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Pearson, John Loughboroughlocked

  • Paul Waterhouse
  • , revised by Anthony Quiney

John Loughborough Pearson (1817–1897)

by Walter William Ouless, 1889

Pearson, John Loughborough (1817–1897), architect, was born on 5 July 1817 in Brussels, the youngest of the eleven children of William Pearson (1772–1849), topographical artist, etcher, and watercolourist, and his wife, Nancy (Ann), née Loughborough (1776–1869), who came from the Isle of Man. His grandfather Thomas Pearson, a solicitor, was a freeman of Durham.

Pearson grew up in Durham a sharp, clever boy, fond of acting and reciting. In 1831 he started his architectural training under Ignatius Bonomi at Durham, and he continued as Bonomi's principal assistant. His study of the great northern cathedrals and abbeys at this time inspired his future architectural style. Meanwhile he was influenced by George Townsend, a canon of Durham, in whose Sunday school he served.

Pearson left Bonomi at the end of 1841 and briefly worked for George Pickering before going to London early the next year. Here he lived for the rest of his life. He spent five months with his friend the architect Anthony Salvin, tracing from Salvin's library. In October he became Philip Hardwick's principal assistant, completing the drawings of the new hall and library of Lincoln's Inn, and executing these works.

In 1843 Canon Townsend asked Pearson to rebuild Ellerker Chapel, at Brantingham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, to a new, Decorated Gothic design. This work, consecrated in 1844, introduced Pearson to several of Townsend's friends, all, like Townsend, influential Tractarians. Impressed with Pearson's ability, they would commission from him over the next ten years several new churches in the Gothic style, as well as schools and houses. These commissions allowed him to leave Hardwick's employment, and formed the basis of an increasingly flourishing practice. Among them were new churches in the East Riding at Wauldby, North Ferriby, and Ellerton, and the restoration of Elloughton church, and also a new church at Weybridge, Surrey, and restorations at Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire, and Lea, Lincolnshire; for the Raikes family (to become his oldest friends) he rebuilt Llangasty Tal-y-llyn church in Brecknockshire and built a new school and Treberfydd House (1848–52). In 1849 he started work on his first London church, Holy Trinity, Bessborough Gardens, Westminster (dem.), which was greatly praised for its correct interpretation of the English ‘middle pointed’ (Decorated) Gothic style when completed in 1852. His restoration in 1850–52 of the Norman vault at Stow in Lindsay, Lincolnshire, which had collapsed in the later middle ages, was widely admired, and Pearson was consequently elected fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Stone or brick vaults became an increasingly common feature of his new church designs thereafter.

Pearson had already undertaken a number of secular designs. Treberfydd House, completed in an attractively asymmetrical English Gothic style of the kind promoted by A. W. N. Pugin, was followed in 1856–9 by his second great house, Quar Wood, near Stow on the Wold, in a demonstratively French Gothic style (now extensively altered). This was prompted by foreign travel, an influence first evident following a visit to Amiens and Beauvais in 1853, inspired by the writing of John Ruskin and recorded in a small sketchbook (which, like many of his other surviving private papers, is in the possession of a great-grandson, whereabouts unknown). A second sketchbook records a journey later in the year through Belgium and up the Rhine from Cologne to Mainz. Quar Wood and the equally vigorous designs begun in 1857 for churches at Daylesford in Gloucestershire, Scorborough and Dalton Holme in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and Catherston Leweston, Dorset, are completely assured in their handling of French and Italian details, luxuriantly carved and decorated in multicoloured and patterned stone without prejudice to their underlying form.

The design of Titsey church in Surrey followed in 1859, the year of a visit to Normandy, recorded by another sketchbook. He found there what would inspire the last elements in his mature designs, namely rib-vaulting, tall turrets, and broached spires. Pearson's second London church, St Peter's, Vauxhall, Lambeth (1860–64), was immediately noticed for its brick vaulting: this was a constructional novelty, executed as cheaply as a conventional timber roof. The church's final cost of about £8000 was only two-thirds of the cost of Holy Trinity, Bessborough Gardens, and of other similar churches then being built. Pearson's application of the classical Golden Section (about 1: 1.6) in this Gothic design, notably in the proportion of the width and height of the nave and chancel, remained unnoticed. The interior, lit by large clerestory windows, and vaulted in brick with stone ribs and arches, is truly monumental; a tall steeple and much of the proposed window tracery and rich carving were omitted to reduce costs, leaving a spare design, all the more effective for its strong massing and serene spaces. Beside the church a parsonage, an orphanage, and schools complete an impressive group of Gothic buildings, at once picturesque and original in their treatment.

With these London works adding to his laurels, Pearson's career steadily expanded: in the East Riding of Yorkshire he sensitively restored the Norman churches at Kirkburn and Garton in the Wolds and also Riccall church; in the North Riding, the ornate Christ Church at Appleton-le-Moors follows the design for Vauxhall on a small scale, but with a timber roof. Here he again provided a vicarage and school. His friendship with the Raikes family brought him a commission for a church, parsonage, and schools at Freeland in Oxfordshire, and this was followed by a church in 1865–8 and a school at Sutton Veny in Wiltshire, which show a more serene attitude to decoration, with less of the hectic vigour that characterized his previous decade.

