Nottingham's best-known architect, 1841 - 1928

"...a provincial goth..." - Ken Brand

It's not often that I express admiration for architects; I tend to view them either as a necessary evil, or like Prince Charles, see them as creating "monstrous carbuncles" in our cities. Watson Fothergill is, for me, an exception, and my appreciation and respect for his works border on hero worship. Anyone who has spent any time in and around Nottingham has doubtless seen his buildings, which do stand out from the humdrum, with a unique and distinctive style.

Walk the environs of Nottingham Castle, The Park Estate, the city centre or Mapperley and you will see his designs, notable by the hefty timber eaves, Gothic towers and turrets, as well as his idiosyncratic approach to the use of brickwork. To some they are hideous, to me they are the mark of a man of genius.

A Little History

He was born in Mansfield on 12 July 1841, to Robert Watson and Mary Ann Fothergill. At birth he was named Fothergill Watson, though he was to change his name in 1892, to preserve his mother's name.¹ Sent to a boarding school in Clapham at the age of nine, he was to return to Nottingham soon after his father's demise in 1852. The family was well provided for, and he had something of a life of privilege, living in a new and prosperous area of Nottingham in a house large enough to require servants to maintain it.

He left school in 1856 at the age of fifteen, to study with one Frederick Jackson, a prominent local architect and surveyor. At this time, Jackson was engaged in a project to map the whole of the rapidly-growing city Nottingham and its surroundings. As his pupil, Watson was involved in the collection of materials and data on old and new architecture and building methods. As time went on, he was asked to venture further afield, and visited many well-known and prominent cities and their buildings, where he refined not just his understanding of architecture, but of art. He later became a keen collector of paintings and sculpture.

In 1860, he completed his articles , graduating as a qualified architect shortly before his mother's death. After spending eighteen months working for Isaac Gilbert, another local architect, he worked and traveled extensively, not just in the United Kingdom, but also into continental Europe, being particularly attracted to Paris. After this brief tour he returned to Nottingham to begin his career working alongside Gilbert. They must have been close, for Watson stayed in the Gilbert home for around eighteen months until he met his future wife, Anne Hage.

He and Anne married in 1867, honeymooned in Paris (of course!) and moved into what had once been his father's house. In time, he fathered an impressive seven children, five girls and two boys. Anne died in 1922, and he died two years after a serious fall at home, in 1926. He was interred in the Church Cemetery on Mansfield Road, just outside the city he put on the architectural map.

Architectural Legacy

Whilst he did design some more pedestrian buildings, he is best known for his elaborations on the Gothic style, but his buildings incorporated ideas and elements from many styles. He was initially working more from a platform of Old English Revival, as may be seen in his fondness for Tudor-style timbering, big and bold bay windows. From his early days, this is also evident from his creative brickwork designs. His use of bricks evolved over time, although one common element is his use of coloured "engineering" bricks and complex designs using chamfered brick and stone.

As time passed, his designs became even more daring and visually striking. He was keen on the creation of decorative chimneys and used stripes of alternating brick colours to draw attention to them. His designs predated cavity wall construction, which called for two internally-braced skins of brick with a gap for insulation; hence he was free to use more elaborate brick bonding, and one of his trademarks was two courses of stretchers (long edges visible) and one of headers (ends visible). This, with his use of colour, made his buildings stand out from their neighbours.

As time passed, he was responsible for designing houses, pubs, offices, churches and warehouses. The larger the building, the more elaborate his designs. Slowly he began to include turrets and towers, elaborate balustrades, decorative gargoyles, circular and star-shaped inset windows. Not content with exteriors, he went to town on the insides - a classic example being the former head offices of the Nottingham and Notts Bank on Thurland Street.

The Bank building, constructed in 1882, is a classic Fothergill creation. Imposing and impressive in its detail, it is hard for me to say which I preferred more, the frontage or the interior. The outside is classically Fothergill, built largely of Darley Dale stone with fabulous inset masonry windows, upper timbering and a delightful tower surrounded by ancillary turrets. Inside, marble and masonry detail draws the eye up into the tower itself. This was not just an architect's fancy, it was part of an elaborate ventilation system, but had the desired effect of creating awe in the customer. Here was a solid bank, reliable if terrifying in its power. To show his sense of humour, tucked up in the interior is a stone monkey warning of the mortgage's control over the borrower. Having "a monkey on one's back" is not a good thing.

That is just one of many of his surviving city-centre buildings; there are a dozen within a ten-minute walk of Slab Square, each unique, each inspiring, each surprising.

Decline, Fall and Development

Sadly, many of his buildings are no more. The bombings of WWII thankfully took none, but neglect, accident and the 1960s fever for new development and "modern" buildings, did result in some tragic casualties.

His original design for the Nottingham Albert Hall (built in 1876, his first major commission) stood for just thirty years before being burned down. The Black Boy Hotel, rebuilt on the site of the original hotel between 1887 and 1888, was torn down in the '60s and replaced by a hideously soulless Littlewoods store, still a concrete eyesore when I last visited. Gone are the dark, wooden-gabled tower, the Germanic. He later extended and added to the hotel in 1897. With its massive central tower with dark wooden gables and a Bavarian balcony with a dark wood balustrade, it was a major landmark in Nottingham city centre until its demolition in the late 1960s.

Even his former family home did not survive the rabid monster that was modern development. In 1872 he built a striking (and rather large) house to accommodate his growing family. With its ornate, towering chimneys, its fine masonry window-tracery and towers, it stood for nearly a century before succumbing to neglect and demolition. There's a featureless block of maisonettes there now, which despite being named "Fothergill Court", does no justice at all to his genius.

The Man Himself

What can I say? He was a powerhouse. He loved all the arts, was a collector of paintings and sculpture, which he gleaned as he traveled. He was a moderate man, who insisted on the saying of grace before each meal. He loved cricket, and would often time visits to London to attend important matches.

Family was important to him, too. If the evidence of his seven children were not enough, he was a keen family historian, taking the mantle of keeping the family records and researching its genealogy. He was keen on education, ensuring at least that his sons were given a good start. One was sent to Harrow, the other to Repton. Ken Brand does say of him, however, that he "appears not to have been so concerned about the education of his daughters". This was not too surprising, given the Victorian approach to the academic development of young women.

It has to be said that he was something of a stickler. He demanded punctuality, even to the half-minute. He was aloof, too, requiring to be addressed indirectly, most especially by any he considered beneath his station. This even extended to the family to some respect - according to his grand-daughter, if wife wished to know if he wanted another serving at table, she addressed him through a maid.

But the man himself does not fascinate me the way his buildings do. I would often go out to view them, and was continually delighted to spot a new feature or detail in his real and lasting monument. It would pleasure me greatly to see the distinctive Gothic lettering indicating the date, and often, his name. If ever you are in Nottingham, set aside an afternoon and explore the delights as I have done. He will not disappoint.

¹ Rather like John Thomas Cholmondeley-Minge

Images of his work
"Watson Fothergill" Ken Brand ISBN 0950486191
Much local knowledge and exploration

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