Edward Schroeder Prior

Edward Schroeder Prior

Edward Schroeder Prior (born 1857 — died 1932) was an architect who was instrumental in establishing the arts and crafts movement. He was one of the foremost theorists of the second generation of the movement, writing extensively on architecture, art, craftsmanship and the building process and subsequently influencing the training of many architects.

He was a major contributor to the development of the Art Workers Guild and other organisations that lay at the heart of the movement’s attempts to bring art, craftsmanship and architecture closer together. His scholarly work, particularly "A History of Gothic Art in England" (1900), achieved international acclaim. He became one of the leading architectural educationalists of his generation. As Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge he established the Cambridge School of Architectural Studies.

Initially his buildings show the influence of his mentor Norman Shaw and Philip Webb, but Prior experimented with materials, massing and volume from the start of his independent practice. He developed a style that was intensely individual and a practical philosophy of construction that was perhaps nearer to Ruskin's ideal of the "builder designer" than that of any other arts and crafts architect.

The buildings of his maturity, such as the Barn, Exmouth, and Home Place, Kelling are amongst the most original of the period. In St. Andrew's, Roker he produced his masterpiece, a church that is now recognised as one of the best of the early 20th century.

Prior experimented with unusual plans, massing and volumes and became more and more interested in the nature and use of material and texture. In particular he experimented with reinforced concrete, which was used extensively in Home Place and St Andrew's.

Prior's approach to building was to ensure the use of the best quality materials, developing constructional techniques in partnership with the craftsmen builders. Despite the pioneering use of concrete and experimentation with structural systems, Prior's buildings seem to have relatively few construction and material defects, a tribute to his philosophy and skills.


Early buildings 1880 -1894

Later works


Edward Schroeder Prior was born in Greenwich on July 4 1852, his parents' fourth son, one of eleven children. His father John Venn Prior, who was a barrister in the Chancery division, died at the age of 43 as a result of a fall from a horse. Edward was aged 10 at the time. His mother moved the family to Harrow, where Edward's eldest brother John Templer was at school and where widows did not have to pay school fees if they were day boys. Here, next door to the house of Matthew Arnold, she started a school for children whose parents were in India, and Edward was one of its first pupils.

His grand father Dr John Prior was a prominent figure in the Evangelical movement and a member of the Clapham Sect that revolved around the Revd. John Venn, the first chairman of the Church Missionary Society, and included notable figures in the abolition of the slave trade, such as William Wilberforce and Zachary Maclaulay. Prior was later to work for Evangelical patrons such as the Cambridge Missionary Society and High Church Romanists.

Harrow School

In 1863 at the unusually young age of 11, Edward entered Harrow School. Here his interest in natural history, art, architecture and science was fostered, particularly by F.W. Farrar, H.M. Butler and B.F. Wescott, his house master and private tutor. (Prior remained a committed naturalist throughout his life. His collections of Lepidoptera remain largely intact, held by the Museum of St Albans.) Prior remained connected to Harrow School and was later to design several buildings for the school.

Cambridge University

In 1869 Prior won the Sayer Scholarship "for the promotion of classical learning and taste" to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge to read the Classical Tripos. He augmented the Sayer Scholarship by also gaining a College Scholarship. In the same year B.F. Westcott was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity. Prior continued to gain from his instruction in architectural drawing at Cambridge. Other influences were Matthew Digby Wyatt and Sidney Colvin, the first and second Slade Professors of Fine Art. Wyatt's lecture programme for 1871 included engraving, woodcutting, stained glass and mosaic. Prior's interest in the applied arts was probably strongly encouraged by Wyatt. Colvin, a friend of Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, was elected Slade Professor in January 1873. At Cambridge. Prior was also exposed to the work of William Morris. For example G.F. Bodley employed Morris & Co. to decorate All Saints Church in 1864-1866 and to design the glass for others of his Cambridge buildings.

Prior was a noted athlete at Cambridge. He was a blue in long jump and high jump and won the British Amateur High Jump in 1872.

Norman Shaw's pupil

In the autumn of 1874 Prior was articled to Norman Shaw at 30 Argyll Street. Shaw seems to have been his first choice as mentor. Shaw had been Gorge Edmund Street's chief clerk and had set up in partnership with William Eden Nesfield in 1866. The partnership only lasted until 1869, though Nesfield continued to share the premises until 1876. Shaw had made his name through country houses such as Cragside, Northumberland. At the time Shaw’s architecture was regarded as original and entirely on its own by the younger generation of architects. His practice was already attracting brilliant young architects. Shaw's pupils were articled for three years, learning to measure buildings and to draw plans and elevations for contracts.

