Obituary of Marc Girouard | Architecture
Mark Girouard, who died aged 90, was Britain’s most readable architectural historian, a great authority on Elizabethan and Victorian architecture whose numerous writings used the study of buildings to illuminate the social life of the past. The publication of Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History in 1978 captured the zeitgeist at a time when stately homes were being redeveloped as sites for mass recreation. It sold over 140,000 hardcover copies.
When Girouard began his career, the study of architectural history in Britain was dominated by the German-educated Nikolaus Pevsner, for whom the discipline was essentially about following artistic styles through formal and spatial analysis. intense. In contrast, Girouard’s books place buildings in their cultural, social and intellectual milieu. The results were scholarly, but also extremely fun, talkative, and stylish.
Although he wrote extensively about country homes, he found much of the spooky snobbery and nostalgia that often accompanies bad taste territory. Free of emphasis, mischievous, self-effacing and courteous, he was much loved by all kinds of people for his kindness and sense of fun. Girouard tackled a formidable range of subjects beyond country houses, writing vervely about Victorian pubs (1975) and urban history in Cities and People: A Social and Architectural History (1985) and The English Town: A History of Urban Life (1990).
Perhaps his most moving book is The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (1981), which traces how the cult of medieval chivalry in Edwardian England led to the gung-ho militarism that would have such disastrous effects. during the World War One. Her political sensibilities, which mixed the patrician and the progressive, are best reflected in Sweetness and Light: The “Queen Anne” Movement 1860-1900 (1977), a study of how the intellectual establishment of the late era Victorian used a cheerful, undogmatic architecture of swags and cherubs to advance a paternalistic liberal social agenda.
Born in the family home in Upper Berkeley Street, Mayfair, central London, Mark was the son of Blanche (née Beresford), a novelist and eldest daughter of the sixth Marquess of Waterford, and her husband, Richard Girouard, an agent for exchange. His mother died in a car accident when he was eight, during his first boarding school at Avisford Preparatory School in West Sussex, and he was not allowed to attend the funeral.
World War II had started and his father was in the army. Her extended family networks began and her first country house experiences came during holidays spent in Britain and Ireland, at establishments such as Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, with her great-aunt the Duchess of Devonshire. .
He remembered Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire less for the Catholic education he received there than for walking to surrounding buildings such as Rievaulx Abbey and Castle Howard. He was known at school as Coconut, as his hair was “coarse, brown, and even then far from profuse”. His national service was spent with the Nigeria Regiment of the Royal West African Frontier Force. He was not a natural soldier and awkwardly stabbed himself in the face trying to detach a bayonet.
He regretted reading classics and philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford, but enjoyed skating on the lake at nearby Blenheim Palace and sharing excavations with Thomas Pakenham, the future historian and Earl of Longford, at Caudwell Castle on Folly Bridge Island, south of Oxford. They went crawling to church in a ramshackle old black cab, until Girouard ran it into a truck.
His time at Hardwick Hall inaugurated a lifelong interest in Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture. Girouard’s doctorate (1957) from the Courtauld Institute in London was published in expanded form as Robert Smythson and the Architecture of the Elizabethan Era (1966). It was a major piece of archival detective work, establishing Robert Smythson, previously considered an obscure master builder, as the presiding genius of the so-called prodigy houses of Longleat, Wollaton, Hardwick and Bolsover.
From 1958 to 1966, Girouard worked as a writer at Country Life, which gave him the opportunity to be “paid for the very pleasant work of digging and digging, and with luck finding rolls of architectural drawings neglected under billiard tables or country house boxes moldy building accounts in their attics”. He would normally be hosted as a guest by the owners, so when the Earl of Carnarvon at Highclere Castle in the Hampshire, made him eat alone, separately from servants and nobility, he was disillusioned.
While at Country Life he developed a specialization in the then very old-fashioned subject of Victorian architecture, which would result in The Victorian Country House (1971), a book notable for its focus on technology and planning. houses, including their plumbing, heating and ventilation.
Girouard’s interest in Victorian architecture brought him into contact with the nascent conservation movement, and he was a founding member and leader of the Victorian Society. From 1962, when Harold Macmillan signed for the demolition of Euston Arch outside central London station, he refused to vote Conservative again.
In the 1970s, when a group of friends came up with the idea of saving at-risk buildings by buying, fixing and reselling them, it was Girouard who came up with the idea of saving Georgian houses in Spitalfields, in the East End of London, and he became the first chairman of the Spitalfields Trust. He began his presidency with theatrical direct action and was part of a group that squatted for seven weeks in two condemned 18th-century weavers’ houses on Elder Street to prevent demolition by British Land. They dined among the abandoned and slept on the ground, while the bulldozers waited outside.
Poet John Betjeman, who teasingly and incorrectly referred to Girouard as his ‘dearest grandchild’, exaggerated that he ‘never said a word’ about the multiple heritage committees he played a part in : Girouard was a militant of steel and committed to the buildings he loved. His writings on Tyntesfield, a Victorian Gothic revival house near Bristol, were instrumental in saving him and his collections for the nation in 2002.
In 1966 he left Country Life to study architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, part of University College London, as a mature student. Although he qualified, he was disappointed by the experience. He designed a single building, Edith Neville Primary School in Somers Town, North London (1971); it has since been demolished.
Many architectural historians of his generation displayed a virulent anti-modernism, but he did not share it, enjoying the company of architects he encountered while working for the Architectural Review in the 1970s. He defended the brutalist National Theater of Denys Lasdun against the attacks of the Prince of Wales. He also admired James Stirling, particularly the Leicester Engineering Building, which reminded him of Hardwick Hall. The biography Big Jim: The Life and Work of James Stirling (1998) was incredibly indiscreet and very funny, but, to his chagrin, hurt Stirling’s widow, Mary.
At Bartlett he met Dorothy Dorf and they married in 1970. Dorothy was a painter and also designed many of his books. They separated in the 90s. Their daughter, Blanche, writer, was born in 1976 and survives him.
Friendships (2017) recorded Girouard’s great capacity for companionship, centered on pubs, dining in Notting Hill and exploring buildings. He remained intellectually active until the end. In 1956, medievalist John Harvey suggested that Girouard was the only possible person to write a biographical dictionary of Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture. This was finally published in 2021 as A Biographical Dictionary of English Architecture 1540-1640, to great acclaim.