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Stories & People - Paper 5

SIR GEORGE OATLEY 1863-1950: AN INDIVIDUAL NOTE

This Note is based on the magnificent new text:

Sir George Oatley: Architect of Bristol

Sarah Whittingham

Bristol : Redcliffe Press     2011  439pp                   IBSN 978-1-904537-92-2

All quotations are Sarah Whittingham

 

INTRODUCTION

PERSONAL AND SPIRITUAL LIFE 

APPROACH TO PROFESSIONAL LIFE

General approach

Design

Ethics and etiquette

Reflection on business

BUILDINGS

Style generally

Churches

University of Bristol

Commercial work

Domestic work

Asylums and hospitals

CONCLUDING COMMENTS

 

INTRODUCTION

In this work, based on her PhD thesis (University of Bristol 2005), Sarah Whittingham gives us a most comprehensive and convincing insight into the life and practice of an English Nonconformist architect, a true built environment professional, of the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Whittingham draws extensively not only on his design work and office papers but also upon his reflective correspondence with family and friends, and particularly at the end of each year, with himself.

Most of Oatley's life was lived, and most of his work done, in or close to the city of Bristol. Most impressively, for me, is the breadth of his mind and work. A wide range of building types make up his portfolio with styles chosen for their appropriateness. He always seeks to serve the needs and aspirations of his clients, both civic and private, without forays into self-promotion. He never avoids the inherent difficulties and frustrations of practical building and professional life. Balancing his paid work is his voluntary work for the  parts of Bristol having great needs for housing, education and spiritual sustenance. He was exceptionally fortunate in living at the time when Nonconformist, practical churchmanship was at a high point. The thriving Congregational  churches were  the source and home of his ethos for life and work, along with Baptist, Methodist, Quaker and other branches of Nonconformity, and the Anglican, Roman Catholic and other churches that made up his ecumenical hinterland. 

Running through the whole of Oatley's life is the deep sense that all skill and  the wealth it may bring come from God ,and that all work must ultimately be offered back in praise. Therefore both the physical work and the processes by which it comes into being must be as good as it is possible to make them.

Piety? Yes. Commitment and competence? Yes. That perhaps is the Victorian mix. In some respects it is not our way but it behoves us to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it.

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PERSONAL AND SPIRITUAL LIFE

The following brief quotations sharpen the comments I have already made in general terms:

1.      The three most important aspects of Oatley's life were: his religion; his humble beginnings... and upbringing; his architecture. Oatley would have put them in that order. He spent as much time on 'good works' as on his profession. He started working at a Congregational Mission in Anvil Street in the St Philip's area at the age of sixteen. He continued to work there every Sunday for the rest of his life... Oatley also sustained Clifton Down Congregational Church, both practically and financially, and he continued the work of the Bristol YMCA that his father had set up. (page 23)

2.      He never turned his back on Congregationalism but he was always completely ecumenical in his views on religion, both personally and professionally: 'Never in my whole experience have I known or felt any difference between Church and Church, nor Christian and Christian, no matter of what order or denomination.' (page 25) 

3.      Oatley did not tell any immediate member of his family about his knighthood before they saw it announced in the papers. He certainly went alone to London to receive it, 'I was glad to have it all over so simply... I then went to the Royal Academy and saw this year's pictures. Had lunch and got back to Bristol as quickly as possible'. (page 14)     

4.      I suffer increasingly from inferiority complex, not in one but in every department of my life, religious, social, public and business. It gets more acute and has to be fought by faith all the time.... What I suffer is quite a different thing from false modesty. It is rather an honest admission of the truth regarding oneself. I believe it to be of vital necessity. Still: Nothing matters but SIN. (page 11)      

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APPROACH TO PROFESSIONAL LIFE

From Oatley's personal and spiritual life there flows his approach to professional life generally, in relation to design and in terms of conduct and etiquette. In the following comments, Whittingham enables us to see and hear the man himself.

General approach

In essence, Oatley was a Bristol architect who practised quietly, conscientiously and successfully in the place of his birth, serving his clients and his God. The buildings that he designed houses, hospitals, banks, factories, offices, churches and chapels and, in particular, those for its university, transformed the face of the city. (page 21)  

Oatley was elected FRIBA in February 1899 and was President of the Bristol Society of Architects from 1904-06 (serving on the RIBA Council). (page 75)            

If the clients were committed Nonconformists, then the chapel was a more important meeting place than the drawing room, and if they were looking for 'conventional and reassuring' there was no safer pair of hands than Oatley's, who believed that he served God through serving his clients and that to do so meant following their instructions and not imposing his own will. (page 95)

Nonconformists were the greatest single power behind the Liberal Party and from 1905-10 Oatley was Liberal councillor for Bedminster East ward, also serving on the Sites and Buildings Committee of the Bristol Education Committee (pages 75-6)

Design

The following comments show Oatley as designer responds to his visit to Israel/Palestine and to an area of Christianity different from his own.

