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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

George Skipper

George Skipper 1856-1948

George John Skipper is a well kept Norfolk secret known only to local architects and historians who have studied the Edwardian period. However his principal buildings are impressive enough for John Betjeman to describe him as the 'Gaudi of Norwich'. He was born in East Dereham on 6 August 1856, the second son of Robert Skipper, a local building contractor. Educated in Dereham and then Bracondale School, Norwich, Skipper went on to study art and architecture at what is now the Norwich School of Art, eventually starting a career in architecture in 1873.

He was married three time, first in September 1883 to Elizabeth Bain who died childless in 1890, then in 1891 to Rachel Barcham who died in 1905, and lastly in 1913. The third marriage, at age 57, was to the much younger Elizabeth Charter, then aged 27 (1886 - 1975). Skipper's son from this second marriage, Edward (b 1918), was destined to follow in his father's footsteps and become a noted local architect in his own right.

After a career lasting nearly 75 years, George Skipper died in 1948, five days before his 92nd birthday. He is buried in Norwich Cemetery.

Personal Temperament and Professional Style

His family recall Skipper was being a workaholic and a proud man who recognised in his work a certain quality of design. But he was also professionally guarded, disliked his city rivals knowing the details of his work and could, on occasions, be a difficult man to deal with. As the Norwich Mercury was to imply in 1906, Skipper was a man of 'artistic temperament'. Yet in private he was a family man whose children remember him as loving, kind and affable. 

Skipper adopted what could be summed up as a 'free-style' architectural approach, showing an eclecticism of design coupled with inventiveness, underlain by an essential deference to classical architecture and historical precedent. He saw architecture was an art and is reputed to have said that you 'need an artist for a first rate building'. He was a prolific reader with a good library, who used literary sources for inspiration and supplemented this knowledge with countrywide tours to see and sketch the work of other architects including Ernest George (1839-1922), Harold Peto (1854-1933) and Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928).

A Skipper building can be recognised by some of the elements he was fond of using: emphasising corners where facades met; highlighting entrance bays with turrets, towers or full height pilasters; lively roof lines with domes; and deeply moulded facades. His strength was to excel at developing the concept of a design and adding the decorative detail.

The use of art is another key element of his buildings, adding allegorical reference and sometimes humour, as well as architectural effect. Skipper's use of art was helped by the general revitalisation of the art of sculpture at this time and many of his buildings benefit from the work of decorative artists and contractors who are of the highest quality - a contribution he was always happy to acknowledge.

Training and Background

In 1873 Skipper was articled to John T Lee (c.1845 - 1920) of Bedford Row, London. Lee had trained and worked with some notable people having been articled to Sir Arthur William Blomfield (1829-1899) and also assisted in the offices of John Brandon (1817-1877), William Eden Nesfield (1835 - 88) and Alfred Waterhouse (1830 - 1905). This architectural lineage to Skipper is particularly interesting and shows through in his own buildings. Skipper stayed with Lee until 1876 when he returned to his fathers business in Norfolk. After gaining valuable experience of running an office he set up his own practice in East Dereham in 1879, aged 23. It is often said that Skipper got his 'architectural break' in 1879 by winning a design competition for the district hospital in Shepton Mallet, but in fact, by the late 1870s he was already busy with numerous commissions in East Anglia.  

The Shepton Mallet success led to subsequent Somerset commissions including the patronage of Sir Richard H Paget and William S Clarke, of Clark's Shoes. Somerset retains a number of fine examples of Skippers work including Butleigh Hospital, several cottages at Doulting and work in Street on a 'model village' which lasted from c.1883 to 1890 and included a clock tower, several rows of cottages, a vestry, and a private residence, Millfield (now Millfield School), for Clark himself.  

Portfolio of Work

With an increasing workload and rising confidence Skipper moved his office to Opie Street, Norwich in June 1880 and in 1889 he entered into partnership with his elder brother, Frederick. In the same year (1889) George was accepted as a Fellow of Royal Institute of British Architects having been proposed by HH Statham (1839 - 1924), JB Pearce (1843/4 - 1903) and Edward Boardman (1833 - 1910), prominent local architects with strong Victorian portfolios of work.

