Richard Norman Shaw - Architect of rare distinction

One of the unexpected blessings of the lighting system that was installed in St Margaret’s a year or so ago is that we are encouraged to lift our eyes and appreciate perhaps for the first time the dramatic proportions of this impressive building. We all know it was the work of Norman Shaw, but how many of us fully understand the talents and versatility of this very significant late Victorian architect?

Most of us will think of Shaw as a church architect first and foremost, and indeed he was responsible for the designs of sixteen churches, notably All Saints at Leek, so fondly regarded by Father Philip. But a recent exhibition of some of his architectural drawings at the Royal Academy, presented in 1959 on the death of his son and never previously on display, helped to give us an idea of the true range of his work.

He was a brilliant student at the R. A. before joining the practice of George Edmund Street, the leading Gothic Revival architect of his generation. This was the ideal training ground for a young man with High Church inclinations, but he realised when he ventured into his own practice that his future laid not so much in church architecture but as a designer of country houses for the upper middle classes, and as John Betjeman says, “the small house for artistic people of moderate income.” In Chiswick in West London, for example, he created streets of Dutch-style houses which formed the garden suburb of Bedford Park. It was said that he had especially large cuffs on his shirts so that at dinner parties he could use them to sketch out the elevation of a house, thus securing a client in the guest sitting next to him.

The drawings of houses at the Royal Academy, some executed and others never built, show the skill with which Shaw mixed modern building construction with the Old English style of half-timbering, steep roofs and high chimneys. They were commissioned by men who combined taste with a degree of prosperity and they appealed to several fellow Royal Academicians.

Shaw was a fine draughtsman as his drawings clearly reveal. He felt it was his sole responsibility to execute the planning and construction, but he was willing to take on board the ideas of his clients and to leave to his assistants, notably the brilliant W. R. Lethaby, the details and even the drawings of his projects. Later in his career, he moved from private houses to official buildings like New Scotland Yard and premises for banks and insurance companies. By 1900 he was perhaps the most admired (and copied) of British architects and was revered by his fellow professionals: Edwin Lutytens regarded Shaw as even greater than Wren.

Since his death in 1912, his reputation has waned. Many of his buildings, particularly in London, have been altered or simply destroyed. He has been described as the least vain of the great architects and he was clearly both witty and generous. John Betjeman described him simply as “a brilliant and wholly delightful man.”

To appreciate the full range of the talents of this remarkable architect (and his assistants) one should head for the A1 and venture north into Northumberland. It took Shaw 15 years to turn the modest weekend retreat at Rothbury belonging to the industrialist William Armstrong, into the spectacular country mansion of Cragside. Here we can see the full range of his imagination and his mastery of the latest technology has its full expression in a wildly romantic setting. Four of his drawings for this ambitious enterprise were on display at the Royal Academy. Cragside is now in the hands of the National Trust.

John Baggaley