Thomas Hardy the Architect and the Stonemason’s Song

Most people think of Thomas Hardy as a novelist and poet. But before becoming a writer, Hardy trained and worked as an architect, only abandoning it in his early thirties. Hardy was forty-five when he designed “Max Gate” (pictured above) for himself in 1885. He completed a second house, “Talbothays Lodge”, a mile east of West Stafford, for his brother Henry in 1894. His house is just south-east of Dorchester along Prince of Wales Road. I lost my way several times before noticing a couple ahead who appeared to know the way.

Max Gate is approached via a bough-bent leafed alley. From the road, the house is artfully framed by vivid green. When I visited, the front was veiled in scaffolding covered in blue netting, which increased its mystery and its distant allure. Max Gate signalled Hardy’s success as a writer of fiction, settled him, and brought an end to his wandering.

This essay appears in a recent Quadrant.
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Hardy enthusiasts and casual motorists off the freeway crowded its rooms. It was impossible to find a space, anywhere, where I could breathe in the writer’s ghost, impossible to be alone with his apparition. I felt his presence there, almost palpably. He is there throughout the house, directly, in the neatly laid-out desk and writing materials where he worked, more affectingly in the physicality of the brick, and the house’s pervasive engagement with its garden picturesquely wrapped around to lock it in a lingering embrace.

Only two windows are exactly alike: they caught my eyes, fixing them on the trees and flowers beyond the rooms. I imagined Hardy pausing once in a while glancing up from the page, and pondering the sky and weather. This is a house for diving deeply; a writer’s house, dedicated to creativity. Unlike so many English country houses, great sprawling classical piles, Max Gate is a modest, neatly composed house for work. It has whimsical touches, a sundial and modest timber name-board on the front which add a sentimental vernacular. “Wessex”, Hardy’s dog, is buried in the garden’s animal cemetery.

In a corner, adjacent to the conservatory, I spied a small book titled The Architectural Notebook of Thomas Hardy. It has become my “happiness book”, so wonderfully revealing of Hardy the artist. The drawings, Hardy’s notes during his time as an architect, are strikingly beautiful, exquisite, yet breathtakingly tiny.

These days architects no longer draw but do everything on laptops. They no longer know the sensual touch of a graphite extension of their fingers on white paper. The mechanical buildings that result amply demonstrate the qualitative difference in values between them and Hardy.

I planned the journey by train into Hardy’s West Country when I first discovered he had trained as an architect. I most wanted to know whether architecture was a false start and a mistake he corrected by becoming a published novelist and poet.

People still read Hardy’s novels—film-makers see to that. Many read his poetry. Due to the advocacy by Philip Larkin, Hardy is now considered of equal standing with W.B. Yeats among twentieth-century poets. Few are aware he began as an architect. I wondered whether his experience as an architect might have influenced his writing.

I also wondered whether he was an excellent architect. His first published fiction, A Pair of Blue Eyes, is based on an architectural assignment in March 1870 to restore and rebuild St Juliot Church, which took him to the remote wild north coast of Cornwall; his last, Jude the Obscure, related the tragedy of a stonemason. In between, The Well-Beloved is set on Portland Isle, famous for its building stone, and follows the career of a sculptor on his fruitless pursuit of ideal beauty. All three novels mine the family association with stone and stone carving. Written in 1881, A Laodicean concerns architecture and the trials of a young architect. Hardy drew on his professional knowledge for his solution to the restoration of Castle de Stancy; he separates the new from the old to save the old, rather than adapt it to the wants of the new civilisation, and thereby demonstrates what an original architectural thinker he is: “He had placed his new erection beside it as a slightly attached structure, harmonising with the old; heightening and beautifying, rather than subduing it.”

Hardy never signed any drawings, nor did he establish his own independent practice. He worked for others, making it next to impossible to be certain what he designed—the law demands that only the principals are given credit. Modesty, and his guilt over church restorations that he later regretted, add further to the problem of attribution. Five churches are probably his: Athelhampton, a new church (1861), All Saints’, Windsor, a new church (1864), Turnworth, a restoration (1870), St Juliot, a restoration (1872) and Stoke Wake, a new church (1872).

Hardy invariably downplayed his architecture. His working life divides into three phases: first architect, 1856 to 1872, then novelist, 1872 to 1894, and, after the English public’s rejection of Jude in 1894, he returned to poetry until his death in 1928. Hardy is the only major novelist in English who is also a major poet.