The ship then anchored off Haifa and a camping party then set out for Nazareth followed by Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho and Jerusalem. The simple, clear lines and proportions of eastern religious architecture greatly appealed to Oatley, [particularly noting the Crusader Church of St Ann's and the Armenian Convent]. Oatley had doubts as to the authenticity of some of the religious sites they saw, and wrote that 'on the whole Jerusalem did not come up to my expectations. But the situation, the walls, the Mount of Olives and Gordan's Calvary and the tomb are worth travelling any distance to see'. (page 80)     

It may seem inconsistent in the light of emphasis on the simplicity of Oatley's work and his Congregationalism, to state that his most sublime works such as the Wills Memorial Building, have a certain [Roman Catholic]mysticism about them.. It has to be remembered that Oatley was always ecumenical in his approach to religion. He believed that Christianity was not defined by any particular set of outward observances, customs of forms of worship, but included all of them, from the most elaborate ritual and ceremonial to Quaker simplicity. (page 160)

Ethics and etiquette

The following brief passages assembled together start to make the outline of a professional  code. The italics are mine.

Put your client first

To the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Herbert Isambard Owen: You have had much more to do with the success of the building scheme than I have. You laid down what it should be and were the inspiration at its initiation. All that I have done is to try to carry out what was in your mind'. (page 107)      

Don't court publicity for its own sake

As he believed that anything good about his work came from God, Oatley was never self-promoting and relatively few of his designs were published. Only if he thought that it would serve some useful purpose did he let his plans be reproduced in the papers.... (page 13)

Observe the same morality in your design as in your conduct

He would have agreed with the architect Charles Voysey that 'Simplicity, sincerity, repose, directness and frankness are moral qualities as essential to good architecture as to good men'. (page 146)

Oatley explicitly links aesthetics and morality when he states his belief that 'there is that within even a child which can discern between good and bad when put before it a conscience, an intuition as it were, in beauty as in morals..' (page 150)

Obey the rules but give space to your conscience

To the Tax Office: The etiquette of our profession precludes us from accepting reduced fees as such, but in the case of all charitable and religious works which are carried out under our supervision, we make a donation towards the Building Funds in lieu of a formal reduction of fees...(page 32)

Learn to live with the difficult things

My great difficulty is with my partner.... The psychological reason is colossal conceit. He is never wrong Consequently other people, if they differ, are never right. He brooks no contradictions. This caused him to leave our church in 1932 He has gone to no other nor does he worship anywhere, I think. Beyond the everlasting worship of himself, which can never cease .. all one can do is endure in patience. (page 113)         

Reflection on business

There are good years ...

At the end of 1900: This has been a year of business prosperity and in spite of innumerable responsibilities, difficulties and anxieties all seems well today. I never in my life have had a year more full of work and it has told upon my strength. God seems to be testing me with prosperity. (page 75)         

...and bad years

The years between 1906 and the First World War were very lean ones for architects in Bristol... At the end of 1909 he recorded: 'This makes the third very slack year. The financial difficulties of this year have meant constant suspense but the climax has not yet been reached! I think the difficulties have meant distinct spiritual blessing it is a trial to have to refuse to give to good objects'. (page 93)   

Things go wrong and can be costly....

December 1933:   Nearly everything that could go 'wrong' in business has gone wrong I have had to pay from my own purse the cost of making good so many things in buildings the result of what, in a worldly phrase, may be called ill-luck... In years gone by, things never went wrong in buildings Now, there seem to be no contracts in which they don't! And I stand by everything that I feel to be my responsibility. (page 110)

but principles are for life

The address given at Oatley's funeral noted: He spent his whole life in the business of this city, but he never began to understand the cynicism which said that 'Business is Business'. To approach him with plans for making easy money by easy business virtue, was not only useless, it was impossible. (page 28)   

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BUILDINGS

In this paper I have pondered Oatley's spiritual life and shown how it undergirds his approach to professional activity. The purpose of it all is the production of buildings. It is in them, and the detailed technical processes involved in their creation that values and principles ultimately find form. My purpose here is to give just the briefest taste of Whittingham's treatment of Oatley's massive output of buildings.

