Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Street, George Edmund
STREET, GEORGE EDMUND (1824–1881), architect, born at Woodford, Essex, on 20 June 1824, was the third son of Thomas Street, solicitor, by his second wife, Mary Anne Millington. The father, Thomas Street, whose business was in Philpot Lane, was the descendant of a Worcestershire family to which belonged also the judge, Sir Thomas Street [q. v.] About 1830, when his father moved to Camberwell, George was sent to a school at Mitcham, and subsequently to the Camberwell collegiate school, which he left in 1839. In 1840 Street was placed in the office in Philpot Lane, but the employment was uncongenial, and his father's death, after a few months, released him from it. For a short period he lived with his mother and sister at Exeter, where probably he first turned his thoughts to architecture, led by the example of his elder brother Thomas, an ardent sketcher. Street improved his drawing by taking lessons in perspective from Thomas Haseler, a painter, who was a connection by marriage. In 1841 his mother, through the influence of Haseler, secured for her son the position of pupil with Owen Browne Carter [q. v.], an architect of Winchester. He made use of his local opportunities to such purpose that in 1844 he was an enthusiastic and even accomplished ecclesiologist, and was readily accepted as an assistant in the office of Scott & Moffat [see Scott, Sir George Gilbert]. Here he worked for five years, and spent his leisure in ecclesiological excursions in various parts of England, often accompanied by his elder brother. He was a valuable coadjutor to Scott, who apparently gave him the opportunity of starting an independent practice even while he nominally remained an assistant. A chance acquaintance obtained for Street his first commission—the designing of Biscovey church, Cornwall. Before 1849, when he first took an office on his own account, he had been engaged on about a score of buildings, the most important being a new church at Bracknell; another, with parsonage and schools, at Treverbyn, and the restoration of St. Peter's, Plymouth, and of the churches of Sheviocke, Lostwithiel, Sticker, St. Mewan, Cubert, St. Austell, East and West Looe, Little Petherick, Probus, Lanreath, Enfield, Heston, Hawes, Sundridge, and Hadleigh. During the restoration of Sundridge he made the acquaintance of Benjamin Webb [q. v.], secretary of the Ecclesiological Society, who was then curate of the adjoining parish of Brasted.
Webb recommended Street to William Butler (afterwards dean of Lincoln), who employed him on the vicarage and other works at Wantage, and introduced him to Samuel Wilberforce [q. v.], bishop of Oxford, who appointed him honorary diocesan architect. In 1850 he took up his residence at Wantage, making Oxfordshire the centre of his architectural activity. During two foreign tours in 1850 and 1851 he studied the greater churches of France and Germany. Acting on the advice of his friend, John William Parker [q. v.], he settled in May 1852 in Beaumont Street, Oxford, and shortly afterwards took two pupils, Edmund Sedding and Philip Webb, his first regular assistants. In 1853 Street's practice was augmented by the inception of two important works—the theological college at Cuddesdon, and the buildings of the East Grinstead Sisterhood, an institution with the foundation of which Street showed such practical sympathy as to refuse remuneration. The commission to design the important and beautiful church of St. Peter at Bournemouth, completed some twenty years later, belongs to the same year. In 1853 also he visited Northern Italy, and obtained material for ‘Brick and Marble Architecture’ (published 1855), his first important publication. In 1854 he followed up his studies of continental brick architecture by a tour in North Germany, which bore fruit in more than one paper on the churches of the district communicated to the ‘Ecclesiologist’ (1855). In all these tours, as indeed in all his leisure moments, he was occupied in the masterly sketches which, though only means to his ends, were in themselves enough to make a reputation.
In 1855 Street secured a house and office in London at 33 Montague Place, Russell Square, from which he removed to 51 Russell Square, and subsequently in 1870 to 14 Cavendish Place.
In 1855, in an open competition for a cathedral at Lille in the French Gothic style, Street's design was placed second to that of Clutton and Burges. To the last-named architect Street was shortly afterwards again placed second in a competition (among forty-six rivals) for the Crimean memorial church at Constantinople. In 1857 the sultan gave a site to which Burges's design could not be adapted, and the commission was transferred to Street. The church, which was designed with special reference to the requirements of oriental climate, was begun in 1864 and completed in 1869.