Although registered as an architect with the newly founded Institute of British Architects in 1834, it was only in 1860 that Pearson was elected fellow of the now Royal Institute of British Architects, and within two years he started to play an active part as a member of its committees. At this time he met Jemima Christian (1829–1865), who had been brought up on the Isle of Man, the daughter of Henry Curwen Christian, merchant. She was related to two architects: Joseph Henry Christian (1832–1906) was her brother; Ewan Christian (1814–1895) was a cousin. They were married on 5 June 1862. Their only child, Frank Loughborough Pearson, was born on 14 January 1864. On 23 March 1865 Jemima died of typhoid fever. The young Frank was brought up on the Isle of Man with an aunt and educated at Winchester College before entering his father's office as an assistant.

While numerous restorations and other works followed in the 1860s, Pearson's first appointment as architect to a cathedral fabric came in 1870 with Lincoln. He restored the north transept vault and strengthened the south-west tower, works that left the cathedral looking hardly touched by what was increasingly seen elsewhere as the heavy hand of the Victorian restorer. Several more cathedrals came under his control: Bristol, Canterbury, Chichester, Exeter, Gloucester, Peterborough, Rochester, and also Westminster Abbey.

In 1870 Pearson designed the church of St Augustine's at Kilburn, which may claim to be his masterpiece. This is a wonderful amalgam of Gothic forms taken from all round Europe: a continuous nave and chancel are surrounded by aisles with a gallery set over them that supports internal buttressing, as found in Albi Cathedral, all lit by tall clerestory windows; beyond the aisles and galleries are mysterious transeptal spaces, the southern one opening into a morning chapel. Every part is linked by a great, uniting quadripartite rib-vault that adds a rationalizing element to the complex interior. Tall turrets and a magnificent steeple, inspired by examples in Normandy, are a prominent landmark.

The Kilburn church was acclaimed. Pearson's career came into late bloom with a great series of monumental town churches begun during the next dozen years: St John's, Red Lion Square, Holborn (dem.); St Michael's, Croydon; St John's, Upper Norwood, Croydon; St George's, Cullercoats, Northumberland; St Alban's, Bordesley, Birmingham; St Stephen's, Bournemouth; St Agnes's, Sefton Park, Liverpool; and St Michael's, Headingley, Leeds. These were mostly of brick with vaulted interiors, and several of them exploit the Golden Section in their proportions. Their lofty, plain naves and chancels are often entered by way of small narthexes, incorporating baptisteries, and contrast with small, intricately designed side chapels, themselves also vaulted and treated like tiny churches in their own right. Few of their proposed towers and spires were completed: enthusiasm and funds for church building were beginning to wane towards the end of the nineteenth century.

The earlier of these churches led to Pearson's being chosen in 1878 to design a new cathedral for the refounded see of Cornwall at Truro. Here, Pearson elected to retain the south aisle of the decayed medieval parish church as a link with the past and to serve parochial needs. This determined the layout of his cathedral and the rhythm of the bays of its choir, which rises dramatically beside it. The cathedral continues westwards as an idealized version of Lincoln augmented by many of the features developed after the tour of Normandy and now to be seen in the new town churches. Truro has the great advantage of a central tower and spire and a pair of similar west towers and spires, which dominate the city, rising above the houses at the bottom of the valley. Inside, the proportions of the Golden Section in the nave add a calm note before the vistas of columns and partly hidden spaces of the choir and the old church aisle. All these are vaulted, with quadripartite ribs to the east and sexpartite ribs to the nave, and, at a low level, an octagonal baptistery is linked into the vaulting system with a star vault of its own. The cathedral was begun in 1880, with the completed eastern parts being consecrated in 1887, the nave and crossing tower rising in 1897–1903, and the west towers being finished in 1910 under Frank Pearson's direction. The cathedral was criticized for not being Cornish enough, despite the use of local and not entirely suitable granite in its construction; it was thought too French and, with more justification, too conservative and lacking the originality of Pearson's town churches. Yet, like Sir Christopher Wren, the last architect before him to design an English cathedral, Pearson was bound to follow the desires of the church, and the church was well satisfied. Largely in recognition of this work, Pearson was presented with the royal gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1880. He also became a Royal Academician, having been an associate since 1874.

Pearson began a design for a new cathedral for Liverpool, which he abandoned on the grounds of ill health, and another for Brisbane, Queensland, which he completed in 1887–9 and then adapted for a new site shortly before his death. This again was entirely vaulted and had central and west towers; moreover, it had more of the originality found in his town churches, and made telling use of Spanish Gothic models, as these were appropriate to Brisbane's hot climate. Pearson's son Frank further modified and simplified the design before work started in 1901 on the east parts; these were finished in 1910, and the nave and aisles, started in 1955, are now largely finished, leaving just the west end to be completed.