Style generally

Whittingham emphasises the fact that Oatley was not only a Gothic architect: Because he used the Gothic style for his best-known work, it is often thought that Oatley wished to use it to the exclusion of all others. However, he actually had a belief in 'fitness for purpose' that led him to use a variety of styles each, in the main, for a particular building type. His educational buildings are Gothic, his banks and offices are classical, his factories are a simple style stripped of ornament, and so on (page145)

Churches

I will comment on just two of Oatley's church buildings, All Hallows, Easton which was a new building for a High Church client, and his restoration of  the Methodist New Room in Broadmead.

All Hallows, Easton

This church is cited by Whittingham as Oatley's most important and impressive church (apart from the chapel of St Monica's home of rest). It is most daring in its spatial effects and of French-influenced, Decorated Gothic style that suited the High church situation. The nave is fifty feet high with an open timber roof. A sense of height and openness is a key element of the design, facilitated by arches and arcades. The east end progressively rises, and the choir has a raised floor enclosed by low walls. This, combined with the high arches surrounding it, separates it as a liturgical space but means that it is open to the rest of the church. Oatley designed a large suspended rood, instead of a rood screen that would have destroyed the openness. His ability to satisfy the High Church client by concentrating the power of the church in the east end, while simultaneously creating an open setting that enabled the whole congregation to feel part of the proceedings, was doubtless a product of his Congregationalist background.(pages 235,239)

Methodist New Room

I give here two comments from Whittingham, the first on style and the second on spirituality.

After his restoration of Wesley's New Room in Broadmead (the oldest Methodist chapel in the world) in 1930, the guide-book recorded that the work had been carried out 'under the direction of Sir George Oatley, the distinguished authority on eighteenth century architecture'. Far from being thought of as a pure Gothicist, this was a generally held view of the architect during his lifetime. (page 151)

The New Room appealed to Oatley immensely, both spiritually and aesthetically. Indeed, for him, the two were inextricably linked. He wrote 'The building has turned out absolutely charming... For simplicity, quaintness and purity it could hardly be excelled.... It is profoundly interesting to have rescued and preserved for coming generations this material monument.... but I feel deeply impressed by the thought that it is in vain that we treasure the relics of the saints of the Church St Francis of Assisi, the Wesley's and the rest unless we possess that Spirit by which they lived, and wrought, and changed the current of men's lives'. (page 389)

University of Bristol

Reading Whittingham's full and fascinating treatment of Oatley's work for what would become his largest single client, I say over and over, 'cometh the hour, cometh the man'. The Nonconformist community, not yet fully accepted into Oxford and Cambridge, needed a university; the Wills family in particular had the money to endow many of its buildings; and George Oatley found within himself the vision, skills and shear work ethic, to lead much of the design work as particular needs and opportunities unfolded.

Wills Memorial Building.

In February 1913 George and Henry Wills announced that they wanted to give a new building to the University in memory of their father who had been its first Chancellor... and that Oatley would be the architect. They initially planned to spend 100 000 but Oatley told them that to build the accommodation that they required would cost at least 150 000. It was to include offices for the Vice-Chancellor, Registrar and staff, a council chamber, lecture rooms, libraries and a large hall. In 1948 he recalled that the coming of the [Great] War, of course, vastly increased the costs of materials, but the munificent donors never blenched. They were simply anxious to complete and foot the bill whatever it might be, which they did. The final account for the building (dated 26 July 1927) was, in fact, 501,556 19s 10d. (page 319) 

The Great Hall The largest  room in the building conjures up the image of Christ Church College dining hall of 1529. the Oxford hammer-beam roof and wood panelled walls, lit by large Perpendicular windows, externally separated by buttresses, are echoed in Oakley's Great Hall. This room, which seats about 1000 people and is used for ceremonial occasions, including graduation ceremonies, embodies academic pride. It consists of six bays with an oak gallery at the southern end and an apsidal recess at the northern end containing a raised stage with seats and an organ. It was finished with a hammer-beam roof made of sixty tons of English oak. (page 350)

The Entrance Hall The crowning glory of the Entrance Hall are the three soaring bays of fan vaulting, probably the last fan-vaulted ceiling to have been constructed in Britain... The technique was first developed in the west country at the cathedrals of Gloucester and Hereford and Tewkesbury Abbey so it is appropriate that Oakley used it here. Other influences were the fan-vaulting over the hall staircase at Christ Church College Oxford, c1638, and that at King's College Chapel, Cambridge of 1512-15. (page 346)

