Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Penrose, Francis Cranmer
PENROSE, FRANCIS CRANMER (1817–1903), architect, archæologist, and astronomer, born on 29 Oct. 1817 at Bracebridge near Lincoln, was youngest son of John Penrose, vicar of that place. Both his father and his mother, Elizabeth Penrose, writer for the young under the pseudonym of 'Mrs. Markham,' are noticed separately in this Dictionary. Penrose owed his second name to direct descent through his mother from the sister of Archbishop Cranmer. His aunt Mary Penrose became the wife of Dr. Thomas Arnold [q. v.] of Rugby.
Francis was the original of the 'Mary' in the 'History of England,' by his mother ('Mrs. Markham'). After a few years at Bedford grammar school (1825-9) he passed to the foundation at Winchester College. From early years he had shown a taste for drawing, and on leaving Winchester he went in 1835 to the office of the architect Edward Blore [q. v.], where he worked until 1839. Thereupon, instead of starting architectural practice, he entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, as an undergraduate, and came out tenth senior optime in 1842. With his artistic and mathematical bents he combined repute as an athlete. He thrice rowed in the race against Oxford, in 1840, 1841, and 1842. He was captain of his college boat, which he brought from a low place to nearly head of the river, and was the inventor of the system of charts still in use in both universities for registering the relative positions of crews in the bumping races. More than once he walked in the day from Cambridge to London, and skated from Ely to the Wash. Among his friends while an undergraduate were Charles Kingsley [q. v.], almost a contemporary at Magdalene, Charles Blachford Mansfield [q. v.], John Malcolm Ludlow [q. v. Suppl. II], and John Couch Adams[q. v. Suppl. I], who with George Peacock [q. v.] awakened an interest in astronomy. Through Kingsley he came to know Frederick Denison Maurice [q. v.], and as a young man he saw much of his first cousin Matthew Arnold [q. v. Suppl. I].
In 1842 Penrose was appointed travelling bachelor of the University of Cambridge, and at once set out on an important architectural tour (1842-5). To his skill as a draughtsman he had added command of the art of water-colour, in which he had taken lessons from Peter De Wint [q. v.]. He made his first prolonged halt at Paris, where he visited the observatory, as well as architectural scenes. At Paris, and subsequently at Chartres, Fontainebleau, Sens, Auxerre, Bourges, Avignon, Nismes, and Aries, he sketched and studied industriously. At Rome in 1843 his keen eye criticised the pitch of the pediment of the Pantheon as being 'steeper than I quite like,' a comment which subsequently received justification. Fifty-two years later M. Chedanne of Paris read a paper in London (at a meeting over which Penrose presided), and proved that the pitch of the pediment had been altered from the original design. Penrose stayed six months at Rome, and thence wrote the stipulated Latin letter as travelling bachelor to the University of Cambridge. He chose as his theme the Cathedral of Bourges.
Between June 1843 and the following spring Penrose visited the chief cities of Italy, and after a brief return to England started somewhat reluctantly for Greece. He describes Athens as 'by far the most miserable town of its size I have ever seen' (9 Jan. 1845). But he soon fell under the spell of the 'Pericleian Monuments,' to which his first enthusiasm for Gothic architecture quickly gave way. In August he made his way home through Switzerland, Augsburg, Munich, and Cologne.
Already Penrose realised the importance of exact mensuration to a critical study of Greek architecture. The pamphlet on the subject by John Pennethome [q. v.] attracted his attention on its publication in 1844. On his arrival in England the Society of Dilettanti had determined to test thoroughly Pennethome' s theories as to the measurements of Greek classical bxiildings, and they commissioned Penrose to undertake the task in their behalf. In 1846 Penrose was again at Athens. His principal collaborator in the work of measurement there was Thomas Willson of Lincoln. They completed their labours in May 1847. Despite corrections in detail Penrose confirmed in essentials Pennethome's theories. When in 1878 Pennethome brought out his 'Geometry and Optics of Ancient Architecture' he adopted with due acknowledgment Penrose's mass of indisputable material.
'Anomalies in the Construction of the Parthenon,' which the Society of Dilettanti published in 1847, was the first result of Penrose's labours, but it was in 1851 that there appeared his monumental work, 'Principles of Athenian Architecture,' of which a more complete edition was issued in 1888. Penrose's exhaustive and minutely accurate measurements finally established that what is apparently parallel or straight in Greek architecture of the best period is generally neither straight nor parallel but curved or inclined. He solved the puzzle which all Vitruvius's commentators had found insoluble by identifying the 'scamilli impares' with those top and bottom blocks of the columns which, by virtue of the inclination of the column or the curvature of stylobate and architrave, are 'unequal' (i.e. they have their upper and lower faces out of parallel). Some important conclusions relating to the Roman temple of Jupiter Olympius at Athens Penrose laid before the Institute of British Architects in 1888.
In 1852 Dean Milman and the chapter appointed Penrose surveyor of St. Paul's Cathedral. The appointment was made with a view to the completion of the interior decoration in accordance with the intentions of Wren. Penrose deemed it necessary to allot, apart from the decorative scheme, 2000l. per annum to the maintenance of the fabric, and a public appeal in 1870 provided substantial financial support. Penrose took up the decorative scheme with enthusiasm, and he insisted on respecting his conception of Wren's generous intentions. In the result he soon found himself at variance with the chapter, who favoured a more restricted plan. Nor was he at one with them on the methods of completing the Wellington monument (see Stevens, Alfred). Counsels prevailed in which the surveyor was neither consulted nor concerned.
