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Book Review: The Architecture of Sharpe, Paley and Austin by Geoff Brandwood

Chris Satori
Academic and expert on Victorian architecture Geoff Brandwood has followed his 1997 book on the work of Temple Moore with this history of the Sharpe, Paley and Austin firm, which practiced from its offices in Lancaster from 1835 to the early 20th century. Six years in the making, Brandwood’s enthusiasm for his subject is reflected in the depth and detail of the work which contains lengthy appendices, including a definitive catalogue of all the firm’s work and projects.

Many Lancastrians will have noticed the blue plaque commemorating the offices of Sharpe, Paley and Austin on the Georgian facade facing Lancaster Castle. The multi-talented Edmund Sharpe founded the practice in 1835, following a 3 year “grand tour”, studying architecture on the continent. Joined in 1838 by Edward Paley then Hubert Austin in 1867, the practice grew and flourished toward the later part of the 19th century as the wealth generated by the industrial revolution allowed the late Victorians to express their values and aspirations.

The practice was extremely prolific and undertook commissions for many public buildings as well as fine churches. Their work was concentrated in Lancashire and what is now South Lakeland and for many the real interest of the book will lie in its local relevance. Mark Watson’s photographs lavishly illustrate the quantity and diversity of designs realised by the firm which, as a provincial practice, supported grand ecclesiastical projects like St Peter’s cathedral in Lancaster and Holker Hall with “bread and butter” work including shops, pubs and schools. They designed modern (for the time), functional buildings for the Furness Railway Company and referenced the architecture of the past, notably the Gothic style but also Elizabethan and Jacobean, and were influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement.

It is astonishing and really quite fascinating to realise the amount of buildings that we see and use every day that were built by Sharpe, Paley and Austin. I never before connected the turrets and domes of the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and the Storey Institute with the domed house on the corner of Sibsey Street and Westbourne Road but having read Brandwood’s book the link seems obvious. I’ve often looked at this intriguing home and imagined what it might be like to live there. It was originally a Co-op store, as was the magnificent building on the corner of Church and New Street. And who knew that Lancaster’s “bottom Weatherspoon’s” (as opposed to “top Weatherspoon’s”) was once the workshop and showroom of cycle and car manufacturer William Atkinson? Shame there’s no picture of the John O’Gaunt vehicle produced by the company.

The firm’s success in the North West, achieved without the prestige of having practised in London, meant that they never felt the need to move elsewhere and Brandwood makes much of their being “of The North”. Sharpe, Paley and Austin won national recognition, in particular for their churches. The convention at the time was for leading firms of architects to gravitate towards the capital, echoing the London-centric culture of the present.

The men behind this body of work are glimpsed in the book. Tim Austin, great-grandson of Hubert Austin, made a significant contribution to the book and his archives and family photographs give human faces to the story’s characters. Edmund Sharpe’s many interests and enterprises are described in great detail and portray a man motivated by philanthropy who used his talent and status to instigate reform. He was at the forefront of the improvement of “Lancaster’s woeful sanitation” which had led to an outbreak of cholera, and purchased the the Theatre Royal, now 'The Grand', refurbishing it to house a museum and music hall, for the education and entertainment of the people.

His strong Low Church sympathies are reflected in one of his last designs, St Paul’s in Scotforth. Built to serve his own community, the nave is filled with pews, preventing procession and discouraging “popish pomp and ceremony”.

Published by English Heritage, the book costs a rather pricey £50, so you may prefer to order it at the Library. Its thoroughness and detail make it a remarkable account of how one firm and its principals influenced the architectural landscape of the North West, and it gives an interesting insight into Victorian history and its legacy.

A review by Sian Peters for Virtual Lancaster
June 2012

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