Just after his sixteenth birthday, in June 1856, Hardy was articled to the Dorchester architect John Hicks for three years. The premium of £100, paid to Hicks at the start of his employment, was reduced to £40 in consideration of work his father performed for Hicks. The Hicks office was at 39 South Street in Dorchester. Hardy was preceded by four generations of stonemasons; architecture would have seemed a natural evolution. From 1856 to 1872, over his sixteen-year career, Hardy worked for Hicks, A.W. Blomfield, G.R. Crickmay and T. Roger Smith. After he left Dorchester in the winter of 1866 for London, Hardy initially joined Blomfield, who had his office at 9 Martin’s Place, off Trafalgar Square, at a salary of £110 a year. Within months, Blomfield put Hardy’s name forward to become a member of the Architectural Association, of which he was president. The Blomfield office was leisurely, more a gentlemen’s club than today’s architectural factories. Hardy found time to write a comic essay, “How I Built Myself a House”, published in Chambers’s Journal in 1865, to amuse his colleagues.

During his early struggles to be published, Hardy rejoined John Hicks, and later, in Weymouth, continued with Wicks’s successor, George Crickmay. Away from Weymouth in London in 1871, Hardy assisted an examiner for the Royal Institute of British Architects. He was later invited to join the RIBA. Instead, he dedicated himself to writing.

When Hicks died, Hardy wrote the lengthy poem “The Abbey Mason: Inventor of the ‘Perpendicular’ Style” as a personal tribute. It took as its theme the invention of Gothic by a lowly stonemason who is cheated of fame by the abbot, who takes credit for the innovation. The poem is both a song celebrating anonymous stonemasons down the ages and a deeply felt commemorative salute to his own stonemason forebears, which confronts society’s failure to honour the handicraft of the humble artist-workman. It is written tongue-in-cheek: the geometric solution to the divergent geometry of the cross-vault is found by accident when the stonemason’s upturned chalk drawing of circular arches is smeared by rain overnight into a pointed arch.

Hardy’s architectural foundation contributed significantly to his novels and poetry. In her 2006 biography, Claire Tomalin comments:

Hicks was pleased with him and took him along when he went to examine old churches. This was a period of indiscriminate church restoration which made architecture into a booming profession and was carried out with much misplaced enthusiasm. Hardy, who greatly regretted it later, was soon making surveys. He took up sketching and painting for pure pleasure, going out alone in the open air in his free time. He made studies of animals and landscapes as well as of houses and churches.

Hardy afterwards maintained an interest in architecture, joining William Morris’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1881. Was there something shared by architecture and literature that inclined him naturally to both? And what did he gain from architecture that might have helped him in his writing, and how did he use it? After all, he was unquestionably an exceptionally gifted draftsman.

Did his decision to become a writer result from a conscious recognition that, at thirty-two, he lacked the necessary talent for architecture? Claire Tomalin has doubts, but mentions a prize he won for the design of a country mansion when he was at Blomfield’s, conceding that, at the very least, he was capable and drew efficient-seeming plans for cottages and villas, before going on to dismiss Max Gate as a modest thrifty gesture that lacked a bathroom. Hardy specified a flush lavatory but forgot to supply running water. Her opinion was that no one would call it beautiful, adding that no one else ever commissioned Hardy to design a country house. The eminent classical architectural historian Sir John Summerson, in an introduction to Hardy’s notebook, observed:

This would be an instructive document if its author were un-named. That it is from the hand of Thomas Hardy gives it a startling aura. The sensibility to architectural forms and devices shown on some of these pages is a thing which once acquired can never be lost. Hardy had it and no study of him as a man, novelist and poet can be complete without recognition of this fact.

Summerson’s contention that a “sensibility to architectural forms and devices … which once acquired can never be lost” would very likely have been carried over into Hardy’s novels and poetry. Shown a mid-1860 church design by Hardy, Professor Russell Hitchcock, an expert in Victorian architecture, declared that the design showed exceptional talent.

Hardy was inspired by Gothic irregularity, which he saw as giving rise to the unexpected and spontaneous. Arthur Blomfield was responsible for introducing Hardy to French Gothic, from which he later took lessons for structure, a sense of unfolding organic growth, characters leading the author in lieu of rigid automaton characters. Whereas Hardy saw only irregularity in Gothic, Victor Hugo identified its essence as the grotesque ravished by a sublime ethereal beauty. Cunning Gothic irregularity helps explain the fame of the Sydney Opera House roof, whose distinctive jagged arced profile is instantly recognisable around the globe.

Hardy discerned that cunning irregularity is of enormous value in architecture, and shaped his poetry accordingly. From the medieval stonemason’s free spontaneity spilled the “unforeseen”. For an author with four generations of master stonemasons standing behind him it is unsurprising that, in his minor novels, Hardy allowed his narrative to crystallise around a building or series of buildings. The major novels differ, in that they are studies in human relationships played out against the background of nature.