Meanwhile it was recognised that Street stood side by side with his former master, Scott, as one of the great champions of Gothic architecture, and it was natural that he should engage on the Gothic side as one of the competitors in the competition for the new government offices in 1856. He was one of the seventeen out of 219 competitors to whom premiums were awarded, and it was generally considered that he divided with Scott and Woodward the credit of sending in the best of the Gothic designs. Other important works on which he was engaged at this date were the new nave of Bristol Cathedral; the church and schools of St. James the Less, Westminster; St. Mary Magdalene, Paddington; All Saints, Clifton; St. John's, Torquay; schoolrooms and chapel at Uppingham; Longmead House, Bishopstoke; and the restoration of Hedon church, Yorkshire. These were followed shortly afterwards by St. Saviour's, Eastbourne; St. Margaret's, Liverpool; a church for Lord Sudeley at Toddington; Dun Echt House (with chapel) for Lord Crawford; and a number of school and church buildings for Sir Tatton Sykes.
In spite of great pressure of work, Street made three tours in Spain in 1861–2–3, collecting materials for his book entitled ‘Gothic Architecture in Spain,’ which appeared in 1865, all the illustrations being drawn on the wood by himself. In 1866 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and he became a full member in 1871.
In 1866 Street was invited by the government to compete for the designs both of the National Gallery and the law courts. For the National Gallery competition, which ended abortively in the appointment of Edward Middleton Barry [q. v.] to rearrange the existing building, Street prepared himself by a tour of the galleries of Mid-Europe, and produced a design of dignified simplicity and convenience—a long arcaded front with a continuous roof broken only by a central dome and by the projecting entrance.
Street's successful competition for the law courts in the Strand marks the culmination of his career, though as the invitation was issued in 1866, and the work was still unfinished when Street died in 1881, the undertaking was coincident with much other practice. Originally five architects were invited as well as Street, viz. (Sir) G. G. Scott and Messrs. T. H. Wyatt, Alfred Waterhouse, Edward M. Barry, and P. C. Hardwick, junior Wyatt and Hardwick afterwards retired. The number of competitors was subsequently raised to twelve, and in January 1867 designs were finally sent in by eleven architects. The judges recommended Street for the external and Barry for the internal arrangements, while a special committee of the legal profession inclined to the designs of Mr. Waterhouse. Controversy raged for a year, but at last, in June 1868, Street was nominated sole architect. The inevitable vexations of so large an undertaking were greatly increased from the start by the policy of parsimony pursued by A. S. Ayrton, the first commissioner of works, which went the length of cutting down the architect's remuneration. Street met these false economies with the generosity of a true artist. Each of the courts was worked out on a separate design. Three thousand drawings were prepared by his own hand, and so loyally did he obey his instructions as to expense that when the east wing was completed the accounts showed an expenditure of 2,000l. less than the authorised amount. The completed work evoked adverse criticism from many points of view, but it enhanced Street's reputation in the public eye.
It was, however, as an ecclesiastical architect that he won his highest artistic successes. Street was diocesan architect to York, Winchester, and Ripon, as well as to Oxford. During the progress of the work at the law courts, which was interrupted by many formidable strikes and by the contractor's financial difficulties, Street was employed in restoring many cathedrals. His work at Bristol, which consisted mainly of the rebuilding of the nave, showed a power of combining originality with archæology, and was marked at its close by an acrid controversy over the statues placed in the north porch, resulting eventually in the banishment of the figures. In 1871 Street was engaged in restoration at York Minster, and about the same time at Salisbury and Carlisle, at Christchurch Dublin, and St. Brigid's, Kildare. At Carlisle his most important undertaking in connection with the cathedral was the rehabilitation of the fratry, a building of the fifteenth century much concealed by later accretions. The removal of these accretions met with warm reprobation from certain archæologists, and Street defended his action in a reply to the Society for the Protection of Antient Buildings (Building News, 27 Feb. 1880).
In 1874 he received the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Next year he took part by writing letters to newspapers, and subsequently as a witness before the House of Lords, in the agitation which saved London Bridge from a hideous iron addition; and in 1876 he was consulted on the rehabilitation of Southwell Minster for purposes of modern worship. In 1879, when fears were aroused that St. Mark's at Venice was suffering from injudicious restoration, Street was the first to express, if not to conceive, the idea that the undulations of the pavement, which the restorers threatened to level, were due to design.
