Paradigm, No 7 (December, 1991) 

Thomas Rickman’s essay on Gothic architecture

and nineteenth century architectural education


John Vaughan

27 Mount St.
Liverpool 1.


In Westminster Abbey on April 6th, 1878, Dean Stanley preached the funeral sermon of Sir George Gilbert Scott. Stanley reflected upon the progress of the Gothic revival: "Gradually, imperfectly, through various channels&endash;in this country chiefly through the minute observations of a Quaker student&endash;the visions of the strange past rose before a newly awakened world."1 It is not recorded how many of the congregation correctly identified the "Quaker student" as Thomas Rickman and his "minute observations" as his Attempt to discriminate the styles of English architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation; preceded by a sketch of the Grecian and Roman orders, with notices of nearly five hundred English buildings. Charles L . Eastlake (1836-1906) although getting the date of first publication wrong, misunderstanding the section on classical architecture, and with rather grudging comments on Rickman’s own buildings, praised him in his A history of the Gothic revival (1872). He said the book "did great service both in educating popular taste and in supplying to professional architects . . . a recognised standard by which they could test to some extent the correctness of their designs".2 He refers to earlier writers and says, "It was reserved for Rickman to reduce the result of these researches to a systematic and compendious form, and in the place of ponderous volumes and foggy speculation to provide his readers with a cheap and useful handbook". In his tomb in St George’s churchyard, Birmingham, it once said that he "first correctly determined the several styles and clearly elucidated the principles of our ecclesiastical architecture."3 The terms he used were Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular. Although not entirely original, derided and disputed, they have overcome other sets of terms and continue to be used today.4

Thomas Rickman was born in Maidenhead in 1776.5 He was the son of a grocer and chemist, first worked in his father’s shop, then studied medicine and practised as a doctor in Lewes for two years and then worked in a firm of London cornfactors from 1803 to 1807. The firm failed and left him heavily in debt. He moved to Liverpool and from 1808 to 1813 he worked in a firm of insurance brokers. Possibly to overcome the deep depression caused by his London failure and the early death of his first wife, he took to walking extensively and to studying and drawing churches. This, plus the analysis of the results, formed the method of his studies. About 1812 he made a detailed study of Chester Cathedral (although this was not published until 1864). This interest and his contacts within the social and commercial life of Liverpool caused him to give a series of public lectures which were so successful that on 8th December, 1812 he was elected Professor of Architecture to the Liverpool Academy. His friendship with his fellow Quaker, James Smith, led to the publication of the lectures in parts and then to their appearance as a chapter in Smith’s Panorama of arts and sciences in 1815 and two years later as the Attempt. The encyclopedia went through 13 editions in England, and was finally republished in the U.S.A. in 1859.6 The Attempt reached a seventh edition in 1881, forty years after Rickman’s death. Other consequences of his interest in mediaeval architecture were his friendship with the iron-master John Cragg and the design of two very remarkable churches built mainly in cast iron. He was also involved in other building works such as at Scarisbrick Hall and the Wellington Rooms.

In the eighteenth century architects were either gifted amateurs or rose from the building trades. From about 1770 changes are apparent which include the apprenticeship of architects in the offices of established practitioners. This system of pupilage seems to go hand in hand with the rising status of architects.

After completing his articles the young architect might set off on a foreign tour (usually to Rome). In 1768 the Royal Academy was established and its schools offered the first formal architectural education in this country. It was to consist of six lectures a year but some professors failed to give any during their term of office.

In 1791 the Architects’ Club was established and lasted for about thirty years. Amongst its very exclusive requirements was residence in London. Eventually, the Institute of British Architects was established in 1835, becoming Royal in 1866, but only represented a small minority of the profession for many years. Part time courses were begun in University College, London, in the 1840s, and by the end of the century many provincial university colleges had established courses, a few of which were full-time. Not until the Architects’ Registration Council established by Act of Parliament in 1938 was the title "architect" reserved exclusively for those having qualifications approved by the R.I.B.A.7 Rickman grew up in the eighteenth century tradition, styled himself architect on the second and subsequent editions of the Attempt, and took pupils into his offices. He was elected F.S.A. in 1829.

