The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Arthur Edwards

by Andrew Saint

Any chance that the architect Arthur Edwards, who has died aged 97, will be remembered must depend on the ultimate fate of his two published books, The Design of Suburbia (1981) and Images of Eden (2003). Though quite different in topic, they share their author’s sharp aesthetic sensibility and the thought and care he put into them, as well as their failure to make the impact he had hoped for during his lifetime. The suburbia book, a distillation of the orderly English town and country planning in vogue for thirty years after the 1947 Act, came out just as that philosophy was losing respectability and architects were being taught to sneer at suburbs. It found little use as a textbook, and used to be available cheap in second-hand bookshops. It can now be seen to be lucid and charming, even wise.

Images of Eden is a more extraordinary performance. It is a mighty and learned disquisition on the psychology of aesthetics or, more simply, the mysterious process whereby an artist’s ideas are communicated and received. By dint of long research in many disciplines, Arthur felt he had made a real breakthrough in this intractable subject. He spent years of his retirement pulling his findings together with all the cogency he could muster, but he lacked academic standing, and so had to publish the book himself, inevitably to little notice. It would be foolish to dismiss it as a crackpot work of old age; Images of Eden may well yet find its champion.

The most remarkable part of Arthur Edwards’ life was his infancy. His father was a high-class carpet dealer who had been sent out by his firm to Northern Persia before the First World War, taking his young American wife with him. They fled to the mountains when the Turks invaded, then produced Arthur in Hamadan during the last year of the war. No part of his later life was as eventful.

Back in England from 1924, he went to Rugby and then the Cambridge School of Architecture, where he became one of a close quartet of friends that included Michael Sullivan (1916–2013), later notable as a historian of Chinese art, and Tom Greeves (1917–97), the brilliant fantasy draughtsman and doyen of Bedford Park. Just then the school was in the doldrums, and Arthur was among those who agitated in vain for the exiled Gropius to be appointed as its head; Cambridge’s loss became Harvard’s gain.

Like many of his friends, Arthur was a pacifist. He spent part of the war helping with forestry at Dartington, and studied town-planning in his spare time. When peace came, he did the then-standard stints in lowly municipal architects’ or surveyors’ departments. For a while he ran a small private partnership in Hertfordshire, but had to pack it in (partly because he couldn’t bear to send in the bills), although he did manage to build his family a spacious if utterly unpretentious house at Tewin.

Lecturing saved him from humdrum professional obscurity, and in 1960 he was asked to start the town-planning course at the Regent Street Polytechnic. Here he could teach, read, reflect and write – his real talents.

Out of that came – too slowly (the manuscript got lost once) – the suburbia book, as much history as theory, and pepped up with drawings by Tom Greeves.

But by the time it came out, the Poly had changed its name and its premises, and its architecture school was rent by factionalism. Out of fashion and recently widowed, the other-worldly Arthur was glad to go and get on with his great Images project.

Architecture is, or should be, a broad church, and it is good sometimes to remember the modest but talented, who hide their lights under bushels yet still have something special to contribute. Arthur Edwards was one of that legion.

Arthur Edwards, born 12 February 1918, died 17 August 2015.