Saturday, 5 February 2011

Rediscovering Mr Railton

The revised version.

Recently, I've become curious about the architect of Nelson's Column, and how the designer of such a landmark could have become so strangely invisible - even the National Portrait Gallery, only yards from his most famous work has no image of him. I've pieced this account together from number of sources, mostly contemporary.

William Railton (c1801-1877) was a London architect, with offices at Carlton Chambers, 12, Regent Street for most of what was a comparatively short career.

He had been a pupil of William Inwood (1771-1843). Inwood worked both as a surveyor and an architect. The Dictionary of National Biography credits him with designs for "numerous mansions, villas, barracks, and warehouses", but he really only enters architectural history with a number of church designs done in collaboration with his son, Henry William Inwood. These were done in two styles - an academic, archaeologically researched classicism, typified by St Pancras New Church (1819-22) and a naïve, unhistorical gothic, at St Mary, Somers Town (1824-7). It was this latter tendency that Railton followed, at least in the beginning, in his ecclesiastical work.

In 1825 Railton set off for what the New Monthly Magazine described as "a professional tour in Greece and Egypt". On his way he stopped off at Corfu, where he watched the excavation of the Temple at Cardachio. On his return to England in 1829 he prepared drawings of the temple which were published as a supplementary volume to Stuart's Athens. The "professional tour" doesn't seem to have had a great impact on his career; Nelson's column may well have been his only executed classically inspired work.

He exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time in 1829, showing a design for Magdalene College Chapel, Oxford. This must have been made as part of an entry for the competition held that year for designs for the restoration of the chapel. It was won by L.N. Cottingham.

His earliest traceable executed buildings date from around 1830. Randalls was a neo-tudor house, since demolished, built near Leatherhead for Nathaniel Bland. St Peter's Church at Duddon, Cheshire, from about three years later is a cheap, simple brick church, in a vaguely Early English style, with lancet windows.

During the mid 1830s, Railton came into contact with Ambrose March Phillipps (1809-1878). He was the son of Charles March Phillipps, a Leicestershire landowner, who lived at Garendon Park, near Loughborough. Ambrose had coverted to catholicism at an early age, and had a vision of restoring England to it's medieval faith. On his marriage in 1833 his father had presented him with an estate of his own, known as "Grace Dieu" after the ruined monastery on the land. Ambrose had already shown a worrying interest in monasticism, and CM Phillips must have been relieved by his marriage. At Grace Dieu Railton built a stuccoed neo-Tudor mansion, complete with a private chapel. Meanwhile Ambrose Phillipps bought - with borrowed money - a tract of land in nearby Charnwood Forest to build a monastery for a community of trappist monks. This - Mount St Bernard - was to be the first monastery built in England since the reformation. For it, Railton designed a church, with monastic buildings, the latter once again in a neo-Tudor style. Railton's buildings were replaced a couple of years later with a much more ambitious monastic complex to plans by AWN Pugin. They were in fact overambitious plans, as funds were never sufficent to complete them to the original design. Pugin was also invited to improve Grace Dieu, adding a tower and a service wing, and refitting the chapel. Though rejected by Ambrose Phillipps in favour of Pugin, who must have brought a certain religious enthusiasm to his task, Railton continued his connection to the Phillipps family, designing gatehouses and lodges for CM Phillipps at Garendon Park: these survive, though the house is gone.

Much of Railton's work was in this part of Leicestershire. In 1837-8, he built two identical churches at Copt Oak and Woodhouse Eaves - the Gentleman's Magazine saw them as a welcome counterbalance to the growth of Catholic influence, exemplified by the new monastery. From 1842, he built a house at Beaumanor, Woodhouse Eaves for the Herrick family. The medieval mansion there - refaced in about 1615 by Sir William Herrick- had been replaced with a classical house in the early 18th century, and it seems that the Herricks wanted to reconnect with their past by rebuilding it in a neo-tudor style, albeit on the square plan of the classical house. Railton’s assistant, Thomas Morris was later to describe it as his master’s “crowning work.”

He designed further nearby Anglican churches at Groby (c 1840), and Thorpe Acre (1845), the latter on land donated by Charles March Phillipps.) He also carried out alterations at the church at Sheepshed, where CM Phillips was patron, and minor work for the Reverend Robert Martin -whose parish included Groby- at his mansion Anstey Pastures.

In 1836 he entered the competition to design new buildings for the Houses Of Parliament, to replace those destroyed by fire winning the fourth prize of £500 The first prize was won by Charles Barry, who was later to design the layout of Trafalgar Square .Barry did this in full knowledge of Railton's plans for Nelson's Column, but still felt the Square would be better without it.

In April 1838 his design was accepted, from a list of three submissions, to build a palace for the Bishop of Ripon. It was an ambitious building. The initial budget was £10,000, but the final cost was over £12,000.It was in Railton's interest to build as lavishly as possible; he received 5% commission. The foundation stone was laid in April 1838, as the band of the Yorkshire Hussars played the National Anthem. By the end of 1841 it was ready for the Bishop to move in. In 1845 Railton was asked to add a chapel, slightly separate from the palace, to allow the local population to worship there. In deference to the Tudor style of the palace, he chose the perpendicular style, battlemented like the house.

Also at Ripon he carried out restoration on the cathedral from 1841, which included, to the horror of purists, the construction of transept vaults out of plaster, or, as some of his detractors claimed, papier-mâché. These, since removed,are generally attributed in modern literature to Blore's restoration of the 1820s. Howeve,r Frederick Paley, writing in 1846 says they are by Railton, and the catalogue of the Cathedral archives lists " papers concerning the groining of the North transept of the Cathedral, including contracts, correspondence, etc " dating from 1843-44.

