The Comfort of the Past
Building Styles and Patronage in Oxford and Beyond, 1815-2015
London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2015
Hardcover. 208 pages. ISBN 978-1907372773. £40
Reviewed by William Whyte
St John’s College, Oxford
‘If the foreign traveller were asked what he considers the most beautiful towns in England’, observed the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner in 1949, ‘his answer would without doubt be Oxford and Cambridge. The truth of this answer will not be denied’. As a relatively recent arrival in England himself, the German-born Pevsner knew whereof he spoke, and indeed in 1933 he had made his first visit to Oxford, writing home to his wife that the town ‘is incomparably beautiful in the moonlight, between these old grey college walls and courts’.
Yet, as Susie Harries reveals in her brilliant biography of Pevsner, all this beauty seemed to him somewhat problematic; indeed, Oxford itself appeared even more foreign, incomparably more hostile than the rest of England. In the very same letter home, Pevsner also observed ‘Without a doubt we don’t belong here’. It was not just the ‘way of talking here, very fast and very informal, with innumerable Oxford allusions, a lot of irony and very little solid seriousness.’ It was not just that Oxford seemed ‘A ghastly miasma of humanism’. It was that all the things that made the city beautiful also made it seem like some terrible anachronism, a place where the twentieth century was not even ‘knocking at the door’. The whole of Oxford, he concluded, was ‘all in the past’.
This juxtaposition of terrific beauty with apparently alarming conservativism is one that has been felt by many. Think of Jude the Obscure and his first encounter with ‘Grey-stoned and dun-roofed’ Christminster – ‘a vane here and there on their many spires and domes’; think, too, of his exclusion from the place: ‘Only a wall divided him from those happy young contemporaries of his with whom he shared a common mental life; men who had nothing to do from morning till night but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Only a wall – but what a wall!’
Ostensibly a corporate history, The Comfort of the Past it is in fact something far more interesting, for it is a contribution to this ongoing debate about the meaning, value, and purpose of Oxford’s architecture. Written by the distinguished architectural historian Steven Parissien, and beautifully illustrated in full colour, it was commissioned by the Symm Group, an Oxford building company which has worked in and beyond the city since 1815. With a formal company history already published, and with an enlightened chief executive, who wondered ‘What has driven the aesthetic choices made by Symm’s clients over the last two hundred years that have resulted in commissions designed almost exclusively in the Gothic and classical manners?’, the author was allowed to produce not just a survey, but an argument; one that helps make sense of Pevsner’s (and, for that matter Jude Fawley’s) experiences.
Oxford, Dr Parissien argues, is a place consistently behind the times, generally seeking biddable local architects rather than more adventurous national names, and then commissioning architecture that was ‘familiar, reassuring – and comfortable’  rather than striking or avant-garde. Starting in the 1810s and carrying the story up to the present day, The Comfort of the Past thus describes a succession of reactionary moments: the ‘innately conservative medievalism’  of the early nineteenth century and the ‘aristocratic and patriarchal’  classical revival of the late-Victorian period; the ‘cosy, familiar world of Tudor Late Gothic and domestic classicism’ in the interwar era and the reassertion of traditionalism in more recent work by figures like Robert Adam and Demetri Porphyrios. A brief modernist interlude which lasted for a few decades after 1957 is seen as an aberration – and an unfortunate one at that – producing on the whole, mediocrity, and in many specific cases, something worse. James Stirling’s Florey Building is described as an ‘unremitting disaster’ . The St Cross Building, which was in many respects a trial-run for its architect, Colin St John Wilson’s British Library, is depicted here as ‘the nadir of post-war Oxford… Conceitedly monumental, and paying no heed either to its location or to the wider architectural context of the city’ .
As this suggests, a certain ambivalence runs throughout this book. One the one hand, Oxford is criticised for its retardataire tastes: ignoring ‘the Georgian Palladianism of the 1720s and the Neo-Classical revolution of the 1760s’ , seeking ‘less intellectually taxing and thus far more comforting’ architecture instead of choosing something really important and challenging. On the other hand, at those moments when the university plumps for more cutting-edge design, the author tends to see them getting it wrong precisely because it is trying to be too bold.
The argument that Oxford has ‘invariably preferred malleable, clubbable builders and architects to metropolitan big names’ [ 38] is also a hard one to sustain when so many of the names mentioned here are both metropolitan and, by any definition, big ones. ‘The great names of Victorian architecture were generally noticeable by their absence’ , it is observed, before noting work by George Gilbert Scott, Alfred Waterhouse, William Butterfield, and others. ‘The old Oxford tradition of eschewing expensive and intransigent national figures in favour of more quiescent regional talent’  is later illustrated by the example of Percy Morley Horder: an undeniably national figure so cantankerous and hard to work with that he was better known as ‘Holy Murder’. A few other errors – a misunderstanding about local stone , the misattribution of a modern development at St John’s College , and one or two others – may also undermine the reader’s confidence.
The Comfort of the Past is, however, far more than the sum of its parts, and even if the argument creaks at some moments, it is a book that can confidently be recommended to anyone interested in the history of Oxford or architecture more generally. It is gorgeous, well written, and will contain something new for even the most expert of readers. The penultimate chapter, which looks beyond the city to Symm’s country house work in America as well as in Britain is especially interesting – as is the final chapter, with its juxtaposition of two chapels recently built just outside Oxford: Niall McLaughlin’s high-profile work at an Anglican theological college in Cuddesdon and Craig Hamilton’s Roman Catholic Chapel of Christ the Redeemer at Culham. Above all, this book is to be welcomed as a welcome antidote to all those other books, articles and websites which uncritically celebrate the beauties of Oxford, but which do not also engage with that sense felt by Pevsner – and by many others – of a place trapped in the past, somewhere ‘we don’t belong’.
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