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Skipper, George John (1856–1948), architect, was born on 6 August 1856 at Back Lane, East Dereham, Norfolk, the second of the five sons of Robert Skipper (1824–1904), builder, and his first wife, Elizabeth, née Wilemer (1824–1862), daughter of Richard Wilemer, grocer and later farmer, of Great Ellingham, Norfolk. Robert had prospered as a local builder, allowing George to enjoy a solid education in Dereham and later as a boarder at Bracondale School, Norwich. Skipper spent a year at Norwich School of Art (1872–3, with a period in Holland) before bowing to paternal pressure and entering in 1873 the architectural offices of John Thomas Lee, of Bedford Row, London. After three years as a pupil, he gained practical experience, especially with his father, but also sketched in Belgium. While in London he seems also to have begun his lifelong membership of the Plymouth Brethren, reputedly through the influence of his landlady.

In 1879 Skipper set up his own practice in East Dereham, but moved to Norwich in 1880. Specializing in hospitals and schools, the latter influenced by the educational reformer Joseph Lloyd Brereton, rector of Little Massingham, Norfolk, he enjoyed considerable early success, winning several architectural competitions, including those for Shepton Mallet Hospital (1879–80), the county school, Doulting (1880), and Sexey's School, Bruton (1882–91), all in Somerset. He also formed some useful west-country connections through Richard Horner Paget (1832–1908), first baronet, for whom he built cottages at Doulting. Skipper's Crispin Hall at Street, Somerset, was designed for the Quaker shoe manufacturer William Stephens Clark and revealed his characteristic use of local materials (Ham Hill stone dressings and Glastonbury tiles) to augment his ‘old English’, neo-Tudor design. He also built Clark's home, Millfield (1888–9, later Millfield School), substantial workmen's cottages, and a fine pyramid-topped clock tower.

Despite success in the west country, Skipper remained firmly East Anglian by family and business connection. On 23 August 1883, at Norwich register office, he married Elizabeth Tills Bayes (1829/30–1890), a 43-year-old servant turned dressmaker in Norwich; after her death he married on 1 September 1891, also at Norwich register office, Rachel Marion Barcham (1850–1905), daughter of Robert Barcham, farmer and veterinary surgeon, with whom he had a son, George Theodore (1894–1958), later a dentist in London and Surrey. Elected a youthful fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1889, he went into partnership (1889–1912) with his younger brother Frederick Wilemer Skipper (1860–1956), and the 1890s saw Skipper firmly established as one of the region's major architects, especially through his part in reshaping late Victorian Cromer, Norfolk. Having built the town hall (1889–90), hovering between neo-Tudor and Queen Anne in style, he went on to create the Grand Hotel (1890–91), the Hotel Metropole (1893–4), with the first signs of the ‘exuberance’ that became his hallmark in the use of French Renaissance and Flemish motifs, and above all the Hotel de Paris (1894–6), dominating the seafront, ambitiously concave, with romantic towers and dome, and what would become the familiar carved stone and terracotta decoration. Several more coastal hotels followed as well as the town hall at New Hunstanton, Norfolk, and in 1902 (by competition) the yacht club at Lowestoft in Suffolk, a white stucco British art nouveau building.

But it was in Norwich that the majority of Skipper's finest works were built in a decade of unparalleled creativity that marked him as one of Edwardian Britain's greatest commercial architects. He had announced his presence by building his own offices at 7 London Street in 1896, incorporating, in medieval style, himself and his family, stonemasons, and patrons in the terracotta panels adorning the picturesque brickwork façade. Benefiting from his connection with Sir Kenneth Kemp, barrister, banker, and chairman of the Cromer hotel syndicate, Skipper now created his vibrant masterpiece, the arts and crafts Royal Arcade, combining art nouveau idioms, Parian ware friezes, and brilliant lighting, which opened in May 1899 to be hailed by the Norfolk Chronicle as ‘a fragment from the Arabian Nights dropped into the heart of the city’. This was followed in quick succession by the Norfolk Daily Standard offices (1899–1900), the Norfolk and Norwich Savings Bank (1899–1900), Haymarket Chambers (1901–2), Commercial Chambers (1901–3), the London and Provincial Bank (1902), Jarrold's department store (from 1903–4), and the Norwich and London Accident Assurance offices at 41–5 St Giles (1904–6). All of these displayed Skipper's iconoclastic mixing of styles, distinctive façades, ambitious rooflines, towers and turrets, and decorative uses of terracotta. Above all, Skipper created one of the greatest pre-war office buildings, the Surrey Street headquarters of the Norwich Union Insurance Society, opened in 1906, incorporating a magnificent marble hall, elaborately decorated boardroom, fine marble staircase, and an ultra-modern heating and ventilation system with an ‘air fountain’.

