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Peter Davey’s passing marks the end of a way of life

Paul Finch
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Paul Finch reflects on the life and times of Peter Davey, former editor of The Architectural Review and one-time AJ features editor, who died, aged 78, on 4 March

Peter Davey’s life and work was recalled in his local church and then (at length!) in the pub afterwards, by family, friends and colleagues last week. Recollections of life with Peter at the old Architectural Press were a sharp reminder about how working practices in the world of journalism have changed.

Dan Cruickshank reminisced about a typical lunch: a gin and tonic in the Bride of Denmark, the company’s private pub in the basement of their Queen Anne’s Gate building; then off to the New Era restaurant on Victoria Street, where copious wine would accompany whatever food was being consumed; then back to the office by 3pm to do some work. Enough to give a contemporary management/HR department the shivers, but the magazines were great and the company profitable.

Sutherland Lyall, who worked at the AP following his arrival from Australia as a ‘wild colonial boy’, described the way the company was run, rather like a public school, with editors as prefects. Head of school was Hubert de Cronin Hastings (‘H de C’), and later Colin ‘Basher’ Boyne, who would sometimes surprise Peter by crashing his stick down on the table to emphasise his displeasure at some supposed solecism.

The Architectural Review had first choice of buildings to publish, The Architects’ Journal being regarded as, if not inferior, then the necessary licence to print money that kept the AR in the style to which is was accustomed.

As with any school, there were rivalries and power plays: Sutherland noted how Peter, on the death of an AJ editor, installed himself in the editor’s office until almost physically being prised out of it following the appointment of Leslie Fairweather, rather than himself, as the new leader.

Editorial staff were discouraged from speaking to advertising sales people

Those were the days of the private office, every editor supplied with a personal assistant, and on-tap refreshment (in theory for the entertaining of advertisers and architects) in the Bride. Editorial staff were discouraged from speaking to advertising sales people, an anti-commercial attitude that ended up hurting the magazine as the chill winds of recession began to blow at the end of the 1980s.

Robert Maxwell’s purchase of the company, his theft of pension funds, and his removal of the Architectural Press from Queen Anne’s Gate to Bowling Green Lane in Clerkenwell marked the corporate end of the AP’s glory years. No separate offices, far more interference/control by the commercial team and, of course, no Bride, although the Three Crowns on Rosebery Avenue became something of a substitute.

More stable times came with the subsequent sale of the Maxwell business publishing empire to EMAP, which sank money into the ailing AJ, and generously topped up the pension pots of old AP staff robbed by Maxwell. Peter D spent the last 15 years of his working life with EMAP, and this was where I got to know him as a colleague, rather than a friendly rival.

I had first met him in the early 1970s as news editor of Building Design when, along with (now Professor) Colin Davies from Building and Peter representing the AJ, we sat on the press benches at RIBA Council, doing the journalistic equivalent of national service in the trenches of internecine professional warfare. Years later, when Peter became the first architectural journalist to move from press bench to the council itself (he was a vice-president and Honorary Librarian), the journalists formed an honour guard, pens aloft, under which Peter marched into the chamber.

Peter davey cartoon

Peter davey cartoon

He took me to lunch and offered me a job on the AJ in the later 1980s: it was the first time I had heard a steak being ordered, by Peter, to be cooked ‘bleu’, a requirement which baffled the waiter as much as it did me. ‘The chef will know what to do’, intoned his commanding voice. The job wasn’t to be, but in 1994 I did join EMAP as editor of the AJ and received a warm welcome from Peter, and good advice too.

Shortly afterward we both became directors of EMAP Architecture, later renamed EMAP Construct, and worked side-by-side as colleagues (for a period I was the AR’s publisher) until his retirement in 2005, when I succeeded him as editor. My four years at the helm paled beside his 23, and it is difficult to overestimate the contribution he made both to architectural journalism and the profession itself, as Norman Foster was kind enough to acknowledge last week.

Peter was a loving husband and father, perhaps the most conventional thing about him. Otherwise he enjoyed being an anachronism: a socialist member of the Athenaeum, who delighted in his three-piece suit and cravat; a rather formal manner disguising a trencherman’s interest in food, wine and ‘strong continental lager’.

Above all he supported what he regarded as the fundamental decencies that should inform human behaviour and experience, which could be encouraged or enabled, though not dictated, by humanist architecture, particularly on the Scandinavian model. Peter was fundamentally decent: it was a life well-lived.

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