P R Lloyd, Home Place is an expression of Prior’s key thoughts on the theory and practice of architecture. It reveals his attitude to the use of architectural history and precedent in contemporary design, and is a powerful demonstration that the process by which a building is constructed is as important as the way in which it is designed.

 

The author of a perceptive piece published in Country Life in November 1909 pointed out that Home Place was, in many ways, a built demonstration of the principles of Gothic architecture, and vernacular design and construction, that Prior had often discussed in his articles and books.17 As this Country Life author observed: ‘Mr Prior has written that the generative principle of Gothic may perhaps be rightly, if roughly, generalised as economy of material’ - an observation which underpinned Prior’s strong conviction ‘that a house should not be a design but a building, conditioned not only by the needs of the man who will live in it, but by the local experiences of construction.’ 18

 

From this conviction follows Prior’s ‘disregard of conscious styles and manners’ and his determination to use as building material ‘what is most economical in the neighbourhood’. The result of this use of available building materials depends, said Country Life, ‘on the common sense and good feeling of the man who devises their use, (but) the one thing to be avoided is any capricious following of fashion, for it will destroy sincerity.’

 

Prior made his position clear in a series of articles he wrote for The Architectural Review, notably in one of 1901 when discussing proposals for a new cathedral in Liverpool. He recommended that an architect should be no more than the supervisor and the selector of building materials with the detail design being left to ‘grow’ from the efforts of the. chief craftsmen of the major trades.19 This is, of course, the logical conclusion to the views expressed earlier by William Morris and, to an extent, by Ruskin, and represents - in essence - the ultimate, if radical, aim of the Arts and Crafts movement.

 

The application of these, and other, theories and principles in the design and construction of Home Place resulted in a building that remains a thrill - and still something of a shock - to visit.

 

Materials from the site

 

Having secured the commission, Prior’s first decision was to excavate building materials from the site: an exploration that coincided with the desire to create a sheltered - and thus sunken - garden on the south side of the house. An acre of land was excavated to a depth of almost 2m, and a variety of building materials obtained - flint pebbles, gravel and sand. As Country Life pointed out: ‘Mr Prior is a staunch protagonist in the demand that a building shall be racy of [ie have the characteristics of] the soil it stands on.’ Prior was also prepared to utilise the potential offered by new building materials and methods where appropriate. Rarely can principles and convictions have been so literally and successfully applied in building.

 

The availability of gravel suggested the use of concrete for the main construction. Larger flint pebbles became the material for facing the concrete (thus following the local vernacular tradition for flint pebble walling), with the sand used for the mortar. To add a certain variety, and to make the existing materials work more effectively, Prior imported small quantities of warm brown stone from Sandringham for quoins and window dressings, while flat tiles and pantiles were used for walling details, chimney stacks and for covering the roof.

 

At first tiles came from a local brickyard but it proved unable to match the demand, so eventually Prior bought in the tiles from Cambridgeshire. Good hand-made facing bricks were unknown around Holt by 1900, so Prior was forced to import brick, which he used for concealed internal works.

 

The result was not just a building ‘racy’ of its site and of local vernacular appearance but also a construction of great economy. This excited Country Life - ‘after adding the cost of the stone and tile-brick dressings, the wall areas were built at almost 25 shillings per cube yard, a lower cost than would obtain with ordinary stock brickwork’ - and impressed The Architectural Review. The magazine’s illustrated account of Home Place in February 1906 pointed out that, while the excavation, sorting and distribution of the won material cost £965, its value was ‘close upon £900’.20

 

Master of works

 

The construction methods and the organisation of the work were also unusual and reflected a number of Prior’s key principles. In an attempt to return to the ancient practice of having a master craftsman in charge of construction - an arrangement which Prior hoped would reforge links between designer, craftsmen and builders, and bring greater commitment and creative contribution from the entire building team - Prior appointed a resident master or clerk of works, rather than put the project in the hands of a general contractor.

 

The master of works was to engage craftsmen, buy materials when needed, and supervise tradesmen and craftsmen. As Country Life observed, if the master of works is ‘a man of artistic judgement, he will be able to interpret the architect’s intentions as to the facing of brickwork, the surface of plaster or the way an oak beam is wrought.’ Small points, perhaps, but these ‘qualities of texture in a building give or destroy that sense of vitality and thoughtful workmanship which illuminates the great work of past days.’

 

Clearly much of the success of this approach depended on the quality of the master of works, and Prior was extremely fortunate in securing the talented young architect Randall Wells. He had worked as Lethaby’s site agent or clerk of works in 1901 during the construction on All Saints, Brockhampton, Herefordshire.

 

Prior clearly recognised that Wells’ contribution to the project was significant, not only because it increased quality but also because it reduced costs. Wells’ organising skills meant that a general contractor - and his profit mark-up on materials and labour - were avoided. The success of the collaboration at Home Place was such that, as soon as the house was complete, Prior employed Wells in the same role for the construction of St Andrew’s, Roker.

 

Most modern construction

 

The construction methods used at Home Place are fascinating. The foundations, external and some internal walls, floors, and even some parts of the roof structure were formed with concrete made from local lime and material from the site. Board-marking from the timber moulds into which the concrete was poured is visible in the vaulted roof of the entrance vestibule and on the ceiling of the passage below the dining room. Most internal surfaces were, however, clad with machine-made brick and plastered.

 

The Architectural Review points out that the floors are of ‘concrete without steel joists but reinforced with iron chainage’, while Country Life believed that the ceiling beams of the dining room (‘perhaps the least successful room… which is a thought too studiously plain’) are concrete reinforced with iron rods - ‘a flash of most modern construction’.

 

The arrangement of the masonry cladding over the concrete walls of Home Place is one of the wonders of the building and, in its relentless patterning with materials of different colours and textures, is a monument to the creative but controlled relationship Prior and Wells must have had with their masons and bricklayers. As at The Barn, it was an attempt to realise what Ruskin had termed ‘savage’ construction. Here are the large flint pebbles dug from the site mixed with tile and brick; here too is the Sandringham sandstone used for window heads and jambs, and to provide bond stones for connecting the facing to the concrete walling.

 

All is rough, lively, crafted, slightly coarse and clearly reminiscent of certain north Norfolk vernacular buildings. It also connects to the mid-nineteenth-century Gothic Revival passion of such architects as William Butterfield (much admired by Prior) for structural polychromy and for masonry elevations inspired by the random patterning and stratifications of geological sections. It all feels a trifle demented, restless, perhaps a little too quaint and self-conscious in the manner of Gaudi; but, despite some reservations, the total effect is emotionally satisfying and very characterful.

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