W.H. Crosland: An Architectural Biography
By Sheila Binns
Out on the 24/09/2020
At the lavish opening ceremony of the Royal Holloway College in 1886, William Henry Crossland presented Queen Victoria with an album of his drawings of the College – the phantasmagoria of a building he had created for Thomas Holloway in Egham, Surrey. This, Crossland must have reflected, was truly the high point of his life and of his career and a long way from the Huddersfield quarry business where he had grown up.
A well-known and much-praised architect, he proudly offered the Queen his own work in a gesture that underlined the extent of his success. As he gloried in the admiration of his College – a highly successful architect at the peak of his career – he could never have foreseen that in just a few years, he would have fallen from this peak into obscurity.
Among the architects of the second half of the nineteenth century who have left great buildings for posterity, Crossland has remained a shadowy figure, although he has also been described as one of the finest architects of the day. In addition to the Royal Holloway College, his portfolio includes two more glorious buildings now listed as Grade I. It has been said of him that his ‘versatility in adapting historical styles was astonishing, even among Victorian architects’.
Crossland had a good, even privileged, start in life. His architectural training was under George Gilbert Scott, which gave him a certain status, and he went on to seek out and grasp opportunities. He ran a busy practice in the West Riding of Yorkshire mostly designing and building churches, for which he established a good reputation. He won the long-term confidence of wealthy patrons, suggesting reliability, honesty, integrity, hard work, fairness and the ability to work to schedules and deadlines. This confidence in him was to yield large dividends.
His style was generally based on the Decorated or ‘Second Pointed’ style, but included elements from earlier periods, which he combined with confidence. It was not until much later in his career that he showed any interest in other architectural styles. He was elected a Fellow of the RIBA on 28 January 1867. This was a mark of recognition of a practitioner at the top of his profession, and although there were various architectural associations and societies at the time, the Royal Institute of British Architects was almost certainly the best recognised and respected. Probably encouraged by Scott, the ambitious Crossland already had his eye on London and the opportunities it offered and counted on his RIBA Fellowship to open new doors.
Crossland achieved an eclecticism truly of his own time such that the College embodied exactly what late nineteenth-century architects said they were looking for: a Victorian style. His best buildings are among the finest buildings ever constructed in England. Over some of the most exciting decades British architecture has ever known, when the built environment was utterly transformed, despite the anonymity of his later years, the contribution of William Henry Crossland was truly significant.
This book sets out to place him in his rightful position in the pantheon of great Victorian architects. It attempts to provide a more detailed picture than has previously been available of a man who wrote of himself, ‘I found myself leading a life we architects read about but few experience.’ The narrative is chronological with glimpses of his private life and discussion of his building projects as he worked on them. It is the first account of Crossland’s life that places him at the centre of the narrative, unravelling some of the mysteries in his history and enabling, for the first time, an appreciation and understanding of his life and work.
Sheila Binns, March 2020