Art, Design and Architecture

The best books on British Buildings

recommended by Harry Mount

Bestselling author says that many of the 17th-century London buildings that survived the Great Fire of were later destroyed by post-World War II developers. Makes you look at British buildings in a new way

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Harry Mount

Harry Mount is the Editor of the Oldie, and an author and journalist who regularly contributes to a range of national newspapers, including the Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Guardian and the Spectator. Educated at Oxford and the Courtauld Institute, he is the author of the international bestseller Amo, Amas, Amat... And All That.

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Tell me about Summoned by Bells, the Betjeman.

Well, this is his verse autobiography and I’ll tell you why I think it’s fantastic. Most people write about buildings in a very, very dry way – ‘There’s a buttress from 1490’ – but he does it in a much more human way, like he’ll talk in the same way about them as he does about the girls he loves or his great friends, in a beautiful, wonderful, moving way and he doesn’t use the jargon, even though he knows the jargon inside out.

He just communicates the beauty of buildings much better than a dry, stiff, architectural historian does. Also, in that particular book he talks about growing up and the way he first sees buildings as a child, and he drops things in all the time. He was brought up at the foot of the hill down towards Kentish Town from Highgate and he talks about the church where he was christened, a big Victorian church. And he wrote some fantastic poems in Summoned by Bells and elsewhere about Kentish Town which I love. It’s where I live, but not many people do write poems about Kentish Town. He gets it exactly right and he’s not being patronising about rundown parts of London. He gets the beauty and the feel of places and who goes there and what it looks like from the top of a bus and just observing. So, I think he’s an absolute genius when it comes to talking about buildings in human terms.

Does he single any out?

Well, he talks about going to Marlborough [School] which he absolutely hated and he talks about going to Oxford which he was chucked out of for failing his exams, and he loved the buildings, particularly Magdalen, where he was, and he imagines himself as an old don in New Buildings occasionally taking a book of poetry down from his shelves. But he was plucked away from this Elysium by failing his exams. So, it’s always like that – he’ll describe a beautiful building but it will be related to his life as well.

OK, tell me about the Osbert Lancaster.

He does a sort of equivalent thing but in pictures. He’s got a brilliant thing in that he knows inside out your buttresses from your perpendicular churches but the drawings he does are very simple and beautiful and funny. It’s very hard to be funny about architecture, but he’s good at doing funny drawings of whatever it might be – a Norman church or a Roman temple with a slightly hungover legionary in front of it. He mostly does British stuff but he spent a lot of time travelling.

He’ll do a picture of an English Renaissance church and outside it a crane about to knock it down and 30 workmen. Or he’ll do a picture of an Oxford college and have two stuffy dons walking by. He’ll always make it human and not dry and the actual building will be done in a cartoony way but with all the details done perfectly. So it’s easy to look at but you can’t fault him. When I teach, I show the details from this book because he’s fantastic at illustrating the individual details of the buildings he draws.

And who is he?

He died in 1986 and he was a friend of Betjeman and Evelyn Waugh and all that lot and was most famous as the pocket cartoonist at the Daily Express, and he was very funny as a cartoonist, but his other love was buildings.

The Pattern of English Building, Alec Clifton-Taylor.

Now that one is a bit drier, but it’s fantastic for anyone interested in buildings. You realise that, until about 100 years ago, every single building was built out of the stuff that was in the ground beneath it. And he’s brilliant at saying what all the bits of stone are that are under the ground across Britain. So, for example, there’s a big, big broad sash of limestone that comes all the way down from Yorkshire and through the Midlands and down into Dorset and all along there you get that fantastic creamy building stone, so you’re able to build huge stone buildings, much taller church spires and as soon as you go off that stone sash you’ve got to turn to brick or mud or whatever else there is beneath the ground.

“The planners after the Second World War got rid of quite a lot of what remained of 17th-century pre-Fire London. But there is still that pleasure of winding streets on a medieval pattern.”

He brilliantly describes every part of England and the different building stone there and the different brick you get from the earth. If you’ve got lots of iron in your earth you’re going to get much, much redder bricks and once you take this in you start to see that England is built out of what’s underneath and in bits of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire you can see where this band of stone runs out. You see dry stone walls and then it suddenly runs out and you get hedges. It’s a brilliant view of England from underneath. The best picture in it – and who’d have thought geology was so interesting? – is a picture of England but with all the geological bits underneath and then what the buildings on top look like. Once you think of it like that you can never think of it in any other way.

Now, Architecture in Britain 1530-1830.

That is quite a… I did a term of architectural history as part of history at Oxford, and I’d been interested in buildings in a very unformed way and this was the first book that made me see the order of architecture in Britain. Elizabethan architecture with a very strong English, medieval feel to it and how Inigo Jones came in the early 17th century and classicism completely took over for 100 years and then Palladianism, then Victorian Gothic and it all started to click together like a series of rooms in a long corridor, the order of things. It’s quite a dryish academic book but it puts things together beautifully.

I’m very obsessed with Samuel Pepys and find it so sad that there’s nothing left of pre-Fire London.

I know. Isn’t it tragic? And part of it is the Second World War, of course, but the planners after the war actually got rid of quite a lot of what remained of 17th-century pre-Fire London. But there is still that pleasure of winding streets on a medieval pattern, but it’s not like the real thing. You know that Christopher Wren wanted to redesign the city after the fire on a Parisian/New York grid system, but thank God he didn’t. So we still have higgledy-piggledy streets but it’s not the same as having the buildings.

The Pevsner Guide to North London.

He’s exactly the opposite to Betjeman in a way because he went round every county in Britain doing these guides and so they are quite dry, but they are absolutely fantastic for the facts and the dates and who built what when. It’s not only brilliant about famous buildings like Kenwood, but it will also tell you something about places like my street, Caversham Road – it will tell you exactly when it was built and there’s a church next to my house and he tells me who built it and when.

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Tell me about Kenwood House [in North London]. I consider that to be my actual home. I have been going there since I was little.

Yes. It would be fantastic, wouldn’t it? And how incredibly stupid and nice of Lord Iveagh to give it away. Cycling back from parties I regularly put my bike over the railings and cycle through and there’s never anyone there and you can think: this is as good as mine. Robert Adam built it in the late 18th century and I’ve always loved that sham bridge and have always been amazed it’s not a real bridge. It was built for Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, and it was a private estate and then it was given to the country in the 1920s. Who’d want to live in the countryside if you could live there?

Tell me about your book.

It’s called A Lust for Window Sills and it’s a guide to British buildings from the Normans to the Second World War. There’s a strange thing in Britain – we love buildings and the National Trust is the biggest membership society in the world, but the moment you say to someone ‘Ionic’ or anything like that their eyes glaze over and they think it’s so impenetrable. But actually there aren’t that many words like that and if you introduce them gently they will stick in the mind. We also suffer from a slight cultural cringe and we think that Tuscany must be much more beautiful because that’s where all the best stuff comes from. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t fantastic stuff here and some very original new things. In fact, the British terraced house is based on Palladio, you know, Palladian palaces, and once you know a thing like that you start seeing little things all over the place. We do ourselves down when it comes to buildings.

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Harry Mount

Harry Mount is the Editor of the Oldie, and an author and journalist who regularly contributes to a range of national newspapers, including the Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Guardian and the Spectator. Educated at Oxford and the Courtauld Institute, he is the author of the international bestseller Amo, Amas, Amat... And All That.