Like Wren himself Penrose found relief from the disappointment in astronomical study, which had already attracted him at Cambridge' and in Paris. He was an adept at mechanical inventions, and an instrument for drawing spirals won him a prize at the Great Exhibition of 1851. A theodolite which he had bought in 1852 primarily for use in measurement of buildings, he applied at the suggestion of Dr. G. Boole to such astronomical purposes as accurate determination of orientation and time in connection, for example, with the fixing of sundials. In 1862 came the purchase of a small astronomical telescope which was soon superseded by a larger one with a 5½-inch object-glass (Steinheil), equatorially mounted by Troughton & Simms. In 1866 Penrose, finding the prediction of the time of an occultation of Saturn in the 'Nautical Almanac' inadequate for his purpose, endeavoured with success 'to obtain by graphical construction a more exact correspondence suited to the site of the observer. He published his results in 1869 in 'The Prediction and Reduction of Occupations and Eclipses' (4to), and the work reached a second edition in 1902.
In 1870 he visited Jerez in the south of Spain to view the total eclipse of the sun with his smaller (2¼-inch) instrument. The observation was spoilt by a cloud, but Penrose made the acquaintance of Professor Charles A. Young of America, whom he met again at Denver in 1878. Penrose's observations on the eclipse of 29 July 1878 were published in the Washington observations (Appendix III). He afterwards extended to comets the graphical method of prediction which he had applied to the moon (cf. his paper before the Royal Astronomical Society, December 1881, and chapter vi. in G. F. Chambers's Handbook of Astronomy, 4th edit. 3 vols. 1889).
His last astronomical work was a study of the orientation of temples, to which Sir Norman Lockyer directed his attention. Presuming that ' the object sought by the ancients in orienting their temples was to obtain from the stars at their rising or setting, as the case might be, a sufficient warning of the approach of dawn for preparation for the critical moment of sacrifice,' he perceived the importance of calculating the places of certain stars at distant epochs, and the possibility of estimating the age of certain temples by assuming an orientation and calculating the period of variation or apparent movement in the stars due to the precession of the equinoxes. Penrose applied his theory to certain Greek temples (see Proceedings and Philosophic Transactions of Royal Society), and with Lockyer he worked out a calculation on this basis in relation to Stonehenge (see also Journal R.I.B.A. 25 Jan. 1902). He joined the Royal Astronomical Society in 1867, and in 1894 his astronomical researches were recognised by his election as F.R.S.
Penrose's creative work as an architect was incommensurate in quantity with his obvious ability. He built at Cambridge the entrance gate at Magdalene, and a wing at St. John's; at Rugby School he erected the infirmary; at Wren's church, St. Stephen's, Walbrook, he designed the carved choir stalls. The vicarages at Harefield near Uxbridge and at Maids Moreton were his, as also were church restorations at Chilvers Coton and Long Stanton.
When in 1882 the foundation of the British School at Athens was projected, Penrose generously designed the building without fee. It was completed in 1886, when Penrose accepted the directorate for one season, 1886-7. He held the office again in 1890-1. At St. Paul's, where his chief architectural work was done, he designed the choir school, the choir seats and desks, the marble pulpit and stairs, carved oak lobbies at the western entrances of the north transept, the mosaic pavements in the crypt, the Wellington tomb in the crypt, the font and pavement in the south chapel, and the marble memorial to Lord Napier of Magdala. He was also responsible for the removal of the Wellington monument to a new position, the rearrangement of the steps at the west entrance, and the exposure of the remains of the ancient cathedral in the churchyard.
Penrose, whose fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects dated from 1848, received the royal gold medal of the institute in 1883 and was president in 1894-6. He became F.S.A. in 1898, when he was elected antiquary to the Royal Academy. He was made in 1884 one of the first honorary fellows of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in 1898 he became a Litt.D. of his university as well as an hon. D.C.L. of Oxford. He was a knight of the order of the Saviour of Greece.
His own house, Colebyfield, Wimbledon (which had a small observatory), was designed by himself. There, where he resided for forty years, he died on 15 Feb. 1903. He was buried at Wimbledon. He married in 1856 Harriette, daughter of Francis Gibbes, surgeon, of Harewood, Yorkshire. His wife predeceased him by twelve days. He left a son. Dr. Francis G. Penrose, and four daughters, the eldest of whom, Emily, became successively principal of Bedford College, Holloway College, and Somerville College, Oxford.
Penrose's portrait at the Royal Institute of British Architects is one of the most characteristic works of J. S. Sargent, R.A. (a copy is at Magdalene College). A memorial tablet was placed in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral, chiefly by architectural friends.
[R.I.B.A. Journal, vol. x. 3rd series, 1903, p. 337, article by Mr. J. D. Grace, also pp. 213-4; Royal Society Obituary Notices, vol. i. pt. 3, 1904, p. 305; information from Dr. Francis G. Penrose.]