On Architecture

Stamp collection

A pivotal figure in the move against modernism

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I knew the late Gavin Stamp, but not well. He supervised me for half a term in the spring of 1976 on the subject of Victorian architecture, and I remember him being introduced to us by David Watkin, who was ostensibly in charge of the course but delegated his teaching to Stamp.

They were a bit like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, both dressed up in pinstripes with waistcoats and watch chains. Watkin was a conservative traditionalist, attired as if for lunch at the Travellers Club, everything exaggeratedly comme il faut. 

Stamp was a touch more theatrical, with thicker pinstripes, as if he were the proprietor of a Victorian pumping station, which he perhaps would have liked to have been. 

At the time, Stamp was 28. He was working on his PhD thesis on George Gilbert Scott Jr, eventually published in 2002 under the title An Architect of Promise. He had been passionately interested in architecture as a schoolboy at Dulwich College, partly inspired by Nairn’s London, and had established himself as a devoted member of the Victorian Society (he co-founded its Cambridge branch). 

He wrote his BA dissertation on “High Victorian Rogue Architecture”, inspired by H.S. Goodhart-Rendel’s 1947 lecture on the subject, was working on the catalogue of The Scott Family drawings in the RIBA and, in 1976, did an exhibition for the RIBA Drawings Collection on Norman Shaw, demonstrating his breadth of interests beyond the Gothic Revivalists. 

In retrospect, this was Stamp’s heyday. Already a brother of the Art Worker’s Guild, he had made friends with key figures in the conservation movement, including the poet John Betjeman, the architect Roderick Gradidge and the architectural journalist Colin Amery. 

His interest in architecture was creative, as well as preservationist

In 1978, he took over the role of “Piloti” in Private Eye on Betjeman’s recommendation. In 1979, he helped establish the Thirties Society and was its chairman for the next 20 years as it evolved into the Twentieth Century Society. 

Two years later he was one of the organisers of the Lutyens exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, theatrically designed by Piers Gough — an important moment in the appreciation of Lutyens and twentieth-century classicism more generally. His portrait by Glynn Boyd Harte surrounded by the accoutrements of an architectural historian was shown in the Royal Academy’s 1978 Summer Exhibition. 

An exhibition in the Drawing Room at the Paul Mellon Centre in London’s Bedford Square (until 5 May), based on the extensive archive of his writings donated by his widow, Rosemary Hill, and including loans of printed ephemera, makes it possible to review Stamp’s achievements as a lifelong architectural campaigner.

The first thing which is obvious is Stamp’s abilities as a graphic designer. He designed bookplates and party invitations. He was both interested in, and knowledgeable about, typography. His interest in architecture had a creative aspect, as well as being preservationist.

He had broader interests than one might expect from a superficial knowledge of his writing, including the organisation of an exhibition at the Architectural Association in 1983 about the work of Ernö Goldfinger. He organised architectural tours for the Twentieth Century Society to New York and Ljubljana as well as for the Pugin Society to the Scottish Highlands and Dundee. 

He was also much less predictable in his views than might be expected, disapproving of the neoclassical architect, Quinlan Terry, whose work he described as “photocopy-Palladian”, and regarding it as a badge of honour that he never fraternised with any of the architects whose work he so vehemently criticised. 

In 1990, Stamp exiled himself from London to Glasgow in order to teach the history of architecture at Glasgow School of Art, devoting the next ten years or so to campaigning for the work of Alexander “Greek” Thomson and making friends with Glaswegian modernists, including Andy MacMillan, the head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture.

By the time he returned from Glasgow to a bye-fellowship at Caius College, Cambridge, he was less involved in architectural campaigning and devoted himself more to his writing, working over a long period of time on a revisionist history of early 20th century architecture which has been prepared for publication by Rosemary Hill and will appear next year. 

It should help establish his scholarly reputation

It should help establish his scholarly reputation, although his interests in the work of Lutyens and neo-Georgianism is now much better known than when he first embarked on his research.

I have a suspicion that Gavin Stamp will be at least as influential in death as he was in life. As people begin to write the scholarly history of architecture in the 1970s, Stamp will be viewed as a pivotal figure in the movement in taste away from modernism, both a cause of the change and a symptom of it, a campaigner who helped bring down the plans for a Mies van der Rohe skyscraper next to Mansion House. 

He was part of a group, including Mark Girouard, Dan Cruickshank and Colin Amery, who helped save the architecture of Spitalfields and, not surprisingly, he appears in the book Alexandra Artley and John Martin Robinson wrote about The New Georgians (Artley was his first wife). 

Not least, it is worth remembering that it was Stamp, while making a television programme about Giles Gilbert Scott, who suggested to Francis Carnworth, the then Deputy Director of the Tate Gallery, that Bankside Power Station would make a wonderful gallery for modern art.

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