At the time Prior joined Shaw the practice was still small, with only three rooms shared with Nesfield. Shaw had a limited number of assistants and pupils, including Ernest Newton (1856-1922), who had joined Shaw in 1873 but who left to set up on his own in 1879, Richard Creed (1846-1914) and William West Neve (1852-1942), who was also soon to set up in practice on his own behalf. Nesfield's assistant at the time was E.J. May, a former pupil of Decimus Burton, who had been responsible for the Palm House at Kew Gardens amongst other buildings.

It was only later that the group that produced some of the most exiting Arts and Crafts Movement Architecture and scholarship and provided the impetus to the Movement came together under Shaw. William Lethaby (1857-1931) joined the practice as Chief Assistant in 1878, Mervyn Macartney (1853-1932) joined as a pupil in the same year and Gerald Horsley (1862-1917) in 1879 . May and Newton both set up in practice near by. Horsley later illustrated Prior's "A History of Gothic Art in England" (1900). The St George's Art Society grew out of the discussions held amongst Shaw's past and present staff at Newton's Hart Street offices.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s Shaw's prestiege was greatly enhanced by major success with "spectacular perspectives" exhibited at Royal Academy exhibitions. As Chief Draftsman Newton was probably the main influence on the drawing style though Prior may have made a considerable contribution.

By 1877 Shaw's health was deteriorating. His assistants were encouraged to supervise jobs and live on site. Prior was appointed Clerk of Works for St Margaret's Church, Ilkley, administering the works from November 1877 to August 1879. Prior was responsible for the contract drawings and possibly for the design of the roof reinforcement and some of the detailing and furniture, such as the font. Prior had been eager to gain practical experience of construction, an area of the profession in which Shaw was loathed to give instruction. The expertise of the craftsmen at Ilkley made a deep impression on Prior; Cquote|He (Prior) went (to Ilkley) and then found that the idea of wonderful construction was all an imposture: there was no science of construction, but there was an experience of construction to be gained by the man who worked with his hands and not the man who made the drawing.

Practice and private life

Prior only stayed a few months further with Shaw on his return from Ilkley. In 1880 he began his own practice at 17 Southampton Road, in close proximity to Shaw and others of his former employees. Reginald Blomfield leased an office on the second floor. Prior occupied the building until 1885 and again in 1889-94 and 1901.

His early commissions were are primarily located in areas where he had connections, in Harrow and around Bridport in Dorset, where his father had lived and his mother's relatives, the Templers, were prominent and in Cambridge where he had been at University. The opening of the Metropolitan Railway to Harrow in 1880 and his connections with Harrow in particular encouraged Prior to work in the Harrow area.

His work in Dorset was to lead to his marriage. Whilst designing Pier Terrace at West Bay, Prior met Louisa Maunsell, the daughter of the vicar of near by Symondsbury. They were married in Symmondsbury Church on 11th August 1885. Mervyn Macatney was best man.

The Priors lived in 6 Bloomsbury Square from 1885-1889. Here his daughters Laura and Christobel were born. Prior leased Bridgefoot, Iver, Bucks as a country residence in 1889, but on the birth of his second daughter it was leased to the architect G.F. Bodley.

In 1894 Prior moved to 10 Melina Place, St John's Wood, next door to Voysey, resulting in the development of a long term friendship and exchange of ideas between the two men, to the extent that Voysey is recorded as having painted the roofs of Prior’s seminal Model for a Dorsetshire Cottage

Prior moved to Sussex in 1907 initially living in an early 18th century house at 7 East Pallant, Chichester. In 1908 he bought an 18th century house in Mount Lane with an adjacent warehouse which he converted to provide a studio. He continued the London practice as 1 Hare Court, Temple until the middle of the First World War. On his appointment as Slade Professor at Cambridge Prior also bought a house, Fariview in Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge.

After the First World War Prior unsuccessfully tried to restart his practice with H.C. Hughes. He started a commission for a house outside Cambridge but fell into a dispute with the client over the materials for the boundary hedge. Hughes took over the job as his own. Prior's scheme for the ciborium at Norwich Cathedral was dropped deeply disappointing him.

In the post war years he only undertook the design of war memorials at Maiden Newton in Dorset and for Cambridge Union Rugby Club.

