John Summerson

Sir John Newenham Summerson CH CBE (25 November 1904 – 10 November 1992) was one of the leading British architectural historians of the 20th century.[1]


John Summerson

Born(1904-11-25)25 November 1904
Barnstead, Darlington, England
Died10 November 1992(1992-11-10) (aged 87)
Known forArchitectural historian
Academic background
Alma materHarrow School and Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London

Early lifeEdit

John Summerson was born at Barnstead, Coniscliffe Road, Darlington.[2] His grandfather worked for the Darlington and Stockton Railway and founded the family foundry of Thomas Summerson and Sons in Darlington in 1869. After the premature death of his father, Samuel James Summerson, in 1907, Summerson travelled extensively in England and Europe with his mother Dorothea[3] and then attended a prep school at Riber Castle in Derbyshire[a][4] before going to Harrow (1918-1922)[5] and the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, where he gained a bachelor's degree.[5]


After graduation Summerson worked in several junior roles, most notably in the office of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, but architectural practice was not for him and he became a tutor at the Edinburgh College of Art, School of Architecture in 1929. Hired by the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARS), a think tank founded by a group of modernist architects, he settled back in London, moving on to a job as an assistant editor for the magazine Architect and Building News in 1934.[3] Following the unsuccessful attempts to become a practising architect, and greater success as an architectural journalist, Summerson embarked on his first book, a biography of the architect John Nash (1752–1835). Published in 1935, it was "outstandingly successful".[2]

He continued to write mainly about British architecture, especially that of the Georgian era.[6] His Architecture in Britain: 1530–1830 (1st edition 1953; many subsequent editions) remained a standard work on the subject for students and general readers after his death. The Classical Language of Architecture (1963) is an introduction to the stylistic elements of classical architecture and traces their use and variation in different eras. He also wrote many more specialised works, including books about Inigo Jones and Georgian London (1945) illustrated by Alison Sleigh, as well as The Architecture of the Eighteenth Century (1986), in which he describes Boullée in a distinct positive manner, stating that Boullée was clearly the point of departure for one of the boldest innovators of the century, Claude Nicolas Ledoux. His 1945 book Georgian London was called "a masterpiece of British art history" by Simon Jenkins in a Sunday Times review of the 1988 edition.[7]

One of the founders of the National Buildings Record (NBR) in 1941, Summerson served as its deputy director yet also took to the streets taking photographs for the organisation.[3] He was also a Commissioner of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) for 21 years from 1953 to 1974, writing the introduction to the book celebrating the NBR's fiftieth anniversary in 1991.[8] He sat on many other public bodies and committees, including the Royal Fine Arts Commission (1947–54) and the Historic Buildings Council (1953–78)[5] and was an early and active member of The Georgian Group that was founded in 1937.[9]

In 1945 Summerson was appointed Director and curator of Sir John Soane's Museum, a post he held until his retirement in 1984.[5]

He was Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford for 1958–59[10] and Slade Professor at Cambridge University for the 1966-7 academic year.[11] He gave the 1964 Master-Mind Lecture on Inigo Jones.[12] Summerson lectured at The Courtauld Institute of Art on the history of Georgian architecture in London,[3] Birkbeck, University of London and the Architectural Association and became a good friend of his student Roger Westman, who himself went on to become a noted architect.[13]

Summerson was noted for his somewhat elitist approach, and he was not always a consistent friend of the conservation movement. He was hired by the ESB in Ireland to speak in favour of their demolition of 16 Georgian townhouses in Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin. The doomed terrace, he said, was "simply one damned house after another".[14]


Summerson was knighted in 1958; was awarded the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1976; and was created a Companion of Honour in 1987. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London[11] and elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1954.[15]


English Heritage blue plaque at 1 Eton Villas, Chalk Farm

The term Bristol Byzantine, referring to a style influenced by Byzantine and Moorish architecture and applied mainly to warehouses, factories, and other industrial buildings in the city of Bristol, is thought to have been invented by Summerson.[16] He certainly invented the term prodigy house for showy Elizabethan and Jacobean courtier houses.[17]

Summerson had many notable students including Phoebe Stanton,[18] among others.