The Attempt consists of two principal sections. The first on classical architecture, illustrated by Rickman’s own drawings, considers the orders. The second part considers Gothic, or as Rickman termed it, English architecture. This, too, is illustrated by him. As the number of the editions grew, it was this second part which was greatly extended. In the first edition it occupies 97 pages: in the seventh 283 pages. Later the classical section was revised but not extended by Thomas L. Donaldson, professor of architecture at University College, London, from 1841 to 1864. Rickman’s purpose, in his Preface to the 1817 edition, is to present "a text-book for the architectural student" at a price "which shall not present an obstacle to extensive circulation". The Attempt also served to draw attention to Rickman’s own designs. In the fourth edition of 1835 and the fifth edition of 1848 there are lists of the churches, monuments and houses designed by him and his partners. Both lists were headed by New Court, St. John’s College Cambridge.8 Of the 500 copies of the first edition, 40 were distributed to potential clients. From the second edition onwards, he gratefully acknowledges "the very flattering communications he has received from several eminent Prelates, and from various other distinguished Personages, both of the Clergy and Laity, in approbation of the plan he has pursued." Indeed, Rickman was so vigorous in the pursuit of contracts under the Church Building Act of 1818 and so successful, that the Commissioners sought to curb him. And Port comments, "With great energy and single-mindedness he built up the largest practice in ecclesiastical architecture known from the days of Wren to those of G. G. Scott."9

An important but not original section of the book is the appendix or, to use Rickman’s title, Enumeration of buildings, illustrating the principles of English architecture. It is a county by county survey of churches and a few secular buildings with critical comments. It includes Wales and Scotland but in Ireland only St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. He added "No doubt the island contains other edifices worthy of attention, though they have not as yet come under the Author’s notice".

Much excites his admiration. Past repairs sometimes come in for hostile comment, but modern work may be praised. For example: of Manchester Old Church, now the cathedral, he notes, "some very bad reparations were made some years back, yet, from the very careful restoration it appears now to be undergoing . . . [it) . . . is becoming increasingly deserving of attention." If this approved work is that of 1814-15 Sir Nikolaus Pevsner categorises it as "disastrous"10 but Rickman’s dating of the original surviving work is accepted. Pevsner praises Rickman’s descriptions as being"more precise than any before".11

A building to receive Rickman’s total enthusiasm was King’s College Chapel which he describes as "the flower of Cambridge and in many respects of the Perpendicular style, . . . simple in plan, bold in its elevation, rich in its detail, and exquisite in its execution it must be seen and studied to be properly appreciated". This enthusiasm for the Perpendicular style was not shared later by the Ecclesiological Society (formerly the Cambridge Camden Society) in their popular A few hints on the practical study of ecclesiastical architecture and antiquities, and it remained to E. A. Freeman of the Oxford Architectural Society to defend the style and this particular Cambridge example.12

The title page of the first edition of 1817 claims that "nearly five hundred examples are reported". It is, therefore, a valuable source about the churches the Victorians did not forget, to adapt slightly the 1979 title of a book by Mark Chatfield which has a county by county list of churches to escape Victorian restoration.

Rickman’s second edition of 1819 claims "notices of eight hundred English buildings" on its title page and it now has an index to them. This is necessary as the new section is presented separately. Ireland remains having only a single reference but other buildings such as Chester Cathedral appear in both sections so that recent developments are recorded.

By the third edition the title page claims details of 3,000 "British edifices". Rickman had now moved to Birmingham and dates his Preface in the Quaker manner "6th Mo. 8, 1825". Comments on monuments, glass, etc are included in a single revised list. Some entries (as for Manchester) are cut, and some (King’s College chapel and Ely cathedral for examples) extended. Six pages are devoted to Ireland, suggesting an extensive tour.