The Arts and Craft Guilds

Prior played a crucial role in the establishment of the Guilds that were the intellectual focus of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The St George's Art Society 1883-1886 was founded by a group of architects who had seen service in the Shaw's offices, Ernest Newton, Mervyn Macartney, Reginald Barratt, Edwin Hardy, William Lethaby and Prior, to discuss Art and Architecture. It initially met in Newton's chambers by St George's Church, Bloomsbury. Prior was on the committee. Monthly meetings were held and papers read, Prior speaking on "Terracotta" and "Tombs". Trips were arranged to see buildings.

At the October 1883 meeting it was decided that it would be preferable to found a new organisation that would bring together "craftsmen in Architecture, Painting, Sculpture and the kindred Arts." The proposals stemmed from the members' alarm at the lack of relationship between architects and artists and their dissatisfaction with the Institute of British Architects and the Royal Academy.

After various consultations invitations were sent out to twenty four artists including members of The fifteen, founded by the designer and writer Lewis Day and the illustrator and designer Walter Crane and other such as J.E. Sedding, Ernest George and Basil Champneys. Various names for the group were proposed and Prior's suggestion of the "Art Workers Guild" was accepted at the meeting of 11 March 1884. Prior also wrote the Guild's first prospectus.

The Guild was highly influential on the architecture of the Arts and Crafts Movement, but Prior remained only a minor player for some time, until he was elected to the governing committee in 1889. However the contact with other luminaries of the Society certainly encouraged Prior to rationalise and develop his theories. He was also able to call on the skills of a wide range of craft practitioners from the Guild for the design and construction of furniture for many of his buildings. Prior became Master in 1906.

Prior was also active in various other organisations of the time, including the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society of 1886, set up to combat the exclusiveness of the Royal Academy, and the National Association for the Advancement of Art and its Application to Industry of 1888, at which he gave his inspired lecture on "Texture as a Quality of Art and a Condition for Architecture" that set out the rationale behind his most significant buildings. His involvement with The Clergy and Artists’ Association of 1896, set up to improve the links between patron and producer, led directly to commissions for example for the lych gate at Methley Church.


During the late 1890s Prior's practice received few commissions. The study of Gothic art and architecture became one of Prior’s major concerns the period. In 1900 he published "A History of Gothic Art in England", which as rapidly recognised as a standard text. This was followed by "The Cathedral Builders in England" in 1905, "An Account of English Medieval Figure-Sculpture" in 1912, which provided an exhaustive account of figurative sculpture from the 7th –to the 16th Century for the first time.

"A History of Gothic Art in England" made Prior's scholastic reputation and contributed to his appointment as Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge University in 1905.


Prior first became involved in architectural education during the debate over the professionalisation of architectural practice in the 1890s. The protest against examination and registration was launched by the Art Workers Guild, whose members believed, quite correctly, that RIBA wished to establish itself as the sole arbiter of the profession culminating in the publication of a collection of essays Architecture: A Profession or an Art in 1892, to which Prior contributed a chapter criticising the common use of "hirelings" to do the architect's work. In the same year Prior, amongst others resigned from the RIBA.

As a result of the controversy members of the Guild became very interested in architectural education. The Architectural Association established a School of Handicraft and Design to extend its training scheme. It had been criticised for being to geared to the RIBA’s examination system. Prior was one of the architect-visitors who drew up projects and gave the "crits".

He became increasingly interested in education, giving lectures at various conferences, to the RIBA and schools of design. Moves were instigated to establish a School of Architecture at Cambridge in 1907. The syndicate seeking the establishment of the school included Prior's old headmaster Dr H.M. Butler, who was by then Dean of Trinity College, Dr Charles Waldstein, Slade Professor of Fine Art and William Ridgway the Disney Professor of Archaeology. The establishment of examinations were approved in 1908. Waldstein favoured Prior as his successor. Prior was elected Slade Professor on 20th February, 1912 with the role of developing the new School of Architecture. In 1915 the tenure of the Professorship was extended to life.

Prior established the syllabus for the School, oversaw the establishment of the Department and instigated a research programme. The latter included experimental studies into the performance of limes and cements.

