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  Harvey Lonsdale Elmes (1814–1847), by Thomas Oldham Barlow, pubd 1849 (after Thomas Crane) Harvey Lonsdale Elmes (1814–1847), by Thomas Oldham Barlow, pubd 1849 (after Thomas Crane)
Elmes, Harvey Lonsdale (1814–1847), architect, was born on 10 February 1814 in Oving, near Chichester, Sussex, where he was also baptized on 26 May 1814. He was the only son of , an architect and a prolific writer on art and architecture, and his wife, Mary Anne. A pupil of his father, he was also trained by his uncle Henry John Elmes and by John Elger (1802–1888), who were both London builders. His father was a friend of the architects John Soane (1753–1837), C. R. Cockerell (1788–1863), and Joseph Gwilt (1784–1863), as well as of the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786–1846), so that he was brought up in an atmosphere where aesthetic discussion was taken seriously.

Education and training

In 1831 Elmes was admitted as a student at the Royal Academy Schools, following in the footsteps of his father, who had entered the schools in 1804 and had subsequently attended Soane's lectures there. When Elmes was a pupil at the schools in the 1830s, he would have heard Soane's lectures read for him by Henry Howard. Soane was a powerful influence on both James and Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, and the latter's masterpiece, St George's Hall, Liverpool, was hailed as a building which ‘represents the goal of Soane's teaching in the sphere of monumental, as distinct from domestic, architecture’ (A. T. Bolton, The Portrait of Sir John Soane, R.A., 1927, 143).

In 1834 Elmes entered the office in Bath of Henry Edmund Goodridge (1797–1864), a highly inventive and eclectic architect who was in touch with Soane. Elmes remained with him for three years, during which time Goodridge was at work on remodelling 19 Lansdown Crescent, for William Beckford (1769–1840), and on designing the Roman Catholic pro-cathedral in Clifton. The latter, though not completed to Goodridge's designs, was a striking classical building which was to be influential on Elmes's designs for St George's Hall, Liverpool.

Major work

In 1837 Elmes returned to London, where he assisted his father in designing houses in Park Street (now Queen Anne's Gate), Westminster, in one of which, no. 11, he set up his office. In July 1839 he won the competition for St George's Hall, a grandiose concert hall in Liverpool which it was intended would be built by public subscription. Associated with the city's recently founded triennial music festival, it was to contain a main hall to seat 3000 and a concert hall to seat 1000. Being inexperienced and uncertain of the wisdom of entering the competition, Elmes sought the advice of his father's friend Haydon, who replied, ‘By all means, my dear boy. They are noble fellows at Liverpool. Send in a design, and mind, let it combine grandeur with simplicity. None of your broken-up and frittered abortions, but something grand’ (Art Union, 1 Feb 1848, 52). It was good advice, for it helped Elmes win the first premium of 250 guineas in a competition in which no fewer than seventy-five architects submitted designs. It was a remarkable achievement for a young man of twenty-five with no independent building to his credit.

The corporation of Liverpool then decided to build new assize courts. Eighty-nine architects submitted designs in the ensuing competition, for which the premium was £300. Once again, to everyone's surprise, the youthful Elmes was the winner in April 1840. The civic grandeur represented by these joint commissions was in direct emulation of the city of Birmingham, which had just built an imposing new town hall. Moreover, the population of Liverpool had grown from 80,000 inhabitants in 1800 to over 286,000 in 1840, during which time it had become the country's principal Atlantic port as well as the central distribution point for the cotton produced by the Lancashire cotton mills. In an indication of the importance to the city of this project the foundation-stone of the concert hall was laid, prematurely, on the day of Queen Victoria's coronation in 1838.

In Elmes's grandiose project the two buildings, concert hall and law courts, were grouped at right angles to each other in an imposing civic forum approached through propylaeum-like gateways. He presented the corporation with five different designs for the layout of this forum, in which he may have been influenced by his father, whose interest in urban improvements was represented by the text he contributed to T. H. Shepherd's Metropolitan Improvements: London in the Nineteenth Century (1827–9). The terms of the competition, like that of 1839, had stipulated that the new buildings should be in the Greek or Roman styles of architecture. Elmes therefore designed the assize courts in a powerful Greek Doric style and St George's Hall in a weaker Roman Ionic. These early designs were strongly influenced by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (1834–5), by George Basevi (1794–1845), and by Cockerell's unexecuted design of 1829–30 for Cambridge University Library.

Subscriptions for the concert hall were not raised as easily as had been expected. As a result, the corporation decided to take it over in 1840 and to unite it and the assize courts in a single building serving both functions. The city architect, Joseph Franklin (c.1785–1855), was thus instructed to produce a design combining elements from both of those by Elmes. However, following protests from Elmes, Franklin generously chose not to stand in the young man's way. Elmes accordingly produced a third design, which the corporation accepted on 27 October 1840. Like Goodridge's Catholic cathedral at Clifton, Elmes's building is on a sloping site and features largely windowless walls set off by a great Corinthian entrance portico with a sculptured pediment. At the other, north, end of the building, the elliptical concert hall is expressed externally by a powerful apse with engaged columns. It is all so much more mature than his initial designs that it is tempting to assume that C. R. Cockerell may have given the young architect some guidance.