Skipper, although often impatient of financial and sometimes planning detail, was now a supremely confident architect, exuberant in design, masterful in detail, innovative in form and façade; he was also well rewarded, earning £4264 in fees for the Norwich Union building, becoming Norwich's second car owner, and building up a fine architectural library. Given Skipper's success in Norwich, where his invention and creativity easily surpassed that of his main local rival, the worthy and well-connected Edward Boardman (1833–1910), enterprising patrons sought Skipper out, including in 1906 Thomas Albert Cook (1867–1914), grandson of the pioneering travel agent, for whom he created (around its eighteenth-century core) the extravagantly baroque Sennowe House, near Guist, Norfolk, complete with fully modern internal features as well as romantic landscape gardens, an expression of Edwardian plutocracy at its finest and Skipper at his most indulgent.

Completed in 1911, Sennowe gave Skipper unusual satisfaction and was to be the culmination of his career, although this had many years still to run. Following the death of his second wife in 1905, he married on 3 June 1913, at Conwy register office, the schoolteacher Elizabeth Alice Charter, née Roberts (1884–1973), the widow of James Orde Charter, a schoolmaster in Llandudno but formerly of Norwich, and the mother of Ralph Orde Charter. However, the period of the First World War saw a change in Skipper's fortunes, bringing a decline in his architectural business and mounting financial losses from unwise investments, including some in the troubled east Kent coalfield. Although he may have contemplated retirement before the war, Skipper now found himself with a young family and in need of regular income. He gained much bread-and-butter work for local rural and district councils, gaining recognition for his clay-lump cottages, a sobering remove from his headily baroque Edwardian days. He also took pride in several commissions for the royal estate at Sandringham. Despite a long-standing interest in town planning (he was also elected to the Council for the Protection of Rural England) he failed in his efforts to influence the inter-war redesigning of Norwich city centre. With little prospect of major commissions in Norfolk, Skipper gained some work in Cambridge, including a pleasing extension (1926–7) to the University Arms Hotel (which he had previously added to in 1903) and, possibly as a result of his own investments, he designed a model colliery village at Chislet (later renamed Hersden) in Kent, although it was only partially built. Most successfully in 1927 Skipper gained the commission to rebuild the western side of Sackville Street in central London, with an important façade on Piccadilly, where he produced his finest inter-war building, a firmly anti-modernist French palatial structure, which took shape over the next decade. He now set up a London office, to which he commuted regularly into his eighties. His Norwich office remained open, primarily to ensure the succession of his son Edward (1918–2005), himself an important local architect, while his daughter Margaret (1921–2009) was to marry the architect and surveyor of Westminster Abbey Peter Foster (1919–2010). Skipper died at Heigham Hall, a private mental hospital in Norwich, on 1 August 1948, and was buried on 6 August at the Earlham Road cemetery, Norwich.

Skipper's inter-war career marked a prolonged anticlimax to a sparkling late Victorian and Edwardian period during which he was able to realize his own vision of the individualistic gentleman–architect–artist before his unremitting, somewhat embittered, and irascible later years. Allowing for a measure of literary exaggeration, Sir John Betjeman's apophthegm—that Skipper ‘is to Norwich rather what Gaudi was to Barcelona’ (Jolley, preface)—nicely conveys not only Skipper's ambition in creating buildings that greatly embellished the architecture of a regional capital but also his achievement in terms of inventiveness, exacting craftsmanship, and brilliant, if eclectic, orchestration of materials and design in purposeful early twentieth-century buildings.

A. C. Howe

Sources  

biographical file, RIBA BAL · D. Jolley, Architect exuberant: George Skipper, 1856–1948 (1975) · D. Jolley and E. Skipper, Celebrating Skipper: one hundred years of architecture, 1880–1980 (privately printed, 1980) · D. Summers, ‘George John Skipper’, Powerhouses of provincial architecture, 1837–1914, ed. K. Ferry (2009), 74–82 · A. Knight, ‘George John Skipper (1856–1948), architectural chameleon’, MA diss., University of East Anglia, 1999 · S. Thomas, ‘George Skipper, 1856–1948’, www.heritagecity.org/research-centre/whos-who/george-skipper.htm, accessed on 11 Jan 2011 · misc. drawings and papers relating to George Skipper and Surrey House, Norwich, Aviva plc · Bulwer MSS; city engineer's department, plans, Norfolk RO · Alfred Gillett Trust (C. & J. Clark Ltd), Street, Somerset · Sothebys auction catalogue, 29 Jan 1970 · Norfolk: Norwich and north-east, Pevsner (1997) · E. Percifull and S. Thomas, ‘George Skipper's Sennowe masterpiece’, Norfolk Gardens Trust (spring 2006), 18–26 · C. Aslet, The last country houses (1982) · S. Muthesius, ‘Architecture since 1800’, Norwich since 1550, ed. C. Rawcliffe and R. Wilson (2004) · M. Girouard, Sweetness and light: the ‘Queen Anne’ movement, 1860–1900 (1977) · private information (2011) · b. cert. · m. certs.

Archives  

RIBA BAL, drawings, notebooks


Likenesses  

portrait, repro. in Jolley and Skipper, Celebrating Skipper, 3

Wealth at death  

£2854 10s. 3d.: probate, 23 July 1949, CGPLA Eng. & Wales