These great ecclesiastical works overshadow Pearson's later houses, a varied group, ranging from the small, traditionally styled Roundwyck House at Kirdford, Sussex, Crowton vicarage (dem.) in Cheshire, and Whitwell parsonage in Derbyshire, to the Jacobean of the larger Lechlade Manor House, Berkshire, and the French Renaissance of Westwood House (dem.), Sydenham, London. In the 1890s he worked for William Waldorf Astor, designing a luxurious estate office in Tudor Gothic at Temple Place, Westminster.

All the while Pearson was increasingly involved in controversy surrounding his restorations. While his rebuilding of the north transept front of Westminster Abbey might have been more sympathetic to its former appearance, his urgent reconstruction of Peterborough's central tower, threatened with imminent collapse, was an unavoidably desperate remedy. The repair of Peterborough's west front in the last few years of his life caused bitter controversy, mainly through the intemperate objections of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, founded by William Morris in 1878, and the vociferous rejoinders of his supporters. Pearson avoided the clamour, but was branded a destroyer. Yet his work can now be seen as thoroughly competent. Unfortunately the problem of providing for continuing use—or even changes in use—while preserving the archaeological and historical record of a building, could not always be resolved, and his was the first generation to face this dilemma. His reputation suffered, despite the fertility of his art.

Advancing years reduced Pearson's output of new designs but not its quality. While his earlier works reached completion, he designed new churches at Hove in Sussex, Thurstaston in Cheshire, Friern Barnet in Middlesex, Port Talbot in Glamorgan, and Darlington, as well as the Catholic Apostolic Church in Paddington, a cemetery chapel at Ta Braxia, Malta, and convent chapels at Wantage, Berkshire, and Woking, Surrey. The latter was his last design, completed shortly before his death, and executed by his son, Frank. Several of these last works have early Christian elements in their design, influenced by a visit to Italy in 1874 and an increasingly liberal attitude to both style and the place of Gothic in a wider appreciation of medieval architecture. Nevertheless, the old intensity remained, together with a feeling for calm, contrasting spaces.

Pearson was short and stocky in stature. Two portraits in oil, by W. W. Ouless RA (1889; in the possession of the family) and by John Pettie RA (c.1880; Aberdeen Art Gallery), show his genial character and gentle, expressive eyes, smiling above a full beard and moustache. Sociable but modest, he never made his views public. His interests were few beyond architecture, to which he devoted great industry. Of over 250 major works, a third were new churches and nearly a half were restorations. Of his assistants, only W. D. Caröe achieved eminence. Pearson died at his home, 13 Mansfield Street, Marylebone, London, on 11 December 1897, and was buried in Westminster Abbey on 16 December. His son inherited his fortune of over £53,000 as well as his practice. He completed many of his father's works before his own retirement and death on 8 October 1947.

Pearson never gained a reputation for innovation or for the strenuous promotion of his own architectural principles. These were based on a conservative tradition, but they also married classical precepts of symmetry, proportion, and order with the structural methods of Gothic; above all he saw in Gothic its potential for picturesque sublimity. Through all the developing phases of the Gothic revival he managed to remain a leader. His works may sometimes seem a trifle cold, but they reveal a consistent architectural vision, and a rare capacity for synthesis and integration.


  • A. P. Quiney, John Loughborough Pearson (1979) [incl. catalogue of works]
  • J. Lever, ed., Catalogue of the drawings collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects: O–R (1976)
  • A. P. Quiney, ‘The church of St Augustine and its builders’, Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society, new ser., 36 (1992), 1–12
  • J. E. Newberry, ‘The work of John L. Pearson’, ArchR, 1 (1896–7), 1–11, 69–82
  • RIBA Journal, 5 (1897–8), 113–21
  • W. C. Monkhouse, Pall Mall Magazine, 15 (1898), 92–110
  • d. cert.
  • A. P. Quiney, ‘The door marked “Pull”: J. L. Pearson and his first clients in the East Riding of Yorkshire’, Architectural History, 41 (1998), 208–19
  • census returns, 1841, 1851, TNA: PRO, HO 107

  • family bible
  • The Times (13 Dec 1897)
  • M. Tonkin, ‘William and John Pearson, some mysteries solved’, Old Water-Colour Society's Club, 58 (1983), 27–40
  • The Times (17 Dec 1897)
  • Church Times (21 Nov 1997)
  • private information (2010) [P. C. W. Taylor]


  • English Heritage, Swindon, National Monuments Record, family MSS
  • RIBA, drawings collection
  • Truro Cathedral, archives
  • N. Yorks. CRO, corresp. relating to Clervaux Hall
  • Norfolk RO, reports, corresp., and notes relating to restoration of Norwich Cathedral


  • J. Pettie, oils, 1880–84, Aberdeen Art Gallery
  • W. W. Ouless, oils, 1889, priv. coll.; repro. in Quiney, John Loughborough Pearson [see illus.]
  • W. W. Ouless, oils, 1889, NPG
  • A. Lewis, carte-de-visite, NPG
  • R. W. Robinson, photograph, NPG; repro. in Members and associates of the Royal Academy of Arts (1891)
  • photograph, repro. in The Graphic (9 May 1874)
  • statue, Truro Cathedral
  • woodcut, NPG

Wealth at Death

£53,487 19s. 10d.: probate, 17 Jan 1898, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Architectural Review