In the late 19th century the East Anglian coast was developing as a holiday destination and between 1880 and 1914 Cromer, especially, became the place to go on holiday. Fervent building activity was considerably aided by the arrival of the railway in 1876 and its extension in to the town in 1889. Skipper benefited from this boom, designing town halls in Cromer and Hunstanton and a string of hotels between 1890 and 1898 in Cromer, Sheringham, Gorleston and Lowestoft. The hotel commissions, particularly the three substantial, French Renaissance style ones in Cromer were very successful and provided Skipper with increased links to future patrons in Norwich. The work also generated commissions for villas and housing along the coast.

Buoyed by critical and financial successes Skipper built new offices at 7 London Street, Norwich in 1896 - his first high profile Norwich building. Set in a prominent location, he chose a richly decorated style using brick and terracotta reminiscent of his earlier work. Today the first and second floor main facade remain as part of Jarrold's Department store and show six decorative terracotta panels depicting scenes of the architects trade, including Skipper with his family. In the 1880s and 90s Skipper made extensive use of terracotta, partly because it was fashionable, but also because of the proximity to the high quality clay and terracotta products of Gunton's Costessey Works on the outskirts of Norwich.  

The London Street offices began a series of eye-catching commissions between 1898 to 1906. It is mostly for these commercial commissions, together with a few country house designs, that Skipper is best known and remembered. Through links with his work at Cromer, Skipper was commissioned to design the Royal Arcade, Norwich (1898-1899). In one form or another all of Skipper's main architectural traits are displayed here. There is a blend of styles, and a sensitive handling of spatial layout with few people aware that the arcade kinks twice on its journey between the existing buildings. Historical precedent is reflected in the bow fronted shops (echoing Samuel Ware's Burlington Arcade, London 1819) and more contemporary designs (the Royal Arcade, London 1879 and the County Arcade, Leeds 1898-1900). There is the use of an irregular roofline, a moulded elevation, turrets and rising gables, all unified and magnificently decorated by W J Neatby. The Royal Arcade remains unique in Norfolk and was described in the local press when it was opened as 'a fragment of the Arabian Nights dropped into the heart of the city'. It seems likely that Skipper chose the facing material for the Royal Arcade, but it is also fairly certain that Neatby provided the decorative design. Neatby's designs can also been seem adorning Harrod's, the Blackpool Ballroom and (with striking similarity to the Royal arcade) the Everard Building, Bristol. Neatby worked on several schemes with Skipper including Surrey House, Sennowe and probably Mancroft Towers.

As the work on the Royal Arcade came to a close, building of the Daily Standard Offices, No. 7 St Giles Street, Norwich started (1899 - 1900). Much is made of the entrance to the Daily Standard Offices, a design feature which is repeated at Jarrold's Department Store (commenced 1902 -03). In both cases the ground floor entrance supports a circular bay above which culminates in a turret or dome (though in the case of Jarrold's this feature was dispensed with on the insistence of the clients). Both buildings also have allegorical decoration, the heads of Caxton and Defoe for the Daily Standard Offices reminding us of the high literary aspirations of the original owners, and several local luminaries at Jarrold's to establish a 'history'. The ground floor semi-circular arch of the Daily Standard Offices also echoes Skippers next major city commission at Haymarket Chambers.

Haymarket Chambers (1901 - 02), which was designed as offices above a grocers shop, is said to have been inspired by the 16th century Palazzo Pietro Massimi in Rome. Its relatively flat façade is enlivened by a limited amount of polychromy and intricate moulding in the ground floor arches. This simple elevation contrasts markedly with the Edwardian Baroque of the Norwich and London Accident Assurance Offices (also known as Telephone House, Nos. 41 & 43 St Giles Street) which was built in 1904 - 06 and with the elegantly composed and beautifully decorated London and Provincial Bank (No 30 London Street) built in 1906 - 08.

Of the small commercial properties in Norwich, Skipper's inventiveness is perhaps most apparent at Commercial Chambers (No. 11 Red Lion Street) which was built in 1903 along with the Norfolk and Norwich Savings Bank (now Barclays Bank). Commercial Chambers has a deeply moulded front facade which first catches and then holds the eye with intricate detail. Of particular interest are the disappearing Ionic pilasters on the two storeys' above the offset entrance which are reminiscent of Edwin Lutyens (1869 - 1944). Interestingly they appear to predate Lutyen's use of these features at Heathcote (1906) which have been called the earliest use of the design, at least on a country house.