At some point during 1838, he was appointed Architect to the Ecclesiastical Commission, a post he would hold for ten years. In 1839 the Commissioners bought (in slightly murky circumstances) a house and estate at Riseholme to provide a palace for the Bishop of Lincoln. The house itself - an early 18th century building- was valued at £2,000; Railton proposed a plan for improvements he said would cost around £7,000; eventually more than £12,000 was spent. There can't have been much of the original building left, but Railton chose retain its Italianate style, rather than use his habitual Tudor. The Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal said "it possesses no great architectural interest, though it certainly looks like a very enviable residence, and shows that bishops have no disrelish for the comforts and luxuries of this world. " As well as being extravagant, the building suffered severely from damp. Perhaps it was implicit criticism of Railton, during questioning of the Bishop of Lincoln by a parliamentary select committee in 1848 led to his departure from his post as Architect to the Commissioners in that year.

In 1841 he persuaded the Commissioners to accept his plans for alterations to Stapleton House, as a palace for the Bishop of Bristol and Gloucester, following the merger of the two sees. He claimed that those commissioned by the Bishop himself, from a Mr Pope, could not possibly be carried out for the estimated cost of £3,000. The commission seems to have been outmanoeuvred by the Bishop however, and the work was executed by Pope, and Decimus Burton, at an eventual cost of more than £12,000 which seems to have been the going rate for an Episcopal palace.

A significant part of the role of Architect to the Commissioners seems to have been the design of parsonages. In 1843 he produced two "model" designs -one plain and one "gothic" - and the RIBA library has his plans for several specific parsonages.

In January 1839, a completion was held to design a memorial in to Lord Nelson to stand in Trafalgar Square. By this time the idea of a column to commemorate Nelson was hardly new. Examples had already been built in Montreal. Dublin and Great Yarmouth. Unsurprisingly a number of competitors submitted proposals for columns, and Railton's fairly simple design was chosen. There was immediate controversy, and the competition was re-run, but Railton resubmitted a slightly revised version, and was once again declared the winner.

His victory didn't bring Railton a great deal of public acclaim. The reaction of the Art Journal was typical. It didn’t think Railton’s design was really a design at all. “being an absolute and mere copy of a Corinthian column. " Other architects and sculptors had gone to the trouble of inventing elaborate schemes while the selection committee had seen fit to choose a plan “which never cost its author an hour’s thought.” The magazine described it as a "monstrous nine-pin, ” and later expressed the desire that a strong wind might topple it into the National Gallery. They also warned that the unpopularity of the design would lead to difficulties in raising the necessary public subscriptions. There may have been some truth in this, as eventually the government had to take over the finance of the project. Construction began in August 1839, but it didn't prove a smooth or uncontroversial. The proposed height of the column was reduced by thirty feet, and the flights of steps at the base, already constructed and visible in Fox Talbot's photograph, removed.

Railton also submitted several ideas for the layout of the ground between the Column and the National Gallery, but in the event the work was carried out to plans by Charles Barry.

In 1840, he designed another monument, an obelisk in memory of Admiral Sir Harry Neale. A lithograph was published, and indeed an obelisk was built, near Lymington in Hampshire, but not to Railton's design, but that of George Draper of Chichester.

During the 1840s he built three churches in east London. Two were completely new buildings, in his usual lancet-windowed style; St Bartholomew-the- Less, Bethnal Green, of brick with stone facing, consecrated in 1844, and Holy Trinity, Hoxton of stone, consecrated in 1848 . The third - now completely destroyed- had a more complicated, and slightly farcical history. The church of St Mary, Bromley-by-Bow consisted of the partial remains of the Norman priory church of St Leonard. Efforts to restore it snowballed into it's complete reconstruction to a design by Railton. It used a round-arched style, but resemblance to it's predecessor was otherwise minimal. It was completed in 1843.
In 1844 he was one of 15 architects invited to submit plans for the enlargement and remodelling of the Carlton Club, and was one of only six who actually did so, but without success.

Railton built at least two more churches, both in his favoured lancet- windowed mode, and both on a cruciform plan with a crossing tower . They were also both funded by private patrons Theodosia Hinckes at St Mary, Stafford Street Wolverhampton, consecrated 1842, and Mary and Elizabeth Beckett at Holy Trinity, Meanwood, Leeds, built on a budget of £4300 and consecrated in 1849.

The church at Meanwood seems to have been near the end of Railton's architectural career. He exhibited at the Royal Academy as late as 1851 when he showed designs for Bromley- by- Bow church, completed eight years before. In 1855 his work was shown at the Paris Universal Exhibition, but once again the designs were old ones for Beaumanor, Bromley, Ripon and Meanwood. According to the DNB, he designed nothing for the last 27 years of his life, though the English Heritage listing dates Winscombe House to 1855.

He lived from around 1858 to the end of his life at 65 Onslow Square with his wife, Amelia. A neighbour wrote in her diary one Sunday in 1872 of "the quiet and sadness of Onslow Square, the trees outside shivering in such a bitter winter wind and the architect's wife next door playing over and over again “a few more years shall roll, a few more seasons pass,” always wrong at the same chord!’ The Railtons had at least two children; Florence, and Mary Margaret Amelia, who, after her father's death, married the local curate. Nelson's column was finally completed in 1867, with the addition of the lions; their sculptor, Carlo Marochotti also lived in Onslow Square, and made them at his studio nearby. Railton is said not to have attended the opening ceremony. He died on a visit to Brighton in 1877.

I’ve assembled a flicker gallery of some of his surviving work for you to look at while meditating on the vicissitudes of fame

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