Gavin Stamp, who died a few days after Christmas last year, was well-named. As an architectural historian, he was as ready to give battle as his namesake, Sir Gavin, one of the boldest knights of King Arthur’s Round Table. And he would stamp if he had to—with energy, absolute conviction, and a disregard for other people’s toes.
The stamping was not an expression of bad temper so much as rage, directed against the destruction of Britain’s built heritage of railway stations and red telephone boxes, war memorials and churches (even if obscure). Gavin rode to the rescue of these comely structures, the great and the everyday, by fearlessly attacking the dragons of redevelopment into whose clutches they had fallen. Architects and philistines alike writhed beneath his pen.
Architects and philistines alike writhed beneath Stamp’s pen.
A tall man, whose long, slab-like face recalled an Easter Island statue, Gavin would not have looked out of place in one of Oliver Cromwell’s parliaments—and he had the same kind of certainty in his opinions. People who met him in the flesh were overcome by his charm, diffidence, and erudition. But to the architectural establishment he was a scourge, as fervent in his denunciations as a seventeenth-century Leveller or Anabaptist. He published several scholarly books and gave innumerable lectures, delivered in a bravura style, with sometimes a couple of hundred images and never any notes. He gave freely of his time to pressure groups and learned societies. But he reached a wider audience as a journalist, and it’s for his writing that Britain—and the world—will chiefly miss him. Who else will there be to defend us from the greedy developers who are seeking to wreck Britain’s cities, or the conceited, time-serving architects who do their bidding? “Architecture,” wrote Gavin in one of his last books, Anti-Ugly, a collection of essays written for Apollo magazine, “is the only art you cannot escape.” To him the enemies of beauty were simply evil.
There were innumerable diatribes, fewer paeans of praise for living architects, whom he tried to avoid meeting in person—to do so would have spiked his rhetoric. Being humane at heart, Gavin softened his criticism of the works of those he knew personally, and indeed brought himself to like some of them, particularly those who enjoyed a sociable drink. Although the Anglican church was quietly important, Gavin’s moral voice derived ultimately from the Victorian thinkers John Ruskin and William Morris. He also stood in the vituperative tradition of Evelyn Waugh and especially the travel writer and controversialist Robert Byron (“I find Byron’s comparative obscurity a puzzle,” he wrote in The Spectator in 1981). But the fulminations were always informed by Gavin’s scholarship. For all his energy and knowledge, he never produced the big narrative history for which his admirers hoped; he once told a friend that his natural length was the sprint, not the marathon. But the cumulative effect of his journalism and other writing, over more than forty years, was prodigious.
Gavin’s passion for architecture began at Dulwich College, the private school in south London—Gavin won a free place—built in the Victorian era that he loved. A great-uncle was Lord Stamp, a chairman of the Midland and Scottish Railway, but Gavin’s home circumstances were not rich; his father failed to make a success of the grocery chain he inherited and instead became a driving instructor (which may be why Gavin never learned to drive). By the time he went to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in the turbulent year of 1968, his stance—not merely anti-Modernist but anti–modern life—was fully formed. This was a time of long hair and marijuana, and Gavin’s right-wing tutor John Casey remembers his appearance in Victorian dress as being “like the Relief of Mafeking.” He could be seen, in starched collar, painting backdrops for theatrical productions; he also decorated a café called Waffles, from shop front to menu cards.
I first knew Gavin in the mid-1970s when he was teaching a course at Cambridge; his towering, watch chain–wearing presence, clad in tweeds and corduroys of Edwardian cut, added to the individualism of the History of Art Department, already remarkable for the immaculate pinstripes of David Watkin and the brightly colored snakeskin jackets of Robin Middleton. He was living in an attic flat rented from a Victorian church, now demolished, in what was then the little-colonized south London borough of Southwark. Each of the many steps—indeed every surface—was piled high with books, often dating from what he regarded as the zenith of architectural publishing, the turn of the twentieth century. Without the benefit of Amazon or AbeBooks, these volumes had to be hunted down in secondhand shops, but the prices had yet to rise.