Whilst working on all of these, Skipper won two of his best known commissions, Surrey House (Norwich Union Offices, No. 8 Surrey Street) and Sennowe Park, Guist. Skipper secured the Surrey House work by winning a limited competition with a bid entitled 'Utility' and it is one of his most remarkable designs. The project commenced around 1901 and was largely complete by 1905. Banks and insurance companies had by the Edwardian period come to associate classical architecture with their desired image of reliability and permanence. At Surrey House, Skipper fulfilled and exceeded these requirements - the rusticated ground floor indicating solidity and the free standing columns showing splendour. Thus in 1906 the president of Norwich Union was able to state that the new building was 'stable, solidly built and built for all time - perfect for its intended use'. Its sumptuous interior was greatly aided by skilled craftsmen particularly WJ Neatby, the paintings of George Murray and the exquisite woodcarving of the Minns family.

Between c1904 and 1911 Skipper was commissioned by Thomas Cook, grandson of the famous travel agent, to work on the restoration and massive expansion of Sennowe Park near Guist. Here a small rural residence was turned into a country house, the project including the creation of garden terraces, stables, a bridge, entrance lodges and a clock tower.

Between these distinguished buildings Skipper continued to throw out unexpected designs such as the Jacobean extravaganza of Gostwyck Grange (1901 probably based on Blickling Hall) and the Arts and Crafts Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club, Lowestoft (1902-03).

By 1912 the turbulent partnership with his brother was drawing to a close but Skipper continued to work. After World War 1 his interwar schemes for King George at Sandringham House, and the University Arms Hotel, Cambridge are somewhat retrospective in nature even if the Royal commission was source of immense pride to him. There was also some attempt to diversify his career into planning with various housing schemes, road layouts and a proposed, but thankfully never executed aerial road through Norwich by the Maddermarket Theatre.

The two greatest successes in his later career were local authority housing schemes undertaken in the late 1910s-1920s and the 1927 work at Sackville Street, London. Norfolk had been experimenting with local authority housing as early as 1912 and remained near the forefront after the war. Skipper put considerable effort into these schemes and developed an interest in clay lump construction - his small house scheme at East Harling, Norfolk is undoubtedly one of his best pieces of work in this field. 

At the age of 73 Skipper won a competition to rebuild Sackville Street between Piccadily and Vigo Street, London. The work lasted for over a decade, was thus partly concluded by his son Edward, and led to the practice opening offices in London in 1932. Originally contrived as a grand expression of classical architecture along the entire street, the vision was never fulfilled and as other architects became involved the unity of the original scheme was ultimately lost. What remains is Skippers design for Lloyds Bank (1929-30), a stone faced elevation in English Neo-Classical style with giant Ionic pilasters.

Further Reading

  • Jolley, D (1975) Architect Exuberant, Norwich, Norwich School of Art and Design.
  • Jolley, D and Skipper, E (1980) Celebrating Skipper: 100 years if Architecture 1880 - 1980, Norwich, Jarrolds Printers.
  • Thomas, S (2005) The Architecture of George John Skipper, unpublished postgraduate diploma dissertation.
  • Avery, D (2003) Victorian and Edwardian Architecture, London, Chaucer Press
  • Brodie, A; Fulstead, A; Franklin, J; Pinfield, L & Oldfield J (2001) Directory of British Architects 1834 - 1914,  London and New York, Continuum.
  • Cumming, E & Kaplan, W (1991) The Arts and Crafts Movement, London, Thames and Hudson.
  • Dixon, R & Muthesius, S (1997 2nd ed. reprint) Victorian Architecture, London, Thames and Hudson.
  • Harper, R (1983) Victorian Architectural Competitions: An index to British and Irish Architectural Competitions in The Builder 1843 - 1900, London, Mansell
  • McGarvie, M (1986) Guide to Historic Street: A History of Street as shown in its Buildings, Street, Somerset C & J Clark

Archives

  • Lowestoft Record Office and the Norfolk and Norwich Record Office hold original archive material on Skipper.
  • The drawings collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects also has a good collection of original drawings and other material related to Skipper.

Steven Thomas

September 2007