In the centre of the building is a vast civic hall inspired by the tepidarium of the baths of Caracalla in Rome, as restored in a drawing by Cockerell and in another by Guillaume-Abel Blouet published in his book Restauration des thermes d'Antonin Caracalla à Rome (1828). The vault at Liverpool is actually slightly larger than its antique original. The hall below it is flanked on one side by the crown court and on the other by the civil court. Long corridors connect these on the north and south sides of the building. Elmes originally wanted a grand vista through the heart of this building, but this was subsequently blocked when a great organ was inserted at the north end of the central hall.

Unlike Sir Robert Smirke (1780–1867), whose identical colonnades at the British Museum (1823–46) give no sense of the variety of interiors which lie within, Elmes did not shrink from creating a succession of varied façades. The articulation of the east and west façades in a grid form with massive square pilasters and a screen of detached piers is a disposition which may be derived from Grange Park, Hampshire (1809), by William Wilkins (1778–1839), rather than from the work of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841), as has sometimes been thought. The handling of these square piers, partly engaged in the wall, has a certain Egyptian flavour which influenced the slightly later work of the Glasgow architect Alexander (Greek) Thomson (1817–1875). For Thomson, the trabeated architecture of the ancient Near East was a fundamental principle from which we should never deviate as the Romans and the Goths had done. Thomson praised the Royal High School, Edinburgh (1825–9), by Thomas Hamilton (1754–1858), and Elmes's St George's Hall, Liverpool, as the ‘two finest buildings in the kingdom’ (The Builder, 9 May 1866, 369).

Illness and early death

The task of producing drawings for so vast a project with little assistance proved too much for an architect whose lungs were already suffering from the tuberculosis from which he was to die prematurely. Elmes was frequently found in an exhausted state, having worked throughout the night. Moreover, his wife's health was also poor and he found the frequent journeys to Liverpool from London difficult and tiring. He was therefore advised to go abroad in 1842, leaving work in the able hands of his friend the engineer Sir Robert Rawlinson (1810–1898). Travelling with his friend William Earle in 1842, Elmes visited Belgium and made an extensive tour of southern Germany. In the course of this, he made drawings of the sixteenth-century Jesuit church of St Michael in Munich. He admired this for its solution of vaulting the kind of large space with which he was confronted at St George's Hall. Illustrations of the work of Schinkel, as well as the buildings of Leo von Klenze (1784–1864), which he will have seen in Munich, may already have influenced his designs for St George's Hall. The north entrance hall is as striking as any interior by Schinkel, with its semicircular ceiling, Doric columns screening the staircase, and casts of the Parthenon frieze.

On his return to Britain, Elmes continued work on St George's Hall, directing his attention in particular to the problem of vaulting the 74-foot span of the great hall. However, his health failing, he left Britain for a second time. He first went to Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, but when his condition failed to improve he undertook an unpleasantly stormy sea voyage to Jamaica in October 1847. Here he died in Spanish Town on 26 November at the age of thirty-three. He was accompanied by his young wife and child, whom he left without financial provision, though a subscription of £1400 was subsequently raised for them. Doomed never to see the completion of his masterpiece, he was also financially handicapped by the fact that his fee of five per cent on St George's Hall was based on the original estimate of £92,000, not on the £145,000 that had been spent on it by the time of his death.

Completion of St George's Hall; other works by Elmes

Robert Rawlinson completed the structural work of St George's Hall between 1847 and 1851, providing the hall with a lightweight, fireproof vault of hollow, wedge-shaped bricks. John Weightman, city surveyor, was appointed architect in 1848, while C. R. Cockerell completed the interior, largely to his own designs, in 1851–4. The courts were ready for use in 1852, the great hall in 1854, and the concert hall in 1855. The building is a remarkably successful attempt to recapture the grandeur of imperial Rome by an architect who, like Sir Christopher Wren, had never visited Italy or Greece. It can only be paralleled by the work of Beaux-Arts architects in France such as Jakob Ignaz Hittorff (1792–1867) and Pierre-François-Henri Labrouste (1801–1875), and in America such as McKim, Mead, and White, whose masterpiece, Pennsylvania station, New York (1906–10), was, like St George's Hall, a masterly restatement of the theme of the baths of Caracalla for a non-thermal function.

Not surprisingly, in view of the magnitude of his principal commission and his premature death, Elmes designed few buildings other than St George's Hall. The principal is the Liverpool Collegiate Institution, Shaw Street, Liverpool (1840–43), the commission for which he won in a competition held in 1840, in which the Tudor style was stipulated. His imposing eleven-bay façade in a late Perpendicular Gothic style was closely modelled on that of King Edward VI's Grammar School, Birmingham, built in 1833–7 from designs by Sir Charles Barry (1795–1860). The description of the institution in Liverpool as ‘collegiate’ rather than as a school indicates the essentially middle-class outlook of the promoters of this new foundation. It was divided into upper, middle, and lower schools to house boys drawn from different social classes. They were not allowed to meet, so that the long corridors were divided by iron gateways into three parts.

