Professor James Stevens Curl on his work as a historian

by Professor James Stevens Curl

9 Oct 2017

Professor James Stevens Curl

All my life I have been insatiably curious about the world, wanting to know facts, why things were as they were, and how they happened. As a schoolboy, fascinated by crumbling, ruined abbeys and friaries, with their graveyards almost submerged in nettles dripping under the muttering rain, I explored numerous examples, often experiencing a deep melancholy in those quiet places. Indeed, from an early age, I was aware of the inevitability of Death, and often doffed my cap as long horse-drawn funeral processions clattered by on roads of granite square-setts, the hearses magnificent with their etched glazed sides, the black steeds elegantly accoutred with ostrich-feathers and impeccable harness. Nowadays a passing hearse is hardly noticed at all.

After I graduated, I worked as an architect in Warwickshire and Oxford, but in those benighted times there were regular financial crises when the Pound fell through the floor, and the first thing to suffer was the building industry, so painstakingly assembled teams of young architects were hastily disbanded, and even if a design got to contract stage it was inevitably cut to the bone in terms of finance. I realised that in bog-standard Britain real quality in architecture was impossible to achieve, not least after the cult (the word is chosen with care) of Modernism succeeded in almost destroying traditional crafts in favour of poorly conceived industrialised design components, which almost invariably failed. There were many developments in public housing designed in the 1960s and 1970s which were built at huge expense (the Crescents at Hulme, Manchester, were but one terrible exemplar) that had to be demolished, long before costs could be recouped. This made no sense whatsoever, yet if any of us queried the orthodoxy of the time, we were threatened with dismissal.

I made my own decision, and left architectural practice, becoming Architectural Editor of The Survey of London in 1970, directing a programme of surveys (drawn and photographed) of the Parish of Kensington, and writing descriptions of the buildings. The volume with which I was mostly concerned (XXXVII), dealing with Northern Kensington, was the first in the Survey’s history to deal with what was largely Victorian fabric, and therefore broke new ground. In any case, I had long felt the Victorians had had grossly unfair treatment at the hands of Received Opinion, and I had begun to counteract this with articles for Country Life and other journals.

In 1972 my The Victorian Celebration of Death was published, which was largely concerned with histories of nineteenth-century cemeteries in the contexts of reform, urban hygiene,changing religious attitudes, and treatment of the dead. It was my first attempt to research and publish on a neglected topic, and although I was ridiculed because nobody else had bothered with it, the reviews were laudatory. One noted that in my writings I combined ‘wit with compassion’, and another praised the pleasures of the cemetery and the ‘thrilling note’ I had struck in an appreciation ‘as well ordered as any sumptuous funeral’ of the outpouring from ‘the great black cornucopia of Victorian agony the horrific paraphernalia of pompes funèbres’, all expressed in a ‘taste for the eerie’ flowing beneath a ‘level, modest, unobrusive literary style’. This was followed in 1980 by A Celebration of Death, which cast the net wider into Antiquity and Europe, and which received rave reviews. The results were numerous later works by others on the subject, and I have been credited with establishing the study of the nineteenth-century cemetery as a serious academic subject.

After three years in Scotland advising on the European Architectural Heritage Year 1975 campaign, I read for my Doctorate at University College London, publishing my work as a biography of the architect Henry Roberts (1803-76), the pioneer of working-class housing, in 1983. By then I had identified another neglected subject, the involvement of the City of London in the ‘Plantation’ of Ulster from the early seventeenth century. This does not mean ‘forestry’ (which a certain academic publisher imagined), but was a word in common use then to mean the settling or colonisation of an area (e.g. the contemporary Plantation of Virginia, which did not allude to cotton or tobacco). The British Academy saw the point, providing funds from its Research Fund in 1982 and 1983, so, after several years of hard work in Livery-Company and other archives in the City, followed by  fieldwork in Ireland, my The Londonderry Plantation 1609-1914 was published in 1986 to great acclaim.

During my cœmeterial research I realised the Egyptian Revival had been neglected, so I produced three books on the subject (1982, 1995, and 2005). Those, in turn, sparked a study (1991) of art and architecture influenced by Freemasonry which won the Sir Banister Fletcher Prize as Best Book of the Year in 1992, and this led to further investigations in Germany, France, Italy, Poland, and elsewhere, resulting in Freemasonry & the Enlightenment (2011). Meanwhile, my massive studies of Classical (1992), Victorian (2007), and Georgian (2011) Architecture appeared, and in the early 1990s Oxford University Press commissioned me to write a Dictionary of Architecture, research for which was partly supported by a Small Personal Research Grant from the Academy. The Dictionary (published in 1999)  was saluted as a ‘remarkable achievement’, the ‘most comprehensive and up-to-date dictionary of architecture available’, ‘splendid’, ‘more perceptive than its recent predecessors’, and ‘a smasher’. Further editions followed in 2006 and 2015, the last with contributions on landscape architecture by Dr Susan Wilson.

In 2013 I published Funerary Monuments & Memorials in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, again well received, and over the last few years I have been writing a major book, again commissioned by OUP, provisionally entitled Making Dystopia: The Rise and Strange Survival of Architectural Barbarism, which sums up the results of sixty years of thinking about architecture and the environment, considering with despair the greed, stupidity, and small-mindedness that have done so much to wreck our habitat. It is scheduled to appear in 2018.

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