This site is dedicated to Sir Walter Tapper, and the fabulous architecture that he left us.


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David Dolan and Leigh O'Brien

Life and Work of Sir Walter Tapper

Tapper’s architectural career can be broadly cast in three phases: his early years working for Gothic Revival architects Bodley and Garner; his main church-building period from the turn of the century up to the First World War; and his later career when he mainly worked on restoration, country houses, and held consulting positions with various church and commercial bodies. From humble rural beginnings, Walter Tapper eventually rose to the top of his profession, serving as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects 1927-29. He was also appointed Surveyor to the Fabric of Westminster Abbey in 1928, where his restoration of royal chapels led to his knighthood (KCVO) two months before his death in 1935. He was also elected a full Academician (RA) in his last year, indicative of the somewhat belated appreciation of his work.

A brief biographical sketch is in order here, to identify the private and professional influences over the work of Tapper, who was born in Bovey Tracey, Devon in 1861. As the son of a mason3 he grew up with an understanding of the craftsmanship and technical skills for building. Tapper’s youth was the peak of influence of the ideas of John Ruskin, art critic and architectural commentator, who emphasised the importance of craftsmanship and materials and ‘the principle of confession’ in architecture: designing and building honestly by showing things for what they really are, eschewing any kind of fakery.4 Throughout his working life, even into his seventies, Tapper would climb on high roofs and scaffolds to inspect the detail of workmanship, and bestow generous praise on good craftsmen.5

Tapper was privately educated6 but little more is known of his family background or early experiences. At the age of thirteen he was articled to architect Joseph William Rowell of Rowell and Sons, Newton Abbot, Devon.7 Both of Tapper’s parents were dead by the time he was 218 and moved to London where he soon joined the office of Gothic Revival architects G. F. Bodley and Thomas Garner.9

In September 1886 Tapper married Katherine Lydia Jotcham, the youngest daughter of an actuary, who worked as an assistant in the showroom of church furnishers Watts & Co. where Walter was a frequent visitor. Bodley and Garner were founders of Watts & Co., along with fellow gothic revivalist George Gilbert Scott, and used them exclusively to furnish their churches. Such employment was unusual for a woman of her class at that time, and is suggestive of artistic interests. Katherine was apparently pregnant at the time of the wedding, as their son Michael was born just a few months afterwards. Their daughter, Kathleen, was born in 1889.

Tapper’s personal and domestic situation, specifically marriage and fatherhood in his mid twenties, is crucial to understanding his career. Professional men usually deferred marriage until they were in their thirties or even forties when their career was established. With a young family to support, Tapper could not lightly take the financial risk of going into business on his own, and he stayed with Bodley and Garner for eighteen years, becoming Chief Assistant and later Manager.10

According to a staff member at Watts and Co., Tapper later became a director of that company. He insisted on fabrics from Watts and Co. for the Guildford Grammar Chapel and many of his other buildings. Katherine Tapper maintained contact with Watts and Co., visiting the showroom regularly and advising her husband on church furnishings.11 When he eventually set up his own practice, Tapper operated from a garden studio at home. He never employed more than four draughtsmen, and only took on as much work as he could design himself.

After Katherine’s sudden death in 1932, Walter (then 71) was professionally at a loss and did little more work. He could not stay in the family home without her, and accommodation was found for him in Dean’s Yard, Westminster. He died there, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Michael Tapper (1886-1963) had qualified professionally (Associate, RIBA, 1911), and joined his father’s practice, which he continued after his parents died.

It seems unfair that Katherine did not live to share the recognition that came to Walter at the end of his career: by dying before he was knighted, she never became Lady Tapper. Among the Tapper papers in the RIBA archive are an anonymous published obituary which specifically refers to ‘the unalloyed happiness’ of his marriage and home life, and three letters of 1904-05 to Michael from the architect Philip Webb (1831-1915, designer of the Red House for William Morris) fondly recalling his visits to ‘the friendly Tappers’ --- ‘quiet kindly people’ who tolerated his excesses and pre-occupations.

In explaining his architectural philosophy, Tapper sometimes spoke about love. This was unusual for an architect of his generation, and may be seen as reflecting the persistence of Ruskin’s influence, but is also a statement of the integration of his personal and professional values. Tapper was deeply religious, believing in divine and human love as the supreme principle in life and art, and the conviction that this could be expressed in architecture. Tapper had so immersed himself in medieval architecture, and absorbed its principles, that he could design freely in that tradition which he loved and understood profoundly. He did not rely on formulae or rules, aiming to express love and beauty through creativity.

Tapper’s mature work was less a break from the Bodley and Garner style than an extreme and personal refinement of it. When he left them he was almost 40 and very experienced, particularly in the ecclesiastical work for which they were renowned. In his designs, Tapper applied ‘the same care and attention to detail which had characterised Bodley’s work’.12

George Bodley is noted within the history of the Gothic Revival for instigating a return to a more archaeological approach to style, partly in reaction to the eclecticism of high Victorian design.13 However, rather than the ‘Decorated’ style of the mid-thirteenth century preferred by those church-building pedants, the Ecclesiologists, Bodley turned to the previously ‘discredited’ Perpendicular style of the fourteenth century.14 This was the style Tapper used for the Guildford Grammar Chapel, decades later.

