The Dilettante Society on Watson Fothergill

22 October 16 words: The Dilettante Society
"The enchanting additions Fothergill made to our cityscape were the fruits of a curious mind captivated by beauty and dedicated to cultivating his aesthetic"
alt text
illustration: Christine Dilks

Despite some poor judgments on the part of city planners and developers along the way, Nottingham is lucky to retain much historical charm within its buildings. Few have made such a lasting impact on the character of Nottingham than local architect extraordinaire, Watson Fothergill, and his unique interpretation of the Victorian gothic style.

You will no doubt have noticed Fothergill’s flourishes of design throughout Nottingham, as there are many surviving buildings that set our city apart. His signature style is distinctly decorative – rich red, brick striped with blue, high arches and roofs pitching in every which direction. The towers, turrets and gargoyles are a welcome reminiscence of childhood fantasy and, indeed, his curious style certainly caught our gaze from the top deck bus windows when us Dilettantes were young.

But what of the man himself? Such a great contribution to the Victorian city of Nottingham by a single vision could only have been the result of someone with true passion for beauty, an acute eye for detail and a strong desire to curate the visual landscape of our city.

Born in nearby Mansfield in 1841 to a wealthy lace manufacturer and his wife, curiously, Watson Fothergill was baptised and spent the majority of his life as Fothergill Watson. However, a strong interest in his maternal family lineage would lead him to switch the names around in an effort to preserve the Fothergill name.   

His introduction to the world of architecture and design came early when he was sent to boarding school in Clapham Park, where he was not only privy to the extravagance of the London landscape, but also present during the cusp of the industrial revolution. He was lucky enough to pay many a visit to the splendid Great Exhibition of 1851, which showcased international achievements in design, industry and culture. Fothergill later reminisced about feeling inspired by, “the colossal sculpture there... the splendid fountains; all these dwell in my mind as wonders, and the whole display a magnificent dream.”

Returning to Nottingham upon the death of his father just three years later, he resumed his studies with private tutors and left education at the age of fifteen to apprentice with Frederick Jackson, architect and surveyor of St Peter’s Gate. Here, the young Mr Watson was able to acquaint himself with the necessary planning and building ideals – a substantial groundwork of skills which he would soon complement with a rich tapestry of aesthetic design and inspiration.

Aged seventeen, an opportune trip to the grandly gothic Lichfield Cathedral would make a huge impression on his style, further his zeal for the ideal architecture, and drive his commitment to mastery of his art. Despite having fallen from fashion, for Fothergill, gothic was the definitive architectural style and one he found endlessly inspiring, providing, as he described in his diary, an “inexhaustible mine of novelties.”

Qualified and eager, he soon set off back to the bright lights of London, immersing himself in “long and happy days in the International Exhibition at Kensington, that splendid gathering of wondrous things in science and beauteous things in art.” He frequented South Kensington library where he drew and studied, completing measured drawings of buildings in London with his burgeoning precision and attention to detail.

While he could doubtless have found work in any region of the country, in 1864, aged 23, he chose to return to Nottingham, setting up his own practice on Clinton Street. He married Anne Hage in 1867 and, although his family life was said to be a happy one, he was clearly engaged to his profession in equal degrees, going as far as to insist on a honeymoon to France to visit the Paris Exhibition.

The enchanting additions Fothergill made to our cityscape were the fruits of a curious mind captivated by beauty and dedicated to cultivating his aesthetic. In 1876 he wrote, “You must be acquainted with the best works of the best man or the best will never come out of yourself”, and acquaint himself he did.

Fothergill’s many travels to the architectural centres of both England and Europe enriched his knowledge as he gathered ideas and inspiration from other talented souls and imaginative masterpieces. During these visits, his diaries became littered with references of visits to cathedrals, galleries and exhibitions, often with detailed descriptions of favoured works, and page after page of notes on each town and city he passed through.

Fothergill adored art galleries and, as a natural consequence, had long since curated a personal collection of favoured pieces. Yet it was not until 1883 that this private passion really took hold, and he began to acquire what he considered “really good paintings”, frequenting the famed Christie’s auction rooms in London as a favourite pastime.

His diverse and expansive collection grew to include many fine examples of paintings, engravings, enamelwork, china and metalwork, including paintings by Rembrandt, pieces by Tiffany and works from locally born landscape painter, Richard Parkes Bonington. The latter he felt had not been sufficiently honored by his home town, and sought to redress this by bequeathing a statue commissioned at his own expense to the city.   

Quite the Victorian gentleman in all regards, despite his meticulous approach to work – going as far as to carry always a dentist’s mirror in order to inspect even the most inaccessible aspects of his designs – he appeared to be well liked by all who knew him. His humour evident through a pair of stone monkeys adorning the head office of the Nottingham bank on Thurland Street. In Victorian vernacular, monkey was a slang term for a mortgage – the burden of which likened to the colloquial ‘monkey on the back’. Given that at the time of construction the bank would have owed debts to the architect, the jibe being that even the bank itself was mortgaged in effect.

When Anne died in 1922, Fothergill was distraught, but accounts suggest that he fought his grief with an overriding cheerfulness and humour, taking pleasure in visiting the elderly and disabled during his last years. He passed away in 1928 at the ripe old age of 87. Although his sons did not survive to carry on the family name, it is sure to say that his legacy lives on in the Nottingham landscape.

While bureaucracy and bad design will always be something of a plague on the visual culture of a city, we only have to look a little further to find those who contribute their flair and imagination to improving the landscape. Keep looking, for among arduous advertisements and mundane modernism, Nottingham is rife with curious detail and historical clues, and the gifts bestowed by our artists can be celebrated and seen.

The Dilettante Society Meeting, The Chameleon Arts Cafe, Monday 17 October, 7.30pm, free. All welcome, the more the merrier.

The Dilettante Society on Facebook

Tell us what you think

You might like this too...

Nottingham Playhouse

You may also be interested in