There are a number of portraits of Summerson in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London; one in oils by the artist Leonard Rosoman and the others by the photographers, Walter Stoneman, Walter Bird, Barry Beattie and Stephen Hyde.[1]

Photographs attributed to Summerson are held in the Conway Library whose archive, of primarily architectural images, is being digitised under the wider Courtauld Connects project.[19]

In March 2012, an English Heritage blue plaque commemorating Summerson was erected at his former residence in Chalk Farm, London,[20] where he lived with his wife Elizabeth Hepworth, the twin sister of Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor, and his three sons (b.1947).[5]


  1. ^ Summerson enjoyed his time at the school and the castle itself provoked an early interest in architecture, and a life-long distaste for the Gothic Revival. He described Riber as "an object of indecipherable bastardy – a true monster".[4]


  1. ^ a b "Sir John Newenham Summerson". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 27 June 2019.
  2. ^ a b Girouard 2009.
  3. ^ a b c d "John Newenham Summerson". Watkin, David. The Rise of Architectural History. London: The Architectural Press, 1983, p. 131; Summerson, John. 50 Years of the National Buildings Record, 1941-1991. London: Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, 1991; Wilson, Colin St. John. Architectural Reflections: Studies in the Philosophy and Practice of Architecture. Boston: Butterworth Architecture, 1992, pp. 26, 87-94, 152-155; [methodology] Howard, Deborah. "Lotz's Text: Its Achievement and Significance." in Lotz, Wolfgang. Architecture in Italy: 1500-1600. Pelican History of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995. p, 2; Summerson and Hitchcock: Centenary Essays on Architectural Historiography. New Haven, CT: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale Center for British Art /Yale University Press, 2006; [obituaries:]. Middleton, Robin. Casabella 57 (June 1993): 54-5; Middleton, Robin. "John Summerson." Burlington Magazine 135 (April 1993): 277-9; RIBA Journal 100 (February 1993): 63. 21 February 2018. Retrieved 13 April 2022.
  4. ^ a b Hartwell, Pevsner & Williamson 2016, p. 570.
  5. ^ a b c d e "John Summerson | Historian | Blue Plaques". English Heritage. Retrieved 13 April 2022.
  6. ^ "Obituary: Sir John Summerson". The Independent. 12 December 1992. Archived from the original on 13 June 2022. Retrieved 27 June 2019.
  7. ^ "Summerson, John". Retrieved 13 April 2022.
  8. ^ RCHME Newsletter 9. Spring 1993. ISSN 0957-0241
  9. ^ "About Us". The Georgian Group. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  10. ^ "Oxford Slade Professors, 1870–present" (PDF). University of Oxford. 2012. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 February 2015. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
  11. ^ a b Summerson, Sir John (3 May 2012). "Sir John Summerson CH CBE FBA FSA". University of Cambridge. Retrieved 13 April 2022.
  12. ^ "Master-Mind Lectures". British Academy. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  13. ^ "Roger Westman: A life in architecture". Architecture Schools Database. 23 March 2020. Retrieved 18 December 2020.
  14. ^ Casey 2005, p. 76.
  15. ^ "Deceased Fellows". The British Academy. Retrieved 13 April 2022.
  16. ^ Brace, Keith (1996). Portrait of Bristol. London: Robert Hale. ISBN 0-7091-5435-6.
  17. ^ Mooney, Barbara Burlison, Prodigy Houses of Virginia: Architecture and the Native Elite, p.2, 2008, University of Virginia Press, ISBN 0813926734, 9780813926735, google books
  18. ^ "Stanton, Phoebe". The Dictionary of Art Historians.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  19. ^ "Who made the Conway Library?". Digital Media. 30 June 2020. Retrieved 13 April 2022.
  20. ^ "Architectural historian gets blue plaque". Building Design. 2012. Retrieved 11 July 2015.


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