OPINION: Architect George Skipper's work stands out in modern times

George Skipper Cromer

Elegance and style on Skip’s doorstep in Cromer. Designed by his famous namesake, architect George Skipper, St Mary’s House stands on the corner of the road where’s he’s lived for over 30 years - Credit: Richard Barnes

“Are you any relation?” is an automatic inquiry sparked every time the hallowed name of prolific architect George Skipper crops up in my roles as Norfolk patriot and homely scribe.

I force myself to be honest and admit no direct links have been unearthed despite my father’s name of Victor George Skipper and my eldest brother christened Maurice George Skipper.

Dad was widely known as “Vic”. Maurice, still going strong on the Toftwood beat, became “Digger “as far back as I can remember. Both were steeped in agricultural ways, most notably on dairy duties. Neither admitted to me any artistic ambitions beyond drawing the plough.

All this family banter demanded another hearing when I received a sumptuous volume devoted to the life and works of George Skipper (1856 – 1948) by Richard Barnes, an author I first encountered over 30 years ago when he booked in for a chat on BBC Radio Norfolk.

Like many admirers, he is anxious to introduce this East Dereham-born genius to a far wider audience,-especially in London and to members of the Royal Institute of British Architects. “I try to get the feeling of the man and his work. There was little known about him beforehand and no links to his creations in Somerset and London”.

Perhaps one of the reasons why it has taken until now for the complete story to be aired is the sheer size and quality of such a task. Skipper did so much so well for so long in so many places it would be easy to fill several books featuring one or two blessed locations at a time.

There must also be strong suspicions that generations of architects, planners and builders operating since Skipper’s glorious skyline adventures in city, town and country find inevitable comparisons far too odious for comfort.

The other gem is St Benet’s, just over the way in Vicarage Road

The other gem is St Benet’s, just over the way in Vicarage Road - Credit: Richard Barnes

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Deep blushes of embarrassment, especially over soulless high-rise blocks during the “Brutalist” period of the 1950s and 60s, should now move on to sprawling lookalike estates and a myriad of other ugly urban excesses spreading insidiously across Skipper’s native patch.

I am fortunate to find examples of his elegance and style on my Cromer doorstep. St Mary’s House, which until recently saw service as local health authority offices, stands proudly at the busy end of the road where we installed our family seat 33 years ago.

Just over the way in Vicarage Road, I can stand and admire St Benet’s, a Grade II listed building, and others bearing his attractive stamp. A gentle stroll in and around town reveals plenty more evidence of Skipper’s talents, including Halsey House, now a British Legion care home, Cromer Town Hall and the Hotel de Paris, lording it over pier and promenade since the 1890s.

Skipper also inspired building of the Grand and Metropole as Cromer’s tourism ambitions pushed on and designed or became connected with work on four other hotels – Imperial, Sandcliff, Cliftonville and Lyndhurst.

He made more proudly local marks on Hunstanton, Lowestoft, Oulton Broad, Gorleston, Aylsham, Dereham, Fakenham, Whinburgh, Sandringham and the village green in Heydon where he designed the Queen Victoria Golden Jubilee brick built well-house, unveiled in 1887.

Norwich masterpieces include the flamboyant Royal Arcade with its touch of the Arabian Nights and the grandeur of the Norwich Union Life Office with its superb marble hall and boardroom.

Out in the Norfolk countryside at Guist, Skipper’s vision, enacted by a team of artists and artisans, transformed Sennowe Park with a new front to the house and fresh looks for all supporting acts – gates and lodges, bridge boathouse, belfry and pavilion.

Remarkably, he found time and scope for plenty of challenges way beyond his Norfolk background, starting with a hospital in Somerset when he was only 23. As he revived his career in the early 1920s, he designed council houses and an entire village for the new Kent coalfield.

He won the prize to rebuild an entire street in London’s Mayfair. Sadly, outbreak of the Second World War prevented completion, but by that time Skipper’s originality and sheer exuberance had lit up so many lucky places.

This sumptuously-illustrated tour-de-force of a tribute – one might dub it a Barnes-stormer - deserves to elevate an outstanding son of Norfolk to a level of national importance. His daring designs and breadth of building bravado set him apart from most of the others.

The timely volume from Frontier Publishing is on sale in local bookshops at £19.50.

Skip's Aside: One of the most unlikely chapters in the history of Norfolk dialect writing unfolded in the 1860s, starring a village clergyman and an exiled member of the Bonaparte family.

The Rev. Edward Gillett was caring for his flock in the small parish of Runham, a few miles from Great Yarmouth, when he received his well-deserved reward for setting The Song of Solomon to a distinctive new tune.

He turned the Authorised Version of this poetic book of the Bible into the Norfolk tongue, his work being printed along with translation of 23 other counties at the expense of Prince Louis-Lucien Bonaparte.

The Song o’ Solomun has to be voted a relatively successful venture despite Gillett’s admission he was not acquainted with any suitable phonetic spelling with which to indicate the “Norfolk drant”. He met the exiled prince after graduating from Emanuel College, Cambridge, and becoming Vicar of Shipmeadow, near Beccles.

After an early failed marriage to a French nobleman, Princess Caroline Murat, granddaughter of Napoleon’s general, wed a Suffolk squire, John Garden of Redisham Hall. There’s a magnificent monument to her in Ringsfield churchyard.

It seems likely Prince Louis visited his cousin at Redisham, met neighbours from surrounding villages and enjoyed the Gillett rendition of the Song o’ Solomun. By the time Edward became incumbent at Runham, the prince’s ambitious dialect publishing project was in full swing. It came to fruition in 1862 with 250 copies of the Norfolk version rolling off the presses.

Born in 1819 at Halvergate, Edward married in 1862-but died only six years later, leaving three little boys and a daughter yet to be born. His wife died three years after that.

Louis-Lucien Bonaparte, third son of Napoleon’s brother Lucien Bonaparte, was born in England in 1813, his family being interned temporarily after capture by the British en route for America.

A philologist and politician, he spent his youth in Italy and didn’t set foot in France until 1848, serving two brief terms in the Assembly before moving to London, where he spent most of the remainder of his life.

He set himself the goal of building the finest collection of books in the world on historical linguistics. A collection of nearly 19,000 items suggested he gave it a good go!

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