The Audsleys, Masters of Victorian design

Photograph of an elderly man with a white beard and moustache

17 May 2003 - 7 September 2003

The Audsley brothers were designers that worked together in Liverpool during the 19th century. They produced a myriad of exotic designs for a diverse range of objects - from stained glass windows and pattern books to musical instruments.

This intriguing exhibition revisits their influential designs and architectural achievements, including the celebrated interior of Princes Road synagogue. Unusual items on display include an ornate Egyptian-style upright piano and a silver brooch decorated with dragons and thistles, set with quartz, citrine and amethyst.

Portrait photograph of an elderly man in profile

The Audsley brothers

Photograph of an elderly man with a white beard and moustache

William James Audsley (1833-1907) and brother George Ashdown Audsley (1838-1925) were born in Scotland. George, the better known of the brothers, was originally apprenticed to architects A & W Reid in his birth town of Elgin. However, by 1856 the Audsleys were both in Liverpool and employed by different local firms.

George worked alongside Liverpool Corporation surveyor, John Weightman, on plans for Liverpool Free Public Library and Museum - now Liverpool Central Library and World Museum. At about the same time William was working for John Cunningham, the architect responsible for the original Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and the Sailors' Home at Canning Place.

In 1860 the brothers opened offices in Upper Stanhope Street and set up a partnership under the name W&G Audsley. They both became important figures in Liverpool society, joining the Liverpool Scottish Volunteer Rifles and playing an active role in the Liverpool Art Club. Their contribution included loaning items for exhibitions, giving lectures, organising events and writing catalogues.

Full length portrait of a man in military uniform

The brothers worked so closely together on their many different projects that it is often unclear which brother took the lead. Later in their careers, they relocated to London and eventually to America. Over the years, they worked on domestic architecture, churches, synagogues and even a skyscraper, as well a variety of decorative arts.

Today the Audsleys are mostly remembered for their publications on architecture and decoration. Few of the original patterned interiors that the brothers designed remain intact, but their work also appeared in pattern books created for professional and amateur decorators to copy. These books bought them international repute and some have been recently reprinted for design students to use today.

Beautiful and illustrated publications on display in the exhibition include an ornate version of Byron's poem 'The Prisoner of Chillon', plus 'The Ornamental Arts of Japan'. George Audsley started his own collection of oriental arts, the influence of which can be seen in patterns from books like 'The Practical Decorator and Ornamentalist' which he wrote with his son Maurice in 1892.

Organ architecture

Photograph of a piano

Throughout their careers the Audsleys experimented with lots of types decorative arts and even ventured into piano design. Their Egyptian-style showpiece, was made for the 1887 International Exhibition in Paris, although a second piano to the same design was also made. The makers were WH and GH Dreaper, who owned a shop on Bold Street, Liverpool.

Later George developed a great interest in pipe organs. He had been inspired by a recital that he attended at Liverpool's St George's Hall when he was about eighteen and was thought to have started building one at his home in Liverpool during the 1860s. The house he later occupied in London had a music room featuring an organ that he built.

Wanamaker Organ

Photograph of a large set of golden organ pipes

When George emmigrated to America, his work in organ design increased greatly. His largest project was the celebrated Wanamaker organ that can be seen in the Lord and Taylor department store in Philadelphia. It was created for the Los Angeles Art Organ Company for the St Louis World's Fair in 1904. It had 10,000 pipes, cost $105,000 to build and took 13 freight cars to move it by train from St Louis to Philadelphia. It took two years to install and has since been enlarged by a further 18,000 pipes. It continues to be played regularly.

In 1918 George went briefly into partnership with organist Arthur Scot Brook. He continued to design organs and wrote many of the standard works on the subject until his death in 1925.

Other buildings

Stained glass window

Although little of Audsleys' domestic architecture survives in Liverpool, some of the dcor and artefacts they produced are on show, including two stained glass windows that were rescued from a property called Heathlands. The building, on Croxteth Drive in Liverpool, was demolished in the mid 1970s, but the windows are typical of the Audleys' designs.

In addition to the many places of worship, domestic and civic projects that the brothers contributed to, the Audleys are also known to have designed the original Liverpool Racquet Club and Courts at 100 Upper Parliament Street and the Liverpool Art Club Picture Gallery at number 98. Unfortunately, the Racquet Club was severely damaged during the 1980s Toxteth riots and the club was forced to relocate to its current city centre home.

Photograph of a grey stone building with tall narrow columns

By 1885 William Audlsey had emigrated to the United States where he continued the work of the partnership. The firm's first commission in America was Layton Art Gallery on North Jefferson Street, Milwaukee, which opened in 1888. The building was demolished in 1958 when the gallery merged with Milwaukee Art Institution to form the Milwaukee Art Museum designed by Eero Saarinen.

In 1892 George Audlsey joined William in their New York offices where the partners worked on one of their most exciting projects, the Bowling Green Offices at Broadway. The building is credited as being an example of New York's earliest skyscrapers, built between 1895 and 1898.

Places of worship

The best surviving example of an Audlsey decorative scheme is the Old Hebrew Congregation Synagogue in Princes Road, Liverpool. The brothers described it as "an eclectic mixture of the best of Eastern and Western schools of art".

The Jewish community in Liverpool was founded in the mid 18th century and became one of the largest and most influential outside of London. It played a significant part in international Jewish affairs through its sophisticated society networks and the prominence of its middle class merchants, bankers and shopkeepers.

Over the last century, Liverpool's Jewish community has moved out of the centre into the suburbs of Childwall, Allerton and Woolton. However, Princes Road Synagogue still attracts a small but active congregation, with the Princes Road Synagogue Trust dedicated to the preservation of the building and its magnificent decorative scheme. Unfortunately, some of the interior was fire damaged in 1978 but has since been painstakingly restored.

Althouth the Audsleys are best-known in Liverpool for the opulent interior of the synagogue, they also designed many other places of worship, including the Welsh Presbyterian Church, also on Princes Road. It was described by an 1868 edition of 'The Building News', as being made of grey Yorkshire stone and Gothic in style, with details of yellow sandstone and early French influence. The church is still standing, but unfortunately it is now vacant and in need of serious repair.

The brothers' earliest church design was St John's Welsh Chapel on Saint John Street in Chester and built in 1866. They also created Christ Church in the Kensington district of Liverpool, St Margaret's in Anfield and renovated some older buildings like the Parish Church of Bebington on the Wirral.

The Audsleys' biggest commission outside of Liverpool was the New West End Synagogue in the Bayswater district of London. It was completed in 1879.