Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

The history man

  • Comment

Architectural archaeologist Jonathan Foyle this week begins a series on historic building materials for the AJ.

Austin Williams finds out how his interest began It not unusual for a child to know what they want to be when they grow up - a train driver maybe, an architect, perhaps, or even a pilot - but Jonathan Foyle is unusual in that he has always known that he wanted to be an architectural historian. What sort of annoyingly precocious child could he have been?

Well, as a young teenager he read Pevsner and learned to love the connection that the past had with his imagination. As a child he says he felt a 'real emotional contact with buildings and by trying to find out about them; how they were built, who lived there, I found I could let history take my imagination for a walk.'

Foyle is now a historian of architecture and archaeology, working as a freelance writer and presenter. Just prior to going freelance, he was the face of BBC4's Restoration series, advisor to Channel 4's Time Team and for several years had been the architectural historian to the Historic Royal Palaces.

Based at Hampton Court, he prioritised his research around that palace and Kew. His childhood dream career had become reality.

Brought up in Stanford, the bicycle was his 'ticket to freedom', a chance to roam to countryside churches.As an aspiring presenter, not for him the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd; rather, he says, he enjoyed 'the smell of building lime and the feel of polished oak'.

These very personal experiences helped develop his sense of wonder, allowing him to imagine the community that had used these buildings over the course of many centuries.

What today might sound like the weird exploits of a lonely youth enabled him to develop his enthusiasm about architecture, his love of the past and the belief in the relevance of history today.

From these early wanderings, he moved to Canterbury to do a degree and diploma in architecture. He describes himself as a conservative (with a small 'c') radical with a 'bit of Luddism' thrown in. 'When friends were designing with CAD, I was working in watercolour, ' he says. During his architectural training, he admits he never once visited a building site and came out of the degree not knowing what a services engineer or a quantity surveyor did or what the professional boundaries were. I reassure him that his experiences are not, in fact, that extraordinary. But his first stint in an architect's office, even historic-building architect Purcell Miller Tritton, convinced him that he didn't want to be an architect. 'I'm just not into modern.' He adds: 'I was simply born in the wrong century.'

Instead of doing his year out in an office, he learned about art history, subsequently studying art at Lincoln to nurture his love of painting, which Foyle says is the activity that feeds his creativity. Apart from a reasonable reputation as a published watercolourist (the Duke of Northumberland has recently sold a Raphael for £22 million and bought a Foyle), he has acquired a PhD in Archaeology, fluency in Italian, expertise in a range of architectural theory (from the Renaissance to Tudor ecclesiastical architecture) and a career on television and the speaking circuit.

In 1996, he was given a nine-month tenure as architectural historian and archaeologist for the Royal Palaces - from an advert he spotted in the Guardian - a post that seemed made to measure for his interests and talents.

He stayed for seven years, living through the political turmoil of the transformation from a government agency to a trust, witnessing management shake-ups and finally seeing it lose momentum with reduced funding.

His job was 'basically to research the history of Hampton Court and manage its archaeological investigation; to act as conservation officer; to write the history in official publications; and to present papers.

Every day was different. Whether digging trenches and uncovering human remains or revealing Cardinal Wolsey's original palace walls, each event helped to piece together the story of Hampton Court's design development.' Foyle's PhD, to be published next year, is based on his discovery of a humanist geometric schema on which Hampton Court had been planned.

Coincidentally, the BBC's revival of interest in history and archaeology seemed to coincide with his post. He appeared on Sue Cook's 1998 afternoon programme about the life of Hampton Court; followed by the BBC2 special Meet the Ancestors shown in 2002 and then helped Channel 4's Time Team, which landed the following year, to explore the White House site in Kew where Foyle was doing his researches. Foyle has become a regular guest and advisor to many series feeding the current fad for history.

Unsurprisingly, Foyle also lectures. He enjoys developing his students' genuine interest in architecture by stimulating their historical imaginations. It is a technique of exploration, discovery and wonder that is quite infectious. For instance, his favourite era, the period with which he is most comfortable, is the early Renaissance, primarily 'because it confounds historians. The first printed books were appearing and yet within one year, the written word was having an impact on architecture across Europe.'Why?

he asks. Even though there is something of the experiential school of history teaching about this questioning, Foyle refuses to let it rest with the students' emotional connection. History without factual intellectual backup is of no use, he says.

While the dreaded word 'relevance' crops up in our conversation, to him it does not undermine the need for rigour. Foyle's teacherly enthusiasm for his subject, together with his view of how and why history is important, is quite refreshing. Self-confessed Luddite he may be, but he does not pander to the institutional rejection of standards. In architecture, he says, 'there have to be rules for a rational approach to design.

Once the rules are grasped, they can then be applied and also appreciated.'He firmly supports the idea that there needs to be a good grounding in method - only then, really, is it permissible, legitimate, inevitable and maybe even desirable that they be broken.

Essentially he is an advocate for humanistic design, keen to use as many educational avenues as possible to get the message across.

With something of a Reithian preference for television, 'where you can get your message across to thousands of people at a time rather than just hundreds in a lecture theatre', a disarmingly photogenic appearance and a fascination for the subject, Foyle is someone to watch.Armed with these mediafriendly qualities, all he needs to do is to continue to develop his research expertise and the rest will be history.

Jonathan Foyle's new series in the AJ starts with an exploration of the historic use of bricks and mortar on page 36

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs

AJ Jobs