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A tribute to Gavin Stamp (1948–2017)

4 January 2018

Gavin Stamp, who has died at the age of 69, was a resolute champion of good architecture. As one of the most eloquent architecture critics of his generation, he brought his vast learning to large numbers of readers who might otherwise have overlooked debates about architecture and how profoundly it shapes our lives (not least as ‘Piloti’, author of the Nooks and Corners column in Private Eye); as a passionate and dauntless campaigner, he fought for the preservation of many historic buildings suffering negligence or threatened with demolition, and against the wanton development of this country’s historic urban fabric. In his writing he took no prisoners, but in person he was as gentle and courteous as they come.

Gavin Stamp at the Ring of Brodgar, Orkney.

Gavin Stamp at the Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. Photo: Rosemary Hill, c. 2006

As Apollo’s architecture columnist, Gavin wrote more than 150 stylish, argumentative articles for the magazine – expansive in their scope, exuberant in their curiosity, and unfailingly generous with their knowledge. The first, published in May 2004, was what he later described as ‘an opportunity to rehearse the scandal of the mutilation and desecration of one of the great Mediaeval buildings of Europe, King’s College Chapel’; the last, which appeared in the December 2017 issue, celebrated the overlooked contribution of women architects in Britain, closing with sharp criticism of those who continue to question Elisabeth Scott’s authorship of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford. His columns often unfurled into polemic in this way, but not before readers had been beguiled by their elegant and enlightened stitching of architectural history and description.

In the preface to Anti-Ugly: Excursions in English Architecture and Design (2013), a selection of his writing for Apollo, Gavin wrote that the column encouraged him ‘to ponder, research and write as best I can’. ‘Rereading my articles’, he wrote, ‘made me realise that many are, to a degree, autobiographical, but I hope this may be forgiven.’ They were of course so much richer for his decades of looking at, and thinking and writing about buildings, and reflected so many of his detailed passions. There would always be room for an aside about his beloved Sir Edwin Lutyens, the focus of two books (one a thoughtful and inspiring study of the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme), and for Sir Gilbert Scott and his dynasty (Gilbert Scott Jr, the eldest son of Sir Gilbert, was the subject of his PhD thesis; Stamp’s illustrated biography of the latter, Gothic for the Steam Age, was published in 2015).

There were the churches, plenty of them, which Gavin so cherished and the latter-day vandalism of which so angered him. And there were celebrations of the buildings in places that had structured his own life – from Scotland, where he had taught at the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow from 1990 until 2003, to India and latterly Croatia, where he had enjoyed travelling in recent summers with his second wife, Rosemary Hill, the writer and biographer of A.W.N. Pugin.

Gavin Stamp in Split in 2013. Photo: Rosemary Hill

It was my privilege to inherit Gavin, so to speak, when I became the editor of Apollo in 2013, and to have edited his monthly columns since the previous year (the column was first commissioned by my predecessor but one, Michael Hall). Reading any new piece – carefully numbered up to the final article, 154 ­– always brought a sense of wonder at the masterfully condensed learning, at Gavin’s ear for the piquant or wry quotation, and at the strength and persuasiveness of his opinion on subjects that ranged far and wide, from pubs and seaside pavilions to architects’ portraits and blue plaques. And there was the pleasure of learning to share his valuable fastidiousness about architectural photography (the history of photography was another of his great fields), from his friendly complaints about converging verticals (‘which I abhor’) to a wider feeling for why it matters so much to record and represent buildings with the utmost clarity and care. We were lucky to be able to print in Apollo so many of Gavin’s own excellent photographs, which he had been taking and archiving for decades.

But greater than the privilege of editing Gavin was that of getting to know him, and hearing him speak of the buildings, places, and causes that had become such personal concerns to him (in the last 18 months, he often signed off with a gloomy note about Brexit: ‘Bugger Brexit (but where now?)’). When we last met, while he was undergoing chemotherapy last summer, we talked about ‘gloomy’ politics and the columns that might come: on the Italian fascist architect Marcello Piacentini, on the Chinese Palace in Palermo, and, when it reopened, on Guarini’s great Cappella della Sacra Sindone in Turin. Whatever the subject, you always wanted to read anything that Gavin had to say about it.

The architectural journalist Ian Nairn was another of Gavin’s heroes. On the 30th anniversary of Nairn’s death, he wrote that ‘So much of what [Nairn] wrote, excoriating the impersonal, is all too relevant today.’ Gavin, like Nairn, has died before his time – but we will want to keep reading him, and will need to keep campaigning in his memory, for many decades to come.

A full obituary of Gavin Stamp will appear in the February issue of Apollo