By the fourth edition of 1835 no attempt is made to count the British entries. "Numerous" claims the title page. Ben Weinreb notes 3,844.13 Notes have grown frequently to short essays. But added are "some remarks on the architecture of a part of France" and he gives his route. His statistical analysis of the buildings noted includes 43 larger churches in towns and 50 smaller churches in towns and villages. He calculates that in over a hundred churches visited only nine ancient fonts were discovered. These are listed, and he attempts to outline the "general features of difference striking an English eye". These travels also appeared as articles in Archaeologia.

Rickman died in 1841. He had not repented over King’s College Chapel. It is "the greatest beauty of Cambridge and in many respects of its age". He had, however, joined the Cambridge Camden Society which had begun to publish tracts in 1839. Its journal the Ecclesiologist began to appear in 1841. The battle for King’s College chapel was finally lost in Eastlake’s A history of the Gothic revival (1872): " . . . the Perpendicular type . . . debased in general form, vulgarised in ornamental detail, and degenerate in constructive principles . . . King’s College Chapel was regarded as the crowning glory of Gothic, it requires no discernment on the part of modern critics to perceive both in the Tudor and in the Elizabethan styles abundant evidences of a fallen art".14 We note that Rickman’s standards of taste are rejected but his terminology is used.

There are three posthumous editions of the Attempt; a fifth of 1848, a sixth of 1862, and finally a seventh of 1881 which was supervised by Sir George Gilbert Scott. These three editions have several characteristics in common. Firstly, they are said to be in response to popular demand. "Rickman’s volume is much wanted". Secondly, the text is treated with great respect. For example, in the seventh edition it is noted: "Rickman’s work has again been thoroughly revised; still, however retaining what he himself wrote entire, and the additional matter shewn by a varied type, or, by being placed between brackets". This reverence for his text is not extended to his illustrations. For the 1881 edition an extensive new set of steel or wood engravings was assembled from artists or engravers such as F. Mackenzie, J. H. Le Keux, P. H. Delamotte, Orlando Jewitt and others. These names are found in many of the principal architectural books and journals of the period. But the fourth feature of the three final editions is, that although Rickman had left copious notes for its revision the topographical directory was omitted. The intention was to launch this separately as a major co-operative work.

Rickman’s Attempt had several achievements to its credit. It established, even if it did not create, a system of terminology for mediaeval architecture which has endured. Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc accepted it as applicable to France. Although his own architectural practice was not always consistent with his teaching, the Attempt transformed the fashionable Gothick associated with Strawberry Hill and Batty Langley along the lines of a more strictly archaeologically correct Gothic by making available illustrations and by drawing attention to surviving examples. His work, although lacking the joyful, vigorous polemic of A. W. N. Pugin’s Contracts of 1836 (by which time illness had forced Rickman to hand over his work to his partner) or True principles of pointed or Christian architecture of 1841 (the year of Rickman’s death), the Attempt was not contaminated by Romanism nor, later, by what was deemed to be the excesses of Ritualism and its practitioners found in Ecclesiological Society circles.

His interest in foreign examples led young architects to start their careers by tours of France, Italy and Spain to inspect mediaeval buildings. These resulted in publications and in buildings greatly influenced by these studies. It is, therefore, not surprising that the aspiring architect was advised in The complete book of trades or the parents’ guide and youth’s instructor of 1842 not only to know Latin but be master of French and Italian as well as having a knowledge of mathematics, geometry and drawing.15

In 1840 the Rev. George Cornelius Gorham sought a curate "free from Tractarian error" and by 1851, the year of the so-called Papal Aggression, finding an architect also needed careful thought. But safer ground was reached with John Ruskin’s Seven lamps of architecture (1849) and The stones of Venice (1853). Architectural taste was developing rapidly. All Saints, Margaret Street (1849-50) by William Butterfield was the new standard. Two of Rickman’s churches in Liverpool, where he had changed repeated failure into success, were castigated by the architect Sir James A. Picton in his 1875 Memorials of Liverpool historical and topographical. St Philip’s Hardman Street (1816) is described as "a sort of feeble imitation of King’s College, Cambridge" and St Jude’s Hardwick Street (1831) is damned as having "the horrors of cast-iron tracery, mouldings run in cement, stucco facades, and galleried and ceiled interiors".16 As a practitioner Rickman is dismissed. His use of cast iron, especially in St George’s Everton and St Michael in the Hamlet, has restored him to public interest in the present century but what seems to us to be technological innovation17 was damned as aesthetic sin by his immediate successors following the teaching of Pugin and Ruskin.18

