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A call to order: The Rome prize and early twentieth-century British architecture

  • Louise Campbell

‘. . . it is of the greatest importance that a student should be able by prolonged study in the atmosphere of a great art centre, to gain a thorough knowledge of the principles underlying the work of the great masters, and by that means prepare himself for original work in the domain of art he has chosen.’ The Commissioners for the 1851 Exhibition, 1911

‘Rome is the damnation of the half-educated. To send architectural students to Rome is to cripple them for life.’ Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture 1923, trans. 1927

The Rome prize for architecture was established in 1912 as the last stage of a recent and systematic reform of British architectural education. It was supported by those who felt that British architecture reflected the individualism and haphazard character of articled pupillage, and hoped to correct these tendencies by providing, as an alternative, full-time training leading to a professional qualification. The prize was visualized as the finale to the new system of architectural education, the summit of a ‘ladder of prizes’ for design which led from the Tite Prize to the Soane Medallion and Victory Scholarship and culminated in the Rome Scholarship. The first Faculty of Architecture of the British School at Rome contained advocates of the new architectural education, and at first constituted a lively forum for discussing the purpose and direction of architectural training as well as of the Rome prize itself. But a considerable gulf soon developed between the Faculty and progressive ideas on architecture and its teaching. Within a decade of its creation, the Faculty began to use the Rome scholarship not simply to encourage systematic working methods, clarity of planning and good draughtsmanship but actually to discourage what it termed ‘modern tendencies’. The scholarship gradually lost its status as the apex of progressive architectural education and by the 1930s came to be regarded as highly reactionary. Since then, writers have tended to use the Rome scholarship as an indication of the backwardness of twentieth-century British architecture, contrasting the late establishment of the prize with the reaction against academic training which transformed inter-war European architecture. More recently, it has been suggested that the dwindling prestige accorded the Rome prize in the inter-war years represented merely a temporary set-back for the otherwise triumphant progress of the classical tradition in British architecture from the seventeenth century to the present day.

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1 ‘It is a curious sidelight on English architecture that so late in the day, more than two centuries after France and long after nearly every other nation of importance including America, we should have been founding a School at Rome. . . and at the time too when the whole basis of classical art was beginning to be challenged’. Reilly, Charles,’ Scaffolding in the Sky (1938), p. 136 .

2 See the contributions to The Classical Tradition in British Architecture: Rome Scholars in Architecture 1912–1982 (Building Centre Exhibition, 1982).

3 Speech to the Lyceum Club, March 1912, quoted Banham, R., Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960), p. 124.

4 ‘The New Age’, 25 December 1912, quoted Wees, W. C., Vorticism and the English Avant Garde (1972), p. 82 .

5 Barrington Kaye points out that 1890, like 1931, marked the bottom of a slump in the building industry. ‘. . .in as much as all professional arguments relate ultimately to unemployment, professional activity is a concomitant of economic depression.’ The Development of the Architectural Profession in Britain (1960), p. 125.

6 The issue was interestingly analysed in terms of economic policies (Protectionism versus the ‘principles of Free Trade’), and individual motivation (a ‘high ideal’ versus a ‘speculative scramble for employment’) as well as architectural results in William White’s paper read to the RIBA in 1884 ‘A Brief Review of the Education and Position of Architects in France since the year 1671’, quoted by MacLeod, R. Style and Society: Architectural ideology in Britain 1831-1914 (1971), pp. 110-18.

7 For details see: Jenkins, F., Architect and Patron (1961), B. Kaye, loc. cit. and A. Powers, ‘Edwardian Architectural Education: a study of three schools of architecture’, AA Files No. 5, January 1984.

8 ‘The French Diplôme d’Architecture and the German system of architectural education’, RIBA Transactions XXXIV (1884), p. 124 .

9 Blomfield, R., Memoirs of an Architect (1932), p. 113 .

10 Chafee, R., ‘The Teaching of Architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts’, in The Architecture of École des Beaux-Arts, ed. A. Drexler (1975).

