Sheila Binns Author Interview

What inspired you to write W. H. Crossland: An Architectural Biography?

My inspiration was the stupendous Founder’s Building, Royal Holloway, University of London.  I first became acquainted with its architect, W. H. Crossland, when I worked there.  However, it was impossible to get to know him as nobody knew much about him.  Later, when I studied there for an MA, I discovered that he came from West Yorkshire, a part of the country I visit often.  I sensed fate was challenging me to try to fill the Crossland gap in the body of knowledge regarding nineteenth century architects.  Accordingly, I embarked on a trail of discovery, beginning with a study weekend in Yorkshire in 2012.  The excitement of discovering material in recently digitised newspapers was matched by the thrill of unwrapping archive documents that had been slumbering for decades.  In piecing together the Crossland jigsaw, I realised that I had not only rediscovered a great architect who had been largely forgotten over the last hundred years or so but also an extraordinarily addictive personal story.  I am proud to have written the first biography of this important nineteenth century architect.  I am grateful to the Marc Fitch Fund and to the Isobel Thornley Bequest for grants that helped to make publication possible and to The Lutterworth Press for publishing the book.

What does your writing and research process consist of?

I write best in the evening when I can settle down to a few hours without interruptions.  Much of my research was online and my notetaking was mostly electronic.  Such as remains of Crossland’s documents is spread thinly over several archives mostly in Yorkshire and in Surrey and I kept a notebook for archive visits but also frequently photographed documents for ease of later reference.  The majority of Crossland’s buildings are still standing and I visited most of them.  All writing and compiling was managed digitally.

To whom will W. H. Crossland appeal most?

This biography is intended to appeal to those interested in architecture, architectural history and history – both serious students and general readers with an interest in architecture.  It will also appeal to anyone who simply likes a good story – this true-life narrative has the ingredients of an absorbing novel.

What are you currently reading?

‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree – a fantastic book that a friend recommended as she knew it would appeal to another of my interests – the natural world and the environment.  It is inspirational!

How would you describe Crossland’s influence on architecture today?

Crossland’s work was dignified, sensitive and careful.  He came as near as any nineteenth century architect to creating a truly ‘Victorian’ style.  This meant that he took a variety of styles, motifs and influences and combined and interpreted them in a way that was then novel.  Those with knowledge of his work today will realise therefore that he pointed the way to applying imagination and flair to a sound grounding in the architectural theory and practice of previous generations.  Furthermore, Crossland had a profound understanding of the contribution made to a building by decoration, especially sculptural decoration.  Indeed, he devoted a large part of the only substantial piece of writing he left for posterity (in the R.I.B.A. Transactions) to pleading for sculptors to be better appreciated.  This has contributed to an understanding among subsequent generations of architects of the importance of decoration in individualising a building and raising an unremarkable structure to being worthy of note and recognition.

What is your next project?

My grandfather was locally very well-known and I am currently writing his story from notes that are many years old – the enforced availability of more time during the coronavirus summer lockdown provided a ‘now-or-never’ opportunity to do so.  I am also working on the story of my own varied and exceptionally fortunate life.

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