BELCHER, John 1841-1913. Architect.
Redholm, the large house on Champion Hill behind the Fox on the Hill pub was built in 1885 to the design of the well known late Victorian/Edwardian architect John Belcher who lived in it until his death in 1913 - he was buried in West Norwood Cemetery.
He was the son of John Belcher senior, also a successful architect, and was born at 2 Montague Terrace, Trinity Church Square, Southwark. He had a privileged education which included architectural studies in Paris in 1862/3, where he was apparently more interested in the new buildings promoted by Baron Haussman and the Emperor Napoleon III, rather than the historic ones. He worked with his father between 1865 and 1875 and one of their best known joint designs was for the Mappin & Webb building opposite the Mansion House in the City, demolished only relatively recently as part of Lord Palumbo’s Number One Poultry Development. He was elected ARIBA in December 1879 and FRIBA in March 1882.
An innovative and influential architect, Belcher was one of the founders of the Edwardian Baroque style with buildings ranging from country houses to office blocks. He was President of the Royal Institute of British Architects from 1904 to 1906, RIBA Gold medallist in 1907 and he was elected RA in 1909. A very religious man, he was a leading member of the Catholic Apostolic Church and wrote ‘The History of the Ecclesiastical Movement’ (1872) and ‘A Report on the position of Organs in Churches’ (1892). He was also a fine solo bass singer, cello player and conductor and was probably better known to the public as a musician rather than an architect. His architectural books included ‘Essentials in Architecture’ (1907) - widely read at the time, and between 1898-1900 he wrote ‘Later Renaissance Architecture in England’, in conjunction with Mervyn Macartney, editor of the Builder Magazine.
He was chairman of the first meeting of the Art Workers’ Guild in 1884 to ‘reverse the drifting apart of the arts of Architecture, Painting and Sculpture’ and had an active policy of fostering younger talent in his office. He was in partnership with Arthur Beresford Pite between 1885-97 (Beresford’s Pite’s office designed the boarding houses at Dulwich College in 1932) and J J Joass from 1905 (the latter had been his chief assistant from 1897). His most influential building was the Institute of Accountants (1888-93) in the City which demonstrated that the Baroque style was a suitable style for realising the Arts & Crafts ideals of fine sculpture and painting as an integral part of architecture.
His most important buildings included the Southwark Church in Camberwell New Road (1877) - now the Greek orthodox Cathedral, Stowell Park in Gloucester, Colchester Town Hall (1898-1902), Electra House, Moorgate (1902-03), the Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park in Lancaster (1904-06) and Royal London House, Finsbury Square (1904-05). From 1905 J J Joass took over more of the design in the office and together they built Winchester House, Old Broad Street (1905-07), the Royal Insurance Building St James (1907-08), Mappin & Webb in Oxford Street (1908-09), the Royal Society of Medicine (1910-12), Whiteleys in Bayswater (1908-12), the Headquarters of the Royal Zoological Society in Regents Park (1910-11) and Holy Trinity Church in Holborn (1910-12). Belcher was also chief architect for the 1908 Franco-British exhibition at White City. Other than his house, his only other local work was the Cottage Hospital in Hermitage Road, Norwood (1881) - it is still standing.
Belcher’s influence on architectural practice was such that, in the early 1900’s, an advertisement appeared in architectural magazines offering students instruction in the Gothic, Renaissance, Classic and ‘Belcher’ styles - so closely was his name linked with the Free Baroque style which had become so fashionable in Edwardian times.
Some modern historians have suggested that his strong religious faith had a major impact upon his designs particularly the use of sculptured angels and lions and the numbers seven and twelve. The Catholic Apostolic Church used the word ‘Angel’ to denote a priest (Belcher was an Angel at the Southwark Church in Camberwell from 1908 until his death in 1913) and the members of the Church apparently genuinely looked forward to the destruction of the old world and the creation of a new Heaven on Earth and thought that the lion would play a key role in this event. Numbers were also of crucial importance, they deliberately built seven churches in London because seven was a holy number. There were seven epistles and in the book of Revelation there were sevenfold protest, seven trumpets, seven vials, and seven golden candlesticks. ‘The Testimony of the Stars to Christ’, a Catholic Apostolic pamphlet of 1899, referred to the Old Testament Book, Numbers, as proof of the all-importance of numbers in the divine scheme: ‘Seven is the number of completeness, a seven fold rainbow is seen in the vision of Ezekiel. Seven covenants were made with Man.’
The precise numbers of the lions and angels on Belcher’s buildings could therefore be symbolic. On the facade of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in the City of London, for example, there are two giant angels either side of a rusticated alcove above the side entrance in Great Swan Alley. There is also a row of angels above the ground floor piers of the two street frontages, 7 on the Moorgate Place facade, the main entrance, and 5 on the Swan Alley façade. The original design for Electra House had 8 lions on the Moorgate side and 4 on the side street, a total of 12 and there are 12 lions on the cupola.