The Conway Library has just acquired the collection of photographs amassed by the architect and architectural historian John Bilson (1856-1943). Bilson’s seminal articles on early rib vaulting, especially the vaults of Durham Cathedral, and the emergence of gothic, make him one of the most important British architectural historians. Most of the photographs in the collection are fine nineteenth century classic views of major buildings, mainly medieval, and mainly in Britain and France. Outstanding among this group is a beautiful set of photographs of an ivy-clad and unrestored Rievaulx Abbey, taken in the 1860s by Frank Mason Good. Bilson’s architectural interests were not restricted to Britain and France: he acquired some fine photographs by John Edward Saché of Indian buildings, including the Taj Mahal surrounded by lush rose gardens. The collection reflects his friendships, too. Several photographs were taken by the distinguished French architectural historian, Camille Enlart, with whom Bilson visited French Cistercian abbeys, including Fontenay, which is now a World Heritage Site, but was then a working farm. Buildings by his own contemporaries, G.F. Bodley, T.E. Colcutt, who was his teacher, and John Oldrid Scott – especially his works at Gilling Castle – feature prominently. We have already been able to produce a basic hand-list for three-quarters of this collection, with the willing help of a work-placement student, Daniel Stark, and we hope to have the whole collection inventoried soon.

The surprise amongst them is an enchanting set of photographs taken on the annual charabanc trips of the Architectural Association Sketching Club. These expeditions were started by Edmund Sharpe (1808-1877) in the 1870s and they continued into the 1880s. Bilson’s studies at the Architectural Association coincided with the heyday of the expeditions. They were clearly extremely jolly. The members of the Sketching Club were well provisioned with drink, and rousing drinking songs were sung in the charabancs. The result was a large number of distinguished architectural historians behaving rather badly in country houses and churchyards. The photographs show them sporting some very silly hats, playing what appears to be charades, and generally striking architectural attitudes. At King’s Sutton in Northamptonshire, they pretend to shoot the photographer with their rolled up newspapers; at Ely Cathedral they scramble into niches on the Lady Chapel intended to hold sculptures of saints; and in the churchyard at Marshfield in Gloucestershire, one of them poses as an effigy on a tomb chest, with the help of a tame terrier as a foot-rest.

Dr. Lindy Grant
Acting Conway Librarian