How to Research Architectural History

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Primary sources are crucial to most advanced research projects. At undergraduate level students are not required to use primary sources, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. It’s always very impressive when someone utilises primary material. State

Primary sources are crucial to most advanced research projects. At undergraduate level students are not required to use primary sources, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. It’s always very impressive when someone utilises primary material. Stated simply, primary sources are documents produced during the period under study or written by the people in question.

Key sources for British architectural history are Victorian architectural journals like The Builder and the Building News. These are invaluable resources because they give detailed empirical records of architecture as an art, a profession and a business. Journals make it possible to analyse debates within the profession and to gauge how provincial architecture was viewed from a national perspective.

One of the buildings I examined in my research was the Union Club in Newcastle upon Tyne, designed by M.P. Manning in 1877. A plan of the Union Club that was published in The Builder on 29 October 1887. Plans are useful because they show the internal division of space. That can reveal how the building was used and how social hiearchies were embodied in it. The fact that there were two billiard rooms and private dining rooms suggests that the Union Club was a very sober, masculine institution. I also found an alternative design by Alexander and Henman, which was published in the British Architect, vol.3, 1875. This is in the Gothic style.

British Architect, vol.3, 1875

Journals were lavishly illustrated and the images are particularly valuable when the building in question has been demolished. However, they have to be viewed with caution. They sometimes differ from the actual building. This is illustration of the Royal Jubilee School in Newcastle. This photo reveals that it wasn’t executed as originally planned.

Royal Jubilee School

Royal Jubilee School

This is Collingwood Buildings, designed by Oliver and Leeson, 1897-9. This is an early design by Oliver and Leeson, published in The Builder, vol.75, 8 October 1898. You can see that the design evolved in execution. So you have to compare the illustrations with the original architectural plans and wherever possible with the buildings themselves.

Collingwood Buildings

Collingwood Buildings, The Builder, vol.75, 8 October 1898

However, we must not treat journals simply as documentary records: they actively participated in architectural practice. They disseminated ideas and styles on a national basis. Advertisements were used by architects when selecting building contractors, craftsmen and materials. The publicity offered by coverage in these journals could increase the notability and reputation of an architect.

Journals also disseminated new technologies and materials. For example, in the 1890s a material called faience became very fashionable. Materials like faience were advertised in the building press. This is an advert for Burmantoft’s faïence printed in the Building News, 22 November 1895. Important firms such as Burmantoft’s used journals to advertise their products and that encouraged the spread of tastes.

Advert for Burmantoft’s faïence, Building News, 22 November 1895

Most of my primary sources were in the Tyne and Wear Archives and Newcastle Library’s Local Studies Department. The Tyne and Wear Archives have an extensive collection of Newcastle building plans, which were accumulated by the Town Improvement Committee, the local government body charged with regulating building activity. For example, this is an elevation of Hodgkin, Barnett, Spence, Pease and Co.’s Bank on Collingwood Street. It was drawn by the architect R.J. Johnson. He was one of the most talented architects on Tyneside.

Elevation of Hodgkin, Barnett, Spence, Pease and Co.’s Bank

I had to explore some of the cultural networks in Newcastle, so I used the records of local architectural and antiquarian societies like the Literary and Philosophical Society and the Northern Architectural Association. The Northern Architectural Association was the major architectural body in the North East and most Newcastle architects were members. Unfortunately it has no central archive, so I had to use a synthesis of disparate source material. A selection of annual reports is held by the Literary and Philosophical Society. They include presidential addresses and papers read before the association. Members of the Northern Architectural Association sent letters to the RIBA and they survive as part of the ‘Letters to the Council’ collection in the RIBA search rooms.

Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle

One of the key primary sources I used in my thesis were archival photographs. There is a large corpus of images in Newcastle City Library’s Local Studies Department. I’m a great believer in using visual material. I had 211 images in my thesis. Photographs are usually taken for specific reasons. Some represent Newcastle at its best (many of these images reappear as postcards); some show the city in transition, and depict the laying of tramlines or the demolition and erection of buildings. Others chronicle major public events, such as royal visits and civic ceremonies.

Unfortunately, photographs aren’t always documented as thoroughly as written sources. Very often the date has been omitted, along with the name of the photographer. I compared the photos with architectural plans, illustrations from the building press, street directories, and the buildings themselves (where they survive) in order to test and corroborate the information contained within them.

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