Sir George Oatley: Architect of Bristol


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The name of Sir George Oatley (1863-1950) will always be synonymous with that of his Gothic masterpiece, the Wills Memorial Building for the University of Bristol. And yet the full career of Bristol’s most significant twentieth-century architect – and designer of the tower which challenges Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge as a city icon – is largely unknown today. Much of this can be attributed to Oatley’s modesty and strong dislike of publicity – he very reluctantly accepted a knighthood – but his never working for a London practice is a factor, and he was unlucky in his timing, with his career interrupted by two world wars. By some, Oatley was seen as having a limited outlook, but the ‘Gothic’ tag obscured an open-mindedness and sense of fitness for purpose which saw him working in a range of styles. This first biography is the result of ten years’ research, including the study of thousands of previously unexamined letters and drawings. It includes a full catalogue of works that greatly increases our knowledge of the many and varied buildings Oatley designed during his long career. Buildings discussed, in addition to the Wills Memorial Building of 1925, include Bristol Homeoepathic Hospital, the H H Wills Physics Laboratory and St Monica Home of Rest as well as many less familiar. Oatley’s work from the late nineteenth-century was carried out against the background of philanthropy by the great Bristol nonconformist families — the Frys, Robinsons and of course the Wills tobacco family, for whom he carried out many commissions. His arts-and-crafts houses bring to mind Charles Voysey, not least in the attention to detail; and he was actively involved in the social housing movement in Bristol, notably in the Shirehampton Garden Suburb. In essence, Oatley was a Bristol architect who practised quietly, conscientiously and successfully in the place of his birth, serving his clients and his God. The buildings he designed – houses, hospitals, banks, factories, offices, churches and chapels – and in particular those for its university, transformed the face of the city. Sarah Whittingham’s biography and wide-ranging and meticulously illustrated survey of Oatley’s work will enable a reassessment that will surely re-establish his reputation as one of the most important architects of his time. 270 x 210mm 440pp ISBN: 978-1-904573-92-2 Lavishly illustrated in full colour Hardback Price £49.75