The Tower The octagonal belfry also had a spiritual resonance for Oatley; he wrote that: 'the severe finish of the crowning parapet of the belfry (no pinnacles) is a poetical suggestion that University education at the best leads so far only and that there is something beyond it to which the spirelets of the great angle pinnacles point. For Oatley, this 'something beyond it' was obviously God and eternity. In Christian tradition the number eight is a symbol for eternal salvation, which is reflected in the mathematical symbol for infinity, a horizontal figure eight. (page 335)     

HH Wills Physics Laboratory

This project gives insights into the minds of both Oatley and Henry Wills. For example: Wills had views on construction which no argument could shake. One was that all fittings and materials should be of such a quality that no repairs are required for 50 years; hence bronze window frames to avoid rust Another was that supply pipes or cables must not run exposed along walls because they act like dust collectors; by all means have them fully accessible, but in floor channels with hard unshrinking teak covers and from which vertical pipes lead where required to wall or table points. (page 356)

As with the majority of Oatley's buildings, the ornament of the physics building is expressive of its function. In the spandrels to the main entrance are carvings of early and 'modern' discoveries in experimental physics: the dispersal of sunlight by a prism by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666, and the tracks of alpha particles from radium by Charles TR Wilson in 1911. (page 362) More controversially Whittingham  suggests,  is the ceiling of the main lecture theatre which includes a huge, circular glass ceiling light with the sun from the Wills coat of arms depicted in the middle, surrounded by the signs of the zodiac and floral designs that are rather unusual for a 1920's science laboratory - the decoration would seem to symbolise  the strong religious beliefs of Henry and Monica Wills, rather than science.(page 363)

On the outside of the building there is more Christian symbolism in the carved paterae: twelve-petalled flowers (representing the disciples, eight-petalled roses (resurrection or regeneration), ten-petalled flowers (the ten commandments), eight-pointed stars (again regeneration or resurrection, five-petalled flowers (the number of Jesus' wounds) and the Star of David or double Trinity Star formed by two inter-linking triangles (the six points standing for the six days of creation). (pages 363-4)

Commercial work

In some ways it is a short step from the science of the university to developing building technologies, and to manufacture and commerce generally.

Oatley designed the Quaker Fry family's No 7 Factory (1901-05) in their cramped city centre site. At this time Oatley was not yet convinced of the benefits of ferro-concrete, and the building was constructed traditionally, with steel and concrete and fireproof floors, and finished in red Cattybrook brick. Most of the building was simple and functional, but although it was hemmed in on all sides, Oatley gave the corner special treatment, in a modest, almost Romanesque style. The No 8 factory which soon followed adapted the technology by embedding steel stancheons buried n the piers, thereby increasing the available window space to the maximum. It is unfortunate that these buildings, now praised for their simplicity, have been demolished.

Domestic work

The advance of factory-based industries changes the needs for housing. In  her section on Oatley's domestic work, Whittingham first gives extensive descriptions of the many individual houses designed by Oatley. Some were totally new, while others involved major conversion or the addition of substantial wings. In all cases there is evidence of the closest attention being given to the building, the locality and the needs and wishes of the particular clients.

Of wider interest is Oatley's involvement with the Bristol Garden Suburb Company Limited, of which he was a director, along with the builder William Cowlin and other industrialists. Members of the Fry, Wills and Robinson families were among the Nonconformist subscribers. Oatley had the key additional role of Consultant Architect, in which he can be linked with the full range of Nonconformists associated with the Garden City Movement, including Titus Salt in Bradford, WH Lever in Port Sunlight, the Rowntree's in York, the Cadbury's in Bournville, Ebenezer Howard in Letchworth, and more locally in Hambury near Bristol, the architect John Nash and his client the Quaker banker John Harford. Proposals for a Bristol Garden Suburb were developed and architectural competitions promoted. In fact only twenty three houses were built before financial problems set in prior to 1914. (pages 281-2)

Fortunately Oatley's concern for ordinary housing never abated. Whittingham records that in 1929 Oatley wrote to his nephew: 'I am greatly interested in the housing problem at present. The overcrowding in the country is leading to grave conditions so far as morality is concerned. We must have homes for the people.' Because of this concern, in 1923 Oatley helped to form the Bristol Housing Company, Limited, to build around the city. In 1925 he wrote:

The Housing Work is proceeding apace. We have, from the start, limited dividends to 5% as a maximum. So far, we have paid that each year, although ours is a quasi-philanthropic concern. It costs us 430 to build a house of 3 bedrooms, parlour, living room and scullery-bath etc and we get a government subsidy of 120, The present government is talking of stepping it up next September. If they do, all housing enterprise will dry up. We sell our houses as fast as we finish them, so are able to use the same capital over and over again. This is the secret of success, as there is no property to manage and there are no repairs to pay for. Also, it is an excellent thing for the workers to own their houses, it gives them a stake in the country. The better class, thrifty, working people buy our houses, and this sets the inferior dwellings free for occupation by a lower stratum so, slowly, all too slowly, the housing difficulty is lessening. (page 294)

