Sir George Gilbert Scott was the leading architect of the Gothic Revival. A man of phenomenal energy, influence and success.
George Gilbert Scott (1811–1878) was born in Buckinghamshire in 1811. His father, the Reverend Thomas Scott, was an amateur architect. In 1827 Scott moved to London to begin formal training with the architect, James Edmeston, who later complained that Scott ‘wasted his time sketching medieval buildings’.
In the early 1840s Scott began to take a serious interest in the medieval Gothic style of architecture. Travelling around Europe he studied medieval art first hand, finding inspiration in both architecture and in metalwork shrines and reliquaries. His first Gothic-style building was the Martyrs’ Memorial, Oxford, built in 1840.
The term ‘Gothic Revival’ applies to the 19th-century use of designs based on the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Designers drew on Gothic architectural features such as pointed arches, trefoils, quatrefoils and naturalistic foliage. During the 1860s fashion favoured the ‘Reformed Gothic style’ which was based on 13th-century French models. Scott particularly admired French Gothic architecture, notably the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris of about 1241-8 with its brilliantly painted interior, stained glass and delicate tracery.
Scott was also fascinated by the glitter and intricacy of medieval goldsmiths’ work, especially the great shrines in Germany such as Cologne’s Three Kings Shrine of 1180-1220. Scott’s The great choir screen made for Hereford Cathedral, its Gothic arches made up of shining brasswork, riotously painted ironwork and colourful mosaics, clearly echoes the design of these shrines with their clustered columns, foliate crestings, jewels and enamels. Scott used many design sources. The figures of Christ and the angels on the Hereford Screen appear to be inspired by late 13th-century Tuscan sculpture, and their overall positioning resembles the arrangement of Italian cathedral facades like Siena in Tuscany. The Albert Memorial – designed just a few months after the Hereford Screen – was inspired by similar medieval models and was praised at the time for its ‘jewelled architecture’.
Knighted in 1872, Scott became president of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1873. He died in 1878 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
For much of the 20th century, however, the Gothic Revival style was unfashionable and Scott’s work was neglected. In the 1960s his Hereford and Salisbury cathedral screens were dismantled. The V&A also has in its collections the gates of Salisbury’s screen (1869–72), also by Scott and Skidmore. The rest was mostly sold for scrap. The grand Midland Hotel, St Pancras, which Scott considered his most successful project, was allowed to fall into disuse and become semi-derelict. The Albert Memorial – restored at a cost of £11.2 million – was nearly demolished in the 1980s. However in the last 15 years, a wider appreciation of Britain’s artistic heritage has led to the restoration of Scott’s major works. In 2011 the Midland Hotel re-opened as The St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel after a lengthy re-development and restoration.
Scott was the architect of many iconic buildings, including the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel, the Albert Memorial, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, the main building of the University of Glasgow, and St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh.