The centenary of Sir John Betjeman’s birth is an opportunity to celebrate his selfless campaigning for threatened buildings.
Sunday, 1st January 2006
A disconcerting aspect of getting older is encountering the centenaries of people one once knew. This year it is the turn of Sir John Betjeman, and his hundredth birthday is to be marked by – among other events – an exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum in September. This will explore Betjeman’s relationship with architecture – a difficult thing to do in terms of visual material as he was neither an architect nor an architectural historian. And yet his influence was immense, and this can best be illustrated through the many historic buildings he tried to save and through the once despised examples of Victorian architecture whose appreciation he is often credited single-handedly with encouraging.
But how did he achieve such influence, so that – to his dismay – his name became inextricably associated with the most bathetic examples of nineteenth-century design as well as the most glorious? This is, or was, ‘a mystery of our times’ as his friend Sir John Summerson once wrote (oh dear: I knew him too, and his centenary was two years ago). ‘Betjeman has not written even one book about Victorian architecture nor ever to my knowledge promoted any serious general claims for its qualities. Yet his name has become an illuminant and a sanction; through him, kindliness toward Victorian architecture is permitted to thousands whose habits of mind would drive them in a quite other direction.’
At the risk of making this column even more tiresomely solipsistic, I can only try and answer that question through my own experience, for when I was a teenage schoolboy in south London, beginning to enjoy architecture, Betjeman was the person I most wanted to meet (Fig. 1). Two things made him my hero. One was First and Last Loves, which introduced me to the recondite charm of Victorian churches and London’s railway termini as well as to a pessimistic view of progress. And then there was the television play he wrote (with Stewart Farrar) for bbc 2 in 1965, Pity About The Abbey. It concerned a road scheme in Westminster that required the abbey’s demolition – not so very far-fetched when you think of some of the more arrogant projects of the 1960s. This made a great impression on me and introduced me to the menaces who are with us yet: the blinkered road planner; the amoral, know-all civil servant; and the venal, cynical architect sheltering behind the excuse of modernity and necessity.
Part of the fascination of Betjeman is the several methods he used to change taste. Kenneth Clark, in 1950, wrote of ‘a generation influenced by the poetical insight of Mr Betjeman’ towards the Victorian gothic revival, but this he achieved as much through his journalism as through his poetry. He wrote extensively about architecture for The Daily Telegraph throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as well as making many radio broadcasts – and it should not be forgotten that he began the ‘Nooks and Corners of the New Barbarism’ column (to give it its full original title) in Private Eye in 1971. And then there was his success in using television to educate a wide public about unfashionable and often unloved buildings. Perhaps his best film – certainly the best known – is Metroland, broadcast in 1973 (Fig. 2). In this he looked sympathetically at the neo-Tudor suburbs of the inter-war decades he had once despised as well as shuffling around houses by Voysey and Shaw.
Betjeman’s importance for British architecture is surely as a preservationist, as a resourceful and imaginative campaigner for buildings conventional taste dismissed. He was not always that. His early writings in The Architectural Review reflect his fashionable commitment to the modern movement, with which he later became so disillusioned. But by the end of the 1930s he had come to admire and had befriended the aged church architect Ninian Comper, whose knighthood he was later instrumental in securing (which caused an entertaining furore at the riba, as Comper advertised himself as ‘Architect [unregistered]’). And in 1937 he became a founder member of the Georgian Group, although at that time Georgian architecture was widely considered to exhibit the same virtues as the modern.
Much of Betjeman’s enthusiasm for more eccentric architecture, for the recondite and the unloved, as well as for English topography, was directed into the Shell Guides, which he edited. It was doubtless his proprietorial interest in that county series, which began in 1933, which made him resent Nikolaus Pevsner’s soon indispensable Buildings of England series, which was launched in 1951. Betjeman’s long and unpleasant feud with the ‘Herr-Professor-Doktor’, tinged as it was with xenophobia and jealousy, is something from which he emerges with little credit, although it has been used by some to justify their dislike of the modernism with which Pevsner is (so often wrongly) associated.
Betjeman and Pevsner were, nevertheless, both instrumental in founding the Victorian Society in 1958 and were usually on the same side in the ‘Vic Soc’s’ early battles, such as the one for the Euston ‘Arch’, murdered by that cynical philistine Whig, the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. But many of Betjeman’s campaigns were his own, particularly those for churches he loved. One whose loss is unforgivable is St Agnes, Kennington (Fig. 4), the masterpiece of George Gilbert Scott Jr. It had lost its roof in 1941 but could easily have been restored – and War Damage money was available. Instead, despite the protests of Betjeman and others, that most beautiful and haunting building was demolished by the diocese of Southwark. When Betjeman published his Collins Guide to English Parish Churches in 1958, he dedicated it to the memory of St Agnes as well as Christ Church, Salford: ‘fine churches of unfashionable date demolished since the war.’
There were many, many other buildings for which Betjeman fought, both publicly and privately, and most are mentioned in the third volume of Bevis Hillier’s biography. He would go out of his way to help worthwhile campaigns for sometimes obscure buildings – Hillier describes how he became involved in a fruitless campaign to save Lewisham Town Hall after he was written to by a thirteen-year-old schoolboy. Betjeman became a public institution, and was sometimes ridiculed as such, but he also performed a public service – selflessly. He could, however, be diffident about his status, as when he wrote to Summerson (whose detached coolness towards preservation dismayed his admirers) about British Railways’ proposal to demolish both King’s Cross and St Pancras Stations in 1966: ‘It is no good my writing about Sir Gilbert [Scott] and St Pancras in particular, because I have been so denigrated by Karl Marx [his name for the writer J.M. Richards], and the Professor-Doktor as a lightweight wax fruit merchant, I will not carry the necessary guns.’
But Betjeman did have the firepower, and he knew just how to aim it – as I discovered when, in 1974, he asked me to help his campaign to save Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, J.D. Sedding’s great Arts and Crafts cathedral. The rector and the patron, Lord Cadogan, claimed the building was too costly to be maintained and proposed a new worship centre as part of a block of flats on the site – a development that would, of course, have benefited the Cadogan Estate. As well as badgering everyone concerned, Betjeman asked me to make some drawings of Holy Trinity to be sold by the parish to benefit its restoration, knowing full well that his offer would be declined. We then published them as A Plea for Holy Trinity Sloane Street (Fig. 3), with Betjeman writing how ‘After a long period of thought and prayer the Rector and congregation have decided that there is no way of retaining the present building as a centre of worship except by pulling it down’. The resulting publicity was very satisfactory.
I believe that Holy Trinity Sloane Street is still standing – cleaned, repaired and flourishing – only because of Betjeman. Can there be any greater contribution to architecture than ensuring that good buildings survive to be enjoyed by future generations?
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