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Britton, John

    Image Credit: Wikipedia

    Full Name: Britton, John

    Other Names:

    • John Britton

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 07 July 1771

    Date Died: 01 January 1857

    Place Born: Kingston St. Michael, Wiltshire, UK

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): architecture (object genre), Gothic (Medieval), Medieval (European), and sculpture (visual works)


    Architectural historian of the Gothic in England, topographer; earlier serious scholar of medieval architecture. He was born in Kingston St. Michael, Wiltshire, UK, near Chippenham. Britton’s parents were Henry Britton, who worked as a farmer, baker, and village shopkeeper, and Anne Hillier (Britton). After his mother’s death, Britton left school with only a remedial education to assist his father’s business. He moved from Wiltshire to London in 1787 working at the Jerusalem tavern, Clerkenwell, but studying in his off hours. In 1789 he met Edward Wedlake Brayley (1773-1854) at a bookshop who hired him to assist in book publication. By the 1795 Britton worked as a solicitor’s clerk by day and supplementing his income through writing and theatrical productions. In 1801 his interest in topography and architecture led him issued The Beauties of Wiltshire. He married in 1802. The succes of Beauties led the publishers Vernor and Hood to contracted with him to write al survey England, a monthly publication ultimately running to six volumes over a three-year period with Brayley The Beauties of England and Wales 1801-1816, eventually a twenty-seven volume series written in the course of twenty years. Over the years, other writers took over Brayley’s contribution in The Beauties series while Britton wrote the architecture pieces. He wrote a work on painting, The Fine Arts of the English School in 1812. Britton completed his authorship in the Beauties series in 1814. Under his direction he employed the emerging artists Samuel Prout and Frederick Mackenzie, John and Henry Le Keux, Edward Blore, George Cattermole, R. W. Billings, and Henry Shaw. His next series, Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain, (Longman and Taylor, publishers) was an illustrated examination of English medieval architecture. Illustrations included those by the Le Keux brothers and the first volume appeared in 1807. Others appeared in 1809, 1812, and 1814 with A Chronological History and Graphic Illustrations of Christian Architecture in England in 1827. While engaged in that work, he began Cathedral Antiquities of England (1814-1835) the first survey of English cathedrals since Browne Willis in 1798 or John Carter and his abortive series (1797-1801). Even in Britton’s case, the volumes for Rochester, Durham, Chichester, Chester, Carlisle, Ely, and Lincoln were never published. Britton teamed up with Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (illustrations) and E. J. Willson (documentation) to produce Specimens of Gothic Architecture 1821-1823, his most successful book and the lasting importance of his reputation. During the publication of his series, steel engraving supplanted copperplate which Britton had used. Britton produced several volumes in the new medium, Bath and Bristol (1829), and a of classical-structured Edinburgh, Modern Athens (1829). Britton’s highly illustrated editions now faced competition, most notably The Union of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, a survey of Sir John Soane’s collection in 1827. Britton eventually went bankrupt and even the publication of his Dictionary of the Architecture and Archaeology of the Middle Ages, 1831-1838, was not a financial success. Two other works in collaboration with Pugin, The Public Buildings of London, 1825, and The Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, 1825-1828, also appeared. A tireless campaigner for governmental protection of ancient monuments he was made honorary fellow of Royal Institute of British Architects in 1835. An autobiography was published in 1850 and 1857. After his first’s wife’d death in 1848 he married his wife’s niece Ellen, in 1849 though Britton was now in financial straight at only civil-list pension in 1852 saved him. He participated in the rennovations of Waltham Cross, Stratford church, and St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol over the years. He died of bronchitis at his home in the St. Pancras area of London in 1857 and is buried at Norwood cemetery in 1857; a brass plaque at Salisbury Cathedral was later placed in his honor. Britton’s work inspired the pioneer of French medival studies, Arcisse de Caumont, to publish beginning in 1830 his work Cours d’antiquités monumentales, and examination of Norman architecture (Summerson). The art historian and historiographer Paul Frankl described Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain as “the first attempt at a coherent history of English Gothic.” As a publicist his influence on the Gothic revival ranks with that of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin and John Ruskin (Crook). Specimens of Gothic Architecture incorporated ground plans, elevations and scrupuous drawn details in addition to intelligent texts which transformed medieval architecture as a study (Postle).

    Selected Bibliography

    The Beauties of Wiltshire: Displayed in Statistical, Historical, and Descriptive Sketches: Interspersed with Anecdotes of the Arts. 3 vols. London: Printed by J.D. Dewick for Vernor and Hood, 1801-1825; and Brayley, E. W., et al. The Beauties of England and Wales, or, Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Descriptive, of Each County. 18 vols. London: Printed by Thomas Maiden, for Vernor and Hood, 1801-1816; The Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain, Represented and Illustrated in a Series of Views, Elevations, Plans, Sections, and Details, of Various Ancient English Edifices: with Historical and Descriptive Accounts of Each. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme [etc.], 1807; Cathedral antiquities: Historical and Descriptive Accounts . . . of the Following English Cathedrals, Canterbury, York, Salisbury, Norwich, Winchester, Lichfield, Oxford, Wells, Exeter, Peterborough, Gloucester, Bristol, Hereford, and Worcester. 13 vols. London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Reese, Orme and Brown, 1814-1831; and Pugin, Augustus, and Willson, Edward James, and Raley, Robert L. Specimens of Gothic Architecture: Selected from Various Ancient Edifices in England: Consisting of Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Parts at Large, Calculated to Exemplify the Various Styles, and the Practical Construction of this Class of Admired Architecture. 2 vols in 1. London: Printed for J. Taylor, Architectural Library, 1821-1823; Chronological History and Graphic Illustrations of Christian Architecture in England: Embracing a Critical Inquiry into the Rise, Progress, and Perfection of this Species of Architecture. London: M.A. Nattali, 1835; and Le Keux, John, and Godwin, George. A Dictionary of the Architecture and Archaeology of the Middle Ages: Including Words Used by Ancient and Modern Authors in Treating of Architectural and Other Antiquities … also, Biographical Notices of Ancient Architects. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans [etc.], 1838; and Pugin, Augustus. Illustrations of the Public Buildings of London, with Historical and Descriptive Accounts of Each. 2 vols. London: J. Taylor [etc.], 1825-1828; and Pugin, Augustus. Historical and Descriptive Essays Accompanying a Series of Engraved Specimens of the Architectural Antiquities of Normandy. London: Printed for the proprietors, J. Britton, 1828.


    Summerson, John. “Viollet-le-Duc and the Rational Point of View.” Heavenly Mansions and Other Essays on Architecture. New York: Norton, 1963, p. 138; Frankl, Paul. The Gothic: Literary Sources and Interpretations through Eight Centuries. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960, p. 498; Crook, J. Mordaunt. “John Britton and the Genesis of the Gothic Revival.” in, Concerning Architecture: Essays on Architectural Writers and Writing presented to Nikolaus Pevsner. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968, pp. 98-119; Postle, Martin. “Britton, John.” Dictionary of Art 4: 828-829; Crook, J. Mordaunt. “Britton, John.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Britton, John." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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