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First and Last Loves: John Betjeman and Architecture

At Sir John Soane's Museum, London WC2, until 30 December Mozart, Brunel, Shostakovich and now Betjeman: this has been quite a year for anniversaries. Is there anything more to these commemorations than an excuse to fill the airwaves, eat grand dinners and take celebratory train journeys?

Where Betjeman is concerned, we have been treated to further reminders that he was a much more complex, depressive personality than the cosy, shufing eccentric that TV viewers adored, though an attentive reading of his poems reveals that at once. We have also seen some petty squabbling between his biographers, which has shed no new light at all.

Against that tedious background, the Soane Museum exhibition is illuminating, because it focuses on what is most important about his legacy: his way of looking at architecture and places. He believed not in pedantic learning but in the evidence of the eye and heart.

That led him, as Kenneth Clark put it, to an 'overowing love of the neglected'; hence his association with Nonconformist chapels, graveyards, the decorative charms of suburban villas, and the Rococo details of backstreet pubs. People loved Betjeman because he gave legitimacy to their own elegiac feelings and because he detected the human spirits in the most ordinary of places.

Part of his way of seeing buildings stemmed from his Christian faith; Quaker in the 1930s but thereafter indelibly Anglican. It also owed much to H de Cronin Hastings, the proprietor of the Architectural Review, where he started working in 1930, and even more to the artist John Piper, whom he first met in 1936.

The exhibition reminds us how they teamed up in producing the Shell Guides, and what fun they had in doing so.

Betjeman's collection of old guidebooks and aquatints was an inspiration to Piper, and equally Piper gave him the confidence to speak out on behalf of forgotten and unloved places. Betjeman went on to make short films for Shell, 'Discovering Britain' was the precursor of his superbly poetic television films.

People associate Betjeman above all with the rediscovery of Victorian architecture but, as Mark Girouard insists in his catalogue essay, he was not alone in exploring that territory. Others were taking it seriously, but never promoted their sympathies so well.

Equally, he is forever associated with the fight to save the Euston Arch and later St Pancras, although both campaigns included people more effective but less in the public eye. Betjeman appeared to take centre stage because he had become such a public institution.

Anniversaries can be a time for reassessment - but generally are not. The memorabilia gathered at the Soane Museum show how much we still owe to Betjeman, but there's an undercurrent of cultural provincialism which - however justifiable it may once have seemed - is now a part of the legacy which is much harder to swallow.

Robert Thorne is a historian at Alan Baxter and Associates

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