In 1891, Charles Harrison Townsend was invited to design a new library and cultural institution for London. Bishopsgate Institute was Townsend’s first major public building. Our Interpretation Manager and history tutor, Dr Michelle Johansen, explains how our architect used this building project to showcase his original style.
An anonymous competition to find an architect
By 1891, a location for William Rogers’ polytechnic or university of the people had been identified. But, as the photograph to the left suggests, our original site was hemmed in on all sides by shops and businesses. This had implications for the visibility of the new premises and for the provision of lighting within its four walls.
Some of Bishopsgate Institute’s governors suspected that nobody would be capable of producing a usable set of designs for this landlocked site. They kept these concerns quiet as they set about selecting an architect in collaboration with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Seven candidates were invited to submit plans, using pseudonyms to conceal their identities. The idea was to make sure that the architect appointed was chosen on merit, not because they were famous, rich, or otherwise powerful.
The plans selected arrived under the pseudonym “Arts and Letters”. They were the work of a middle-aged architect originally from north-west England called Charles Harrison Townsend. At this time, Townsend was mainly known for church design and restoration projects (plus a few commissions carried out for the London School Board) but his “Arts and Letters” pseudonym told us two important things about his life and interests.
First, it hinted at his cultured upbringing in a middle-class home surrounded by books, art and music (his mother was a harpist who’d inherited her musical talent from her father, the celebrated Polish violinist Felix Yaniewicz). Second, it announced his close links to the Arts and Crafts movement.
Followers of the Arts and Crafts movement were illustrators, crafts people, designers and decorative artists who pursued simplicity, and authenticity in their work. The movement’s most prominent practitioners, such as William Morris and Walter Crane, took inspiration from the natural world. Anything factory-made or mass-produced was viewed with suspicion.
Townsend broadly subscribed to Arts and Crafts ideals and principles, and was friendly with most of the movement’s key figures. But he also incorporated other influences into his work. Some of these, such as his fascination with Japanese ornament and patterns, are difficult to detect in his designs for our building. Others, like his obsession with mosaic and tiling, are immediately apparent as you wander along our corridors.
Yet other style influences can be seen as soon as you set eyes on our bold frontage. Here, Townsend sought to overcome some of the problems of our original landlocked site by drawing the eye away from, for example, the loud tobacconist shop next door.
The dramatic design of our main entrance was unlike anything seen on London’s streets in the early 1890s. It owed a debt to the American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, whose influence is apparent in the steeply pitched roof, the octagonal corner turrets, and the semi-circular Romanesque arch.
We can also discern traces of an emergent Art Nouveau style that afterwards found greater expression in Townsend’s church and furniture designs. Unlikely as it may seem today, for a brief period in the early-twentieth century, Townsend’s name was bracketed alongside such pioneer practitioners of this design trend as René Lalique and Gustav Klimt.
While Townsend respected and understood traditional architectural forms, in our building he sought to strike a fresh, modern note through a merger of different styles, including of course the inevitable Arts and Crafts influence. This playful merger was an expression of his desire for originality. It also reflected the whimsical sense of humour Townsend was known for among his friends and family.
Townsend’s unique architectural legacy in London
After completing the new Bishopsgate Institute building, Charles Harrison Townsend turned his hand to two other ambitious design schemes: the Whitechapel Art Gallery in Aldgate and the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill. Stylistic similarities link all three structures, most conspicuously the broad, arched entrances and terracotta exteriors with intricate carving.
Despite these successful commissions, no more major projects came Townsend’s way. For a short time, he concentrated his energy on domestic design projects (wallpapers and soft furnishings) and church building and restoration schemes. From the 1910s, he was chiefly occupied in administrative duties for professional organisations such as RIBA and the Royal Society of Arts. He occasionally turned his hand to poetry, creating poignant works that hinted at unhappiness in his private affairs.
Townsend’s final ground floor plans for Bishopsgate Institute provided a sense of the spatial constrictions within which he worked as he began drawing up designs for the new Institute in the early 1890s. We still hold Townsend’s original, highly-detailed drawings in our special collections, which are well worth visiting to view if you're interested in Victorian architecture.
Townsend died in 1928. By this time, his eclectic design approach was viewed as old fashioned but there was a revival of interest in, and appreciation of, his work from the early 1960s. His three landmark public building projects are now separately listed as Grade II* by Historic England, a listing confirming the architectural value of our own building, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, and the Horniman Museum. Perhaps just as importantly, all three schemes remain operational today. Much loved. Hardly altered.
Against all expectations, Townsend succeeded in designing a usable public institution on a difficult site. We consider this quite the architectural achievement. Why not swing by to see it for yourself sometime?
Discover the origins of the Institute by learning the little-known story of Reverend Rogers of St Botolph’s Church on Bishopsgate.
Find out what happened next in the Institute’s development by reading the story of our chief librarian Charles Goss.