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Who was the architect of the Bluecoat?

The Bluecoat is the oldest building in central Liverpool, dating from the early 18th century. Also Britain’s oldest arts centre, it was built as a charity school in the Queen Anne style. The award-winning refurbishment of this Grade One listed building for Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture in 2008 was by Rotterdam-based practice, Biq Architecten. But who was the architect of the original building? Help us find out who designed this architectural gem, in time for our 300th birthday celebrations in 2017.


Little is known of local architects at the time, however the design of the Bluecoat is so confident architecturally that it is unlikely to have been designed by a local mason-builder. There are three contenders, all having some claim to the title:


Thomas Ripley (c1683-1758)

The architect most likely to be present in relevant spheres of influence and coincidence in the second decade of the 18th century, Ripley had connections to Liverpool MP, Sir Thomas Johnson, a Blue Coat school Trustee and likely to have been involved in the procurement of the building. There are some stylistic similarities between Liverpool’s new Customs House, which Ripley was commissioned to design, and the Bluecoat, however the latter design is more confident and satisfying and will most likely have been completed by 1715, which pre-dates Ripley’s documented involvement with Liverpool.


Thomas Steers (c1670-1750)

Steers appears to be a strong candidate, being based in Liverpool at the time as the city’s dock engineer (he designed the first wet dock). He’d lived and worked in Holland and London and seen works by Wren and other baroque designers. Commentators have remarked on the Bluecoat’s ‘Wrenish’ style. The school’s account book shows Steer’s was paid by the Trustees during the building’s construction, though the reference is not specific and could have been for procuring specific construction items (Steers owned a foundry in Liverpool).


Henry Sephton (1686-1756)

A regionally significant architect, Sephton’s buildings include the house of Ince Blundell (1720), closest to the Bluecoat (1717) in date, but a more self conscious and serious architectural study that doesn’t employ the Bluecoat’s same round-arched windows, prominent keystones and decoration. Sephton also designed the east wing of Knowsley Hall (1731), which like the Bluecoat was illustrated by the same artist, J. Mollineux. We know Sephton was paid £10 for plans for St George’s (1720), which though not used, indicates he was closely involved with early 18th century Liverpool developments.


The Bluecoat was somewhat old-fashioned when built, but it was common for charity establishments to be designed in a conservative style. However it is also inventive, its design full of life and energy, and could be an early work of a young designer not at the forefront of the latest architectural thinking. Can you shed some light on this fascinating mystery?


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  • Mar 01, 2013
  • John Hinchliffe

It is intriguing that we do not know the architect of Liverpool's oldest surviving building and one of the city's finest buildings.

Stanley Harris produced a paper in Vol. 109 of the Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire in 1957. It's entitled: "The Old Blue Coat Hospital, Liverpool: Was it designed by Thomas Ripley?" The title (and the content) implies that Harris thought that Ripley was the architect but he provides little compelling evidence. He even states that " the 18th C it was not unusual for architects to prepare designs and working instructions for charity buildings without charging fees. John Wood of Bath (architect of Liverpool Town Hall) and James Gibbs (architect of Radcliffe Library, Oxford)were both benefactors in this way." Could it therefore have been designed by Wood or Gibbs?

In a letter of 1926, Professor Charles Reilly suggested that on stylistic grounds, it might even have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren himself!

Maybe we shall never know the architect but if anyone has any evidence, or even other hunches, I'm sure that we's all love to see it.


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