11 R. Blomfield, Memoirs. . ., pp. 136-37.

12 Reilly, C., Representative British Architects of the Present Day (1931), p. 35 .

13 Kaye, op. cit. (n. 5), p. 158.

14 ‘Sir Rennell Rodd on the British School at Rome’, RIBA Joumal, 26 November 1910, p. 61.

15 From 1928 the RIBA guaranteed the sum required for the Rome Scholarship and the Jarvis Studentship lapsed.

16 Simpson undertook a feasibility study for the RIBA in 1909.

17 Billerey, F., ‘The British Prix de Rome’, letter to the editor, RIBA Journal, 31 May 1913, pp. 524-25.

18 Meeting of 4 December 1912, Minute Book of the Faculty of Architecture, British School at Rome.

19 Meeting of 16 February 1927.

20 Eleven out of twenty Rome scholars between 1913 and 1939 — H. Charlton Bradshaw (1913), S. Rowland Pierce (1921), S. Welsh (1922), R. A. Cordingley (1923), G. A. Butling (1925), R. P. Cummings (1927), W. G. Holford (1930), C. St.C. R. Oakes (1933), H. Bennett (1936), W. T. C. Walker (1937), R. Cowan (1939) — and seven out of eleven Jarvis scholars between 1913 and 1928 — L. de Soissons (1913), G. Checkley (1922), E. Williams (1923), M. Sisson (1924), H. Thearle (1926), B. Ward (1926), L. Thornton White (1928) — made careers partly or entirely in teaching. During the same period, eleven former Rome or Jarvis scholars were elected to the Faculty of Architecture.

21 Report of 21 March 1921.

22 Conference of 2 May 1922.

23 Meeting of 13 February 1923. The sub-committee responsible for judging the preliminary competition in 1924 complained of a disappointing standard of work, and suggested that the students should be set three four-hour sketch exercises once a month ‘that they may acquire method in the production of sketches, and the “habit of reading programmes”. . .’. This report was to be circulated to the schools of architecture. (Report of 15 February 1924).

24 Meeting of 31 May 1921.

25 The RIBA only introduced maintenance scholarships in 1927 (see Knight, C. R.Architectural Education in the British Empire’, RIBA journal, 22 November 1937, p. 63 ). However, grants were available to ex-servicemen.

26 See the ‘Report of the RIBA conference on Prizes’, Board of Architectural Education Committee Minutes (1924-26).

27 Meeting of 13 April 1924.

28 Report of 7 May 1920.

29 A. Minoprio ‘Recollections of Rome. 1’ and Blake, J.Recollections of Rome. 3’ in The Classical Tradition in British Architecture (1982), pp. 11, 21.

30 For example, Charlton Bradshaw’s war memorials at Cambrai, at Ploegsteert and the Guards’ Memorial in St James’ Park for which Charles Jagger and Gilbert Ledward produced sculpture; and Pierce’s Norwich Town Hall with bronze doors by Woodford, James. Other examples are cited by Minoprio, loc. cit.; A. Powers ‘The Rome Scholarship in Decorative Painting 1912-1980’ in British Artists in Italy 1920-1980 (Canterbury College of Art, 1985) and B. Read and P. Skipwith Sculpture in Britain between the wars (Fine Art Society, y>1986).

31 Meeting of 27 October 1922.

32 From 1924, a Faculty member visited Rome annually to supervise the work of the architects. On the basis of his reports, those of the School Director and drawings sent from Rome, students were advised on their work and decisions taken whether to renew scholarships.

33 Meeting of 12 June 1930.

34 Meeting of 16 June 1930.

35 Meeting of 10 July 1931.

36 Meeting of 16 February 1934. The French Académie exerted a comparably restrictive influence upon the Grand Prix between the wars. In 1937, student discontent prompted the Minister of Education to include four outsiders on the jury selecting the winners. See Egbert, D.D., The Beaux-Arts Tradition in French Architecture (1980), pp. 70-90.

