Monday, 8 July 2013

Betjeman; not always such a romantic

John Betjeman is often seen as one of Britain’s great conservationists and romantics of the last century. He battled unsuccessfully against the destruction of the Euston Arch, a staggering example of cultural vandalism, and fought with greater success to save St Pancras station, both campaigns in unlikely alliance with Nikolaus Pevsner and his austere, academic rigour. Betjeman celebrated steam trains, quaint country branch lines and rolling countryside. He toured the country visiting village churches, producing whimsical little books and television programmes.

But it seems he wasn’t always such a romantic as it appears as a young man he was very sniffy towards the architecture of the City of London, in a way which would horrify critics of the soaring towers of today, like Sir Simon Jenkins.

The following fascinating snippet appears in David Kynaston’s majesterial Austerity Britain:

‘We must give up the building rule which restricts the height of buildings, and we must not only do that, but we must build office blocks twice as high as St Paul’s, and have green spaces and wide roads in between the blocks…. Two dozen skyscrapers, thought they would obviously dwarf St Paul’s, wold not take away from its beauty if they were beautiful themselves. They would alter the skyline, certainly, yet we should not sacrifice health, time and comfort to one skyline because we have not the courage to create another.’

It was written by the young poet in 1934 answering the question ‘What Would Wren Have Built Today?’ One wonders whether Betjeman, considering St Paul's has long since been overshadowed by increasingly architecturally extravagant skyscrapers, would approve of the City of London today.


At a loose end in St Pancras station the other day, I inevitably found myself in Foyles and picked up a lovely little book called 'John Betjeman on Trains'; published in 2006. It's a collection of letters with explanatory notes by architecture writer and 'like-minded train nut' (according to JB's daughter Candida Lycett-Green) Jonathan Glancey. 

It provides a few 
extra hints regarding the source of the poet's flirtation with modernism in his early days and explains Betjeman's uncharacteristic call for modernist architecture around St Paul's.

In Glancey's text, accompanying a 1946 journey from Rye to Beulah Hill to see already-aged though yet-to-be-knighted Gothic revivalist architect Ninian Comper (pleasingly via my home station of Penge East, mainly it seems to give Betjeman a chuckle at the area's unfortunate name and to show off his knowledge of obscure transport timetables), he talks of Betjeman's time at the Architectural Review magazine.

Glancey writes: 

'When JB was Assistant Editor at the Architectural Review (1929-1935), he fell, for a dizzy moment, under the spell of the bright young Moderns promoted by the influential magazine. He went so far as to become one of the founding members of MARS (Modern Architecture Research Group), yet, soon enough, returned to Edwardian and Victorian ways and began to think of 100 per cent Moderns like Chermayeff as figures of fun'.

(Chermayeff, Glancey had previously explained, was the Harrow-educated Russian architect who, with Erich Mendelsohn, designed the lovely De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea.)

So it would seem likely the quotation from Austerity Britain, answering the hypothetical question of what Wren would have constructed in the early part of the twentieth century, would have appeared in an article penned by Betjeman while at Architectural Review. Of course, any correction or clarification a reader can offer would be greatly appreciated.


As ever, one thing leads to another and I noted the house in which Ninian Comper lived, from 1912, was called the The Priory, Upper Norwood, and designed by Decimus Burton whose work I recently enjoyed during a trip to London Zoo. Burton was responsible for the initial layout of the zoo and many of the earliest buildings including what is now the First Aid hut, the Raven Cage and the still-in-use Giraffe House. Sadly The Priory no longer exists though this piece on the Norwood Society's website reveals what a lovely building it appears to have been.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The comments expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the blog.