Symbolic Spaces in the Victorian City
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Symbolic Spaces in the Victorian City

St. NicholasÂ’s Square in Newcastle is an open public space formed at the meeting point of Collingwood and Mosley Streets. During the Victorian period it was bisected by the axis of the Town Hall and St. NicholasÂ’s Cathedral. The medieval church of St. Nicholas had undergone prolonged alteration during the nineteenth century at the hands of Sir George Gilbert Scott and others.

St. Nicholas’s Square in Newcastle is an open public space formed at the meeting point of Collingwood and Mosley Streets.  During the Victorian period it was bisected by the axis of the Town Hall and St. Nicholas’s Cathedral.  The medieval church of St. Nicholas had undergone prolonged alteration during the nineteenth century at the hands of Sir George Gilbert Scott and others.  These improvements gradually transformed it into a building with the necessary authority to serve as a cathedral.  Diocesan reform culminated when Newcastle was made into a city by Royal Charter on 30th June 1882.  The newly ordained cathedral thus became a symbol of Newcastle’s civic status.  However, this change emphasised the fact that Newcastle lacked a civic core comparable to those of other provincial cities – a public arena defined by key institutions such as a town hall, library, museum and art gallery.  Sited in close proximity to each other and usually designed in a uniform style, these institutions define the city and proclaim its values.  In Liverpool, for example, St. George’s Hall was situated in conjunction with the Walker Art Gallery, both examples of triumphant Neo-Classicism.  

St George's Hall, Liverpool

Birmingham has a complex of Neo-Classical buildings, including the Town Hall by J. A. Hansom and E. Welch (1830). The symbolic heart of Newcastle was usually deemed to be the intersection of Grey and Grainger Streets, the open public space punctuated by Grey’s Monument. However, this space had no civic buildings and even the monument’s position was briefly in doubt. St. Nicholas’s Square was therefore Newcastle’s closest equivalent to the grand civic spaces of other major cities and for this reason it was the site Newcastle used to represent itself as a city.

St. Nicholas's Square, Newcastle

In 1900, W.H. Stephenson of Elswick House proposed to erect a monument to Queen Victoria in the centre of St. Nicholas’s Square.  Stephenson was a major industrialist and served as both Sheriff and Mayor of Newcastle.  The site was already occupied by a memorial to the local philanthropist Dr. J.H. Rutherford.   This elaborate drinking fountain was erected by the Temperance Society in 1894 and was designed by Charles S. Errington in Quattrocento style.  However, it was not felt to make best use of the auspicious site and in 1900 it was removed to an arguably more appropriate setting in the Bigg Market, where its quiet reminder that ‘Water Is Best,’ took on added meaning among the public houses that bounded this notoriously boisterous space.  The relocation left St. Nicholas’s square vacant for a more fitting display of Newcastle’s civic values.  The Queen Victoria Monument came to occupy and dominate the square.  The monument stands on a foundation of Peterhead granite and an octagonal base executed by Robert Beall.  Sculpted by Alfred Gilbert, the overall form recalls the Jubilee Monument he had designed at Winchester (unveiled in 1887).  The figure is seated beneath a canopy that synthesises Renaissance and Mannerist forms.  Gilbert was a leading exponent of the ‘New Sculpture’ and the monument exemplifies the characteristics of this movement.  The body and drapery are rendered with a poetic realism that captures the transience and frailty of the aging monarch as well as the solemnity and grandeur represented by the orb and sceptre.

During the Edwardian era, strategic interpretations of municipal history were being written onto the fabric of Britain’s towns and cities through the use of monumental statuary and civic rituals.  At this time of heightened nationality, Newcastle was eager to show its loyalties.  Stephenson conceived the monument as a tribute to Queen Victoria and though she died before it was completed Stephenson was rewarded with a knighthood.  Crucially, this was interpreted as an honour to Newcastle itself and a large number of Newcastle’s citizens attended the opening ceremony on 24 April 1903.  Yet the Queen Victoria Monument was also an example of civic opportunism: ostensibly dedicated to Victoria, it simultaneously commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Shrievalty of Newcastle, an office then occupied by W.H. Stephenson.  It thereby allied the history of Newcastle to the wider narrative of British history, and adroitly wrote Stephenson into both. 

The unveiling of the Queen Victoria Monument, 24 April 1903.

St. Nicholas’s Square c.1912.

