One of the most prolific and original English Gothic Revivalists, he was born in London, for a while worked with the Inwoods, and opened his own practice in 1840. From 1842 he was closely involved with the Cambridge Camden (later Ecclesiological) Society, contributing designs to The Ecclesiologist (1842–68) and Instrumenta Ecclesiastica (1850–2). His first church and parsonage were at Coalpit Heath, Glos. (St Saviour's, 1844–5), an essay in Second Pointed much influenced by Pugin, and decidedly plain. The parsonage is an important precedent for the free domestic compositions of W. E. Nesfield, Norman Shaw, and Philip Webb, for the fenestration was planned where needed, and all traces of the tyranny of symmetry vanished. Butterfield's mastery of grouping disparate elements together is best seen at the College of the Holy Spirit and Cathedral of the Isles at Millport, Greater Cumbrae, Scotland (1849–51), which demonstrates Pugin's ideal of a ‘True Picturesque’ composition based on groupings of forms and the function of the plan.
The Ecclesiologists determined to build a model church that would fulfil the requirements of ritual, and would set standards for Anglican churches in the future. Butterfield was appointed architect, and designed the church, clergy-house, and school of All Saints, Margaret Street, London (1849–59). The buildings were urban in character, of polychrome brickwork, and considerably influenced by Continental Gothic precedents. Here was a modern church designed to stand up to the rigorous climate of a Victorian city, a citadel of faith, an urban Minster. The hard, sharp architecture of the interior was coloured with glazed bricks and tiles, and it marked the beginning of the so-called High Victorian Gothic Revival. Many other churches followed, with hard, even violently polychromatic interiors: among them should be mentioned All Saints, Babbacombe, Devon (1865–74), St Augustine, Penarth, Glamorganshire (1864–6), and St Mark's, Dundela, Belfast (1876–91). His Keble College, Oxford, with its riotously polychromatic chapel (1867–83), and Rugby School chapel (completed 1872), the climax of which is the massive tower, are excellent examples of Butterfield's position as a master of the Sublime. He was the High Victorian Goth, using materials with honesty of expression, glorying in harsh structural polychrome effects, expressing his plans in three-dimensional forms, and obeying Pugin's call to build with clarity and truth. His grander houses include Milton Ernest Hall, Beds. (1853–6), a large Gothic pile of startling boldness, anticipating Shaw's Cragside and other examples later in the century: the whole ensemble has a pronounced Continental and un-English air, and the effect is uncompromising, stark, and assured. Butterfield also designed the County Hospital, Winchester, Hants. (1863–4—somewhat mutilated in C20), and carried out many works of restoration, notably at St Cross Hospital, Winchester (1864–5), and the Church of St Mary, Ottery St Mary, Devon (1947–50—where he designed a beautiful font).
AH, viii (1965), 73–9;Architects' Journal, cxci/25 (20 June 1990), 36–55;Hersey (1972);Hitchcock (1977);P. Thompson (1971)