Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Willson, Edward James

WILLSON, EDWARD JAMES (1787–1854), antiquary and architect, born at Lincoln on 21 June 1787, was the eldest son of William Willson of Lincoln by his wife Clarissa, daughter of William Tenney. Robert William Willson [q. v.] was his younger brother. He was brought up a Roman catholic, and, after education at the grammar school, began to learn business as a builder under his father, who had unusual knowledge of theoretical construction. In a few years he abandoned building for the study of architecture, in which he obtained help from a local architect. He was engaged by Archdeacon Bayley in 1823 in the restoration of Messingham church, and superintended repairs or restorations at Haxey, Louth, West Rasen, Saundby, Staunton, and other churches in the counties of Lincoln and Nottingham. He designed Roman catholic chapels at Nottingham, Hainton, Louth, Melton Mowbray, Grantham, and elsewhere, some of which may be regarded as early examples of the Gothic revival. In 1826 he designed the organ case for Lincoln Cathedral, but beyond this (and occasional informal suggestions) he was not engaged on the cathedral restorations, conducted at that time in a spirit of wholesale renovation which he deprecated. Between 1834 and 1845 he restored the keep, towers, and walls of Lincoln Castle, and had for more than twenty years the charge of that fabric as county surveyor. The Pelham Column, 128 feet high, on a hill at Cabourn between Caistor and Grimsby, was designed by Willson for the Earl of Yarborough. About 1818 an acquaintance with John Britton [q. v.] and Augustus Charles Pugin [q. v.] started him upon an industrious career as a writer on the phase of architecture then becoming popular. For Britton's ‘Architectural Antiquities’ (4to, 1807–26) he supplied accounts of Boston church, St. Peter's, Barton, and the minsters of Beverley and Lincoln, and probably took a large share in the chronological table attached to the fifth volume. He was associated with the same author's ‘Cathedral Antiquities’ (4to, 1814–35) and ‘Picturesque Antiquities of English Cities’ (4to, 1830).

The ‘Specimens of Gothic Architecture’ which Augustus Charles Pugin began to publish in 1821 owed much to Willson's suggestions, both in the delineation of mouldings and details (an advance on previous methods of recording architecture) and in the selection of the examples. Willson wrote the whole of the letterpress for these two volumes, and supplied a valuable glossary of Gothic architecture, the first of its kind. For Pugin's ‘Examples of Gothic Architecture’ (4to, 1828–31) he also wrote the text, including essays on ‘Gothic Architecture’ and ‘Modern Imitation.’ He was intimately connected with the movement for the cultivation and nomenclature of Gothic architecture with which Thomas Rickman [q. v.] and others were then associated.

He was the author of various pamphlets on local subjects, and collected a wealth of material for the architectural history of his county and cathedral, which lack of time and health prevented his putting into print. All branches of ecclesiastical history claimed his attention, and he left notes upon the disputed authorship of the ‘De Imitatione Christi.’ He was honoured as a citizen in Lincoln, and became a city magistrate in 1834 and mayor in 1852. Willson died at Lincoln on 8 Sept. 1854. He was buried at Hainton. He married, in 1821, Mary, daughter of Thomas Mould. By her he had two surviving sons.

[Builder, 1855, xiii. 4–5; information from T. J. Willson, esq.; Gent. Mag. 1855, i. 321.]

P. W.