• 19 June 2019
  • 6:00 – 8:00 pm
  • Free, booking essential
  • Paul Mellon Centre

Sir John Summerson (1904–1992) was one of the leading architectural historians of the twentieth century, particularly renowned for his work on British architecture of the early modern period. He was the author of some of the seminal texts of post-war studies such as Georgian London (1945), Architecture in Britain 1530–1830 (1953) and The Classical Language of Architecture(1963). The latter originated in a BBC series and Summerson was also a prolific broadcaster, journalist and well-known public commentator, particularly in the earlier part of his life. This talk will concentrate on the 1920s and 1930s, an era traditionally discussed in terms of his twin interests in the classical and the modern, as epitomised by his position as a founder member of both the MARS Group and the Georgian Group in 1937. However, what is far less well-known is that he also went on to become a founder member of the Vernacular Architecture Group in 1954. Summerson’s interest in the vernacular was just one of a wide range of periods and topics on which he wrote in the inter-war years which also included: the Gothic; the Byzantine and the Gothic Revival. This thematic diversity is reflected in his essays in Heavenly Mansions (1949), which included many pieces written as journal articles prior to the Second World War.

This talk will investigate Summerson’s engagement with the vernacularwith a particular focus on his first book, a revised edition in 1933 of Sidney O. Addy’s Evolution of the English House (1898). It will argue that far from being an aberration in his oeuvre it in fact reflects his own education, which began with studies of the vernacular, which in itself was part of a widespread investigation into ‘the primitive’ in northern European architectural culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, it will be claimed that this interest in the foundational roots of architecture in turn fed into modernism and provided the pedigree for J. M. Richards’s much better-known treatment of the theme in The Functional Tradition (1958). Summerson’s edition of Addy therefore provides insights both into his own intellectual formation, as well as the broader significance of other overlooked strands, beyond the classical and the modern, in architectural culture in the pre-1945 era.

Image details: Salisbury Cathedral Close: sketch showing the Hungerford Chantry, Mompesson House, The Choir School and other houses. RIBA Collections

About the speaker

  • Professor Elizabeth McKellar is Chair in Architectural and Design History at the Open University. She specializes in British architecture and culture and urbanism, particularly that of London. She is the author of: The Birth of Modern London: the development and design of the city 1660-1720 (MUP, 1999); Articulating British Classicism: New Approaches in Eighteenth-Century Architecture (Ashgate, 2004); Neo-Georgian Architecture 1880-1970: a reappraisal(Historic England, 2016); and Landscapes of London: the City, the Country and the Suburbs 1660-1840 (YUP, 2013). She held a Leverhulme Research Fellowship in 2011-12 to research the latter book which was the winner of the Society of Architectural Historians (US) Elisabeth Blair Macdougall Award 2017. She is currently a member of the Editorial Committee of the Georgian Group Journalas well asof Historic England’s Special Advisory Panel. She has been awarded a Paul Mellon Senior Fellowship for 2018-19 to research her current project, a cultural biography of Sir John Summerson. Her article ‘All roof, no wall: Peter Boston and the Primitive Hut in twentieth-century British architecture c. 1890-1970’ will be published in Architectural Historyin autumn 2019.