In 1929 the subsidy was discontinued. In that year, the Bristol Housing Company lent 4000 at 2.5% to the Bristol Churches Tenements Association, 'For the purpose of assisting the acquisition and reconditioning of slum properties. The city council reported that 'very useful service had been rendered and a splendid example set by the Association in acquiring and re-conditioning or converting blocks of property which, but for drastic treatment would have become uninhabitable, and added to the difficulties of the Corporation.(page 296)

Asylums and hospitals

If housing is always with us, the Victorian asylum is a building type that now has been and gone. However, for Oatley it was an important stream of work. Whittingham explains: Victorian asylums were very large, self-contained, self-sufficient comm unities usually sited in open countryside. Plans typically comprised patients' residential, treatment and social facilities (wards, isolation, chapel, mortuary, laundry, workshops, dining/recreation hall, kitchens), medical  superintendent's residence and other staff housing, administration, services (water tower, gas works), lodges and a farm. The architect therefore had to be able to design every sort of building and provide light, heating, water and sewage systems. (page 167)

This aspect of Oatley's work took him beyond Bristol, for example to Whitchurch near Cardiff. Here, the most important aspect of the plan was its orientation: the main administration block faced north, and the wards and gardens south, maximising the amount of light and sun received by the patients. When the asylum was opened it was surrounded by green fields and farm land... the hospital made full use of the extensive grounds and the therapeutic benefits of fresh air, exercise and 'useful employment'.(page 172)

The ongoing nature of client/donor/architect relationships is brought out in the case of the Bristol General Hospital. The founders included the Wills and Fry families. Oatley was professionally involved over forty-four years between 1886 and 1930, being actively engaged in twenty-eight of them. His varied works included an operating theatre, a fountain for the entrance courtyard, a nurses' home and a casualty and outpatients' department, the Wills and Fry families being among the main donors. (page 184)

Oatley's design for the Bristol Homoeopathic Hospital is interesting. It commenced construction in 1921 and cost 110,000 to build. The plan is in two main wings hinged together, forming a very shallow angular curve. The concave side faces south and is wrapped around the gardens. The building is in an Arts and Crafts 'Jacobethan' style, reflecting local Jacobean and Elizabethan gabled manor houses. It is faced with limestone and was originally roofed with Cotswold stone tiles. This cost 2000 more than using ordinary red tiles but Oatley felt it would be the making of the building and give more permanent durability. The interior of the hospital is very plain in style with the only decoration oak panelling and Arts and Crafts-style plasterwork in the main administrative rooms such as the Board Room. Oatley and the donor, Melville Wills, were both committed to the quiet style.

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CONCLUDING COMMENTS

Whittingham has made the unusual, it seems to me, choice of putting as a frontispiece in her book the full text of the hymn by Charles Wesley sung at Oatley's funeral. For me the essence of the hymn and of Oatley is in these lines: Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go/ My daily labour to pursue/.... /And closely walk with Thee to heaven. Every day of his life he did, indeed, pursue his labour in the most straightforward and practical way; but it was always more than that, it was his walk with God along the way that leads Wesley depicts as leading to heaven.

Oatley's funeral took place on 17th May 1950 when I was growing up in Brentwood Congregational Church, and just four years before I started my building  studies at the then Regent Street Polytechnic. Oatley's approach to spiritual life, professional life and practical design, closely integrated with each other, resonate strongly with the world that I was joining. That, however, was a receding world, even though one of my fellow Building Management students was from the west country and his family firm among those listed by Whittingham as having worked on occasion with Oatley.

Today in England there is no longer a vibrant, ethical, identifiably Nonconformist community, prominent in business and public service. Our provincial cities no longer have distinctive lives. Rarely do we build for excellence in the way that Oatley built Wills Hall. Ironically, tobacco that gave rise to the Wills wealth, is now known to be a major source of ill-health; instead, we direct our lesser wealth to cancer research and hospice building.

But even if his world has largely gone Oatley comes to us, through Sarah Whittingham's most committed scholarship, as an outstanding example of a Lay Person in the Congregational and Nonconformist traditions for whom the profession of faith and, in his case, the profession of architecture, are one and the same thing. The sacredness of the secular is fully revealed.

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