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Why we should take Thomas Hardy seriously as an architect

1 September 2016

‘These Gothic windows, how they wear me out / With cusp and foil, and nothing straight or square.’ So gripes the speaker of ‘The Young Glass-Stainer’, a short comic poem that appeared in Thomas Hardy’s Moments of Vision (1917). But architecture, and particularly gothic architecture, never wore out Hardy himself: the ideas and knowledge that he garnered from his professional architectural training became keystones in the intellectual framework of his writing.

As recently reported, an altarpiece believed to have been designed by the novelist has been discovered in a church in Windsor. Two parishioners of All Saints’ Church detected this large marble reredos, which had been concealed behind oak panelling during the 1920s, recognising that the design corresponds to a plan by Hardy that hangs in the church, but was thought never to have been executed. Assuming that the altarpiece, when it is fully revealed, does indeed follow the design by Hardy – and the drawing includes written instructions, so it is clearly preparatory work – then this makes for a significant material addition to what survives from the period in which the author trained and worked as an architect.

Drawing by Thomas Hardy of an altarpiece in All Saints Church, Windsor. It is not clear whether the design is by Hardy, or whether he was executing someone else's design.

Drawing by Thomas Hardy of an altarpiece in All Saints Church, Windsor. It is not clear whether the design is by Hardy, or whether he was executing someone else’s design. Photo: Stuart Tunstall

Most notably, this stage in Hardy’s life included several years working in the practice of the London-based Arthur Blomfield (from 1862–67), the firm that built All Saints, Windsor from 1862–64. Prior to that, in 1856 Hardy had been apprenticed to the Dorchester architect, John Hicks, for whom his father had worked as a master-mason; and after his return to Dorset in 1867, he took on further work for Hicks, as well as occasional jobs for G.R. Crickmay, Raphael Brandon, and T. Roger Smith, as well as Blomfield, coordinating architectural draughtsmanship around his early efforts in fiction.

Few buildings bear direct attribution to Hardy, since he never progressed beyond junior roles in architectural offices that, then as today, corralled teams of assistants to work on projects that would take the master-architect’s signature. Still, Clive Holland, writing in his sympathetic biography of the novelist in 1933, gives Hardy’s involvement as follows (though note the qualifications, even from a writer who had known Hardy): ‘[…] it is quite possible that Hardy had a definite hand in the work carried out at St. Barnabas Church in Bell Street, Edgware Road, and the church in Addiscombe Road, Croydon; buildings which were erected by his employer, Blomfield, during Hardy’s service under him. There is no doubt in the minds of most people that he had a definite connection with All Saints, Windsor, and the Radcliffe Chapel at Oxford, for his work at the latter certainly provided him with local colour for Jude the Obscure […]’

The Hardy Tree, St Pancras (Old Church), Churchyard

The Hardy Tree in St Pancras Churchyard. Photo: John Salmon/Wikimedia Commons (used under Creative Commons licence [CC. BY 2.0])

Then there is the story of Hardy being tasked by Blomfield with the exhumation of bodies in St Pancras Churchyard to make way for the Midland Railway, a dark duty that has left us with the tomb-skirted ‘Hardy Tree’ in the part of the burial ground that was spared. And there is one extant sketchbook (the ‘Architectural Notebook’), which contains pages of drawings of architectural details and ornaments, some copied from Owen Jones’s influential sourcebook The Grammar of Ornament (1856).

What we can be certain of is that Hardy’s professional experience as an architect underwrote an interest in buildings that would persist for the rest of his life. His practical involvement continued – from a distance, perhaps, but to the extent that his writing was often associated with architecture during his lifetime. Hardy joined the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1881, becoming involved in a number of campaigns to challenge wholesale ‘restoration’ projects of Dorset’s medieval buildings; late in his life he was elected as an honorary fellow of the RIBA; and after his death in 1928, he would be eulogised by the architect Sir Albert Richardson in The Builder as ‘The Master Craftsman’.

But more importantly, Hardy’s architectural training contributed to his thinking about the patterns of human life, and about the fabric of his literary constructions, in both verse and prose. The first chapter of The Life of Thomas Hardy (which appeared posthumously as a biography under Florence Hardy’s name in 1928–30, but is now broadly accepted to have been written by Hardy) is titled ‘Early Life and Architecture’ – an ambiguous conjunction that, as the critic Bharat Tandon has pointed out, allows for the possibility that Hardy did not see the two things as sequential but as somehow analogous. There are plenty of young architects in the novels, ciphers of Hardy to a greater or lesser degree, and often with rather less agency than they might, as planners and builders, have hoped for: most notably in Desperate Remedies (1871), A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), and A Laodicean (1881), which opens with a description of its architectural hero George Somerset ‘measuring and copying [a] chevroned doorway’.

Holland’s mention of Jude the Obscure (1895) places that novel firmly in the context of Hardy’s work as an architect’s assistant. This is not only a matter of the ‘local colour’ that comes from Hardy’s experience of Oxford (or Christminster as it is in the novel), but also of how deeply the writer’s knowledge of architectural patterns, and the practice of copying or emulating them, influenced his ideas about life and literature. Put crudely, Jude Fawley’s work as a stonemason, restoring gothic moulding and traceries on crumbling college buildings, is a constant reminder of how his life follows a preconceived template, however far he might strive to escape it. (‘Mould’ was a favourite pun of Hardy’s, with its double sense of structure and disintegration: as a guest at Wenlock Abbey, he quipped that he ‘felt quite mouldy at sleeping within walls of such high antiquity’.)

Such fatalistic thinking was one of Hardy’s chief preoccupations, and it is there in many of his poems that have architectural settings or contexts. There are plenty of them, too: from his first volume, Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898), which includes poems such as ‘Heiress and Architect’ and ‘Her Dilemma’ (set in a mouldering ‘sunless church’), to poems about architectural history (‘The Abbey Mason’) and others about the work of architectural recording and, perhaps implicitly, restoration (‘Drawing Details in an Old Church’, ‘Copying Architecture in an Old Minster’). While these poems all have their own local verbal and formal interest, what links them is Hardy’s continual investigation of how individualism, agency, and originality can be reconciled with historic architectural and literary forms (whether words, metrical patterns, or verse forms).

For Hardy, this concern was summarised by what, in a well-known passage from the Life, he described as his ‘Gothic art-principle’: ‘He knew that in architecture cunning irregularity is of enormous worth, and it is obvious that he carried on into his verse, perhaps in part unconsciously, the Gothic art-principle in which he had been trained – the principle of spontaneity, found in mouldings, tracery, and such like – resulting in the ‘unforeseen’ (as it has been called) character of his metres and stanzas […]’ His apprenticeship as an architectural copyist and draughtsman, that is, and the borrowing and adaptation of archaic words and verse forms, were types of constraint that might allow his imagination to flourish. Repetition could become a type of replenishment, even if it never was so for many of his fictional characters.

When the reredos at All Saints, Windsor, does emerge from behind its panelling – and the church is trying to raise £9,000 to ensure that can happen – discussion will no doubt centre on how far the scheme demonstrates Hardy’s invention or whether it feels templated, even borrowed. Hardy would have appreciated this, and what it says about the fine line between stricture and spontaneity.