An Interview with Gavin Stamp

A celebrated former Dulwich College boy (1959-67), now a local resident, is interviewed by Jan Piggott (historian of Dulwich College and of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham).

Gavin Stamp is highly original among living Old Alleynians: an architectural historian and the St. George of architectural journalists; sharp-eyed and scholarly. For a while he taught the history of architecture at the Mackintosh School of Architecture, Glasgow School of Art, eventually being made an honorary professor by the University of Glasgow; an enthusiast for less fashionable Victorian architects such as Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson of Glasgow, he was also Chairman of the Thirties Society, now the Twentieth Century Society.

Fearless, trenchant and elegant in exposing corruption in the past and present world of architecture (such as wicked destructive municipal council leaders after the War) he also pillories the crass taste of the Establishment and the general public; his current odium (as ‘Piloti’ of Private Eye) is the overweening Bomber Command memorial proposed for the Green Park.

He has educated countless eyes about buildings with occasional television programmes, such as his recent Orient Express series. He is the author of many books and articles on Victorian and Twentieth Century architecture: on George Gilbert Scott junior, and Lutyens; a wonderful Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, 2006; The English House, 1860-1914, (a particular favourite of mine); and Britain’s Lost Cities, 2007.

Drawing of North Dulwich Railway Station, designed by Charles Barry junior, made as a schoolboy, from 'The Alleynian'

WHY DID YOU ATTEND DULWICH COLLEGE? TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR EARLY DAYS AT THE SCHOOL AND VISITS TO THE PICTURE GALLERY. WAS IT A PHILISTINE SCHOOL THEN?
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.
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.

Dulwich College Old Library

But 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.
But I found that, when I was a boarder, both the Picture Gallery and the Chapel were theoretically out of bounds, which may be a sad comment on the school’s attitudes. I went to the Gallery, of course, which was then, as I recall, not only little visited but was dowdy and had no electric light.

And 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.

YES, HIS NAME WAS WORSE THAN MUD AT THE COLLEGE – TO WHICH HE WAS INTENSELY LOYAL – AFTER HIS (INNOCENT BUT NAÏVE) ‘BERLIN’ BROADCASTS. HIS GROUP SPORTING PHOTOGRAPHS WERE TURNED TO THE WALL; BOYS FOUND WITH ONE OF HIS BOOKS IN THEIR SATCHEL WERE BEATEN BY PREFECTS.

DO YOU THINK THAT, LIKE (ONE ASSUMES) C. F. A. VOYSEY IN HIS ADOLESCENCE AND SCHOOLING AT DULWICH, YOU WERE INFLUENCED BY LOCAL BUILDINGS?
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.

A Plea for Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, 1974

WHAT IS THE BEST RESULT OF YOUR ARCHITECTURAL POLEMICS?
I sometimes wonder if any of the reams of architectural journalism I have perpetrated has done the slightest good. But I think I was instrumental in saving good buildings first, by helping Betjeman over preventing the closure of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, and, secondly, for making a case on behalf of the Twentieth Century Society for Albert Richardson’s Bracken House in the City, with the result that it became the first post-war building in England to be listed – thus preventing its destruction by the Japanese.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE RICK MATHER WORKS AT DULWICH PICTURE GALLERY? DID YOU HAVE A HAND IN INSTALLING THE PHONE BOOTH NEAR TO THE PICTURE GALLERY?
As elsewhere, Rick Mather’s additions at the Picture Gallery show that he is a good planner, but not so good as an architect. What he has built I find thin, flimsy and impractical – those flat glass roofs, for instance. As for the telephone kiosk in Gallery Road, I recall encouraging Giles Waterfield to acquire one in the 1980s as Giles Scott’s little mass-produced masterpiece would be an appropriate complement to Soane – but it had to be a K2 rather than a K6.

The Architect’s Calendar, Twelve Architectural Phantasies, 1973,

DO YOU ADMIRE LIVING ARCHITECTS?
With a few rare and special exceptions, I prefer my architects dead. The great rule I followed when I did a good deal of architectural journalism was never ever to meet living architects. Once you do it is fatal: you are seduced and can no longer be objective. That is why there is so little real architectural criticism in this country, and why we have the absurd pathetic cult of the superstar architect, as with Rogers ‘n’ Foster. Besides, how can one admire living architects when one has seen buildings by Hawksmoor, Chambers, Soane, Nash, Cockerell, Barry, Pugin, Scott, Butterfield, Bodley, Webb, Lutyens…

WHY DOES EDUCATION IN LOOKING AT BUILDINGS MATTER? HOW SHOULD SCHOOLS EDUCATE THE EYE?
It is impossible to escape our environment, whether urban or rural, and so educating people to see, to be discriminating, is vital. Our built surroundings have a huge effect on how we live, after all. Art appreciation can and should be taught – it is quite as important as playing games. Encouraging interest in architecture is more difficult as real appreciation only comes through experience. Often it is only when familiar buildings disappear that people realise how valuable and important they are. It would certainly help if schools looked after their buildings rather than crudely spoil them, as so often happens. I am still cross about the Cloisters, even if the present glazing is a little better than it was.


About this article

Ingrid

About Ingrid

Co-Editor and ex-Chair of the Friends Committee. I’m a teacher. I’ve worked in the education department of Dulwich Picture Gallery for 14 years, guiding, lecturing and teaching anyone from 7 years old to degree level. I have run a number of education projects (in a remand home, a prison, a local primary school) and am now the e-learning project developer. I commission articles rather than write them and am mainly in charge of the Gallery related articles.
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