Abolition of slavery and gothic survival

THE LONDON UNDERGROUND used to be a good place for me to read. If I were lucky enough to find a seat, I could be assured of a good 25 to 30 minutes of reading whilst I commuted between Golders Green and Warren Street during my 12 years as a student at University College London. It was not twelve years because I kept on failing examinations (which I did not) but because I was lucky enough to have parents who did not mind me being a ‘perpetual student’. One of the many books that I enjoyed on the train was “Gothic Revival. An Essay in the History of Taste”, first published in 1928 by the art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), who is not to be confused with a Tory politician with a similar name. One thing that struck me whilst reading the book was that the author suggested that unlike in many other countries, in Great Britain the use of the gothic style of architecture never died out. In other words, mine to be exact, gothic style was never truly abandoned and that we call ‘Gothic revival’ is simply a continuation of a style that never died in this part of the world. That said, there is little doubt that architects, particularly during the 19th century, made a conscious effort to recreate what their predecessors had created during the heyday of gothic architecture in mediaeval times.  Recently, we have seen two small but attractive structures by one of England’s leading Gothic Revival architects, Samuel Sanders Teulon (1812-1873). One of them is in a prominent site near to the Houses of Parliament and the other is less easy to find, in Hampstead.

Buxton Memorial

Teulon, born in Greenwich, was of French Huguenot extraction. Although trained mostly in the neo-Classical style, it was not long before he became interested in first Tudor and Elizabethan styles, and then in the Gothic Revival style for which he is best known (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Sanders_Teulon). Teulon died at his home near Pond Square in Hampstead, which stood where today the Royal Free Hospital stands. The hospital’s neighbour is St Stephens Parish Church, which Teulon designed. It was built between 1869 and ’70. This magnificent edifice built on a corner plot overlooks the hospital, the construction of which unfortunately undermined the church causing it to become unstable and largely unusable. The celebrated Victorian writer, John Ruskin considered the church to have been:

“ …the finest specimen of brick building in all the land” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1130394).

Far less well-known and much more modest than St Stephens, but still within Hampstead, is the small Gatehouse Lodge at the entrance to the Branch Hill Estate near to the top of Frognal. Built in 1868, it is a delightful mix of brickwork and carved white masonry and several features in the gothic style. Its tiled roof is complex with one part of it in the shape of a pyramid and displaying several gables. Overlooking a large field of public allotments, today the lodge serves as a private dwelling. The Gatehouse stands at the entrance to the grounds of an Edwardian building that was built after it. The Edwardian building replaced an earlier mansion, Branch Hill Lodge, in the grounds where it stands.  Lord Byron’s wife, Anne Isabella Noel Byron (1792-1860), lived in one of the earlier ‘incarnations’ of the Lodge after her separation from her husband, probably in a building constructed in the 18th century (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp33-42). Lady Byron was involved in the abolition of slavery and was one of the few women to have attended 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention. JakeSpangler of De Paul University (Chicago, Illinois) noted (https://via.library.depaul.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1274&context=etd):

“Anne Isabella Noel Milbanke, the Lady Byron, was a major proponent of anti-slavery legislation in her lifetime, and as such, her union with Lord Byron may have stoked his views on the matter.”

The proximity of one of Teulon’s buildings to the former residence of an anti-slavery abolitionist brings us neatly to another of Teulon’s creations. This is the Buxton Memorial Fountain, which is close to both the Houses of Parliament and the River Thames, in Victoria Tower Gardens South.

The Slave Trade Act of 1807 abolished slave trade in the British Empire but did not legislate against it elsewhere.  Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, 1st Baronet (1786 –1845), a Quaker who was involved with the Truman brewery and a politician, was engaged actively in a campaign to stop slavery elsewhere in the world, outside the British Empire. The escaped slave and important American anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass (c1818-1895) wrote in an appendix to his autobiography:
“The friends of freedom in England saw in the negro a man, a moral responsible being. Having settled this in their own minds, they … denounced the crime of his enslavement. It was the faithful, persistent, and enduring enthusiasm of Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, …, Thomas Fowell Buxton, …, and their noble co-workers, that finally thawed the British heart into sympathy for the slave, and moved the strong arm of that government in mercy to put an end to his bondage.”

Buxton was important in the fight against slavery. In 1825, William Wilberforce retired, and Buxton succeeded him  as leader of the abolitionist movement in the House of Commons.  In 1833, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act.

Buxton’s third son, Charles Buxton (1822-1871), a brewer and a Liberal Member of Parliament, decided to erect a monument to his father. An amateur architect, it is believed that he might have had some influence on its design, which was mainly the work of SS Teulon (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1066151). Completed at the same time as the American Civil War ended and the abolition of slavery in the USA, it was initially placed in Parliament Square. It was moved to its present location in 1957.

The Buxton Memorial Fountain is a small but colourful, exuberant, firework-like example of the Gothic Revival style.  Standing on an octagonal stone base, it is made with a large variety of materials. Its pyramidical roof is covered with patterned tiles in many colours. Four red coloured stone drinking fountains, which no longer function, surround a central speckled granite column that supports a fan-vaulted ceiling, which any cathedral would be pleased to include in its structure. From the memorial there is a fine view of the Houses of Parliament, another superb example of Gothic Revival, but somewhat less flamboyant than Teulon’s much smaller structure. 

Charles Buxton dedicated the memorial to his father as well as others involved in the abolition of slavery including William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Henry Brougham and Stephen Lushington. Charles was responsible for designing several buildings including his own home, Foxwarren Park in Surrey, which was a florid example of Victorian Gothic Revival. This might explain why he chose Teulon to help design the memorial to the abolitionists.

Both the small buildings I have described are well worth seeing. However, when I saw them, I did not realise that they both had one thing, not architectural, in common: connections with the ending of slavery during the 19th century.  Looking at them, I feel that despite what Kenneth Clark suggested, they both borrow from the gothic tradition rather than represent a natural evolution from the gothic style that flourished during mediaeval times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s