The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The Buildings of England: Kent: North East and East

John Newman (Yale University Press, 800pp, £35)

Reviewed by Timothy Brittain-Catlin

For those familiar with John Newman’s 1969 North East and East Kent Pevsner, the most startling sign of a new approach is a pretty photograph of the romantic, Dutch-picturesque interwar houses of 1927 at Archery Square, Walmer, by W J Kieffer & H S Fleming. Is this really the same John Newman? The one whose sole inter-war illustration last time was of the rather different pit-head baths at Betteshanger Colliery, Northbourne (by C G Kemp, 1934)? For the old North East and East left one in little doubt as to the type of building Newman preferred. It also had some of the funniest and wryest observations of the whole series: my favourite was his entry on the hopeless Baptist chapel in Ramsgate from the 1840s: ‘Ugly, tasteless and lifeless, but fun in a sick sort of way’, a comment that sadly has not survived into the new edition.

That same Newman poked some fun at the ‘Holbein’ style of Darcy Braddell’s Great Hall of the King’s School, Canterbury (1955–57), and at the ‘egregious’ historicist post-war work of J L Denman in the cathedral close. Yet now, in 2013, Denman starts to appear as a real figure. That ‘egregious’ is gone, and in its place comes ‘confidently neo-Norman’, a different kettle of fish altogether. Denman’s little shopping parade of 1950–51, nearby in Burgate, just outside the close, makes a first appearance, and is even noted in the foreword as ‘elegant’ and ‘Lutyensesque’. In fact Denman, post-war adviser to the Dean and Chapter, now appears in the index seven times and emerges as a real figure. So does Harold Anderson, who designed the Tudoresque Wolfson Library at the cathedral in 1964–66, Gothic churches in the 1950s, and – well before that, in 1921 – a jeu d’esprit Georgian cow-house. How I want to know more about him. In 1969, the south front of the mainly early-Georgian Godmersham Hall was bluntly ‘remodelled after 1935’; now we know that it was ‘created’ in 1935 by Walter Sarel. And thus, as the eponymous Professor himself might have put it, we begin to have architectural history wie es eigentlich gewesen, rather than as it ought to have been for the dogmatic modernist.

As with all the new expanded Pevsners, the sheer quantity and quality of the research give increasing pleasure. Some aspects of the work were surely difficult and frustrating for the author. One of the most significant areas must have been the Longmarket and Whitefriars areas of Canterbury, which in 1969 were occupied by humble, Scandinavian-style shopping precincts born in sin ‒ that is, the unnecessary demolition of a quarter of the medieval city by the city council on the back of an air raid. It was ‘interesting’ if ‘a bit tinnily detailed’, wrote Newman in 1969. Of all this, only the former David Greig shop (Robert Paine & Partners, 1952–54) has survived, although the sharp-eyed will notice Oliver Postgate’s mural from B C Sherren’s vanished National Provincial Bank (1956), visible in the new photograph of the hall of Eliot College at the University of Kent. Sitting today on the site of the Longmarket is a piece of ‘almost authentic late-Tudor historicism’, and on Whitefriars you will find Chapman Taylor Partners’ retail centre, which by contrast is in ‘shopping-centre Tudor’ (my inverted commas). Newman is surprisingly nice about the new United Reformed Church, which to me looks like Pugin’s caricature of All Soul’s, Langham Place.

There is much more to North East and East than Canterbury. There are many more 20th century churches (and their glass) and cinemas than before. This is not an area with many remarkable C20 houses, but Gerald Beech’s Grange Corner, Broadstairs, of 1963 clearly remains a favourite with the author. It is now joined by Walter Greaves’ 1 Leycroft Close, Canterbury, of 1966–68, Leonard Manasseh’s The Lighthouse on Sandwich Bay of 1967, and – for that matter – by a proper entry on the banker Robin Leigh Pemberton’s William-and-Mary Torry Hill (1956), when its designer was in his late 20s. Edgar Ranger, the upmarket inter-war Tudor architect, makes his first appearance. Society members will cheer the arrival of a handful of first-rate buildings by Ahrends, Burton & Koralek, by van Heyningen & Howard, and indeed by Hawkins Brown, the latter illustrated in colour here as they have recently also been in Northamptonshire. In short, hours of pleasure from an old master, evidently still at the height of his powers.