A passion for history and architecture
No Voice from the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper by John Harris. John Murray, 1998. 242pp. £17.99
Untameable hair, audacious eyes, wonderfully incautious, obliviously passionate about the things he cares for, John Harris is the enfant terrible of English architectural history. His great works are the creation of the riba Drawings Collection, the definitive book on Sir William Chambers, the co-curatorship of that seminal 1974 v&a exhibition 'The Destruction of the Country House', and his pioneering of the cause against mindless destruction of our architectural heritage. Now we have No Voice from the Hall, a narrative of his early years between the end of the war and the beginning of the 1960s, which he calls 'a tale of abandoned country houses, but also a personal odyssey of my experiences as an aspiring architectural historian'.
Back in the old days we Banham disciples despised the Country Life lot. We knew them as, variously, the Gay Catholic National Front and the I- Dined-with-the-Earl school of architectural history. They were, we reckoned, pathetically motivated by the possibility of rubbing shoulders with their social superiors - preferably dukes, but earls were more attainable. They also seemed to view architectural history as an aspect of the antiques trade - all 'nose' and not too much of that boring documentary scholarship stuff. Although Harris ran with this crowd he was plainly one of the exceptions. And what an exception. Here was a genuine maverick, who despite his specialist field did not at all hate Modern architecture, was not at all against dogged documentary research, who was simply, obsessively, unsnobbishly passionate about architecture and its history.
Rejecting his family, Harris left school at 15 and took up with his uncle Sid, master upholsterer to the Home Counties great and good, dedicated angler and equally dedicated attender and bidder at country house sales. Sid took the young John to his first such sale, Langley Park, in 1946. The two fished a great deal in country house lakes and streams and thus began Harris's curiosity about abandoned mansions, many of them recently vacated by the military. On the dole after several unsuccessful starts at finding an occupation, he took to rambling from youth hostel to youth hostel, spying crumbling towers through distant trees, climbing over fences, slipping between loosely boarded windows and poking his nose into abandoned houses before returning to Uxbridge for the weekly dole disbursement.
Following national service in Malaya he enrolled at the Louvre school, but several months later was back again in England with Sid, on the dole, fishing, nose-poking; and then in 1953 came a short stint with Pevsner on the editing of his Buildings of England. They had a row and the following year Harris found himself in the basement of the house of his new boss, antique dealer Geoffrey Houghton Brown.
At the same time he was hunting out dying country houses, often with that other pioneer of derelict country houses, Ministry of Works investigator Derek Sherbourn. And then Harris met Howard Colvin, whose just-published Biographical Dictionary of British Architects he bought and marvelled at. Introduced to Jimmy Palmes, the courteous and otherworldly riba librarian, Harris decided to abandon a future in antique dealing and took the job of assistant in the library. A couple of years later he and Pevsner made up, although Harris still takes a dim view of Pevsner's methods - not once in his life did he venture into the riba Drawings Collection.
'Yet Pevsner was a spur, and was a mentor, and he knew I recognised him as such,' says Harris. No slouch at talent-spotting, Pevsner asked him to write articles in the Architectural Review and then got him to write the Lincolnshire volume of Buildings of England. It was not as if Harris needed this formal commission to continue country house snooping. Apart from its cerebral buzz, snooping could be intensely interesting in other ways: naked chatelaines at the door of country farmhouses, orgies in progress in Lincolnshire, rooms full of the absent vicar's paintings of naked boys, sudden offers of marriage, ghosts in Suffolk, thugs in Huntingdonshire and dead dogs in the bath in Wiltshire.
Buy it. It 1s enthralling. The editing is a bit vestigial but this is the authentic, untamed Harris voice.
Sutherland Lyall is a journalist