Nikolaus Pevsner on the Charterhouse

Nikolaus Pevsner was a German-born British scholar of history of art and, particularly, of history of architecture.

He is best known for his 46-volume series of county-by-county guides The Buildings of England (1951–74), which includes London Volume Two: Except the Cities of London and Westminster. It is from this book (published first in 1952) that the following extract has been taken. The revised edition is available to buy through Amazon.

The Charterhouse

Infinitely the most important monument of Finsbury. It would be one of the most important of all London if it had not suffered so badly in the Second World War. Most of the architectural damage can be repaired, and the complex will then again convey a vivid impression of a large rambling c16 mansion as they must have existed all round London. The Charterhouse represents principally three periods: that of the Charterhouse proper, that is, the Carthusian Priory founded in 1371, on a site where there was already a chapel, built in 1349; that of Sir Edward North and Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk, who possessed it after the Dissolution between 1545 and 1611, and that of Thomas Sutton who converted it into the Hospital of King James with an attached boys’ school. Of the Carthusian establishment the Great Cloister can still be recognized. It became much later the Green of the school, and the Merchant Taylors’ School who took over the premises from the Charterhouse School in 1872. This part of the Charterhouse is now the Medical College of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Only small fragments of the w wall of the cloister walk with entrances into three of the Monks’ houses (for Carthusian monks have separate minute houses with gardens) exist and can be seen at the back of the c16 brick arcades s of the former Merchant present s wall of the Library, n of the Great Hall.

The Charterhouse

The Norfolk Cloister, north of the Great Hall. 

The arcade of the w cloister walk and the gallery above it are otherwise part of the drastic mid c16 remodelling. Sir Edward North’s mansion went up to the sw of the Cloister which was mostly pulled down. Its centre is the Master’s Court, and essentially formal, uncommonly symmetrical composition as one approaches it from the s. The formality is not at once noticed, because of the skew position of the whole newer building to Charterhouse Square. Entering through the Outer Gatehouse (c15, with contemporary oak door and upper storeys of 1718) the Inner Gatehouse (early c16 brick) is opposite, but the entrance to the Mater’s Court to the r. at an odd angle. Yet this broad entrance front of Kentish rag with its windows (straightheaded under hood-moulds, but still mullioned and each light arched), central gables, and angle pavilions is essentially symmetrical. However, once the court is entered, formality is abandoned. The gateway axis does not correspond to the porch of the Great Hall, nor to its oriel window, nor the central buttress between the two. The porch itself was added late in the c17; the brick tower to the n or the Great Hall also is an addition. Its window has recently been found to have originally been of three lights with two transoms. The Great Hall is Early Elizabethan. For the two large Hall windows have four-centred arches, and five lights (with one transomes) are as on the outer s front. Of windows of the same style the other sides of the Master’s Court show few, though the walls are c16. The upper Court show few, though the walls are c16. The upper Court show few, though the walls are c16. The upper parts and details have obviously been altered in the c18 and c19. But behind the Court earlier features remain, notable the Wash House Court built as part of the outbuildings of the monastery early in the c16. Its outer walls are partly masonry and partly brickwork. Of brick, as has already been mentioned, also the Early Elizabethan addition, n of the Hall and Library, of a Great Gallery above the w range of the Carthusian cells and with a terrace carried on an arcade which corresponds to the w walk of the Charterhouse Cloister. The Gallery was built c. 1565-70 (date 1571 inside), e of the Hall first the Staircase of c. 1570, and then Brooke Hall of c. 1580 (much altered), and the Chapel Cloister, one of few additions of Thomas Sutton. It has arches with a kind of intermittent banded rustication to Chapel Court and a contemporary doorway to the Chapel Tower.


Chapel tower.

The tower stands, as recent discoveries have proved, above monks’ Treasury above. The Carthusian church was not, as has always been assumed, on the site of the present chapel, but s of it where the tomb of the founder has been found in the Chapel Court. The odd opening in the tower s wall was a quint from the Treasury into the church. The upper part of the tower was added in the early c17. The elaborate timber cupola of one square and one polygonal stage was also built under Sutton. It is a most remarkable example of its period. The Present chapel itself has late c15 windows (but e window 1841 and n aisle of Sutton’s time.

After the age of James I little was done, until in 1826-9 the Pensioners received spacious new quarters n of the Master’s and Wash House Courts. They are by Blore, in a plain Tudor style, and called Pensioners’ and Preachers’ Courts. Thirty years later Merchant Taylors’ School replaced Charterhouse School which moved to Godalming. Edward I’Anson now erected at once a new Assembly Hall in Ruskinian Gothic, that is, symmetrical with E.E. tracery but tourelles, effects of white and red colour alterations, and a hammerbeam roof. The former Headmaster’s House outside the gate into the e part of the Charterhouse complex is still later, ornate Franco-Flemish of 1894 by W. Hilton Nash.

Of interior features the following need mention: Great Hall; hammerbeam roof plastered over, early c17 panelling, elaborate screen of 1571 with arched openings separated by Corinthian columns and an early c17 gallery with caryatids, big early c17 fireplace. – Staircase e of the Hall: c.1570, amply carved.-se part of Master’s Court (Master’s House), early and late c17 fireplaces, especially one with relief figures of Faith, Charity and Hope.-Library: early c17 fireplace-Governors’ Room (w of Library): late c16 plaster ceiling and fireplace with painted allegories.

Chapel. The arcade of Tuscan columns with arches slightly decorated in a strapwork taste was renewed in 1612-14. The outer n aisle is by Blore. The plaster ceiling is of Sutton’s time.-communion table, pulpit, oak benches with carved bench-ends, and screen at w end of n aisle (not in situ) all of Sutton’s time, the benches by J. Ryder 1613, the pulpit by F. Blunt, T. Herring, and J. Wincle, also 1613. Contemporary w doo in Tower.-Plate Includes two Cups of 1630.

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