Prior the Man

In many ways Prior fits the stereotype of a privileged late 19th Century ex public school boy, barrister's son and Cambridge Blue. His bullying, playful manner are well recorded:

However underlying the argumentative and bulling façade lurked an artist and scholar. He was and remained a Tory throughout his life, perhaps explaining his lack of interest in social housing and the garden city movement. Yet he was close friends with the socialist Lethaby and a strong opponent of the professionalisation of architecture and believed that the architect should merely facilitate the work of craftsmen. In his long academic career he aimed to produce a "world of builders, who would build with the direct knowledge of working conditions".

His obituary in the Architect and Building News perhaps best summed him up:

He remained as Slade Professor until his death from cancer in August the 19th 1932. He was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Mary’s Church, Apulduram. Few of his friends remained, Lethaby, Newton, and Horsley were all dead, and none of his former architectural colleagues attended his funeral.

Prior's writings

*"Architecture, a profession or an art", Jackson, T.G. and Shaw, N
*"Cathedral Builders in England", Prior, E.S., 1905
*"Medieval Figure Sculpture", Prior, E.S. and Gardiner, Arthur, 1912
*"A History of Gothic Art", Prior, E.S., Geo Bell & Sons, London, 1900
*"The Origins of the Guild, lecture to the Guild", 1895, in Masse, H.J.L.J., The Art Workers Guild 1884-1934, Oxford, 1935 p 11.
*"Church Building As It Is And As It Might Be", The Architectural Review, Vol. IV 1898
*The Architectural Review, Prior, E.S., "The Decoration of St Paul's", 1899, vol. 6, p. 43
*"The New Cathedral for Liverpool", The Architectural Review, Oct 1901, vol. 10.


*Davidson, T.R., Modern Homes, 1909
*Davidson, T.R. (ed), The Arts Connected with Building, 1909
*Fellows, R., Edwardian Style and Technology, Lund Humphries, 1995
*Franklin, J, Edwardian Butterfly House, 1975 pp 220-225
*Grillet, C, Edward Prior, in Edwardian Architecture and Its Origins, ed Service A., The Architectural Press Ltd, 1975, pp. 143-151
*Hoare, G, and Pyne, G. Prior's Barn and Gimson's Coxen, 1978.
*Muthesius, Hermann, Das Englishe Haus, vol. II, 1904
*Naylor, G, The Arts and Crafts Movement, 1971
*Saint, A., Richard Norman Shaw, pp165-171
*Service, A., Edwardian Architecture and Its Origins, The Architectural Press Ltd, 1977
*Sparke, P. et al, Design Source Book, Macdonald Orbis, 1986.
*Weaver, Lawrence, Small Country Houses their repair and Enlargement, 1914
*Weaver, Lawrence, The Small Country Houses of Today, 1919


;The Architect.
*May 24, 1889, vol. 42, p. 299
*July 19, 1889, vol. 42, p. 35, Manor Lodge Harrow
*May 2, 1890, vol. 43, p. 277, Carr Manor, Meanwood Leeds
*September 5, 1890, vol. 44, p. 141
*October 3, 1890, vol. 44, p. 205
*January 30, 1891, vol. 45, p. 71

;Architectural Review
*1897, vol. 2, pp. 246 & 253
*1898, vol. 4, pp. 106-108, 154-158
*1898, vol. 5, pp. 132-134
*1899, vol. 6, pp. 42-44
*1900, vol. 7, p. 202
*1900, vol. 10, p. 79
*1901, vol. 9, p. 256
*1901, vol. 10, p. 145
*Feb 1906, vol. 19, pp. 70-82
*Jan 1924, vol. 55, pp. 30-1
*1952, vol 112, pp. 302-308

;British Architect
*September 4, 1885, vol. 24, p. 106
*May 17, 1895, vol. 43, pp. 348-9
*December 21, 1900, vol. 54, p. 452
*May 5, 1899, vol. 51, p. 307

;The Builder
*Vol XCIII, 23 Nov. 1907, Randall Wells, p563

*June 14, 1884, vol. 46, pp. 866-7
*October 25, 1890, vol. 59, p.328
*December 5, 1896, vol. 71, p. 470
*October 12, 1907, vol. 93, p. 386

;Builders Journal
*June 4, 1895, vol. 1, p. 259

;Building News
*July 21, 1882, vol. 43, p. 81
*December 8, 1882, vol. 43, p. 700, High Grove Harrow

;Northern Architect
*Vol XVII, 1979, pp. 19-24, Walkew, A., The Church of St Andrew Roker.

;The Studio
*1901, vol 21, part I, pp. 28-36, part II, pp. 86-90, 93-5, part III, pp. 176, 180-86 189-90

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