William Henry Crossland: An Obituary.


Crossland's Founder's Building
Crossland’s Founder’s Building, 2013

It is impossible to capture Royal Holloway in an image without thinking of our Founder’s building. Designed by the architect William Henry Crossland, it is largely responsible for our campus being listed one of the sixteen most beautiful universities in the world by The Telegraph, and is the quiet but impressive monster that towers above prospective students on open days. It is an important week for Founder’s: on November 14th, or so we think -a death certificate has yet to be discovered- Crossland died aged 73 years, disappearing largely from history with only his buildings as proof he ever existed.

     It was writer Sir John Betjeman who looked for and never found the death certificate. Holloway historians Richard Williams and Caroline Bingham have also been useful sources in my reading. The problem we encounter with Crossland is this: after he designed Founder’s, in an arduous and taxing ordeal where he was treated with less respect than he deserved, he disappeared from record. Gone were the dinners with London’s elite, intuitive projects, and praise from contemporary newspapers, instead replaced by alcoholism and loneliness.

The most telling source, that imparts a personal history of the building, I found in the archives of Founder’s library. It is an invaluable written speech from the architect himself, entitled ‘The Royal Holloway College’.

Upon discovering he had won Holloway’s competition for designs for a grand university – a competition he was always going to win, due to a discussion they had previously-, Crossland relates “When the adjudication was given in our favour, I was in the woods of Nova Scotia, thinking a good deal more of salmon and moose than of Sanatoria.” This is Crossland: a man who enjoys small pleasures, but also a modest pragmatist. He returned to England, and then began the endless negotiating with Thomas Holloway.

First, the period of design. Holloway wasn’t even sure what the sister building was going to be. A sanatorium, yes, but the decision to finance a university for women was an impulse made on behalf of a conversation with his wife. The two men then had to agree what architectural style the buildings would emulate, Crossland pushing for his favourite renaissance image. Holloway agreed resoundingly, but when told by a woman at dinner the university “would look like all the other men’s colleges”, Holloway contacted Crossland, claiming renaissance charm would not do, forcing the architect to redraw his sketches. Holloway then suffered a light fever, and upon recovery decided that actually a renaissance theme would be best.

Then, the visit to Château de Chambord: Holloway, Crossland, and a small selection of men stayed for two weeks to measure and discuss the building which would be the point of reference for their project. Crossland spoke of our namesake, “he never, or perhaps very seldom praised any one […] as he never spared himself, he never spared me nor my clerks.” He continues, describing the unending workload, and his experience of little sleep. His birthday was ignored. Being an architect is not a nine-to-five occupation, and Thomas Holloway has always been a symbol of Victorian dominance. Our university does, at quite a high level, symbolise this dominance. Crossland would have understood this level of work was entirely necessary, but it was at the behest of a man who took great liberties with others’ time and pleasure. Holloway was less and less the charitable businessman, and more the flamboyant millionaire, for whom philanthropy was an act of egoism.

This trend continued in the construction of Founder’s. In six years, Holloway only visited the building site three times. However, every day, Holloway would be taken past the site in a carriage. While Crossland toiled, managed, and supervised the effort, he had to endure his patron’s clockwork but flippant disregard. Martin Holloway, our patron’s brother in law, “used to act like [Holloway’s] deputy.” To Holloway’s credit, he did break his silence of praise when, after six years, he clapped the architect on the back and said “well done, mister Crossland, I am more than pleased.” But that was one day of two thousand in which Crossland was acknowledged.

In 1894, Crossland returned to Royal Holloway to finish the ladies’ swimming pool. Richard Williams writes, “After that, no more is heard from him. It is believed he turned to drink but there is no documented evidence.” Our acknowledgement to him is one of tragic irony, the campus bar, ‘Crosslands’, rather than a halls of residence. Crossland was a man of undeniable talent – every single major project he designed became a grade 1 listed building. To him, architecture was genuine philanthropy. It was the purpose of his art “to leave examples of great genius for the benefit of succeeding ages.” Holloway’s philanthropy was part of his dominance, which Crossland acknowledged, “he worked harder to spend his money than he ever did to make it.”

I would like to thank the staff of the Founder’s library archive store for their help, without which this article would not have been written.

(Ed Note: This article is from issue 3 of The Founder, running through November 2012)

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