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Creditable Classicist

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Smith of Warwick: Francis Smith, Architect and Master Builder By Andor Gomme. Shaun Tyas, 2001. 624pp. £60. (ISBN 1900289385)

Apart from Sir Howard Colvin's revised Biographical Dictionary of British Architects of 1995, this has to be, for serious scholars, the most important publication on English architectural history in the past 10 years.

All the great peaks of architectural biography had been scaled, most of them more than once. Andor Gomme, working from a Midlands university, saw that the Pennines, the long, low backbone of 17th and 18th century Classicism, had been ignored. He has made Francis Smith, the whole Smith clan and all the craftsmen-architects around them, the focus of a lifetime's scholarship.

This book's footnotes alone are a treasury of rare fact and startling comparisons, a volume in themselves. What is more, they are real footnotes, placed at the foot of each relevant page, not hidden away for printers' convenience at the back of the book.

At least 100 houses here, mostly illustrated in plain, worthy black-and-white photography, were completely new to me.

Few of them are great buildings, but Gomme is recording the essence of our half-successful native Classicism, not its high points. He analyses naive and actively dull buildings with the same ruthless accuracy that he gives to Sutton Scarsdale, Buntingsdale (see picture) or the awful emptiness of Stoneleigh.

Stylistically, the text is oddly uneven.With Kirtlington in Oxfordshire he is so dry and lost in technical jargon that it took me 20 minutes to follow his argument. But then, when he comes to Mawley in Shropshire, he writes not so much like an angel as a cheerful cherub with a relaxed colloquial freshness that stimulates and reveals: 'There is whoopee of a different kind in the blue (now pink) room next door. . . amorini cuddling in the acanthus. . . drapes and swirls that are very slinky indeed. . . colonettes dressed in Sunday best. . .

pediments ending in enormous Swiss rolls.'

Turn back a page and he has reverted to English Heritage-speak: 'Above them, the normally restrained Ionic entablature has a pulvinated frieze (whose convex curve reverses to a cavetto for the intermediate sectors), swagged with drapery and with astragals and cymas thickly beaded.'Would a firmer editor have dared to modify such passages?

Having chosen sound, dutiful mediocrity as his subject, Gomme never tries to overrate Smith's modest successes. He does, however, accept one stylistic generalistion with an insular deference, and that is the notion of an English Baroque. There was an English response to French royal Classicism, but neither we nor the French ever built anything that the Italians or the Austrians have since described as Baroque.

Timothy Mowl is an architectural historian

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