Peter Smith, architectural historian and author of the classic ‘Houses of the Welsh Countryside’, died aged 87 in a nursing home
Born in 1926 at Winlaton-on-Tyne, County Durham, the son of a schools’ inspector, subsequent moves gave Smith an early appreciation of the diversity of Britain but he never lost the regional accent acquired in his childhood.
After Oxford, where he read Modern History, there was a brief career as an assistant principal in Whitehall in the Ministry of Transport. His enthusiasm for historic buildings, however, led him to study successfully for the RIBA intermediate exam.
In 1949 he was appointed to the Welsh Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments, one of a small number of standing Royal Commissions, and began his long professional study of Welsh antiquities. In Wales, too, he was to find his wife, Joyce, bring up a family, and acquire a new language.
The Commission staff – the Secretary and four investigators – all then worked on monuments of every period. However, encouraged by Cyril Fox, Smith developed an enthusiasm for the interpretation of historic farmhouses, and his contribution to the Caernarvonshire Inventory shows him as a pioneer in a new subject - vernacular architecture. Smith was to become one of the early members of the Vernacular Architecture Group and served as its president.
After Caernarfonshire, Smith investigated the stone houses of Glamorgan with forays into central and north-east Wales. The opportunity for a broad study of Welsh architecture was presented by the transfer of the National Buildings Record in 1963, when Smith moved from inventory work to the emergency recording of threatened buildings throughout Wales, including timber-built houses.
Smith’s provisional views on the development of vernacular architecture were published in 1967 as a chapter on ‘Rural Housing in Wales’ in The Agrarian History of England and Wales, 1500-1640, and then developed into a remarkable full-length study arranged around original distribution maps and reconstruction drawings. Houses of the Welsh Countryside was published by the Royal Commission in 1975 as its first thematic volume, was awarded the Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion of the Society of Architectural Historians, and received many glowing reviews which recognised the book’s originality.
Smith was appointed Secretary of the Royal Commission in 1973 (delighting in the antiquated title Secretary, which was confusing to some) and a steady output of Inventory volumes followed as well as several thematic volumes, all distinguished by their scholarship but also by explanatory illustrations of very high quality, including much admired cutaway drawings.
Following retirement in 1991, Smith continued to research and write, reflecting on the European context of the vernacular architecture of England and Wales. In 2010 a Welsh-language television series commissioned by S4C introduced a new generation to the themes of Houses of the Welsh Countryside.
The bilingual book of the series, Discovering Houses of the Welsh Countryside: Cyflwyno Cartrefi Cefn Gwlad Cymru (2010), includes Peter’s reflections on some of the houses he had helped save. This was Peter’s last publication and an appropriate coda to his life-long engagement with historic buildings in Wales, which has greatly influenced the contemporary appreciation of vernacular architecture.
Smith died on the 12 March 2013 in a nursing home in Devon. He leaves a widow, Joyce, and three children.
- Richard Suggett is senior historic buildings investigator at The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales