Monday 1 January 2018

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to a scarce 'old' architectural historian called Gavin Stamp who smiled on the good and frowned on the bad and the ugly

There is an excellent obituary of Gavin, who has died at the age of 69, in the 'Telegraph' and not wishing to match it, the best tribute would be to let the eloquent Gavin speak for himself.

Born in Bromley, Kent in 1948, just three years after the end of the Second World War, it is clear that Gavin came from a relatively modest background since he himself admitted in later life that he was homesick for the England of his childhood, of free orange-juice and nationalised steam railways. His life changed when he was ten in 1958, as he said in 2010 :

"I am happy to record that I am a beneficiary of the great ‘Gilkes Experiment.’ I passed the Eleven Plus and the Dulwich entry examination, and so attended the school on a Kent County Council grant. We lived at Hayes, and so Dulwich was one of the good nearby independent schools I was encouraged to try for. Later, I think when I was in the Fifth Form, my parents moved to Norwich but fortunately they left me behind as a boarder."

The 'Gilkes' in question was Christopher H. Gilkes who was Master of Dulwich College, the prestigious boys' public school from 1941-53, who took advantage of the provisions of the Education Act 1944 which said that any child who passed the 11+ exam qualified for a free place at a secondary school, fees being paid by the local authority which prompted him to tell the School's Alleyn Club : "It is now possible to choose as our entrants the best boys, quite regardless of their father's income."

Dulwich clearly made the architectural historian and critic of  'modern barbarism' Gavin later became : "At first, moving from the Junior School, as a rather shy and uncertain boy, I found Charles Barry junior’s Victorian buildings intimidating, if not frightening. Later I grew to love them, and along with others. was outraged when part of the capitals on the piers in the Cloisters were hacked off to install that crude and quite unnecessary glazing. Perhaps that indicates a certain Philistinism on the school’s part, though it was probably the result of Dulwich being in thrall to an established mediocre modernist architect."

Gavin's sketch of the Old Library and Barry Viney's painting of the school.

"I suppose the continuing public school ethos was Philistine to a degree. I detested rugby and all team games but, eventually, when it was clear that I had other serious interests, which dear old Bill Darby recognised, I was allowed to retreat to the Art Room which Barry Viney had made into a haven of civilization."

"It was only after I had left that I discovered that one of the finest and funniest writers in the English language was an Old Alleynian, but nobody talked about P.G. Wodehouse in my day. Now, of course, his name is exploited for all it is worth."

"I benefited greatly from being at Dulwich in that it encouraged my interest in architecture, above all in Victorian architecture. The great boon of being a boarder, when in the senior school, was that I had time to explore the surrounding parts of South London – above all, perhaps, Crystal Palace with its melancholy relics of past glories. And Dulwich, with the Estate criss-crossed by railway lines, is a wonderful place to develop an enthusiasm for railways and an interest in their history."
All credit to Jan Piggot's interviewith Gavin in 2010.

After Dulwich came Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he obtained a PhD in 1978 with a thesis entitled 'George Gilbert Scott, junior, architect, 1839–1897' and, in fact, his most celebrated piece of journalism, in the Spectator in 1985, was a defence of the telephone boxes designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, in which he wrote : 'No vandalism meted out to a kiosk by an individual has equalled that practised systematically by British Telecom.' It was his first victory for conservation when his article inspired a campaign by the Spectator which led to about 2,500 of the boxes being listed.

In 2001 he contributed to the Jonathan Meades BBC TV series, 'Pevsner Revisted' and commented on why Pevsner irritated him and the clash between Betjeman and Pevsner. In addition, he highlighted Pevsner's like of the Victorians and how he had "made the English take the 19th Century seriously." He also commented on his view of 'modern architecture.' and his "astonishing legacy."

In 2004 he retraced the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner's journey through the architecture and buildings of Oxford  from the gothic vaults of Christ Church Cathedral to the neo-classical opulence of Canterbury Quad in Adrian Sibley's TV series 'Pevsner's Cities.'

In 2007 he left the shores of Britain to make 'Gavin Stamp's Orient Express,' in which he travelled on his architectural journey to Istanbul by train, at first in the lap of luxury on the Orient Express and from then from Vienna on more modest transport. and

In 2014 he contributed  to Dan Cruickshank BBC documentary : 'The Family That Built Gothic Britain' which charted the rise of Sir George Gilbert Scott to the heights of success, the fall of his son George Junior and the rise again of his grandson Giles. Gavin, who himself had written a biography of Sir George commented on the building of the new Foreign Office Building in Whitehall and the relationship between father and son.

Also in 2014, he contributed to the BBC TV 'Time Team Special' : 'The Edwardian Grand Designer' Sir Edwin Lutyens and his design for the London Cenotaph.

It was under the pseudonym 'Piloti' that Gavin wrote the 'Nooks and Corners' column in Private Eye magazine. Interviewed two years ago in a 'Private Eye Podcast', Gavin confessed that : "My brief is anything vaguely to do with architecture and outrages to do with buildings. The column is properly called 'Nooks and Corners of a New Barbarism.' That was the original title when Betjeman did it. Everybody calls it 'Nooks and Crannies.' Betjeman began it in 1971. He poked fun at various modern buildings and then he got bored after 8 issues. It was then taken on by his daughter the late lamented Candida Lycett Green and that photographer did it for a time. Then it just lapsed and around about 1981 Richard Ingrams wanted to revive it and he asked John Betjeman, who I knew, and Betjeman recommended me and to my amazement I've done it ever since."
at 0.57 :

He reflected on victories where he had helped the good to thwart the bad and the ugly :
"It's very depressing with all the ridiculous things people do or outrageous behaviour by developers or councils which is why the occasional joke is good and the occasional good story where the 'Eye' has been on the right side. Often we have supported local campaigns and that really matters. I suspect what I say in the London context, they just brush Private Eye aside, but when a local scandal appears in Private Eye, I think it's a huge asset to local amenity groups and societies all over Britain. I remember in particular one campaign I was keen to help with which was very much Private Eye combining with local people where they were building on the glebe land outside Ely Cathedral and that went on for some time and .Nooks and Corners' supported their campaigning and that was a good victory."
at 2.12 :

at 3.53 :
He deplored the high buildings going up in London : "The complete lack of control.This Mayor and his predecessor both have applauded this and far too much happened and the damage is done I'm afraid. Some have been approved and an awful lot are going up already."

and at 4.21 :
"I've tried occasionally such as all the things that are happening in Battersea, I had a go. Suddenly that area which was partly derelict and Battersea Dogs Home and Nine Elms Market was up for grabs with huge developments which are all going up now the are being utterly changed."

In answer to the question : "Why get involved ?" he replied : "It's a subjective thing, whether there's any decent architect or planner involved ? and the nature of the opposition ? - when there's a serious local group objecting that : too dense a development, lack of affordable housing or just the height. I think there's a case for voicing a criticism. I think the strength of 'Private Eye' is that, as in all other spheres, it really is independent. Thank goodness I' m not an architectural correspondent attached to news papers because they're always in a way, 'tied.' I realised early on it's a huge mistake to ever  meet architects. They take you out to lunch and then they think they own you. Architects are always charming even the worst ones, Charm is their speciality that is how they get their work and once you've met them and had drink with them or lunch with them, you've had it. So its very important to keep entirely separate from the architectural world. Then you can insult them."
at 4.44 :

"I have sometimes said : "Of course the best architects are dead ones," I mean, without being silly about it, at least then you can be objective about what they've done."

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