A monumental work on British buildings

Gavin Stamp’s posthumous book is a magnificent tour d’horizon, a bible of the styles available to architects between the wars


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Interwar: British Architecture 19191939, Gavin Stamp (Profile, £40)

In 1975, Gavin Stamp travelled out to India with Colin Amery, then assistant editor of the Architectural Review, to visit Edwin Lutyens’ buildings for New Delhi, which were beginning to be seen in a more sympathetic light after falling disastrously out of architectural fashion following Lutyens’ death in 1944.

It was the beginning of Stamp’s lifelong interest in 20 century classicism. It led in 1977 to an exhibition at the RIBA Drawings Collection, Silent Cities, on the tombs that Lutyens and others designed for the Imperial War Graves Commission and, in 1980, to the great Lutyens exhibition, held at the Hayward Gallery.

It was the task of rescuing Lutyens from the condescension of posterity that led Stamp to the most substantial work of his life, helping to establish the Thirties Society following the destruction of Edwin Cooper’s original building for Lloyd’s of London in 1979, encouraging Francis Carnwarth to turn Gilbert Scott’s Southwark Power Station into what became Tate Modern, and, after he left teaching architectural history at Glasgow School of Art, writing a new history of British architecture between the wars, which he was still at work on at the time of his death from cancer in 2017.

That work has been retrieved from his computer by his widow, Rosemary Hill. It is a massive and comprehensive overview of the period with a wealth of new information about its buildings and architects, which has, one suspects, been licked into shape by Hill’s literary and historical skills.

The book has now been published under the title Interwar with the help of the Twentieth Century Society with a set of sensationally beautiful black and white photographs by John East. It is a testament to Stamp’s extraordinary depth of knowledge and originality of mind. One feels in reading it that there is not a town hall in England or out-of-the-way suburban church that he has not studied. He knows Luton like the back of his hand and the architecture of Scotland at least as well as that of England.

It is evident that he has travelled widely in Europe and America looking at buildings of the period, and although the book is intended finally to replace Nikolaus Pevsner’s highly partial and partisan view of the architecture of the period with a broader and more comprehensive study of its multifariousness, he often quotes Pevsner as a fellow student — the only other person who has examined the buildings of England so comprehensively.

One feels that Stamp must have had the Architectural Review by his bed

Another great strength of Stamp’s book is that he was totally immersed in the contemporary literature of architecture. One feels that he must have had the Architectural Review by his bed. He knows in detail the discussions and debates of all the writers of the period — not just the well-known ones like John Gloag, Clough Williams-Ellis, H.S. Goodhart-Rendel and Trystan Edwards, but also the early writings of Robert Byron, the more obscure writings of John Betjeman when he was an architectural journalist, and the changes in view of Maxwell Fry, trained in Liverpool as a classicist, but a convert in the 1930s to Modernism — even his teacher Charles Reilly, head of the Liverpool School of Architecture, who was one of the more authoritative writers on the architecture of the period. Reilly published a collection of his articles, Representative British Architects of Today in 1931.

His total immersion in the period has enabled Stamp to write a detailed examination of the various styles which were available to architects at the time, like an academic version of Osbert Lancaster’s Pillar to Post, with the continental modernism inspired by the writings of Le Corbusier being treated as only one of them.

Nor was it the most important style, confined to the work of a relatively small number of young, avant-garde architects, mostly trained at the Architectural Association, who were influenced by the émigré architects. Chief amongst these was Walter Gropius, who was in London briefly from 1934 to 1937. After he failed to win the commission to design a new building for Christ’s College, Cambridge, Gropius emigrated to Harvard.

Stamp starts with one of his long-standing interests, the need to commemorate the dead of the First World War not just in the cemeteries of northern France, overseen by the Imperial War Graves Commission, but in new buildings in public schools and universities, like the Memorial Chapel designed by Giles Gilbert Scott at Charterhouse. Not surprisingly, these mostly used classicism as a way of memorialising a lost generation.

Classicism was also the natural language for banks. Now that we have lost branches of the major banks on every high street which stood for reliability and dependability, it is particularly good to be encouraged to look more carefully at this building type which has generally been ignored in other studies. In Piccadilly alone, there are at least two very distinguished examples of the genre — Wolseley House, originally designed in 1921 by W. Curtis Green as a car showroom, but turned shortly afterwards into a branch for Barclays, and Lutyens’s building for Midland Bank which sits alongside St. James’s, Piccadilly so intelligently and deferentially.

Town halls are another building type which benefit from Stamp’s scrutiny since, as with banks, they were a type of building regarded as important, full of a feeling of civic ambition. This is evident, most obviously, in London’s County Hall, built as a match to the Palace of Westminster opposite, but Stamp also includes Nottingham’s Guildhall, Greenwich, Norwich and the great tower of Percy Thomas’ Guildhall, Swansea. I was only surprised that he did not include Walthamstow Town Hall, a particularly fine example of austere, stripped-back civic classicism, begun in 1938 and recently restored.

I expected the book to end with more of a polemic against international modernism as so much of the book’s purpose is to provide a broader and more representative history than one dominated by the early manifestations of what Reginald Blomfield called Modernismus. But, as in his accounts of the origins and adherents of other styles, Stamp is unexpectedly broad-minded, deeply well-informed and able to take a historical view of the origins of modernism in the cult of sunshine and athleticism, the desire for new and more convenient ways of living, and the availability of new materials.

I hoped there might be reference to the work of W.G. Newton, the son of the arts-and-crafts architect Sir Ernest Newton. With his father, Newton was joint editor of the Architectural Review. He designed the Memorial Hall at Marlborough College, his old school, in conventionally neoclassical style in 1925, but less than a decade later designed its science laboratories in a style of the purest functionalism, perfectly demonstrating the way that architects would switch style when and where they thought it appropriate.

Overall, it is extremely hard to pick any holes in the depth and range of Stamp’s knowledge. He loves by-pass Tudor and hates the cult of Christopher Wren. His posthumous book is a magnificent tour d’horizon, a bible of the styles available to architects between the wars. The tragedy is that he did not live to see the conclusion of his life’s work.

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