Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 29, 2019
Conor Lucey Building Reputations: Architecture and the Artisan, 1750–1830 Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2018. 264 pp.; 16 color ills.; 90 b/w ills. Cloth £75.00 (9781526119940)

From the middle of the eighteenth century through the 1830s, the brick row house became one of the most common urban building forms in the British Atlantic world. Artisan builders erected thousands of these rows of classically proportioned and ornamented town houses in the new streets, squares, and crescents of expanding cities as well as in smaller market and port towns in Great Britain, Ireland, and America. Built for a speculative market, town houses with broad frontages and elaborate ornamental details were designed to attract an elite aristocratic and gentry clientele. Dwellings of narrower widths and fewer embellishments were constructed to appeal to the pocketbooks of middle-class professionals and those who aspired to gentility. Few of these homes were the products of individual architects. Most of the town houses were the work of highly talented house builders who were creative agents of architectural taste in their own right. Their endeavors were an extraordinary architectural and cultural achievement, a high-water mark in urban design and housing standards, which still profoundly defines the character of many of these places two centuries later.

In Building Reputations, Conor Lucey argues that this story has been misunderstood or mischaracterized in much of the historical literature on urban architecture, which has emphasized building production at the expense of building design. Despite their ubiquity and the pivotal role that they played in transforming the streetscape of most cities and large towns, brick town houses, he contends, have not received their proper recognition. Lucey notes that the homes were disparaged by contemporaries “as a jerry-built commodity and an inferior manifestation of the classical hegemony” and asserts that the “form, design, and aesthetic character” of these dwellings have been marginalized in modern urban histories and studies of economic development in the Georgian period (1). As a result, the reputations of the building artisans responsible for the design and ornamentation of these houses have also suffered. In the age of architectural luminaries such as Robert Adam and William Chambers, many historians have dismissed builders of row houses as rudimentary copyists at best; their work rarely represented an original vision and their motives were more concerned with making a quick turnaround on their investments. The art historical perspective of these critiques has favored individual designers and ground-breaking designs for elites, ignoring the vast majority of commonplace housing. In his detailed investigation of the building process in the metropolis of London, Dublin, the second city of the empire, and Philadelphia, the largest English city in the new world, Lucey seeks to overturn these prejudices and misconceptions and resurrect the reputation of the artisan network of builders involved in the construction and decoration of speculative row houses as “a creative agent of architectural taste in its own right” (160). Although he acknowledges that most American literature has long understood the importance of the artisan in the design process in the preindustrial age, British and Irish scholars have been ambivalent or even hostile to the notion or their agency.

In the first of four chapters, the author focuses on the training and design skills of those craftsmen responsible for the Georgian town house. As Lucey freely admits, his story leaves out the vast majority of people involved in construction and focuses on those few elite members of the building trades who had the financial wherewithal, organization skills, and design competence to be successful in the competitive world of house building. Although he observes that there was a jockeying for power on the building site among craftsmen, suppliers of materials, and creditors, there is little discussion in this section of the financial arrangements or hierarchical organization of labor for those few who became contractors or “undertakers of buildings,” as they were often known in eighteenth-century America. Lucey recognizes that in this comparative study of the relative social mobility of those in the different trades, there were major differences in the structures of the various crafts in Great Britain, Ireland, and America between those in the Old World, which were much more hierarchical and specialized, and those in the New World, which continued to depend upon the immigration of highly skilled plasterers and carvers to fill niche markets in places like Philadelphia, New York, the Chesapeake colonies, and Charleston, South Carolina.

Over the course of the two or three generations between the 1750s and 1830s, there was a protracted sorting out of the roles and responsibilities of those involved in building. Some skilled craftsmen rose in the ranks of entrepreneurs and others lost power or status as their skills were displaced by new industrialized production methods and the advent of new materials, including Coade stone, composition ornament, and cast-iron products such as hinges and locks, and, particularly in America, machine-made nails. Pertinent to Lucey’s focus on town houses, the period witnessed a widening division of responsibilities between an architect, a man with no direct trade experience but responsible for the project design, and the workbench-trained artisan, who laid down his trowel or hammer in order to develop his drafting skills so that he could step into the role of designer as well as supervisor of construction. Written specifications and drawings became increasingly requisite for communicating intentions on the building site, though there remained plenty of on-site conversations that fleshed out details left unresolved in plans, elevations, and sectional drawings. Although architects such as the Adam brothers in London designed speculative projects, including the ambitious Adelphi Terrace, Lucey notes that bespoke house designs from the pens of architects were the exception in a market dominated by entrepreneurial artisans.

Lucey’s wide-ranging scholarship is evident in the second and third chapters, which are the most substantive, as they are informed by his analysis of contemporary drawings and other manuscript sources. The second describes variations in town house design in urban Great Britain, Ireland, and America as craftsmen sought to introduce innovations into the conventional row house form. The parameters varied from project to project and city to city, governed by lot size, frontage, height, materials and the specific needs of a speculative housing market. Builders in Edinburgh had to work within the guidelines and regulations imposed by the town council. In Dublin, town house design centered on the developing proportional relationships of apertures, story heights, and cornices, where unarticulated brick facades were the norm. In New York, Lucey analyzes a set of John McComb’s drawings to tease out the role that English pattern books may have played in his designs. As he notes, the subtle variations of form and ornament in a standardized row house occurred within a “flexible system of Palladian classicism, and within a typology of tall houses on narrow lots” (113).

The third chapter, on interior decorative features, addresses the same issue of regional variation within the forms associated with Neoclassical ornament. Nowhere is this more evident than in the widespread use of decorative plasterwork in Dublin, a place that Lucey maintains had more specialist plasterers than anywhere else, more than in America where they were few and far between. His examination of decorative ceiling patterns in the Stapleton Collection reveals how these craftsmen used their own drawings to develop new designs based on published images that circulated in pattern books. This was the heart of creativity within the classical toolbox of swags, urns, figures, and floral pattern. In contrast to the stunning original plaster ceilings, friezes, and chimneypieces in Dublin, Americans relied on carvers, such as Samuel McIntire in Salem, Massachusetts, to translate sunbursts, trophies, drapery, and festoons into wood, creating a distinctive body of work within the standard Neoclassical vocabulary. Throughout America, craftsmen applied chisels and gouges to mantels, cornices, doors, and wainscoting to create infinite variations on common decorative patterns.

A final chapter explores how builders marketed and sold their speculative ventures. In England and Ireland, some used brokers and auctioneers, but increasingly the most astute advertised their properties in newspapers, which circulated among a genteel clientele of readers who were the target audience. Lucey’s interrogation of the language of these ads reveals that keywords and descriptors like “elegant,” “handsome,” and “commodious” signaled superior properties rather than detailed descriptions of materials, rooms, and appurtenances. Whether these catch phrases did the trick is hard to tell as there is little here to measure the success of their marketing ventures. Even if this last chapter fails to resonate with the insights that make the sections on the design and ornamentation of town houses sparkle, Lucey has made a strong argument that much of the traditional historiography, which separated house building from house decorating, has been detrimental to our understanding of the row house as one of the most creative and successful architectural forms in the Anglo-American world in the preindustrial era. In this informative book, he has rehabilitated the reputation of the artisan builder as a significant figure in shaping its decorative articulation. 

Carl Lounsbury
Adjunct Associate Professor of History, College of William and Mary