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Colvin, Howard Montagu

    Image Credit: Paul Mellon Centre

    Full Name: Colvin, Howard Montagu

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1919

    Date Died: 2007

    Place Born: Sidcup, Bexley, Greater London, England, UK

    Place Died: Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): architecture (object genre) and sculpture (visual works)

    Career(s): educators


    Architectural Historian and Oxford University lecturer. Colvin came from a lowland Scots family, the son of Montagu Colvin, a Vickers Corporation executive and stamp dealer and Anne Winifred Colvin. As a youth, he won scholarships to a number of public schools, but his father selected Trent College, Nottingham, for him for financial reasons. There, he encountered a history master, Mike Morgan, who encouraged Colvin to visit churches instead of participating in athletics. Colvin’s first architectural history paper, published in 1938 when only nineteen, was on Dale Abbey, Derbyshire. He continued in history at University College London. There, as an undergraduate, Colvin began compiling a dictionary of architects. After Britain entered World War II, he joined the RAF in 1940 but remained assigned to base in England. A chance meeting in Blackpool with the daughter of an under-secretary in the Air Ministry led to a wartime appointment as Flight Lieutenant and posted to Malta for archaeological photography reconnaissance. He continued to work on his dictionary throughout the war, using the three libraries in Valletta, the 18th-century Royal Malta Library, the Garrison Officers’ Library founded by the British in the 19th century, and the modern British Institute Library. In 1943 he married Christina Edgeworth Butler (d. 2003), daughter of a Cambridge Latin professor. After the war, he was appointed Assistant Lecturer in History, University College London in 1946. Two years later he received his M.A., from Oxford and was offered a Fellow position at St. John’s College. He remained at that Oxford College the rest of his career. He was named Tutor in History in 1948 (through 1978). As a history Tutor he inserted a class on English architectural history 1660-1720, architectural history being the only form of art history available to Oxford undergraduates at the time. Colvin added the duties of Librarian in 1950 (through 1984). His first published book was The White Canons in England (1951). Colvin continued researching his biographies, now aided by the tandem research of Rupert Gunnis, assembling his Dictionary of British Sculptors. Colvin had become increasingly aware that architectural historians frequently falsely attributed buildings to the few named architects of the era. Chief among these offenders was A. E. Richardson, the head of the Bartlett School of Architecture, who signed certificates of authentication which hung in churches and country houses throughout England. In 1951 the Ministry of Public Building and Works, then known as the Ministry of Works, commissioned him to oversee a series of authoritative volumes on historic buildings, which he set about doing. In the meantime, Colvin produced the authoritative Biographical Dictionary of English Architects 1660-1840 in 1954. He received the Banister Fletcher Prize for the book in 1957. The first volume of Colvin’s commissioned magnum opus, History of the King’s Works, appeared in 1963. He was a commissioner of the Royal Fine Art Commission from 1962 to 1972, a commissioner of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments for England beginning in 1963 (to 1976). Colvin was made a Reader in Architectural History, Oxford University 1965. Building Accounts of King Henry III, which he edited, was published in 1971. He issued a second edition of his Dictionary in 1978, expanding it to include Scotland and the years 1600-1660, changing the title to A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840. He was President of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain from 1979 through 1981. The sixth and final volume of his History of the King’s Works appeared in 1982. His Unbuilt Oxford appeared in 1983. Colvin became emeritus in 1987. A book, Architecture and the After-Life (1991) examined funerary buildings from Mesopotamia to Ireland. He received a knighthood in 1995. The same year, another revised edition of Biographical Dictionary of British Architects appeared. Colvin had nearly completed proof-reading the fourth version of this Dictionary at his death. His students included Giles Arthington Worsley, who, along with Colvin, were noted critics of John Newenham Summerson. Colvin’s documentary-style methodology as well as his intellectual model was Robert Willis, whose posthumously published Architectural History of the University of Cambridge (1886) used extensive documentation to solve the vexing issues of attribution of the University building’s architects. As a medievalist, he countered the view of scholars such as John James (b. 1931), who asserted gothic churches were not built by architects, proving through documentation that medieval architects were highly trained, skilled and valued for their expertise (Crossley). Both premier 20th-century architectural historians Nikolaus Bernard Leon Pevsner and Summerson, though older, were indebted to him for the facts used in their histories (Hewlings). Colvin revised Summerson’s 1945 Georgian London in 2001, which Colvin found “factually careless.” This disparity of approach was reflected in that author’s estimation of Colvin as that of a connoisseur attempting to garner the lives and works of British architects (Whinney obituary). Oxford’s lack of other art historians to appreciate his work, meant his scholarship, though respected, was never rewarded with a chair. An amateur architect, he designed an extension to the Senior Common Room at St. John’s as well as his own house in north Oxford.

    Selected Bibliography

    [summary bibliography:] Colvin, Howard Montagu. “The Author’s Principal Writings on Architectural History.” In Essays in English Architectural History. New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art/Yale University Press, 1999, pp. 298-302; A Biographical Dictionary of English Architects, 1660-1840. London: J. Murray, 1954; The History of the King’s Works. 6 vols. London: H.M. Stationery Office/Ministry of Public Building and Works, 1963-1982; edited. Building Accounts of King Henry III. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1971.


    Summerson, John. “Margaret Dickens Whinney, 1894-1975.” Proceedings of the British Academy 68 (1982): 640; Colvin, Howard Montagu. “Writing a Biographical Dictionary of British Architects.” In Essays in English Architectural History. New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art/Yale University Press, 1999, pp.292-297; Crossley, Paul. “Introduction: Frankl’s Text: Its Achievement and Significance.” Frankl, Paul and Crossley, Paul. Gothic Architecture. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, p. 26; [obituaries:] Hewlings, Richard. “Architectural historian whose biographical dictionaries laid a foundation for all other scholars in his field .” Independent (London), January 1, 2008, p. 34; “Sir Howard Colvin.” Times (London) January 1, 2008, p. 47.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Colvin, Howard Montagu." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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