Friday, 18 April 2014

Imaginary prison and an elephant portfolio: more on Foulston

Another highlight from John Foulston's 1838 The public buildings erected in the West of England as designed by John Foulston F.R.I.B.A.: his rejected design for Bristol Gaol. He was sore about the rejection, and shows it.

BRISTOL GAOL, designed for 200 prisoners
In consequence of an advertisement appearing in the public papers in April, 1816, inviting Architects to offer designs for the new Gaol then about to be built at Bristol, the author became a competitor; and submitted this Design to the Committee in Bristol, who gave it their decided preference, and also confirmed their election in London after they had availed themselves of the opinion of many members of the House of Commons. Notwithstanding this, however, on their return to Bristol, by some unaccountable management, the matter was submitted a third time to competition, when a decision was given in favour of the design as now executed, by a majority of one vote. Since this, the author has declined (as he has had good reason to do) all competition; he now freely forgives the parties concerned in this transaction, they having experienced the ill effects of their injustice.
- The public buildings erected in the West of England
The feeling's very understandable, but Foulston goes into distinct schadenfreude about subsequent events. His design combined features of contemporary fortifications and prisons: "Polygon" (polygonal outer walls and keep, against external attack) and "Windmill" (radiating internally-connected wings around a Panopticon-style core, in aid of surveillance, demarcation of functions, and general hygiene).

Bristol New Gaol
The design chosen over Foulston's was extremely similar, but rather more open-plan. Designed by the architect Henry Hake Seward, the Bristol New Gaol, opened in 1820, was initially acclaimed as a model design. However, conditions rapidly deteriorated - see BBC Bristol Online, Gruesome Bristol: New Gaol prison / The Bristol Riots, the breaching of the gaol and its revenge on the mob - and in 1831 the New Gaol was attacked by a mob and set on fire. The Bristol Radical History Group has a gallery of contemporary images for 1831.

Foulston took this outcome as vindication of the security features - "FirstProtection from External Violence and Insubordination from Within - that would have been incorporated in his own design, and wastes no time in telling his readers: "I told you so."
That these precautions were not duly appreciated at the time, sufficiently appears in those fearful circumstances, which have since involved the destruction of that very building, the designs for which were allowed to put aside those plans which the Author now submits to the consideration of the profession and the public.
- The public buildings erected in the West of England
Plate 113 - entrance gate
Plate 115 - ground floor of core buildings
Plate 116 - upper floor of core buildings
overall ground plan
The public buildings erected in the West of England, while undoubtedly interesting, is ultimately a vanity-published venture produced at the end of Foulston's working life as an architect; he was 67 at the time of publication, and died three years later. In his later years, he retired to a house called Athenian Cottage at Townsend Hill, Mutley, Plymouth, where he experimented in landscape gardening and, it seems, cultivated a spot of eccentricity. His business partner George Wightwick gives a good account (the source of the frequently repeated anecdote about Foulston driving a gig built in form of an ancient war-chariot):
My late partner, thus relieved from the insistance of practical duty, lived a pleasing amateur life for some years, decorating his pretty cottage and grounds in the suburb, and seeking to rival, in little, the famed falls of Niagara, by an artistic spreading of the Plymouth watercourse, or leet, over some yards of spar and rock-work, greatly enhancing the beauty of his shrubbery. This reference to the falls of the mighty St. Lawrence will not be deemed sarcastic, when I state that the ex-architect had at one time resolved on designating his abode by the thundering title of "Niagara Cottage." A former appellation had distinguished it as "Athenian Cottage," though what connexion there was between a kind of Tudor thatched domicile and anything ever seen at Athens, it was for the fanciful owner to specify. The vulgar public persisted in simply alluding to it as "Foulston's Cottage."

But his chief employment was devoted to the publication of a large quarto of his principal architectural works, plentifully illustrated by lithographic elevations, plans, sections, and details, including an adequate amount of descriptive letter-press, in which I had the pleasure of assisting him; for he was by no means so accomplished an adept with his pen as with his pencil.

