Author Article: John Newman on Architecture and Aging

An expanded and fully revised edition of John Newman’s classic survey has just been published by Yale University Press. The original edition, published in 1969, was written by a man at the start of his career. In contrast, the new edition is the work of an eminent scholar.  In this fascinating article, John Newman reflects on the architecture of Kent, the experience of revising his own text and his career as an architectural historian.

Pevsner Kent

First, the buildings. They are undoubtedly in better repair and cleaner than they were in the late 1960s, though the transformation of James Wyatt’s great mausoleum in the park at Cobham Hall from a vandalized wreck to its present sparkling condition is in a class of its own. State aid for churches has enabled parishes to embark on large-scale repair programmes which had previously daunted them, and their continuing care has increasingly come to be seen as a communal responsibility rather than one only for church congregations. In towns and villages the concept of the conservation area has focused efforts there, and the re-listing programme of the 1980s gave statutory protection to many more buildings.

As for the demolition of buildings mentioned in the first edition, that has been largely confined to postwar schools, hospitals etc., built in a flat-roofed Modernist style with inadequate funding and so doomed to premature decay. The demise of heavy industry has also had its effect. Cement works along Thames-side and the Lower Medway, still busy forty years ago, are now a distant memory. I well remember visiting in 1967 the wonderful Early English church at Stone and finding it and its churchyard under a pall of grey cement dust with a vast chalk quarry alongside. Now the dust has long washed away and the quarry been grassed over. On the other hand, life is less relaxed now than it was then. Gone are the days when one could drive up to an interesting-looking house unannounced and ask to look round its exterior. Now all too many are protected by security gates. One or two have fended off all my efforts to glimpse them, leaving me to rely on a Googled air view.

As for the literature, I am glad I waited until now, as the 2000s seem to have been a golden decade for new scholarly publications. The most helpful single research project has been the Royal Commission’s survey in the 1990s of medieval timber-framed houses in the Kent countryside, analysing the construction history of hundreds of buildings, and through tree-ring analysis providing exact dates for dozens of them. The grandest and most famous medieval houses too, Penshurst Place, Ightham Mote and above all Knole, are all now much better understood than they were forty years ago. Ideas on the building history and significance of parts of Rochester Cathedral have also changed dramatically in the last decade.

John Newman, 1969.

Finally, the author. In the late 1960s I was in a hurry and deeply under the influence of Pevsner, whom I had been able to watch at work when acting as his driver in Berkshire and Hampshire in 1964–5. His reactions to Victorian churches and country houses in particular were an eye-opener. Ian Nairn’s Buildings of England volumes on Surrey and Sussex also showed an alternative, one might say more reckless, approach to the evaluation of buildings which I was eager to try out.

Now, no longer in my late twenties but in my mid-seventies and with a career teaching architectural history in between, I inevitably work more slowly and cautiously. Whereas for the first edition it took one year full-time and eighteen months part-time to research, travel and write both volumes, now to achieve as much will have required a total of six years; though my wife and I allow our many weeks spent re-exploring the county’s buildings to include an element of holiday-making too. A slower pace undoubtedly makes for greater thoroughness, and this time round we have made plenty of new discoveries. The new text is more systematically structured than the old, in accordance with current editorial practice, church descriptions more standardized, major houses given more historical background. In particular each account of every town and village now begins with an introduction attempting to sum up the character of the place in a sentence, or a paragraph, or a couple of pages as appropriate.

So how different is the new Kent: West and the Weald from the old West Kent and the Weald? No entry has survived unscathed, and almost all are significantly longer than they were. But facts that were right the first time round and judgments that still seem valid all remain, as far as possible in their original wording. I want the recently published volume to be recognizable as a development of the earlier one, not something new but something maturer and wiser.

Article by John Newman

 About the Author:

Born in 1936, John Newman has lived for most of his life in Kent. Educated at Oxford, he first became involved in The Buildings of England as Nikolaus Pevsner’s driver for Berkshire and Hampshire, while working as a classics teacher. He then joined Pevsner as co-author of the Dorset volume. Within four years of completing a diploma at the Courtauld Institute he had researched and written the two Kent volumes, described by Pevsner as ‘the best of the whole series’. For the rest of his career he taught architectural history at the Courtauld.

Further Reading:

Pevsner Architectural Guides

Pevsner Kent: West and the Weald

John Newman: An Appreciation by Gordon Higgott (JStor login required)

John Newman (middle) at the launch of the new edition, 2012.

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