The treatment of the Attempt in 1881 suggests the reverent laying out of a corpse. It was beyond revival. Architectural tastes had changed. The topographical information was more extensively and readily available in, for example, Murray’s publications. The market was crowded with popular guides to Gothic by Paley, Parker, Bloxam, Barr and others. And in 1896 Professor Bannister Fletcher of King’s College, London published his History of architecture on the comparative method. This gave the student both professional and lay, a magisterial textbook copiously illustrated which dealt with all major European styles and those of America, China, Japan and India. Bannister Fletcher died in 1899: his History reached its 19th edition in 1987.19 A history of the two texts and their authors would be a study of architectural history and the practice of architecture in the past 175 years.



1. G. G. Scott, Personal and professional recollections (Sampson Low, 1879) p. 390.

2. C. L. Eastlake, A history of the gothic revival (Longman, Green, 1872) p. 125.

3. Recorded by J. Roles (letter 5 May 1970 to author from City Librarian, Birmingham).

4. For example in such school textbooks as M. Reeves The medieval town, Then and There series (Longman, 1954) p. 83.

5. J. L. Baily, "Thomas Rickman, architect and Quaker: the early years to 1818." Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. University of Leeds, 1977. E. D. Colley, "The life and work of Thomas Rickman, F.S.A., architect." Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Manchester, 1962. H. Colvin, A biographical dictionary of British architects 1600-1840 (Murray, 1978) pp. 688-693.

6. Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Co; New York: J.C. Derby. Copy in New York Public Library.

7. F. Jenkins, Architect and patron (Oxford University Press, 1961) pp.91 et seq. See also B. Kaye, The development of the architectural profession in Britain: a sociological study (George Allen & Unwin, 1960).

8. M. Whiffen, "Act 2: Romantic Gothic. Scene 2 Rickman and Cambridge" Architectural Review 98 (1945) pp. 160-162. J. Cornforth, "The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge : I" Country Life (22nd November, 1962) pp. 1278 -81.

9. M. H. Port, Six hundred new churches (S.P.C.K., 1961) p. 64 et seq.

10. N. Pevsner, Buildings of England. Lancashire I: the industrial and commercial south (Penguin, 1969) p. 276.

11. N. Pevsner, Some architectural writers of the nineteenth century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) p. 30.

12. J. White, The Cambridge Movement: the Ecclesiologists and the gothic revival (Cambridge University Press, 1962) p. 90.

13. B. Weinreb, The gothic of gothick (Weinreb, 1966) Entry no. 236.

14. Eastlake op.cit. (note 2). Reprinted Leicester University Press (1970) p. 169.

15. Qu. Jenkins (note 7), p.160.

16. J. A. Picton, Memorials of Liverpool historical and topographical 2nd.ed tn. (2 vols. Liverpool: Howell, 1907) ii pp. 240, 435.

17. W. Sleman, "The great slightness." Building 15 (November, 1974) pp. 119-120. J. E. Vaughan, "Iron and the industrial archaeology of churches" S.T.E.M no. 15 (1974) p. 3.

18. M. Trappes-Lomax, Pugin: a mediaeval Victorian (Sheed & Ward, 1933) p. 159. J. Ruskin, The seven lamps of architecture ed. A. Saint (Century, 1988) pp. 40-41 ("The lamp of truth, X). Cast iron was however, acceptable for the colonies: see G. Herbert Pioneers of prefabrication (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978) p. 102.


 [This paper was given at the Cambridge Colloquium. Ed.]


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