Still, however, the circumstance which, above all, manifested his classic ambition, was that of emulating the renowned Romeo Coates in the singularity of the vehicle which served him as a gig. It was built in the form of the antique biga, or war-chariot; with a seat furtively smuggled into the service of comfort, though he ascended into it from behind with classic orthodoxy, and looked (so far as his true English face and costume allowed) like Ictinus, of the Parthenon, "out for a lark"—or as Achilles, driving through the Troy-like streets of Plymouth, with an imaginary corpse of Hector trailing after him. Begging pardon, however, of the vanquished Trojan, let us rather suppose the imagined corpse to have been the defunct body of that Boeotian tastelessness, which, until Foulston's advent, had existed in the British south-west.
- George Wightwick, Life of an architect, page 296ff, Bentley's Miscellany, Volume 42, 1857
As to the book, it generally got fairly neutral reviews. Reviewers tended just to focus on summarising the factual content. One review, however, was distinctly scathing about "this slab of a book, this ponderous elephant portfolio, only more portable than the Devonport Column", and is worth reading for its extensive analysis - not all hostile - of Foulston's architectural works. Ironically, the review itself is pretty ponderous.
In the composition of this volume the evident intention of the architect has been to raise his own monument. The construction of streets and towns, of hall-rooms, reading-rooms, theatres, chapels, gaols, and lunatic asyla, cannot satisfy the ambition of Mr Foulston. His edifices are, unfortunately, fixed to their locality, and cannot walk about with their names, or rather his name, on their porticos or facades, to demand for him, and for themselves, the admiration of the world. Mr. Foulston, therefore. constructs this slab of a book, this ponderous elephant folio, only more portable than the Devonport Column. and sends it abroad among the nations as the examplar of his mighty labours, a shadow cast before his coming fame. To speak truly, the avant-courier is singularly significant, for it has the massive size of the ancient models which Mr. Foulston has imitated in his architectural productions, and that singularity of form, that " modification of ‘proportions,’ on which he prides himself in their adaptation to modern purposes.

The first great work celebrated in these pages is the edifice erected by Mr. Foulston, in Plymouth, of which the characteristic distinction is, that within one uniform outline of plan and elevation, or, as the architect expresses it, “within one perfect whole," are included a theatre, assembly-room, and a hotel, with stabling, coach houses, etc., for the last, and a manager’s house for the first. This mass of building was founded in 1811; it is the property of the corporation, and a part of the funds for its erection were raised on the principle of Tontine, condemned by Mr. Poulett Thomson as a species of gambling. Its form is a quadrangle of 270 by 220 feet. There is an Ionic octostyle portico on the north, and two tetrastyle porticos on the east; the Ionic is that of the temple of llissus, while the ballroom presents the Corinthian of the Choragic monument of Lysicrates. In the ball-room painted figures ornament the front of the orchestra between the double 80133 by which it is supported, and the ceiling is enriched by Mr. Ball, a native artist, with a painting of “the Synod of the Olympian Deities, the Eagle at the Thunderer's feet appearing to grasp the superb central chandelier, while the smaller lustres are supported by Cupids." The hotel is commodious, but the theatre is the apple of Mr. Foulton's eye. “It is,” he says, “ the only fire-proof theatre in the kingdom,“ and, forgetful of the works of Wyatt and Smirke, he gives us a series of details, even to the most minute, of every windlass, groove, and pulley, by which the scenes ascend or descend, the flys are taught to remain stationary, and the wings forbidden to fly.

As to the general effect of this triune edifice, it can scarcely be judged of, as the second portico on the cast front is left unfinished; and the Athenaeum, a building of a graver character, on its west front, rebukes by its severity the grace of the north portico. On the whole, however, Mr. Foulston has great merit in conceiving the project, and executing it in the way he has done,-—of finding space for the erection of one mass of ornamental public building by the union of several smaller features, which, in their individual proportions, must have appeared minute, while in their collective form they present a massive and dignified whole. To gain this good, however, a little evil is created. The hotel, the theatre, and the ball-room may be what the observer chooses to consider them; but, assuredly, character and fitness, the very essence of architectural merit, are entirely wanting; the design should express its purpose, and, if it fail in this, neither grandeur of conception nor accuracy of detail ought to save it from the censure of the judicious. The connection between the Ionic of the temple and the Corinthian of the Choragic monument, and the propriety of their adaptation to hotel, the theatre, and the assembly-room, are discoverable only by genius like that of Mr. Foulston.