One of the last things Hardy wrote was an appeal to preserve the country cottages of England. Hardy was charmed and inspired by vernacular buildings, an admiration that no doubt sprang from his parent’s cottage at Bockhampton, north-east of Dorchester, where he was born and spent his early life. Its simplicity surrounded by nature is appealing.

Hardy’s description of the ancient houses on Portland Isle shouts his pleasure in vernacular building long before professionals such as R.W. Brunskill, Vernacular Architecture of the Lake Counties (1974), and Bernard Rudofsky’s world survey, Architecture without Architects (1974). Can there be a more evocative description of the vernacular than:

The houses above houses, one man’s doorstep rising behind his neighbour’s chimney, the gardens hung up by one hedge to the sky, the unity of the whole island as a solid and single block of stone four miles long, were no longer familiar and commonplace ideas. All now stood dazzlingly clean and white against the sea, the sun flashing on the stratified facades of rock.

In his 1912 preface Hardy warned that it was as well that artistic visitors did not come and snap up the little freehold houses for a couple of hundred pounds.

Hardy restored West Knighton Church (1893–94) while he was writing Jude the Obscure. C.J.P. Beatty suggests the common factor in what was to be Hardy’s last novel is the craft of working in stone. For Hardy, craftsmanship was innate, acquired over generations. He realised at West Knighton that he was only “copying, patching and imitating”, as Sue Bridehead exclaims. It was the spontaneous character of Gothic that most influenced his shaping of character, in stumbling onto the unexpected in human nature and life itself. Cunning irregularity, noted by Hardy in Gothic mouldings, tracery and their like, when carried over into his verse, on the back of the Gothic art-principle of spontaneity representing the unforeseen, the unexpected, was severely criticised.

Hardy’s drawings, though tiny, are wonderful, precise and sure of hand. He keenly notices, measures and records the tiniest details, dwelling on and devouring the least things. Was this his secret, a hunger ever-attentive, that noticed and noted nature, clouds, storms, faces, gestures, measured his neighbour’s stride, forever absorbed in the seemingly arbitrary cavalcade of life?

Drawing trained Hardy in observation, adding authenticity to his novels, and a further special vision and perception to his poetry that caught and illuminated the mundane in the everyday. Was architecture’s training in structure and geometry an essential ingredient of his growth as a writer?

Hardy is manifest in the novels and poetry; I thought I found poetry in the notebook sketches—they are exquisite doodles that reveal him to be every bit a true visual artist.

I would suggest that it was not for lack of architectural talent that Hardy turned to writing, but a lack of connections. Class posed an insuperable barrier to the gifted working class and disqualified him socially, his disadvantage further reinforced by his not having attended university, an omission taken up in Jude.

Stonemasons were the elite of the building industry. Thomas Telford began life a shepherd, became a stonemason, then a project manager and architect, and continued his upward trajectory to end his career as England’s foremost engineer before Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Telford was an exception. A stonemason might rise, but iron barriers kept him in his place. For Thomas Hardy, becoming an architect represented social promotion. Few people read the novels for information about Victorian architecture, or the stonemason’s craft for that matter, yet it is there, and Hardy includes valuable historical detail about them both, and much else besides, information absent from broad-sweep architectural histories. His greatest novel, Jude the Obscure, is about the trials of a stonemason who wishes to attend university but is prevented by his working-class background. English society saw to it that working-class men were invisible and remained so. Literature offered Hardy a better chance to rise; even so, his wife Emma considered him her inferior. We find his answer in “Afterwards”:

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,

Watching the full-starred Heavens that winter sees,

Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,

“He was one who had an eye for such mysteries”?



In my research, I found Hardy’s four novels on architectural themes and the following books indispensable. The four novels show that his interpretation of the world and human society orbits around his family’s stonemason past. I am indebted to C.J.P. Beatty, and especially insights from Hardy’s remarkable architectural notebook.

James Gibson (ed.), The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy, 1976.

Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy, 2007.

Claudius J.P. Beatty (ed.), The Architectural Notebook of Thomas Hardy, with preface by Sir John Summerson, 1966.

Claudius J.P. Beatty, The Part Played by Architecture in the Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (with particular reference to the novels), PhD thesis, published 2004.

Donald Davie, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, 1972.

Anna Groves, The Homes of Thomas Hardy: A Souvenir Guide, 2014.

Philip Drew, who lives in Sydney, is a frequent contributor on architecture.


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