John Dobson (1787-1865) was one of just a handful of northern architects, like Cuthbert Brodrick in Leeds, who won national reputations without practising in London. Born in Chirton, now a suburb of North Shields, Dobson was the son of an innkeeper and market- and landscape-gardener. He showed a talent for design from an early age, and at fifteen was sent as a pupil to a leading local architect, David Stephenson. He went on to study in London under the eminent water-colourist John Varley, on whom he evidently made an impression: one of Varley's works is entitled Dobson's Dream, and was apparently inspired by a landscape sketched by his pupil soon after waking up one morning. During this period, Dobson became acquainted with Robert Smirke and his sons Robert and Sydney. The latter was to become his son-in-law. He also met the artists Turner, and Holman Hunt. Returning to Newcastle with his head filled with "fashionable ideas from London" (Histon 34), Dobson distanced himself from Stephenson and other builder-architects, and gradually established himself as one of the new breed of professional architects, and a leading light amongst those of the north east.
Sometimes seen as "the real author of the modern Gothic revival in actual practice" (Dixon 136), Dobson built some of the first Gothic churches of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most prominent of these is St Thomas the Martyr at Barras Bridge, Newcastle, designed in 1825 and consecrated in 1830. It can be seen in the background of William Goscombe John's well-known war memorial, The Response, which stands in its grounds. Dobson's many church restorations included work on St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle. But he was also much in demand for domestic architecture: "His work is to be seen in many of the great seats of the gentry of the north, as Lambton Castle [though his additions since largely demolished], Unthank Hall [though, again, much of his remodelling has since been demolished], Seaton Delaval [a large-scale restoration], in which last place the difficulties that he overcame were extraordinary," writes R. W. Dixon (136). His conversion of the central courtyard of Wallington, Morpeth (1852-53) was vital to Lady Trevelyan's artistic project there, a task for which, with his own artistic background and connections, he was particularly well qualified.
Dobson deserves more credit for his innovations. Of his other buildings, the formidable Newcastle goal (1823-28) was a striking achievement, for which he took as his model Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon." Jesmond Old Cemetery (1835-36), with its "severe Schinkelesque buildings" (Curl 268), was another large-scale dramatic complex. His single most influential design was for Newcastle Central Station (1847-50), with its pioneering and much imitated curved trainshed. Yet his most impressive legacy was not a single structure, or even a single complex, but the whole of Newcastle-upon-Tyne's city centre — "the greatest part of the public buildings of which, and the finest new streets, were designed or erected by him" (Dixon 136), in collaboration with the developer Richard Grainger and the architects in Grainger's office. "If the corporation of Newcastle could have accepted his designs absolutely," Dixon adds,"their town would now be the finest in the empire" (136).
As it is, the input from Grainger and his other architects had its own merits and should not be forgotten. "There is no known evidence that Grainger designed anything himself, but his influence was overpowering," admits Lyall Wilkes (20). More recent sources state categorically that Dobson designed the Grainger Market (opened 1835), which John Grundy and others merely attribute to him (Faulkner; Grundy et al. 455); but it is thought that while he designed the east side of Grey Street, the splendid Bank of England building on the other side may have been the work of Grainger's John Wardle. Both Grainger and Clayton Streets were designed by Wardle as well, along with Grainger's other architect, George Walker. This must be acknowledged. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Dobson was the major player here, and that his work was remarkable.. "Classicism was the dominant architectural language" in the city (Curl 74), making for the impressive street scenes and gracious elevations that still make Newcastle memorable today.
Dobson is also a significant figure because he had a large practice and several assistants, one of whom was E. R. Robson, later to become Liverpool's city surveyor and then architect to the London School Board. But Dobson's promising second son, Alexander, who became Sydney Smirke's pupil, and who might have carried on the Newcastle practice, died tragically in a quayside fire in October 1854. Pauline Trevelyan of Wallington, for whom Dobson was working at this time, gives a harrowing account of the episode, adding: "Heard that poor Dobson has lost his only son [in fact, he did have another] in the fire, he was killed by the explosion, and was only known by the keys in his pocket" (qtd. in Batchelor 126). Ironically, however, the destruction of the historic quayside helped promote the importance of the new city centre that Dobson had done so much to create.
Dixon concludes, "The characteristics of this architect were adaptability, ingenuity, patience, constructive imagination, and an instinctive intelligence of the genius loci." Bearing in mind (for instance) the Grainger Market, and the cross-fertilisation between this commercial structure and the railway station that followed it, one might add at least two more qualities: versatility and vision. — Jacqueline Banerjee
- The Lying-In Hospital, Newcastle
- The Grainger Market, Newcastle
- Grey Street, Newcastle
- Trainshed, Central Station, Newcastle
- Exterior of Central Station, Newcastle
- The Royal Station Hotel, Newcastle
- Interior of the Central Hall, Wallington, Morpeth
Batchelor, John. Lady Trevelyan and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. London: Chatto and Windus, 2006.
Curl, James Stevens. Victorian Architecture. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1990.
Dixon, R. W. "Dobson, John (1787-1865)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,. Vol. 15. . Ed. Leslie Stephen. New York: Macmillan, 1888. Internet Archive. Web. 30 December 2011.
Faulkner, T. E. "Dobson, John (1787-1865)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 30 December 2011.
Grundy, John, et al. The Buildings of England: Northumberland. 2nd (revised) ed. London: Penguin, 1992.
Histon, Vanessa. Keys to the City: Walks Exploring Newcastle's Hidden History. Newcastle: Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2007.
Last modified 4 January 2012