The Athenaeum contains the Hall and Museum of the Plymouth Institution, a society for the encouragement of the arts. The style of the building is, as we have said, severe; the portico is a Doric Tetrastyle.
The Public Library, in Cornwall-street, is an adaptation of the Choragic monument of Thrasyllus, at Athens, a well-selected and not inappropriate design, but injudiciously altered, and over-enriched.

In St. Andrew’s Chapel the design is reduced_to poverty for the sake of the materials; and the interior, although we admire the running honeysuckle ornament of the gallery, is greatly injured in effect by the fanciful columns which support it, and the inappropriate place of the pulpit, but perhaps that was meant to conceal the picture of the Crucifixion which is said to enrich the altar.

The fine old Church of St. Andrew appears to have been restored in very good taste. We know not how much of the magnificent effect of the choir is due to Mr. Foulston, but he apologises for and explains the unfortunate site of the pulpit, which here, too, appears a mere mask to the altar.

The next plate is the most extraordinary of all possible jumbles. On the left are the Ionic and Corinthian of the theatre, etc. Near it the Doric of the town-hall. Opposite are the Oriental cupola of the chapel of Mount Zion, and an Egyptian temple adapted to a civil and military library; while the classic and barbaric are united by the commemorative column partaking of both characters.

Mount Edgecumbe-place is a mass of good houses in the Regent-street manner; and St. Paul's Chapel is in a style of which we have, alas! too many examples in London. The Abbey buildings are a specimen of Gothic in the worst sense of that word, but they mark no period of our architecture, imitate nothing, and their originality will not be contested. The ball-rooms of Tavistock and Torquay, and the County Gaol and Lunatic Asylum, require no comment.

Now, whatever merit Mr. Foulston may claim for having acclimatised some fine specimens of Grecian architecture, a service which we are very ready to acknowledge, yet, considering the opportunities afforded him and the present state of his art, we cannot but be shocked at the incongruous masses he has heaped together, and of which we are inclined to think that even he must be somewhat ashamed. The noble church of St. Andrew might have guided him in all his chapels; and, having once adopted the Grecian architecture for the principle of his public buildings, how could he throw away the opportunity of carrying out that principle, and of arranging, with a view to general effect, the noble specimens of antiquity he had the means of adapting to modern purposes within a small yet amply sufficient area?

His book is full of working details, which will be valuable to the practical part of his profession, as far as the designs to which they are subservient are worth adopting. We regret that this minute accuracy of detail is purchased at the expense of general principles. Not one word of Aesthetic, or really architectural character, occurs in the volume, while the mere builder is directed in the minutest practical points. When an architect has a town to restore, he has something more than his own fancy to serve, and Plymouth will not thank Mr. Foulston for experimenting on the picturesque, at the expense of consistency. Again, in the publication of such a work as the volume before us, the author's portrait and the accurate inventory of wheels and pulleys will not atone for the absence of all artistic feeling and professional enthusiasm. The only mention of any other architect which Mr. Foulston makes is invidious, and even the glorious minds from which he has borrowed the means of advancing himself are never honoured in his pages. A true artist would have lodged his working details with that invaluable association, the Royal Institute of British Architects, and the present ponderous volume might have been usefully reduced to a moderate portfolio of plans and elevations, in which case we might have hoped for excellence in the execution, instead of quantity in the designs. Grasp of mind, elevation of thought, refinement of taste, and the purifying love of art, will be sought in vain in Mr. Foulston’s transcripts of his physical and neutral self. He has raised a huge pile to his own memory, and blasted his fame in the epitaph.
- THE PUBLIC BUILDINGS ERECTED IN THE WEST OF ENGLAND (review reprinted from The Monthly Review), pp294-295, The London and Paris Review, 1839.

Thanks to the Devon and Exeter Institution for guest access to its library; all images are reproduced courtesy of the Institution.

 - Ray

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