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Liverpool Biennial 2018: Artists Showing at Bluecoat

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Who was the architect of the Bluecoat?

The Bluecoat is the oldest building in central Liverpool, dating from 1717. Now Britain’s oldest arts centre, it began life as a charity school, built 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 early 18th century building? Wouldn’t it be fantastic to find out who designed this architectural gem, in time for the 300th birthday celebrations of the building 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, although this is still a possibility, given that there is no architect named in the school’s account book from the period, where the names of suppliers of mortar, timber etc. are to be found amongst the financial transactions. Three contenders have however been named, all having some claim to the title of architect of the Bluecoat:

• Thomas Ripley (1682-1758)

The architect most likely to be present in relevant spheres of influence in the second decade of the 18th century, Ripley had connections to Liverpool MP, Sir Thomas Johnson, a Blue Coat school Trustee and potentially involved in the procurement of the building.

However, despite some stylistic similarities between the Bluecoat and Liverpool’s Customs House, which Ripley designed (as well as one on the Thames in London), the school’s design is more confident and satisfying and was also completed before Ripley’s documented involvement with Liverpool. Stanley Harris produced a paper in the Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (Vol. 109) in 1957 entitled ‘The Old Blue Coat Hospital, Liverpool: Was it designed by Thomas Ripley?’ yet his evidence remains unconvincing.

• Thomas Steers (1672-1750)

 Steers appears a strong candidate, being in Liverpool at the time working as the city’s dock engineer (he designed Old Dock, the world’s first wet dock, close to where the Bluecoat was erected a little later). He’d lived and worked in Holland and London and seen works by baroque architects including Wren. Commentators have remarked on the Bluecoat’s ‘Wrenish’ style. The school’s account book shows payments to Steers during the building’s construction, though the reference is not specific and could have been for procuring specific construction items (for instance Steers owned a local foundry).

• Henry Sephton (1686-1756)

 A regionally significant architect, Sephton’s buildings include the house of Ince Blundell (1720), closest in date to the Bluecoat (1717) but a more self conscious and serious architectural study that doesn’t employ the latter’s round-arched windows, prominent keystones and decoration.

 Sephton also designed the east wing of Knowsley Hall (1731) however, which has similarities to the Bluecoat and, like it, was illustrated in a painting by the artist, J. Mollineux. Sephton was paid £10 for plans for St George’s Church (1720), which though not used, indicates he was closely involved with early 18th century architectural developments in Liverpool.

 In Harris’s 1957 article on Ripley he notes,  "... in 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." John Hinchliffe,referencing this, asks if the building could perhaps have been designed by Wood or

Gibbs? He also points out that in a letter of 1926, Professor Charles Reilly, head of the School of Architecture at the University of Liverpool, suggested that on stylistic grounds, the Bluecoat might even have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren himself!

 The Bluecoat’s architectural style (Queen Anne) was somewhat old-fashioned when built (the start of the Georgian period), but it was common for charity establishments to be designed in a conservative style. However, the building is also inventive, its design full of life and energy, and could be the work of a young designer not in tune with the latest architectural thinking.

Can anyone shed some light on this fascinating mystery?

 

 

Tags:Heritage

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Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, Bluecoat showcases talent across visual art, music, dance, live art and literature. As the most ...

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