On the table would be the tools with which Gavin made bookplates, posters, and Christmas cards, in the black-and-white style of his early-twentieth-century heroes F. L. Griggs, William Nicholson, and Frank Brangwyn. For Gavin was a talented illustrator. A notable friend, colorful even by the standards of the circle in which Gavin moved, was the architect Roderick Gradidge (he wore a gray kilt, for reasons, as he would explain in an embarrassingly piercing voice, of ventilation, as well as a pigtail: the combination made him look like a sailor on a man o’ war). When Roddy designed a columbarium for the ultra-High Anglican church St. Mary Bourne Street, Gavin drew the lettering. Both Gavin and Roddy were pillars of the Art Workers Guild, a Morris-inspired meeting place for artists and craftsmen that dates from 1884. In later years Gavin may have neglected his artistic gifts, but he remained intensely practical—expert at the putting-up of the bookshelves that were needed in great quantity.
In those years, Gavin was still researching his Ph.D. on the mentally troubled Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott Junior, son of the titanic Sir (George) Gilbert Scott; the latter was the architect of the Midland Hotel at St. Pancras Station, among other buildings—it was in a room there that, by a horrible, perhaps intended, irony, the younger Scott died of cirrhosis of the liver. Gavin’s choice of subject—a forgotten, minor figure with an intriguing story—was characteristic, for his knowledge of Victorian architecture was encyclopedic, and he enjoyed exploring the brooks and tributaries of architectural history as much as the main stream. In time his taste would move into the twentieth century, and he became chairman of the Thirties (later Twentieth Century) Society.
One landmark on this aesthetic journey was the 1981 Lutyens exhibition, held in London’s Hayward Gallery. Sir Edwin Lutyens was a bête noire to the zealots of the Modern Movement; they hated his romanticism, Classicism, and (as the architect of the Viceroy’s House at New Delhi) imperialism. His reputation was restored by the exhibition, for which the concrete bunker of the Hayward was transformed into a series of domestic spaces by the postmodern architect Piers Gough: Gavin wrote a catalogue essay on the Viceroy’s House and some of the captions—such as one to a photograph of Lutyens on an elephant tended “by his faithful mahout Reyner Banham.” (Banham was an aging architectural guru, famous for writings on Los Angeles and Brutalism.) Spoofs greatly appealed to Gavin’s sense of humor. He invented the Arnold B. Mitchell Society, named after an Edwardian architect: the joke of which was that it did not exist. There was always a lot of fun.
Effervescence was not incompatible with a lofty seriousness. This was demonstrated on the numerous tours that he led for the Victorian Society and the Twentieth Century Society, always to an agenda that seemed to include more than any reasonable enthusiast or bus driver could accomplish. There was no time for dawdling, and anyone who could not keep up with the stride of Gavin’s exceptionally long legs would just have to miss out or be left behind. The pace may have suited Gavin’s own restless energy. The knowledge that Gavin freely poured into the notes accompanying these trips was immense. Often the descent of a group of architectural enthusiasts, with Gavin at the helm, caused astonishment to the people in the country-house-turned- nursing-home or cinema-now-bingo-hall that was being visited. The fashionable inhabitants of the sixteenth arrondissement in Paris looked on in amazement as a phalanx of eager, eccentrically dressed Anglophones ignored the elegance of the quartier to study a 1930s fire station, built from reinforced concrete. (For the sake of absolute accuracy I should add that this weekend was not masterminded by Gavin, although his presence—outwardly grave, inwardly amused—added to the improbability.) I did not go on the tours he led to New Delhi. I wish I had.
Gavin’s tone was that of moral outrage and disgust.
On coming down from Cambridge, Gavin had gotten to know Sir John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate who had become a television personality championing steam trains, Victorian architecture, and the suburbs. They shared a passion for conservation. It led Gavin to be recruited by the fortnightly satirical magazine Private Eye to take over the column started by Betjeman: “Nooks and Corners of the New Barbarism.” Under the nom de guerre Piloti—from the piers that lift Corbusian buildings from the ground—he would continue to write it for the next four decades. Together with signed articles for The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, the column savaged the promoters of Modernism, at a time when British architecture was at its nadir. Betjeman had been inclined to whimsicality; Gavin’s tone was that of moral outrage and disgust. An early target was the History Faculty Building at Cambridge by Sir James Stirling; Richard (now Lord) Rogers and Norman (now Lord) Foster were equally in his sights. Scarification was not, however, reserved for them. One might have thought that architects ostensibly more congenial to Gavin’s (initially) High Tory point of view, such as the classicist Quinlan Terry, would have been spared—but no. They weren’t good enough to meet Gavin’s expectations; few were.
