Baker is South Africa's best-known architect. His career in South Africa (1892-1912) has provided the basis for a number of works and ongoing studies both in South Africa and overseas. His South African career spanned from pre-Anglo-Boer War days into the challenging years of post-war reorganisation and Union.
Baker was born at Owletts, Cobham, Kent and educated at Tonbridge School in Kent from 1875 to 1881; he was articled to his cousin Arthur Baker, FRIBA, in 1881 in whose office he remained until 1884. St Padarn's Church, Llanberis, North Wales was one of the works he supervised as clerk of works.
He joined the office of Ernest George & Peto (Harold Peto, his uncle and proposer for membership of the RIBA) in London around 1886 as an Improver and assistant. During this period he travelled in France, Italy, Belgium and Holland. In George & Peto's office he met Edwin LUTYENS who arrived in the office late 1887. Their friendship influenced their careers but ended in lack of harmony. Lutyens and Baker attended meetings of the newly founded (1884) Art Workers Guild, a society which was to be of enormous importance in the development of the architecture of the next fifty years (Baker was elected a member of the Guild in 1914 on his return to practice in England. Lutyens had been a member since 1903.) In 1889 Baker passed the RIBA examination and won the Ashpital Prize for the top examinee. In 1890 he left George & Peto to open his own practice in Rochester, Kent but his practice did not flourish. In 1890 Lutyens introduced Baker to Gertrude Jekyll who had some influence on Baker's ideas of garden organisation, as Lutyens later on noted in reference to the garden at Arcadia, Johannesburg, which he saw on his visit in 1910: 'It is odd to see great ugly cactus growing up in a Munstead border' (Hussey 1950:206).
Baker left for Cape Town in March 1892, ostensibly on his father's suggestion to keep an eye on his brother Lionel's fruit farming venture in the Cape. He was thirty years old. His brother joined H Pickstone at Rhodes's Fruit Farms in Groot Drakenstein and Baker himself decided to remain and to commence a practice in Cape Town. He began his career in South Africa by designing a small extension to the Tokai Reformatory for James Rose-Innes, Minister of Justice, and in 1893 a house for the same patron, reputedly Baker's first house at the Cape. His introduction to Cape society was swift; he soon met CJ Rhodes who asked him to restore his house, Groote Schuur, Baker's first essay in the colonial Dutch idiom. Like Rhodes he was responsive to the delights of the neglected Cape vernacular, with its white walls, gables, stoeps and courtyards, and the cool interiors with their heavy colonial furniture, old porcelain and silver. In matters of taste Rhodes found in Baker a sympathetic architect who had the mental outlook and ability to give form to Rhodes's aspirations and Imperial ambitions. From this relationship sprang the first real widespread appreciation of Cape Dutch architecture and domestic artefacts. A large body of work for the Cape Anglican Diocese began after his appointment as diocesan architect to the City of Cape Town in 1893 and subsequent designs for St Andrew's Church, Kildare Road, Newlands, in 1894, culminating in St George's Cathedral for which he began to design in 1897. In 1897 a fellow student from the Royal Academy, FE MASEY, joined him as a partner and worked on details of the Cathedral, taking over the design when Baker went to the Transvaal in 1902. Baker's correspondence with Masey shows how closely he kept watch on developments from afar. For his churches Baker generally favoured a slightly pointed, round-arched style with buttressed walling ranging from wholly rough-hewn stone to contrasting combinations of stone and white render. Windows were tall and very narrow in acknowledgement to the brightness of the African sun. Steeply pitched roofs covered with tiles were normal, although St Andrew's was originally thatched (this was later replaced with wood shingles and now with slate). With Masey he did several commercial buildings, notably the Rhodes Building for the De Beer's Mining Company with its Dutch gables containing Venetian windows, one of his favourite recurring motifs. This building also featured an internal court surrounded by an arcade of Tuscan columns, a prototype for many of his later buildings. According to Kendall (cf Fassler Papers) the building was designed almost entirely by Masey.
