Dulwich Architects - George Tappen (1771-1830) by Ian McInnes

Nothing is known of George Tappen’s early life though rate books from Lewisham suggest that he was living at Havelock house in Honour Oak Road during the later part of the 1790s. We do know, however, that he made a grand tour on the Continent from the autumn of 1802 through the spring of 1803, probaby  taking advantage of the ‘Peace of Amiens’ when Anglo French hostilities were briefly on hold. He wrote a book about his trip - originally called ‘A short description of a tour of the architecture of the principal ancient and modern buildings in France and Italy: with remarks on the painting and sculpture, and a concise local description’, He expanded it in 1806 with a revised title beginning ‘Professional observations on a tour of  . . . ’.

His first recorded building was Glenlea on Dulwich Common, now known as Tappen House, which was built for Charles Druce, the legal advisor and steward to Dulwich College in 1804. He followed this with a house in Sydenham, also in 1804, called The Priory, for a Mr Richard Shute, which was located on the site (more or less) of "The Two Half's" pub in Sydenham Road.

Tappen was appointed Surveyor to Dulwich College in July 1805. He designed Eastcombe house near Charlton Kent for a Mr D Hunter in (1807) but his major works were the School for the Indigent Blind at St George’s Fields – 1812 (demolished in the 1840s) – contemporary comment suggested it was “more commendable for utility than for its beauty”,  and the Royal Caledonian Asylum in Islington (1827-28) well-known at the time for its substantial portico based on the Greek temple of Philip of Macedon at Delos (it was actually built to house the orphans of Scottish soldiers). Many of his designs were exhibited at the Royal Academy, including Glenlea, as well as the major alterations and additions to Henbury House in Dorset and an unexecuted design for a mansion in the form of a Norman castle (1819). He was clearly reasonably prosperous and in the early 1800s moved up to live in No. 31A St James Square.

In Dulwich, in addition to Glenlea he was responsible for ‘Northcroft’ and ‘The Willows’, also on Dulwich Common (1810-11) originally built speculatively, again for the Steward Charles Druce, but sold on completion to a Mr William Price and a Mr Robert Grafton. The two houses cost £1000 each to build. His other local works included ‘Elm Cottages’,  50 Dulwich Village (1811) – the detail of the first floor square window under a round arch is similar to Glenlea, and probably 85 Dulwich Village (1806).

In 1813 he took over the supervision of the construction of the Picture Gallery from John Soane. They had known each other for some years as, in 1807, Tappen had presented Soane with a signed copy of the book on his travels.  The latter had clearly read it in detail as his copy, which still exists in the Soane Museum, is heavily annotated particularly at Tappen’s comments on the day-lighting at the Louvre – “Nor can a lover of the arts refrain from regret, when he feels, which he must do the moment he enters the gallery, that it is not calculated to display this most valuable and splendid assemblage even to moderate advantage. On each side it has windows which come within three or four feet of the floor, so that the rays of the light are nearly at right angles with the pictures opposite, instead of being thrown upon them from some more oblique direction. . . . . . I never could view a picture under these circumstances with any degree of satisfaction – now if the light could not have been introduced from above….””

Soane also owned eight copies of Tappen’s other book, written with John Narrien, the influential contemporary astronomer and mathematician, the more practical ‘Explanatory remarks on a new and more effectual method of building groined arches in brickwork’. The book described improvements in the construction of brick vaulting to support very heavily loaded floors in tobacco warehouses in the Port of London (specifically the use of octagonal rather than square bases to maximise floor area for storage) so it may be that Tappen was also responsible for the design of some warehouses as well.

Tappen completed the poor sisters’ apartments at the Gallery in 1815 and added a new porch at the south end in 1817 – this served as the Gallery entrance until the 1860s. The original contractor’s workmanship on the main gallery had left something to be desired as, in 1817, he carried out repairs to the mausoleum and skylights, and extensive improvements to the almshouses in. He also made the final additions to the Gallery for the official opening in the same year – laying the green oil cloth on the floor and installing brass rails to keep visitors away from the pictures.

In 1821 he was instructed to draw up plans for repair of the west wing of the Old College at a cost of £3000 and the 1823 enlargement of the chapel was also probably by him. It was at this time that the Old College, which was originally built in brickwork, was covered with stucco.

Tappen’s buildings were generally finished with stucco (the name comes from the German and is used to describe a lime based external quality plaster with a paint finish). This was a very common during the Regency Period, as Georgian style fair face brickwork was going out of favour, particularly for up-market houses.  Most are now painted in white or cream oil paint but this was not how they were originally intended to look. Stucco was designed as a substitute for stone, and the walls would have been painted to look like stone, with coursing lines shown and possibly trompe l’oiel effects on individual stones as well.

Tappen was an active freemason, sending a copy of his travel book as a present to the Duke of Sussex and Earl of Inverness, the “Grand Master of the Free & Accepted Masons of England”. He died aged 59 in 1830 and was succeeded as Estate Surveyor by Sir Charles Barry.