A photograph published by Mawson, Swan and Morgan shows the original position of the Victoria Monument, which has since been moved closer to the cathedral and set upon a raised dais.  It originally stood level with the street and was unbounded, participating in the life of the city.  This reveals how the concept of public monuments and their relationship with the public had shifted:

In designing a memorial, an heroic figure is no longer placed on the summit of a tall column, as in the case of the Earl Grey Monument in the centre of the town.  The memorial is made to serve a useful purpose.  At its base, a seat for rest and meditation is provided, and the sculptor’s work is placed at a level which allows of its being seen and appreciated. 

As the focal point of St. Nicholas’s Square, the monument was subject to a complex overlay of meanings.  It made advantageous use of the setting, drawing in the palatial façades of the surrounding buildings to form its backdrop.  In doing so, it negotiated with the imperial narratives that permeated Edwardian society.  At this juncture, Britain was at the zenith of its imperial and commercial power.  The South African War had amplified nationalist sentiments and generated unbridled patriotism among the general public.  Virtually every large government building erected during this period was executed in the Baroque style.  As it was based on eighteenth century English interpretations of Classicism, the Baroque style was seen as a national idiom.  The Scottish architect J.M. Brydon declared that the architecture of Jones and Wren was ‘English as distinct from, and in some respects superior to, even the Italian Renaissance . . . leaving it to us as a precious heritage to keep and to guard and, above all things, to study [ . . . ].’  By invoking the opulence of Roman Classicism it created an image of the splendour of the British Empire.  Indeed, Edwardian Baroque was itself an instrument of imperial power, as it was used for governmental buildings throughout Britain and its colonies.  A. Brumwell Thomas’s design for Belfast City Hall (1897-1906) was a conscious echo of Wren’s High Baroque manner, complete with cupolas derived from the towers of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  As such, the building made Northern Ireland’s subordination to central British rule visually clear. 

Belfast City Hall

Britain’s imperial might depended upon industrial and commercial wealth and this is given spatial expression by the Queen Victoria Monument and its proximity to the commercial palaces of Collingwood and Mosley Streets.  Public monuments and their attendant rituals were involved in the construction of the ideal urban subject.  The nominal audience for these displays was the urban populace, a mass community brought together by the very same designed spaces. 

Within urban culture, public space served as a stage on which civic values could be performed, and thus transmitted to all levels of society. The prestige of Collingwood and Mosley Streets was confirmed when they formed part of the route taken on the Royal visit to Newcastle in 1906. Both streets were decorated with banners and flags for the occasion. With the Victoria Monument punctuating the space and the material manifestations of Victorian capitalism lining the route, Collingwood and Mosley Streets formed an ideal location for this ceremony of monarchy and empire. The Royal visit thus confirmed and completed the project of creating a symbolic public space.

Bibliography

Atkins. E.M. ‘The Genesis of the Laing Art Gallery’ in Faulkner, T.E. (1996) (ed.) Northumbrian Panorama.

Bingham, N.R. (1985) Victorian and Edwardian Whitehall: Architecture and Planning, 1869-1918. University of London: unpublished PhD thesis.

The Builder, vol.84, 2 May, 1903, p466.

Building News, vol.54, 23 March 1888, p424.

Gosse, E. (1894) ‘The New Sculpture: 1879–1894’ in Art Journal, vol.56, pp138–142.

Harris, J. (1993) Private Lives, Public Spirit.

Hill, K. ‘Thoroughly Imbued with the Spirit of Ancient Greece’, pp99-111.

Jeans, H. (1926) Modern Building.

Service, A. (1977) Edwardian Architecture.

 

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Comments (9)

Great, very interesting and well written article (as usual) , I really enjoyed reading it, but I think that some photographs to the squares, buildings or the monuments would hepl in visualising these places. thanks Michael for sharing these information

Ranked #31 in History

I agree with Abdel-moniem, some pics would be good but great artle, voted.

Ranked #94 in History

Very interesting information.

Ranked #1 in History

Thanks for your comments. For some reason the images wouldn't upload and the text of the bibliography is erratic too. I'll try to fix it.

Ranked #1 in History

I've added the images, but some of the text is still displaying incorrectly. The problem was that I used a different computer than usual.

Ranked #7 in History

very interesting share Mike..really enjoyed reading your work. excellent as always :) v+ping done

Ranked #13 in History

Thank you for another informative write here Michael.

Extremely brilliant work again, my friend. Really enjoyed reading this and discovered buildings I did not know. Thank you Michael.

Ranked #1 in History

Merci, Francois.

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