Unfortunately, Elmes had a disagreement with his clients at the collegiate institution which reflects an interesting light on the establishment of the professional status and responsibility of the architect in early Victorian Britain. His clients ignored what was becoming the accepted five per cent charge made by architects for preparing the specification and working drawings, and superintending their execution. Instead, they decided to economize by handing over this task to Edward Argent, a local surveyor. As a result, Elmes had only partial control over the appearance and execution of the building, the only payment he received being the competition premium of 100 guineas, plus an additional fee of the same amount, supposedly as an extra mark of the respect of his clients.

Elmes's other works in Liverpool included two classical mansions, Allerton Tower, Allerton (1846; dem. 1937), and Druid's Cross, Woolton (1846–7; dem. 1977), as well as the county lunatic asylum, Rainhill, executed after his death by William Moseley in 1847–51. His few surviving domestic works include Redcliffe, a villa of 1845 in the Tudor style at New Brighton, Wallasey, Cheshire, and the dull Italianate façades of houses in Ennismore Gardens and Prince's Gate, Kensington (c.1843–6), for the speculative builder John Elger.

Assessment of Elmes's work

No personal reminiscences of Elmes survive, but there is a large collection of his architectural drawings in the RIBA drawings collection. Given the brevity of his career, these show his intense aptitude for work, for they include unexecuted designs for the town hall and market place at Bedford; two banks, an assembly room, and a church at Biggleswade; a church for blind people at Liverpool; and a court house at Worsley, Lancashire. He exhibited drawings at the Royal Academy in his lifetime.

There are a number of obvious impracticalities in the planning of St George's Hall, particularly its inadequate entrances and vestibules, which were partly consequent on the curious amalgam of concert halls and law courts in the same building. Elmes's father defended the building from these criticisms in an article in The Builder in 1855, but it had been all but universally admired as a masterpiece, even before its completion. The prince consort visited work in progress in 1846 and presented Elmes with a gold medal. It was described two years later as ‘one of the finest architectural buildings in Europe’ (Art Union, 1 Feb 1848, 52), and in 1875 as ‘one of the greatest triumphs of the art [of architecture] in modern times’ (J. A. Picton, Memorials of Liverpool, 1875).

The architect Richard Norman Shaw (1831–1912) was also one of its passionate admirers. In 1904, when he was one of those who chose Giles Gilbert Scott (1880–1960) as the architect for the new Anglican cathedral in Liverpool, he noted that, since Scott was only twenty-four, this was an example of history repeating itself in Liverpool. Praise from a more unexpected quarter came from the influential German architect and architectural writer Hermann Muthesius, who hailed Elmes as a master of the Greek revival (Das englische Haus, 1904–5, 1.54). In another epoch-making book of 1914, Sir Albert Richardson claimed of St George's Hall that ‘The whole building fulfils the highest canons of the academic style, and is unsurpassed by any other modern building in Europe’ (Monumental Classic Architecture in Great Britain and Ireland during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, 1914, 86). He was followed by H. S. Goodhart-Rendel, who described it as ‘the grandest Neo-classical building in England’ (English Architecture since the Regency, 1953, 75), and by Nikolaus Pevsner, for whom it was ‘the freest neo-Grecian building in England and one of the finest in the world’ (Pevsner, South Lancashire, 155).

Elmes will also be remembered as the tragic genius whose death at the age of thirty-three, following that of Basevi at the age of fifty-one two years before, and combined with the rising tide of the Gothic revival, helped bring to an end the dominance which the classical tradition had enjoyed in British architecture since the seventeenth century.

David Watkin


J. Elmes, ‘The architect of St George's Hall’, The Builder, 13 (1855), 53–5 · Art Union, 10 (1848), 51–2 · The Builder, 6 (1848), 24 · The Builder, 6 (1848), 71–2 · J. Olley, ‘St George's Hall, Liverpool’, Architects' Journal (18 June 1986), 36–57 · J. Olley, ‘St George's Hall, Liverpool’, Architects' Journal (25 June 1986), 36–61 · D. Wainwright, ‘Elmes’, ArchR, 125 (1959), 349–50 · R. P. Jones, ‘The life and work of Harvey Lonsdale Elmes’, ArchR, 15 (1904), 230–45 · J. A. Tanner, ‘A contemporary account of St George's Hall’, ArchR, 41 (1917), 122–5 · G. Hemm, St George's Hall, Liverpool (1949) · Catalogue of the drawings collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects: C–F (1972), 103–9 · Q. Hughes, ‘Neo-classical ideas and practice: St George's Hall, Liverpool, by Harvey Lonsdale Elmes’, Architectural Association Quarterly, 5 (1973), 36–44 · S. Bayley, ‘A British Schinkel’, Architectural Association Quarterly, 7 (1975), 28–32 · IGI · Colvin, Archs.


Lpool RO, corresp. relating to St George's Hall, Liverpool · RIBA BAL, memoir of Elmes by his father and papers


T. O. Barlow, engraving, pubd 1849 (after T. Crane), NPG [see illus.] · T. O. Barlow, engraving (after J. Lonsdale)