Three Men, One City
Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867) was one of the most successful architects of the British Regency period, best remembered for Greek Revival masterpieces such as the Covent Garden Theatre (1808-1810) and the British Museum (1823-1846). The sheer volume of his practice’s output was accredited to his skills as a client-friendly businessman, and secured his rapid ascendancy – joining Nash and Soane as Government architect to the Office of Works in 1815, despite being nearly 30 years their junior. He is best known in Bristol as the designer of the Old Council Chambers (1824-1827), built on a prime site on the corner of Broad Street and Corn Street opposite John Wood the Elder’s Corn Exchange.
Charles Cockerell (1788-1863) is less well remembered today, despite being the first recipient of the RIBA Gold Medal in 1848, and the first professional president of the Institute in 1860. Cockerell learnt the language of Greek Revial in the studio of Smirke in the years before his grand tour (1810-1817), during which time he studied Grecian antiquity exhaustively at first hand (including his identification of the use of entasis at the Parthenon), and developed his exceptional draughtsmanship. An early work of his for the Bristol Literary & Philosophical Society can be seen on Park Street (1821-1823), as well as a more confident ecclesiastical design at Holy Trinity in Hotwells six years later (1829-1830). His surviving correspondence from this period records his apparent battle against the professional dominance of his former master, but ultimately he pays tribute to Smirke – writing to him in 1846 commending his influence by stating ‘my dear maestro… you are truly the grandfather of all my creations’.
Richard Shackleton Pope (1792-1884) began his architectural learning as a young clerk in Smirke’s studio, before joining Cockerell’s practice in 1817. He was responsible for the delivery of Cockerell’s Philosohical Institute in Bristol, and stayed on after its completion to establish his own practice in a city that was famous for hiring architects from within its own ranks (Wood, Smirke and Cockerell being almost the only exceptions for 80 years). His 50 year career in Bristol had a remarkable impact on the city (understandable given his title of District Surveyor from 1831 to 1872), and many of the most recognisable local landmarks were designed by Pope and his collaborators: Bush House (now the Arnolfini) 1830, The Wool Hall (home to aptly named music venue The Fleece) 1830, Great Western Hotel (designed in collaboration with Brunel) 1838, St.Mary on the Quay 1846, Vivian Terrace 1847, Bristol Guildhall Court 1843 and Bristol Assize Court 1867. Pope was even responsible for extending his old master’s Council Chambers building less than 5 years after Smirke’s design was completed.
I am intrigued by these connections and the descendent lineage of masters and apprentices, tracing identifiable ideas as they overlap and develop, or even where style and fashion causes a younger generation to reject the convention of those beneath whom they rose (although in actuality all three men were born just 12 years apart). The strands that bind these three architects are particularly apparent due to the fact that they all built in such close proximity to each other in Bristol – the shared ideas leaving a deep and comprehensive imprint on the fabric of the city.
At Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios we are very lucky to have gotten to know these great men more intimately, through the first-hand examination of their built works: Smirke during our works at Lowther Castle, Pope at his Guildhall and Assize Court, and Cockerell with his Bank of England Branch on the adjacent plot. By understanding as much as we can about the cultural contexts within which these buildings were designed, and the social contexts within which their architects operated, we can start to see how and why key decisions and gestures were made. This allows us to unravel complex design ideas and identify the areas of highest significance, guiding us in our reuse works which seek to honour the survival of those original concepts and inspirations.