In the domestic field he began with the simple style of white walls edged with stone quoins for the Rose-Innes house (1893). With its twin triangular gables and enlivened by emphatic chimneys and shuttered sash windows, it would not have looked out of place anywhere in England. From this Arts and Crafts approach he moved to his characteristic Cape revival style for The Woolsack (1899) and Welgelegen (1899), both on Rhodes's Groote Schuur estate. The finest house in this manner was Rust en Vrede (1905), begun for Rhodes but taken over by Abe Bailey after Rhodes's death in 1902 and probably largely the work of Masey. Rhodes, accompanied by Dr LS Jameson, had visited Egypt, Greece, Italy and Sicily in 1899 and in the following year sent Baker on the same route for four months at Rhodes's own expense. Rhodes considered classicism as a means of expressing imperial ideals in his architectural ambitions, demonstrated in Baker's project for a Kimberley siege memorial in the form of a Roman Bath. This dream died with him but Baker was able to translate his patron's ambitions into stone in the Honoured Dead Memorial at Kimberley (1904) and Rhodes's own memorial on Table Mountain (1908). The Rhodes Memorial marked a fundamental change in the mind of Baker, drawing out his latent imperialism in a design which with its salient loggias and recessive centre proved to be a prototype for all his monumental architecture to come. The climax, reached by a steep climb of steps, was not the building itself but the view which it projected northwards over Rhodes's British Africa, the focus of which was Frederick Watts's statue 'Physical Energy'. Following Rhodes's death in 1902 and shortly before the Anglo-Boer War had actually ended, Milner invited Baker to help with post-war construction in the Transvaal. Baker was thus soon associated with Milner's Kindergarten, several of whose members became his closest friends and future clients, both in South Africa and in the Empire. He spent ten years in the Transvaal striving to raise the standard of building, as he had in the Cape with Rhodes's backing, by means of education, training tradesmen and personal example. The many fine houses he built included his own Stone House (1902) to which he brought his cousin Florence Edmeades, whom he married in 1904, and where four of his children were born Henry Edmeades (1905), Herbert Allaire Edmeades (1908) and Alfred Patrick
Edmeades (1913). Also notable are Northwards (1904), Marienhof (now Brenthurst, 1904) and the Villa Arcadia (1910). These and many others are characterised by their rough-hewn stone and white rendered walling, steep tiled roofs, Venetian windows and his favourite white, chubby Tuscan columns, often surrounding courts and covered loggias. In Johannesburg he was assisted by EW SLOPER from 1902 to 1906 (cf. BAKER, MASEY & SLOPER) and by FLH FLEMING from 1904. After Sloper left South Africa in 1906, Baker and Fleming continued to practise in Johannesburg (cf. BAKER & FLEMING). Baker himself left South Africa in 1912 but only left the partnership in 1917, Fleming then taking over the practice (cf. FLH FLEMING). In Cape Town the firm of BAKER & MASEY 1899 - 31 May 1910) included FK KENDALL, an assistant in Baker's office from 1897 and a junior partner from about 1906 although his name was not included in the firm's style until June 1910 (cf. BAKER & KENDALL). In about 1915 J MORRIS became a partner (cf BAKER, KENDALL & MORRIS) and on 31 December 1918 Baker withdrew from this firm (cf KENDALL & MORRIS). The contribution made by these architects in facilitating Baker's successful business is difficult to estimate but must surely have been substantial. Together they built many churches, notably St George's, Parktown (1904), the chancel of St Alban's Cathedral, Pretoria (1905) and St Michael and All Angels', Boksburg (1911). The firm made small beginnings or additions at some of South Africa's most famous schools including St John's College and Roedean in Johannesburg, St Andrew's College in Grahamstown and the Diocesan College in Cape Town. In Natal in 1908 he built a chapel at St Anne's College and another at Michaelhouse School. At Michaelhouse he added skilfully to the original 1902 buildings by KENT & PRICE, some of which were all but destroyed to make way for Fleming & Cooke's memorial chapel of 1952. Pretoria Railway Station (1909) and the South African Institute for Medical Research in Johannesburg (1912) are also among his finest works. In 1910 the commission for the Johannesburg Art Gallery was given to Lutyens on the recommendation of the London-based Sir Hugh Lane, a decision which Baker unflinchingly supported at a time when he himself was fully occupied with the Union Buildings.
