John Johnson was a distinguished Victorian architect about whom tantalisingly little is known. He is easily confused with two other John Johnsons, one earlier and one later. The earlier John Johnson (1732-1814) was a fine Georgian architect with a liking for Coade stone (a precursor of Portland cement for façades etc.*), who was at one point County Surveyor of Chelmsford. The later one (d. 1920) was a member of the AA from 1863, and was also responsible for some noteworthy churches and civic commissions from the 1870s onwards. There are no known familial links between these architects.
In historical records, this (middle) Johnson's name crops up most often in connection with Sir John Kelk (1816-1886), the civil engineer and building and public works contractor who built, amongst others, the Victoria Station and Pimlico Railway, the early buildings of what was to be the Victoria and Albert Museum, and, to much acclaim, the Albert Memorial. For example, Johnson worked with Kelk on the old Army and Navy Club on St James's Square. Kelk also employed Johnson to design his London home at 3 Grosvenor Square, and the church at Tidworth on his Hampshire estate. After the 1862 Kensington Exhibition, again working with Kelk, Johnson refaced the parts of the building which were to be preserved, with a recasting "in the François Premier style" (that is, with both Gothic and Italian elements; Hobhouse, The Crystal Palace... 139). He then reused some of the other materials in the construction of Alexandra Palace, also for Kelk, who built it in partnership with the contractors Charles and Thomas Lucas. Kelk put up a great deal of his own money for this project.
The concept of the Palace had come from Owen Jones, and Johnson used some of Jones's original ideas — the transept and nave arrangement, for instance — in his own design. Jones and Johnson both had addresses at the Adelphi, so there may well have been contact between them. Johnson was clearly influenced by Jones's flair for colour and pattern, as well as by his keen interest in Egyptian and Islamic design — witness the sphinxes in the west wing's Palm Court. At any rate, here Johnson had the opportunity to develop these decorative elements in his own way and on a vast scale. He even had a chance to improve on them when rebuilding after the first fire of 1873. Quite deservedly, on the strength of his work on Alexandra Palace, Johnson was made a Fellow of the Florentine Academy in 1877.
Despite the ravages of a second major fire in 1980, "Ally Pally" is still a remarkable sight. The frontispiece, which has now been restored, gives an idea of how splendid it must have been when first opened. In contrast to this grandeur, the Palm Court is wonderfully bright and airy. Planned as an aviary and conservatory, and undamaged by the later blaze, it continues to offer visitors a welcome sense of release from city life. The whole enterprise, including the immediate rebuilding after the original disaster, bears lasting witness to the great industry and vitality of the overlapping specialities of architecture, civil engineering, building and decorative arts in Victorian London.
John Johnson, who was for some years District Surveyor of the London borough of East Hackney, was very much a part of this élite network. He had an eye for detail, contrast and symmetry, something which is as much in evidence in a small commission like St Matthew's Church in Cobo, Guernsey, as in a very large one like Alexendra Palace. In this connection it is worth knowing that he was a keen fisherman, and for ten years a member of the General Committtee of the Thames Angling Preservation Society. Obituaries for him appeared both in The Builder of 11 January 1879 (pp.53, 137), and The Fishing Gazette, 3 January 1879 (p.7). Perhaps it was because of this interest that he was approached to build a little fisherman's church in the Channel Islands, and because of this interest too that he put so much thought into it.
*Simon Swann, conservation architect, writes to explain that Coade is not directly a precursor of Portland cement, in that it is not a calcareous cement material but a fired ceramic. It was, however, one of three materials — Coade (patented 1769), Parker's Roman cement (patented 1796); and Portland cement (patented 1824) that shared a role in exterior cast or moulded ornament. It was evidently quite a complicated evolution. The example given by Swann is of the Felix Austen Artifical Stone Works operating in the early Victorian period from Euston Road in London: the material used by this firm "was not the same as the ceramic body used by Mrs. Coade (although he is known to have copied old Coade designs), but made from Portland cement, broken natural stone, pounded marble and coarse sand."
"The Churches of S. Tidworth." (See the entry for St Mary's.) Viewed 28 December 2007.
Elrington, C.R., ed. "Paddington: Bayswater." A History of the County of Middlesex. Vol. 9 (1989). Viewed 22 December 2007.
Hobhouse, Hermione. The Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition. London and New York: Athlone Press, 2002.
————"Kelk, Sir John, first baronet (1816-1886)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 20 December 2007.
"John Johnson — Architect of St Matthews." Viewed 27 December 2007.
"Old Hall" (Queen's College, Cambridge). Viewed 28 December 2007.
Sheppard, F. H. W., ed. "The Haymarket Opera House," Survey of London, Vols. 29 and 30 (1960). St James Westminster, Part 1. Viewed 28 December 2007.
_____. "No. 18 St James's Square, heightened and refaced," Survey of London, Vols. 29 and 30 (1960). St James Westminster, Part 1. Viewed 28 December 2007.
Last modified 8 December 2015