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Tributes paid to architectural historian David Watkin

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Tributes have been paid to architectural historian and ‘bête noire of the Modernists’ David Watkin, who has died aged 77

A devoted Classicist in his writing and teaching, and a fellow of Peterhouse College Cambridge, Watkin passed away on 30 August after a short illness. 

Watkin was born in Salisbury in April 1941, and graduated from Cambridge’s Trinity Hall in 1968 with a thesis on the Neoclassical elegance of Dutch furniture designer Thomas Hope.

He is best known for is his 1977 polemic Morality and Architecture, a critique of the Modern Movement which challenged the consensus promoted by his old supervisor, Nikolaus Pevsner. 

The book sparked huge debate in the profession and thrust Watkin into the limelight where – as former Cambridge colleague Frank Salmon describes – he became a ’bête noir of Modernist critics and architects’.

Despite its mainly hostile reception, the book had a wide impact and has been credited with opening up the debate which informed the Prince of Wales’s intervention in the National Gallery ’carbuncle affair’ in 1984.

The book’s title was also the inspiration of the 1981 hit album Architecture & Morality by synthpop band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

Watkin’s other celebrated works included the Life and Work of CR Cockerell, which won the Hitchcock medallion and was followed by another 30 significant books, including his 1986 survey, A History of Western Architecture.

He sat on several committees, including 15 years on the Historic Buildings Council of England, and a long stint as vice-chairman of the Georgian Group. 

Watkin’s contemporaries remember a man who embodied the ideals of Classicism in his personal as well his professional life.

His Regency rooms at Peterhouse, where he lived for nearly 40 years, were decked out in antique furniture and works of art, while Watkin himself appeared impeccably dressed in bespoke wool, tweed or linen suits accessorised with breast-pocket handkerchiefs.

Salmon, who succeeded Watkin at Cambridge as lecturer in architectural history, said: ‘He was a man with all the appearance of a 1930s architectural connoisseur and writer, comfortable in the company of the aristocrats he admired and oblivious to much of the later 20th and 21st centuries that surrounded him (the only person on a Ryanair flight to Athens – or on the Acropolis - to be wearing a pinstripe suit).

’Yet, equally, he was a full-time academic whose many now eminent pupils testify to his commitment to teaching; a man whose sharp intellect, deep learning and scholarship placed him pre-eminently among academic architectural historians of the past half century. It is a combination unlikely ever to be seen again.’

Philip Pattenden, editor of the Peterhouse Annual Record said: ‘He is remembered for the loyalty that he inspired in his pupils and for the genuine concern that he demonstrated for the welfare of the college staff in his charge, to whom he was always courteous and polite.’  

Djw with hrh and john simpson at peterhouse 2015

David Watkin with HRH Prince Charles and John Simpson at Peterhouse 2015

David Watkin with HRH Prince Charles and John Simpson at Peterhouse 2015


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