The Union Buildings, designed in 1909 and arguably his finest work, was the culmination of his twenty years in South Africa, a fine blend of classicism, imperial domes on towers (probably Lutyens inspired), vaulted loggias and colonnades, all fused with a Cape-Italianate spirit. The group has a receding, hollow apse-like centre in the form of a colonnaded amphitheatre, which defies expectations of a centre-dominated Imperial composition. This brilliant if unlikely device is again the climax of a long and steep axial approach, starting nowhere in particular, bifurcating at will and ending in a gap in the rear of the colonnade. For many years the Union Buildings served as a style-source for official buildings all over South Africa, though nowhere else was such democratic idealism wrought by such simple means.
In 1911 Baker instituted the Baker scholarship which was to be awarded to the student who presented the best design and the best essay in support of a prescribed project. The topics may have been set by Baker, initially at least; the essay subject for the first Baker Scholarship award was 'The principles dominating architectural design in South Africa', it was won by Gordon LEITH. The importance of this scholarship lay in its emphasis on the continuance of Baker's own predilections in architecture, a fact immediately recognised by the contestants. It offered an opportunity for the winner to enjoy some of the privileges Baker himself had enjoyed through Rhodes's generosity, study travel abroad. Early in 1913 Baker left South Africa to collaborate in the building of New Delhi for which Lutyens, already appointed, had conceived a plan. He did not return to South Africa to practice.
Baker's next important commission was to rebuild the Bank of England (1925-1939) which involved the controversial destruction of Sir John Soane's finest work. Baker's appointment in 1917 during the First World War as a Principal Architect to the War Graves Commission resulted in his design of numerous Imperial war cemeteries, including the South African Delville Wood Memorial at Longueval (1926), the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle (1927) and the vast Passchendaele Memorial at Tynecot (1927). Baker's imperial progress continued in England with Rhodes House, Oxford (1929), India House (1930), South Africa House (1933), the Royal Empire Society headquarters (1936) and the Dominion students hostel London House (1937). He designed churches which hold echoes of his South African work at Ilford, Essex (1925) and Woldingham, Surrey (1933), several banks and a large number of memorials and other works too numerous to list. Perhaps his finest work in England is his War Cloister at Winchester College (1924) where his Arts and Crafts blend sublimely with distant imperial vaults and English heraldry. In international terms Baker might rightly be called an Architect of the British Empire (he was knighted in 1923), he carried out work in no less than fifteen countries, twelve of which were at the time British Dominions or Colonies. In South Africa he and his associates through him left an architectural impression of great importance to the development of a South African style.
Portraits: sketch of HB aged about 40 years by JM SOLOMON ( in The State); portr aged 60 years (CA); portr of HB, SA Nat Gall, CT - replica of original in possession of Mr C Thompson, Cornwall, England (SAB Feb 1939:27). ARIBA 1889; FRIBA 1900; SASA 1901; ATA 1908; KCIE 1923; ISAA 1927; RA 1932; DCL (Oxon) 1937; LL.D (Rand). (ARIBA nom papers (1889); Baker (Henry) 1985; Baker, Kendall & Earle Gift UCT; BLB (1904-54) DSAB 1:44-47; FRIBA nom papers (1900); Fassler Papers; Gradidge 1984; Greig 1970; Greig 1971; Hussey 1950; Irving 1981; JHB Art Gallery Archives; Keath 1987; McIntyre 1950; Men Tvl 1905; SAAR Jul 1943:164-6; SAAR Jul 1946:161-83; SAWW 1908; Stuart Grey 1985:97-9; The Builder (133) Nov 25, 1927:809-16; The Builder, Nov 17, 1944)
Publ: Cecil Rhodes and Art, The Times Nov 5, 1910; Cecil Rhodes by his architect, 1934; Architecture and personalities, 1944; 'Plea for English gothic', Afr Archt, Jul 1, 1911:36; 'The architectural needs of South Africa', The State, Jul 1909; 'The Government buildings of Pretoria, New Delhi, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Kenya' RIBA Jnl 10 Dec 1927:63-77.
The digital archive of the Baker Collection of the Department of Architecture, University of the Witwatersrand can be accessed by clicking here and then typing Baker into the search box.
All truncated references not fully cited in 'References' are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.