Reviewed in the Western Morning News 12 November 2008
Not everyone in Cornwall will know the name of Silvanus Trevail, yet there can be no one who has not seen – and most probably used –one of the hundreds of buildings he designed.
From libraries to art galleries, churches to schools, banks to country mansions, asylums to hotels, factories to miners' terraces, hospitals to shops, the distinctive character of his work is as much a part of Cornwall's physical landscape as its cliffs, moors, engine houses and quoits.
Until now, there were few reference sources available about his life and work. But this week sees the publication of a major study by Hazel Harradence and Ronald Perry which not only gives due credit to his achievements but also examines his personal life and the possible causes of his suicide.
Although his is not a household name today, Silvanus Trevail would have required no introduction a century ago. Such was his stature among his peers that he was elected President of the Society of Architects, a national body with some 600 members.
He was a familiar figure in the cities of Britain, his forceful speeches widely reported in the London and provincial press.
In Cornwall, where he was born at Luxulyan in October 1851, he was as famous for his radical reforming politics as for his architecture.
He pursued public health crusades as Mayor of Truro and chairman of Cornwall County Council sanitation committee, he built technical schools and libraries and promoted tourism. And when cautious financiers refused to back his schemes, he simply put up the money himself. He often helped church and chapel congregations with their fundraising or, as in the case of Temple on Bodmin Moor, gave his services for free. In just three decades he handled an incredible 300 architectural commissions.
A bright young man with drive and vision, who grew up in the shadow of Treffry's magnificent viaduct in the Luxulyan Valley, Trevail rose to become one of the best-known figures of the Victorian era.
Such was his mark on his homeland that it is almost impossible to find a town or village that has not in some way been touched by his talent and flair. Between the passing of the Education Act of 1870 and his untimely death at the age of 52, Trevail designed more than 50 schools throughout Cornwall.
His contribution to tourism was also significant, having designed some of the finest coastal hotels of the period, including King Arthur's Castle Hotel at Tintagel, Carbis Bay Hotel, Housel Bay Hotel on The Lizard, Pendennis Hotel in Falmouth, and both the Atlantic and Headland hotels in Newquay.
Combining native granite with other stone, Welsh brick and terracotta for window surrounds and other features, his buildings are as instantly recognisable as a Nicholas Grimshaw design is today.
His originality is perhaps best illustrated in a short, but illuminating passage on the "triumphal arches" of Truro, which were erected in 1880 to mark the visit of Edward, Duke of Cornwall, to lay the foundation stone of the new cathedral.
Rather than "digging out the tired bunting used by other towns" – as Trevail put it – Truro should construct arches at every entrance to the city. The royal visit was to be a public holiday for Cornwall and thousands were expected to converge on the city centre for the occasion.
These five opulent edifices, decorated with flags, flowers, coats of arms and loyal greetings to Edward, had the effect of bringing Trevail's talents to the notice of both the public and of future customers. Made from timber and plaster and richly painted, each was the height of a two-storey building.
"He rose to the occasion," write Perry and Harradence, "by exhibiting a mastery of architectural styles, from Greco-Roman, Gothic and Tudor to Moorish. He also displayed a talent for the organisation of a large-scale project on a number of sites, carrying out the design and erection of these arches entirely on his own in just two weeks, acting as his own clerk of works, visiting each site 10 or 12 times a day and supervising the local craftsmen who made them."
The arches were met with universal admiration and Trevail himself was so proud of them – and of "having my own in everything" – that he hung large photographs and drawings of the structures in his study.
Through 245 pages, 150 colour illustrations and a comprehensive catalogue of all his projects, authors Hazel Harradence and Ronald Perry have honoured their very worthy subject with a study that successfully combines popular biography and academic tome.
There is a hardly a page that does not boast either a colour photograph of one of Trevail's buildings or contemporary illustrations.
As might be expected from the secretary and membership secretary of The Silvanus Trevail Society, Perry and Harradence write with enthusiasm and love. But the authors' devotion to their subject does not mean they ignore the architect's shortcomings, disputes and sometimes difficult nature. Nevertheless, through all the years of struggle and success, what shines through is Trevail's genius as an artist with an idiosyncratic Cornish eye.
Trevail enjoyed three decades of success, being at the heart of the professional and commercial life of Cornwall.
Then on the morning of Saturday, November 7, 1903, he donned his top hat and frock coat and boarded a train from Truro to attend the funeral of his Uncle Joseph in Luxulyan. While the train was passing through a tunnel near Bodmin, Trevail made his way to the ladies' toilet, put a revolver to his head and shot himself, bringing a brilliant career to an end at the age of 52.
And while Harradence and Perry devote a chapter to his untimely demise, considering a number of theories, the reason for his suicide remains an enigma.
Hundreds packed the church at Luxulyan for his funeral, while news of his death was broadcast throughout Cornwall on picture postcards. A stained glass window was unveiled in his memory at the same church in 1906.
The window was a gesture of devotion by his sister Laura – but Trevail's greatest memorials are the ones we see each day, the schools where we learn to read and write, the places in which we choose to worship, the free libraries we patronise, the colleges we use to study, the houses we live in, the banks, shops, hotels, hospitals and art galleries we frequent. Added to this list is now a biography worthy of the great man himself and his many achievements.