In 1878, in recognition of his drawings sent to the Paris Exhibition, Street received the knighthood of the Legion of Honour. Another foreign distinction which he received was the membership of the Royal Academy of Vienna. His appointment as professor of architecture at the Royal Academy (where he also held the office of treasurer) and his election to the presidency of the Royal Institute of British Architects both took place in 1881, the last year of his life. His energetic though short presidency of the institute was a turning point in its history. His wish that the council of that body should come to be regarded as an arbiter in architectural matters of national and metropolitan importance has since his death been partly realised.
In 1873 he built himself a house on a site he had purchased at Holmbury, Surrey, and a few years later he took a leading part in the formation of the parish of Holmbury St. Mary. He built the church at his own expense. In 1881 his health, which was impaired by the great responsibilities of his work for the government, showed signs of failure. Visits to foreign watering places proved of no avail, and he died in London, after two strokes of paralysis, on 18 Dec. 1881. He was honoured on 29 Dec. with a public funeral in Westminster Abbey. He married, first, on 17 June 1852, Mariquita, second daughter of Robert Proctor, and niece of Robert Proctor, vicar of Hadleigh, whose church he restored. She died in 1874, and was buried at Boyne Hill, near Maidenhead, a church designed by Street himself and decorated by his own hand with copies of Overbeck's designs. He married, secondly, on 11 Jan. 1876, Jessie, second daughter of William Holland of Harley Street; she died in the same year.
The works left incomplete on his death were in most cases completed by his only son, Mr. Arthur Edmund Street, with whom (Sir) Arthur W. Blomfield, A.R.A., was associated in the task of bringing the courts of justice to completion.
The principal memorial to his honour is the full-length sculpture by H. H. Armstead, R.A., in the central hall of the courts. The same artist executed a bust which is preserved in the rooms of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Two photographic portrait his capacity for work was inexhaustible. Throughout life he took an active interest in the affairs of the chief high-church organisations, and was devoted to classical music. He lived in personal contact and sympathy with the pre-Raphaelite and kindred artists. The Rossettis, W. Holman Hunt, George P. Boyce, Ford Madox-Brown, William Morris (at one time Street's pupil), W. Bell Scott, and (Sir) E. Burne-Jones were among his friends, and even in his early years he began, as his means allowed, to purchase examples of the works of the school.
Though never exhibiting any animosity towards the practice of classic architecture, Street had always looked upon Gothic work as his mission, and was consistently true to the style of his choice. In his earlier career he had leanings towards an Italian type of the style, and the special study which bore literary fruit in his ‘Brick and Marble Architecture’ was turned to practical account in the church of St. James the Less, Westminster. His later and more characteristic work was, however, based on English, or occasionally, as at St. Philip and St. James's, Oxford, on French, models of the thirteenth century; and although his work as a restorer led him more than once to practise in the methods of the late English Gothic or Perpendicular manner, this style was hardly ever adopted by him in original design. Street was no slavish imitator; he gave full play to his inventive faculties, and his special invention of the broad nave with suppressed aisles, a device for accommodating large congregations, is well exemplified in the church of All Saints, Clifton. One of Street's favourite designs was that of Kingstone church, Dorset, carried out for Lord Eldon. It is a cruciform building with an apse, central tower, and narthex built throughout of Purbeck stone with shafts of Purbeck marble, all from quarries on the estate. The mouldings are rich, and, owing to the character of the material, the building has a model-like perfection and neatness which age will probably improve. The American churches at Paris and Rome, and those for the English community at Rome, Vevay, Genoa, Lausanne, and Mürren are also notable examples of Street's work. It was in the parish church, large or small, that his genius was realised to best effect.
Besides the literary works already noticed, Street was the author of various occasional papers and addresses, and of the article on Gothic architecture in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ (9th edit.). His academy lectures—six treatises on the art, styles, and practice of—are appended to the memoir by his son.
[Memoir of George Edmund Street, R.A., by his son, Arthur Edmund Street, London, 1888, with complete list of works; Builder, vol. xli. 24 Dec. 1881, with list of works illustrated in the Builder; Architect, vol. xxvi. 24 Dec. 1881, including a list of works exhibited in the Academy (Street first exhibited in 1848); Building News, vol. xli. 23 Dec. 1881.]