He manages to achieve not a single pass in his school certificate, a fitting outcome to a lacklustre and unenthusiastic Quarry career. Faced with seemingly no academic outlet he is ‘rescued’ by the efforts of the Headmaster who uses his powers of persuasion to get his recalcitrant pupil into the Liverpool Art School. He spends little over a year in his art studies but regardless he is to become a symbol of rebellion, a cult figure and a larger than life worldwide icon in his sphere. Yes, this could read like a pen-picture of John Lennon, but it in fact it relates to another Quarry old boy, James Frazer Stirling.
Considered by many to be one of the few geniuses of post-war architecture ‘Big’ Jim Stirling’s life was an endlessly varied cocktail of high living, daring exploits and iconoclastic achievements which generated an unrivalled status amongst his peers.
He was born in Glasgow, son of Joseph Stirling, a ship’s engineer, and moved to Liverpool when his father came to work for the Blue Funnel line. The family seemed to have been fairly straight-laced, his mother a strong teetotaller and his father a staunch Presbyterian. Notwithstanding this, or maybe because of it, later in life, Jim was to acquire a well-deserved reputation as a heavy drinker and womaniser.
He joined Quarry Bank in 1936, the family by this time having moved to a pleasant suburban house at 24 Childwall Priory Road L16. At the time he arrived the school was still under the stewardship of its first headmaster and major influence, Richard Fitzroy Bailey. In his biography of Stirling, Mark Giroud succinctly summarises his subjects school attainments: “He was an unremarkable Boy Scout who never became a troop-leader, was never a prefect, did not play in any school team, could not spell, was always bottom of the class, and never passed an exam.”
In fact, Stirling’s departure from the school was on exactly the same lines as Lennon’s was to be some years later. To obtain your School Certificate in those days you had to gain at least 5 passes in a set list of subjects. Stirling passed in none – his only ‘successes’ being in Art and Handicraft. With no qualifications to his name he had the headmaster to thank for getting him into his next educational establishment – Liverpool Art School.
His school years should, however, not be left without noting an achievement which was quite remarkable for a schoolboy. Along with a classmate, Gerry Robinson, he developed a passionate interest in egg-collecting and bird watching. They wandered the North West far and wide detailing their observations and discoveries with a thoroughness and dedication which seems to have been completely lacking from his school endeavours. Working closely with the Merseyside Naturalists’ Association they took part in a variety of ornithological projects such as ringing birds for scientific purposes. Their prowess was reflected in the 1940 edition of H F Witherby’s prestigious Handbook of British Birds where the list of those who had contributed by giving information included the names J F Stirling and G K Robinson.
He left Quarry Bank in 1941, attending the School of Art together with a day-release to an architect’s office. His stay there was short as in November 1942 he volunteered for the army, despite being in a reserved occupation as a student and architect. He was commissioned into the Black Watch in July 1942 but did not take to their mess life and customs and sought a move to the Parachute Regiment. Dropped into enemy territory on D-Day apart from himself and his sergeant his whole section was wiped out by a German armoured car and Stirling was evacuated to England. Soon back in France he took part in the vicious fighting around Caen and was again wounded, shot in the arm and shoulder by a machine gun. This brought his active service to an end and much of his remaining time in the army was spent in military hospitals.
Returning to Liverpool he studied architecture at the University from 1946 to 1950 and after qualifying he moved to London. In 1955 he set up his own practice on the back of a commission for a small housing project in West Ham. A major breakthrough came in 1959 when he won the commission to design the engineering building at Leicester University. Completed in 1963 the building attracted international acclaim and established Stirling as a leading modernist architect. This success led to other commissions and his reputation expanded exponentially to the point where he became something of a cult figure, known amongst his peers as ‘Big Jim’ – the lithe, athletic para having ballooned to over 20 stone. If his creations won extensive artistic acclaim, problems in construction stemming from underfunding brought him a reputation as an architect whose buildings did not ‘work’. The period 1969 to 1977 saw him gain no new commissions, the one positive outcome of which was the time to develop his teaching role at Yale University.
In 1978, at a time when he faced closing his practice through lack of work, he gained a commission for an addition to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. This work, completed in 1984 enjoyed a triumphal reception, leading to a flurry of new commissions. He received the Royal Institute of British Architects’ queen’s gold medal in 1980 and a variety of other awards.
At the height of his powers, Stirling went into hospital for a routine hernia operation. The procedure went wrong and he died on 25 June 1992, just twelve days after it had been announced that he had been knighted. In 1996 the RIBA instituted a new annual prize, now accepted as the UK’s most prestigious architect award. They named it the Stirling Prize.
The young James Stirling in his Quarry Bank school uniform.
By far the most comprehensive source is Mark Girouard's Big Jim: The Life and Work of James Stirling [Chatto and Windus 1998]. There is a comprehensive entry for Stirling. in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
© Liverpool Footprints