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Town Centre Churches

The Architect : His Life

John Loughborough Pearson

John Loughborough Pearson

St Stephen’s Bournemouth was designed and built by John Loughborough Pearson

The Gothic architect J. L. Pearson was a native of Durham, son of a watercolourist and etcher, today somewhat obscure, known as ‘William Pearson of Durham’. When aged 14, he was apprenticed in that city to Ignatius Bonomi, and there developed his lifelong interest in church architecture.

Text by John Phillips R.I.B.A.

In order to understand fully the work of any architect, it is essential not only to be acquainted with his buildings and the religious and social background of the times in which he worked but also his personality and character.

Pearson’s natural reserve and reticence make any character study difficult for he shrank from publicity and, for many years, would not even allow the publication of his works in the architectural press: neither did he write books nor deliver lectures.

Pearson was born on 5th July, 1817, the thirteenth child of William Pearson, a watercolourist and etcher of Durham, his grandfather being a noted lawyer and solicitor of that city. Of his early life no records remain but, coming from a family with an artistic background, the majesty and might of Durham Cathedral would have been sufficient to turn any young man’s thoughts to architecture. During his articled pupilage with Bonomi, and architect of Durham, it is known that he spent many hours of his spare time in the office in and around this venerable pile of buildings standing high above the Wear. Pearson moved to London in 1842 and, after working in the offices of Salvin and Philip Hardwick, began to practise on his own in 1843 from an office in Bloomsbury.

In June, 1862, Pearson married Jemima, daughter of Henry Curwen Christian, from the Isle of Man, who was a relation of Ewan Christian, the architect and in January 1864, their son Frank was born. Soon after this event, Mrs. Pearson died and this great misfortune of his life no doubt increased Pearson’s natural reserve.

Pearson was a true representative of an English gentleman, with a kindness of heart and amiability of temper far above the average. Of a cheerful disposition and a lively sense of humour, he was loved by all who knew him. Vigorous in mind and upright in character, his sensitive nature felt acutely the blustering attacks of the critics and public, particularly the latter, whose inclination is always to side with the loudest shouters. Having once studied a problem from all angles and made up his mind, Pearson possessed the courage of his own convictions and, where necessary, held them against overwhelming odds. He was modest and retiring always and never made any outward display of the authorship of any of his creations. He won his position as one of the few famous architects solely by his reputation as an artist of great merit. His genius certainly deserved its ultimate honour.

On the recommendation of the Council of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Queen Victoria conferred on him the Royal Gold Medal in 1880 for the outstanding architectural merit of his work. Some idea of his difficulties, however, may be gathered from this extract of his reply to the President of the Institute on the occasion of the presentation of this medal: “To have gained your (my brother architects) very favourable opinion of my work is indeed something to have struggled with the world from early youth, something to have toiled for through many a long year and something, I repeat, that will ever be deeply impressed on my memory.”

Pearson was always ready to give advice to any of his professional colleagues, young or old, and was highly respected in architectural circles. He built up a large practice with conscientious diligence but, unlike many of his contemporaries, he kept it within reasonable limits. To Pearson quality was infinitely more important than quantity and even with the vast influx of work which followed his appointment at Truro, he still maintained a high standard. It is said he would not be connected with more than two churches at a time and another architect relates how Pearson told him he “would rather build one church well than attempt half a dozen indifferently.”

Original Design for St. Stephen's Church

Original Design for St. Stephen's Church

No definite knowledge is available regarding Pearson’s religious views. He was never more than a moderate minded churchman, however, but, almost without exception, his large churches are strongholds of Anglo-Catholicism. This is most probably due to the all-prevailing influences of the Oxford Movement around the 1880’s.

Pearson had a keen insight into methods of construction and possessed a remarkable power for appreciation and assessing the salient points of interest in any building. He did not enter into any other society but that of his fellow artists and his club for, being so devoted to his work, he almost lived within it. This absorbing interest in his art made him a ready talker with his intimate friends but it is to be regretted that there is no record of his views.

It is a natural law, very effectively proved in the Revival, that no man’s work will last if he over-produces. The vigorous and superb quality of Pearson’s work is a good example in direct opposition to this. He gave an impulse to Gothic architecture it had not felt since the Middle Ages and brought the full force of his architectural genius to bear on the church building problems of the day. No detail was too insignificant for him to design, for he was a genius of the calibre which had been so aptly described by Sir William Chambers many years before as being “equally capable of expanding to the noblest and most elevated conceptions or shrinking to the level of the meanest and minutest enquiries.”

Pearson died on December 11th, 1897, after being ill for about a fortnight and the funeral took place in Westminster Abbey a week later. A cast bronze monument laid in a bed of Derbyshire fossil marks his last resting place in the floor of the nave next to Sir George Gilbert Scott, his predecessor as Surveyor to the Fabric.

“Full of years crowned with honour” was a fitting epitaph to a great architect whose long creative career had extended over a period of sixty-six years. By his death the Revivalists lost one of their most distinguished exponents, a Gothicist of great force and character.