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In the Spotlight: George Gilbert Scott Junior

Since the subject of this month’s In the Spotlight is George Gilbert Scott Junior (1839-1897), arguably one of the least known of a family of prominent architects, one might be tempted to (unkindly) dub it ‘In the Shadows’. Scott’s father of the same name was a key figure in Victorian architecture’s Gothic Revival, and was responsible for the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, the Foreign Office, and the University of Glasgow’s Bute and Randolph Halls, along with many other domestic, public and ecclesiastical buildings. His son, Giles Gilbert Scott, was behind such ‘Gothic-modernist’ projects as Liverpool Cathedral, Battersea Power Station, Cambridge University Library and William Booth College in Denmark Hill, but is best remembered for having designed the iconic red London telephone box. His brother, John Scott, and remote cousin Elisabeth Scott, were also well-known architects of their respective generations.

Certainly George Gilbert Scott Junior had his own share of success, but he is less well remembered today, perhaps because two of his masterpieces (the Anglo-Catholic churches of All Hallows, Southwark and St Agnes, Kennington) were destroyed in the Blitz. The survival of a third signature ecclesiastical work (St John’s, Norwich, now a Roman Catholic diocesan cathedral) might be thought to be wryly appropriate in the light of his own conversion to Rome in 1880. Scott’s career was also disrupted by ill-health, both mental and physical, and alcoholism. Following a period of erratic, delusional and occasionally paranoid behaviour, he was admitted to Bethlem Hospital in July 1883. While in hospital, Scott commenced work on another of his ecclesiastical commissions, St Augustine’s Church in Hull. According to his modern biographer, the “notes [and] drawings made while he was confined were meticulously dated, as if to engage in academic or artistic activity…gave him a feeling of security and a hold on his sanity”.1

Three months after his admission, Scott escaped the Hospital and fled the country, but shortly afterwards returned to England and to hospital, though not this time to Bethlem. He spent the next ten years in and out of hospital, but continued to “devote his best energies” to his architectural work, his attacks having “not affected his business capacity at all”, as his brother John wrote to one worried client.2

Scott died of cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease at the age of 67, while resident at the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station (ironically another of his father's best known works, now restored and renamed the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel). The most affecting tribute to him came many years later, in his son Giles’ judgement of the respective professional merits of George Gilbert Senior and Junior: “Grandfather was the successful practical man, and a phenomenal scholar in Gothic precedent, but Father was the artist”.3