37 Towards a New Architecture (1927) and Modern Architecture (1929).

38 ‘An Experiment with Time: A House at Amersham’, ABN 3 January 1930. See also ‘Amoenitas’ Part I, ABN, 26 January 1931, and Part II, 3 July 1931.

39 See ‘The First Round’, ABN, 29 November 1929.

40 See especially Modernismus (1934) and ‘Is Modern Architecture on the Right Track?’, RIBA Journal, 26 July 1933. R. Fellows, Sir Reginald Blomfield: An Edwardian Architect (1985) provides a useful discussion of Blomfield’s critical stance.

41 ‘Is Modern Architecture on the Right Track?’ RIBA Journal, 1933.

42 See ‘The First Round’, loc. cit., and comments after papers read at the RIBA on ‘The British School at Rome’, RIBA Journal, 10 April 1937, p. 548.

43 See Hussey, C., ‘High and Over, Amersham’, Country Life, 19 September 1931 and letter from Clive Lambert to editor, 10 October 1931.

44 Ward, B.Connell, Ward and Lucas’, Planning and Architecture (1967) ed. Sharp, D., p. 78 .

45 ‘The British School at Rome’ RIBA Journal, 1937, p. 535.

46 Ibid., p. 536.

47 Ibid., p. 542.

48 Hirst, P., ‘Recollections of Rome’, The Classical Tradition in British Architecture, pp. 12-17.

49 ‘The British School at Rome’, RIBA Journal, 1937, p. 544.

50 Compared with 51 applications in 1933, and 63 in 1935, there were only 24 in 1938 and 26 in 1939.

51 Cox, A., ‘The Training of an Architect’, open letter to Goodhart-Rendel, Focus No. 1, summer 1938, p. 26 .

52 Letter from Gordon Stephenson to author, 15 August 1980.

53 Gropius, , ‘Architects in the Making’. Speech at opening of exhibition of work by students from Liverpool School of Architecture. Design for Today, May 1936, p. 200 .

54 In 1930, the competition was modified to require of candidates a folio of imaginative designs, measured drawings and sketches from which ten candidates would be selected to compete en loge; in 1933, this stage was reduced from 36 to 15 hours; contemporary building types featured in the competitions of 1928, 1933 and 1939 (see Appendix).

55 Meeting of 1 July 1937.

56 Meeting of 18 July 1939.

57 ‘The British School at Rome’, RIBA Journal, 1937, p. 546.

58 Mills, E. D., ‘Introduction’, The Classical Tradition in British Architecture, p. 3 .

59 P. D. Hepworth, Rome scholar of 1914, designed the municipal buildings at Walthamstow (1932) and Trowbridge; S. Welsh, Rome scholar of 1920, won a competition to design a church at Lower Shiregreen, Sheffield (1932); S. R. Pierce, Rome scholar of 1921, won the competitions to design town halls at Norwich (1932), Slough (1934) and Hertford (1936); R. A. Cordingley, Rome scholar of 1923 won the competition to design Farnham Council Offices (1936) with Maclntyre; A. Connell, Rome scholar of 1926, was placed third in the competition to design Hertford County Council buildings (1936) with B. Ward and H. T. Dyer, special scholar and Jarvis students of 1926 and 1927, and second in the competition for Newport Civic Centre the same year. E. W. Armstrong, Jarvis student of 1921 (resigning after five months!) designed the Art Gallery at Christchurch, New Zealand (1929) and was commended in the competition to design the RIBA headquarters (1932); C. A. Minoprio, Jarvis student of 1925, won the competition for the layout of Ramsgate front (1929) and was placed second, with Spenceley, in the competition for a new hospital at Llandudno (1936). H. Thearle, Jarvis student of 1926, won the competition for Birkenhead Art Gallery, with L. G. Hannaford.

60 Before 1939, only Edwin Williams, F. A. C. Maunder, Louis de Soissons and E. W. Armstrong worked on a regular basis for local authorities, and the latter two only in a consulting capacity.

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