In 1903, Tapper was one of five finalists in the design competition for Liverpool Cathedral, which was won by Giles Gilbert Scott15 (son of George G. Scott). The architectural academic Charles Reilly wrote of Tapper’s design, that ‘everyone recognised (it) was only second to Sir Giles Scott’s in power and interest.’16 This achievement in a major competition must have boosted his confidence that he could succeed as a sole practitioner.

Tapper seemingly avoided the spotlight sought by many of his contemporaries.17 It is clear from his notes and photographic albums now in the RIBA Library in London, that his churches, the work he loved most and for which he is best remembered, were not the bulk of his work and income. He also did residential commissions, and had a lucrative arrangement with the Gas Light and Coke Company for its appliance showrooms which he designed in an Art Deco Moderne style. He was described as a quiet, unassuming man who only came to prominence amongst his peers when they elected him President of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1927.18 Tapper was a perfectionist, less concerned with gaining numerous commissions, than with executing designs honestly and with an emphasis on the traditions of architecture. His works are often admired for their elegant simplicity, and one of his main aims in church design was spaciousness.

Tapper associated beauty with love and goodness, and sought to avoid ‘ugliness’ which in the discourse of Aestheticism was considered synonymous with evil. This is discernable in his discussions regarding the Guildford chapel, expressing disgust with the ‘ugly’ bricks produced in Western Australia, and allowing their use only where they could be covered by honey-coloured Donnybrook stone on the outside or plasterwork on the interior. In reference to any future school buildings, he suggested the ‘ugly’ bricks would save on costs but had to be covered with plaster.

Tapper was noted as an ‘enthusiastic sketcher and measurer of old buildings’19, and regularly travelled in Europe where he studied and drew the local architecture. His reverence for the architecture of the past, often remarked on by his peers, meant he was also considered rather old-fashioned20 as well as ‘expensive’. Indeed, in the early twentieth century the Gothic Revival had virtually run its course and was being eclipsed by new styles, although the roots of these were in the Revival itself.

Tapper’s main church-building period, from the turn of the century until the First World War, saw a general reduction in expenditure on ecclesiastical architecture in England, and he sometimes worked in brick.21 During this time, Tapper produced at least eight church designs, including the Guildford chapel. However, a number of these were not fully completed or were compromised in construction to save money. This not uncommon scenario was frustrating for the architect, as last-minute compromises inevitably betrayed or diluted the original concept.

The Guildford chapel project presented a rare opportunity for Tapper to create a fine ecclesiastical building without the restrictions he sometimes experienced elsewhere. The donor had a seemingly open cheque-book; and Tapper found the client, Headmaster Percy Henn, to be ‘a man after his own heart’.22

3 R Nicholls, 'The forgotten 'cathedral' of Southend-on-Sea' (n.d.). Copy of a magazine article held in Guildford Grammar School Archives, source unknown. [John Whitworth - thought to be Essex Countryside - September 1979 - copy sought]
4 M W Brooks, John Ruskin and Victorian Architecture, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), chapter V.
5 ‘Tapper Obituary’, Birmingham Gazette (24 September 1935).
6 British Architectural Library and Royal Institute of British Architects, Directory of British Architects 1834-1900 (London: Royal Institute of British Architects, n.d.), p. 897.
7 Ibid; A S Gray, Edwardian Architecture: A Biographical Dictionary (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co, 1985), p. 345.
8 Nicholls, 'The forgotten 'cathedral' of Southend-on-Sea'.
9 Directory of British Architects 1834-1900, p. 897. Tapper was an assistant to Basil Champneys for a short period when he first came to London.
10 Ibid; Gray, Edwardian Architecture, p. 345.
11 D Gazeley (2003), personal communication, 11 August.
12 Gray, Edwardian Architecture, p. 345.
13 Brooks, John Ruskin and Victorian Architecture, p. 173.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid., pp. 319-320.
16 C H Reilly, Representative Architects of the Present Day (Freeport: Books for Libraries Press Inc., 1967, first publ. 1931), p. 164.
17 Ibid., p. 158. Tapper and his family had moved to 10 Melina Place, St John’s Wood.
18 Ibid.
19 'Obituary: Sir Walter Tapper, R.A.', The Times, (23 September 1935).
20 Ibid. After his death in 1935, a Times obituary pointedly referred to a speech in which Tapper bemoaned mass production and the resultant loss of the ‘subtleties of the handicrafts’, and indicated that Tapper was out of step with the exciting changes occurring as part of architecture’s foray into the modern
21 For example, the Church of the Annunciation, Bryanston Street, London.
22 Letter, Tapper to Henn , (22 June 1914), Henn Papers, Guildford Grammar School, 194/1990-7. (All correspondence referenced hereafter is from this source).

Sir Walter Tapper ~ Sir Walter J. Tapper ~ Gothic Revivalist Architect ~ St Erkenwald, Southend-on-Sea ~ Church of the Annunciation, Bryanston Street ~ Church of the Ascension, Malvern Link ~ Guildford Grammar School Chapel