To the individuals on the receiving end of Gavin’s wrath, some of whom were surprisingly thin-skinned, considering their eminence in the world, the columns must have been irksome. The targets should have been big enough to take it—and besides, didn’t they deserve the mauling they got? If nothing else, Gavin made Britain, a country that has traditionally valued the word and music above art and architecture, take its built culture more seriously. It was not enough to stop the tide of uglification that has overwhelmed parts of Britain, particularly what used to be countryside. But standards of architecture, and the public’s awareness of it, are now far higher than in the arrogance of the 1970s. Gavin’s influence should stand beside that of the Prince of Wales—a figure whom, typically, he scorned—as one factor among others in this improvement.
There was a time when Gavin was seen principally in the company of other men, but it became clear that he was also attractive to women, and they to him. In 1982, he married the witty, irreverent, decidedly un-domestic journalist Alexandra Artley, whose contributions to Harpers & Queen were flashes of brilliance. They bought a house in what was then the rundown area of King’s Cross, not yet cleared of prostitutes, where they dispensed non-stop hospitality to their literary and artistic friends. This was the Thatcher decade, and privatization caused one of Gavin’s most memorable campaigns: a defense of the iconic red telephone box, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, son of G. G. Scott, Jr., which the newly created British Telecom wanted to replace wholesale, largely for reasons of corporate image. It planned to sweep all but a few dozen red boxes from the land. Gavin began a program of documentation, photographing red boxes wherever they could be seen—on hilltops; half-submerged by sand dunes on the Scottish coast; standing like guardsmen (both the 1926 K2 and 1936 K6 or “Jubilee” kiosks) in serried ranks on prominent city streets. Others joined the campaign, and 2,500 boxes were protected through listing. Alas, this was but a proportion of the whole, and the despised off-the-peg Continental booths arrived—and are still with us, cluttering British streets, even though public telephones of any kind have been superseded by mobile technology.
During these years, Gavin supported the household, which now included two daughters, Agnes and Cecilia, by freelance writing for newspapers and periodicals. Impossible now, it was not an easy way to earn bread and butter even then. Security came from an unexpected quarter: Glasgow, where he was offered a post at the Mackintosh School of Architecture at the famous School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and where he became a professor. Here was recognition, and the Stamps burned their bridges by selling their St. Chad’s Street house; it was now 1990 and Gavin was appalled by the unbridled materialism of the “loadsamoney” capital. In Glasgow, he practically became an honorary Scot.
Initially Gavin loved the place. Architecturally, he adored the nineteenth-century city, buying the house that the Glaswegian neo-classicist Alexander “Greek” Thomson had built for himself in 1861. He founded a Greek Thomson Society, and organized an exhibition on his work, with a catalogue. He liked teaching young people. Always happy in the company of an older generation, he enjoyed meeting old Modernist architects, whose work he came to understand. He mellowed. Disgusted by the excesses of the City of London after the financial deregulation of Big Bang, he wavered in his Toryism. He warmed to the romance of Scottish Nationalism. By the end of his life, he had become, unexpectedly, European in outlook, vehemently denouncing Brexit. He also looked back with fondness to the Britain of his childhood in the 1950s, and the idealism of the newly created welfare state.
Gavin never conquered the dominant medium of the age: television.
Glasgow became also his prison. The restoration of the Greek Thomson house was a herculean task; his marriage foundered. It was said, perhaps unfairly, that Gavin’s fearless speaking of truth had offended too many people in a city with a small middle class. But the cost of London property, which had soared during his absence, made it difficult for him to return to old haunts. A two-year fellowship at his old Cambridge college, during which he worked on a never-completed history of British architecture between the Wars, provided a respite. Afterwards he bought a flat in an Edwardian mansion block in leafy Forest Hill; one attraction was a long corridor which he could line with books. He had by now met the author Rosemary Hill, who was writing what would be an acclaimed biography of A. W. N. Pugin: on first meeting they hotly debated his death, which may or may not have been caused by syphilis. In 2014, they married.
Unlike his friend and fellow architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, Gavin never conquered the dominant medium of the age: television. He was not commissioned to make more than a few travel programs. He left two substantial books: An Architect of Promise: George Gilbert Scott, Jr. (2002), on the subject of his Ph.D. thesis, which condenses his ideas about Victorian architecture, and The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (2006). The latter was a masterpiece, combining Gavin’s love of Lutyens with his romantic preoccupation with the tragedy of the First World War. But it is above all as a life force—funny, argumentative, indomitable, original, an unmissable sight above many a crowded room when a party was on the go—that he will be remembered by friends. And there were many, many friends.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 77
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