Tour of Harold Falkner’s Buildings in Farnham

Sunday 6 July 2008

In 1897, when Harold Falkner built the Victoria Memorial Baths in his native town of Farnham, there was but one bow-windowed shop front in the town centre. At his death, at the age of 87, in 1963 the majority of shops had a Georgian character.

As far as its buildings are concerned, Harold Falkner’ is’ Farnham. He was born in the town in 1876 and attended the local grammar school A few years younger than Edwin Lutyens, he grew up only a few miles from Lutyens boyhood home of Thursley. He obviously studied the latter’s early ‘Surrey style’ work with interest and, after Lutyens had based himself in London, was befriended by Gertude Jekyll as a sort of replacement, on-the-spot, young architect friend. Although he seems never to have used his connection with her to obtain work, he learnt much from her about gardening, visiting her every month for about thirty years. His writings appeared regularly in the national architectural press, but, unlike Lutyens, he was happy to stay rooted in his much-loved home town. Farnham today is still very much his achievement.

Following a most informative introduction from Falkner expert, Sam Osmond, Sam guided us to the Great Austins area of the town where, during the years 1900 to 1925, Falkner designed over 20 (loosely ‘Arts and Crafts’ style) houses, aimed at the upper middle classes who, by then, were easily able to commute to London by train. We saw the ‘Wrenaissance’ exterior and garden of Leigh House (c1910) and then moved a short distance to Stranger’s Corner of 1901, a welcoming ‘Queen Anne’ style house, still rich in many original interior details.

Sam then directed us to the centre of Farnham from where he conducted us on a most interesting walk, taking in some of Falkner’s most notable buildings.

Falkner’s friend was local businessman and sometime mayor, Charles Borelli, and, between them, they wielded an astonishing amount of influence and control on construction and demolition within the town. Most notable, perhaps, was the pulling down of Norman Shaw’s Knight’s Bank building, and of the Victorian Town Hall, in favour of Falkner-designed ‘Georgian’ replacements.

Falkner was, of course, a man of his time and this was a time of extreme reaction against Victorian things, Victorian people or, at least, their deifying (see Lytton Strachey Eminent Victorians), Victorian buildings and most other things Victorian – although, curiously, to a much lesser extent, Victorian literature. ‘Georgian’ was ‘in’; ‘Victorian’ was firmly and unequivocally ‘out’. Today, the wheel of taste has spun on, we view mid to late 19th Century buildings quite differently, and it is questionable whether it would be felt that replacing a Victorian Town Hall and a neo-Tudor Norman Shaw building with neo-Georgian successors – albeit of the highest quality – is quite such an unquestionably good thing. Is it me? Do they have a slightly ‘Portmeirion’ feel about them? On the other hand, had Falkner and Borelli been less influential, the buildings might well have been lost anyway and replaced by something of considerably more doubtful quality.

In the 1920s, Falkner bought land at Dippenhall, to the north of the town. Away from roads, with as little outside interference as possible, using only three tradesmen and casual labourers as necessary, Falkner was able to indulge his architectural ideas and fantasies without restraint. Hidden away from official interference, from the demands of clients and from what he regarded as the tedious technical aspects of architecture – structural calculations, drainage and so on – he gave his foreman a sketch on a scrap of paper, and told him what he wanted. Many of the buildings are half-timbered, created from old barns brought from other parts of the country. Put together in a strangely slapdash and casual way, they are extraordinary but not without a fascinating charm. We were delighted to be able to visit Burles Lodge (1937), in what is predominantly a Georgian style, and Meads, an assembly of old barns, erected and connected together between 1930 and 1935.

Harold Falkner was not Edwin Lutyens. He was his own man and forged his architectural career in quite a different way. Not for him ambitions to make his mark in London, in India, in the War Cemeteries of Northern France or amongst fashionable society on a national scale. He was content to devote his energies to Farnham, where he had grown up, gone to school and where he knew almost everyone. His feelings for his home town had perhaps been summed up, many centuries before, by Horace – ‘ Ille terrarum mihi praetor omnes Angulus ridet’ – ‘It is that corner of the World above all others which has a smile for me’.

John Entwisle