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Obituary: Gavin Stamp, 1948-2017

Gavin stamp 1948 2017 1
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Alan Powers looks back at the life and work of the architectural critic and historian who died at the end of the year

Gavin Stamp, who has died aged 69, was a writer, teacher, broadcaster and activist in architecture and conservation. He connected emotionally with buildings (also railways and aircraft) at an early age, and, like John Betjeman, was able to project his enthusiasm, understanding and sense of protectiveness towards them to a wide audience. His style was brisk and sometimes brusque; preferring facts to theories, and valuing people and anecdotes as means to relive the imaginative experiences of the past.

Finding the experience of James Stirling’s History Library at Cambridge a let-down, modern architecture and its smooth talkers were henceforth always under suspicion, and Stamp became a leader in a growing revisionist movement in architectural history and conservation. His PhD in 1978 was published in 2002 as Architect of Promise: George Gilbert Scott Junior (1839-1897) and the Late Gothic Revival. Working freelance in journalism and part-time teaching from an overcrowded Gothic Revival attic in Borough, he took over the Nooks and Corners column in Private Eye, started by Betjeman, as well as writing regularly for the Spectator

The exhibitions Silent Cities (on war memorials) and London 1900 at the Heinz Gallery, held in 1977 and 78 respectively, were part of a project that culminated in the popular success of the 1980-81 Arts Council Lutyens exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. But he was already beginning to change some of his views, enjoying the company of such outspoken and hard-drinking Modernist survivors as Ernö Goldfinger (on whom he and James Dunnett presented an exhibition at the AA in 1983) and Berthold Lubetkin.

Stamp played a significant role in shaping a pluralist policy for the extension of post-war listing during the 1990s

In 1983, Stamp succeeded Bevis Hillier as chairman of the Thirties Society (renamed the Twentieth Century Society in 1992) and he continued in this role until 2007, leading annual foreign trips where he explored newly opened east European capitals. The pace was fast and furious, with minimal and largely liquid lunch breaks and stragglers left behind if they didn’t get back on the coach. The same rules applied when he ran the annual Victorian Society Anglo-American Summer School. 

In 1988, the 1939 limit for listing buildings was extended with a conveniently conservative Trojan horse in the form of Bracken House, built in the 1950s. With other members of the Thirties Society, Stamp played a significant role in shaping a pluralist policy for the extension of post-war listing during the 1990s, starting to build his own selective sympathy for the more romantic kinds of Modernism. 

This process continued when he went to teach history at the Mackintosh School of Architecture for a period of 10 years. With his first wife, the journalist Alexandra Artley, and their two daughters, he lived in the house in Moray Place built by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson for himself. Stamp went on to found the Alexander Thomson Society and curate an exhibition with book on Thomson in 1999. 

Recalling one of Stamp’s memorable and always unscripted lectures, on Lutyens’s Thiepval memorial on the eve of the 2003 Iraq war, Carmody Groarke associate Lewis Kinnear writes: ‘His oratory had such strength that it unequivocally reinforced and concluded all his preceding teachings, asserting that even with the greatest of weights, architecture has the agility to be political, cultural and engrain timeless lessons.’

After an interlude in Cambridge working on a survey of British architecture in the interwar period, Stamp returned to London (definitely south London, where his roots lay). He was disappointed not to find any official position in teaching, but settled back into the freelance life, contributing a monthly column to Apollo (some collected in the 2013 book Anti-Ugly), becoming a grumpy travel presenter on TV and writing a successful series of books that drew on his interest in researching historic photography of buildings and deploring the loss of good urban scenery by bombs, venal councillors and developers. 

In 2014, he married Rosemary Hill, the Pugin expert. His last years were overshadowed by a sense of time running out, but he was able to bring forward long-delayed projects such as a book on Giles Gilbert Scott. 

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