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Robert Willis (1800-1875) and the Foundation of Architectural History

Robert Willis (1800-1875) and the Foundation of Architectural History

Alexandrina Buchanan
Volume: 8
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 450
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  • Book Info
    Robert Willis (1800-1875) and the Foundation of Architectural History
    Book Description:

    Robert Willis was the archetypal nineteenth-century polymath. Officially, as Jacksonian Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, he specialized in the study of mechanism, which he also taught at the Royal School of Mines in London. In the field of science he was an experimentalist, inventor and educational innovator. Meanwhile, in his spare time, he pursued his passion, pioneering the serious study of architectural history. Initially his work was aimed at architects - his role in providing an intellectual underpinning to the contemporary Gothic Revival was acknowledged by the award of the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1862. However his main contribution was more historical. Starting with Canterbury, in 1844, over the course of his career, he investigated almost every English cathedral and developed an approach, combining documentary and archaeological research, which remains in use today. His studies culminated in the monumental Architectural History of the University of Cambridge, still the definitive account of its subject. In this fascinating and lavishly illustrated intellectual biography, drawn from extensive archival and architectural research, the author sheds new light on the interconnections between Willis's varied fields of interest and his fundamental role in the creation of a discipline. Alexandrina Buchanan is both an architectural historian and an archivist; her introduction to archives came through cataloguing the papers of Robert Willis at the Cambridge University Library. She is now Lecturer in Archive Studies at the University of Liverpool.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-163-4
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgements
    (pp. xv-xvii)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xviii-xviii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    This book is structured around the career of a remarkable individual; remarkable in the sense that his contemporaries found him – and his activities – worthy of note and, by and large, posterity has concurred. Willis has been described as ‘the father of structural [and British cathedral] archaeology’;¹ ‘probably the greatest architectural historian England has ever produced’;² author of works which ‘established a standard of insight and meticulous accuracy which has never since – in England or anywhere else – been surpassed’.³ Although never a household name – Willis is not one of those intellectual colossi who dominate the thought-world of the nineteenth century, no...

  7. CHAPTER 1 London and the Early Years
    (pp. 11-29)

    Robert Willis was born at the turn of a new century, but into a world which was still thoroughly ancien régime.¹ His background was one of patronage and preferment; his upbringing that of a gentleman amateur. He had the confidence of the social superior, a belief that intellectual achievement was his birthright. Yet the circumstances of his birth and upbringing also fostered a certain aloofness. Willis’s detached self-possession surely derived from his background and the autonomy it both required and fostered.

    The Willis clan had risen to prominence through Robert’s grandfather Francis Willis (1718–1807, Figure 1) physician to George...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Cambridge and Scientific Work to 1841
    (pp. 30-70)

    After the metropolitan amusements of London and the medieval ambiance of King’s Lynn, in Michaelmas (autumn) term 1822, Willis found himself in what was then another small market town, surrounded by fens still not fully drained, through which the ‘narrow, dirty Cam’ meandered.² As yet untouched by Royal Commissions or railways, and still dominated by the corporations of town, university and colleges, Cambridge remained the product of its founding charters and ancient customs – or, in Joseph Priestley’s terms, a ‘stagnant pool’.³ The opening quotation from Willis’s nephew paints a picture of the town in the early years of the nineteenth...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Remarks on the Architecture of the Middle Ages and the Membrological Approach
    (pp. 71-114)

    The 1820s and 1830s saw Willis seeking to establish his reputation in the world of science. The 1830s also saw his first entry into the field with which he became most closely identified, both in his own day and thereafter: the study of medieval architecture. As his nephew’s words suggest, the two areas of research could be inter-related; nevertheless, the associations between the subjects are neither obvious nor inevitable, nor is it immediately apparent why Willis should have chosen to venture into a new field. Some background information is therefore required.

    An interest in architecture was perhaps unavoidable. Growing up...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Evidence and Its Uses in Architectural History
    (pp. 115-162)

    In The Architectural History of Canterbury Cathedral (1845), whose genesis will be discussed in Chapter 5, Willis would produce the first work in the English language to call itself an ‘architectural history’. Through this, Willis was participating in the construction of a domain that had not hitherto existed as an independent and recognized entity. The historian E.A. Freeman, the first English author to publish a ‘History of Architecture’ (1849), later claimed Willis as ‘absolutely the creator of a branch of knowledge’¹ – a view shared by many contemporaries (probably including Willis himself) – but in reality architectural history was a response to...

  11. CHAPTER 5 The Cathedral Studies: ‘Landmarks’ of Architectural History
    (pp. 163-220)

    In the (now destroyed) Guildhall at Canterbury, at 8 p.m. on 11 September 1844, Willis presented a paper to the inaugural congress of the newly founded British Archaeological Association. Published the following year, his account of Canterbury Cathedral was the first book ever to be defined by its author as an ‘architectural history’. At the same time as Willis was becoming dissatisfied with the limitations of the membrological approach, the peripatetic format of the archaeological meetings, usually set in an ancient cathedral city, enabled him to evolve a more forensic method, focused on a single building. In the series of...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Public Scientist, Private Man
    (pp. 221-267)

    Before his appointment as Jacksonian Professor in 1837, Willis had carved out for himself a very personal position within the world of Cambridge scholarship. After his elevation to the professorial rank, he necessarily took on a more public role, paralleling those which he would play within the worlds of archaeology and architecture. Unlike Whewell or William Buckland (1784–1856), he never aspired to recognition as a ‘public moralist’ but whether called upon by the state, or through his own private initiative, Willis shouldered the wider responsibilities beginning to be required of a nineteenth century intellectual.¹ These ranged from representing the...

  13. CHAPTER 7 The Practice of Architecture: Willis as Designer, Arbiter and Influence
    (pp. 268-321)

    At the same time as science was becoming an index for progress, and its perceived advancement Was becoming an epochal narrative for the nineteenth century, so the very notion of progress gave a new importance to history. The linearity of progress Was balanced by a desire to revive aspects of the past and Willis’s career closely coincided with what came to be known as the Gothic Revival, a movement which saw architectural style take centre stage as the index for an epoch. Nineteenth-century ‘progress’ both required and was embodied in new construction, from machine sheds and railway stations to municipal...

  14. CHAPTER 8 ‘Architectural and Social History’: Canterbury and Cambridge
    (pp. 322-356)

    It was probably whilst working on the restoration of Ely that Willis first began to study a monastic site, which posed a set of problems he had not previously encountered. By contrast with churches, whose basic function was well understood, conventual buildings appeared as ruined fragments of a lost way of life. The Romantic could conjure from the ruins the spectres of long-dead abbots and mad monks, but to the more ‘scientific’ observer, the standing stones remained all but illegible. A reviewer of Richard Warner’s An History of the Abbey of Glaston (1826) thus compared the ruins unfavourably with complete...

  15. Afterword: Willis’s Legacy
    (pp. 357-362)

    Perhaps a more charismatic man, or less of a loner than Willis, might have established a ‘school’ of architectural scholarship. Nevertheless, without either state responsibility for heritage (as in France, where medieval architecture was on the syllabus of the École des Chartes from 1847), or a long-standing tradition of academic study of the arts (as in Germany), formal study of architectural history in Britain was unlikely to have gathered much support. Yet there remained a strong tradition of amateur study and, gradually, some paid posts. For the younger generation, as for his own, Willis was a vital source of data...

  16. APPENDIX: Willis on Restoration (CUL MS Add. 5135 ff 6–16)
    (pp. 363-366)
  17. Glossary
    (pp. 367-378)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 379-431)
    (pp. 432-432)
  20. Index
    (pp. 433-452)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 453-453)