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Summerson, John Newenham

    Full Name: Summerson, John Newenham

    Other Names:

    • John Summerson

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1904

    Date Died: 1992

    Place Born: Darlington, Darlington, England, UK

    Place Died: Eton Villas, Camden, London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

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


    Architectural Historian and keeper of the Soane Museum, 1945-1984. Summerson’s father was Samuel James Summerson (d. 1907) and mother Dorothea Worth Newenham (d. 1963). His grandfather, Thomas Summerson was director of the steel foundry in Darlington responsible for the first public railway in England. After his father’s death when he was three, his moved frequently in England and Europe. He attended school at Riber Castle, Derbyshire, before the Harrow School beginning in 1918. Here he became an outstanding organist. He considered a career as a professional organist before changing to architecture. He entered the Bartlett School, University College, London in 1922, under Albert Richardson. After a succession of architectural assistant positions and a teaching post at the College of Art, Edinburgh for the 1929-1930 year, he traveled throughout Europe and Russia, examining architecture. Upon his return to England, he joined the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARS). Summerson struck out on his own in 1934, leaving a living arrangement with his mother and writing for the Architect and Building News as an assistant editor until 1941. During this time he wrote a biography of Nash, whose drawings he had discovered in a print shop in 1932, published in 1935. In 1937 Summerson published the first of his characteristic essays rethinking traditional architecture, “The Tyranny of Intellect: A Study of the Mind of Sir Christopher Wren in Relation to the Thought of his Time.” The following year he married Elizabeth Alison Hepworth (d. 1991), a dancer and sister of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Summerson began research for a history of Georgian architecture in London. He lectured on the topic in 1939 at the Courtauld Institute. However, World War II prevented publishing these. Summerson joined the National Buildings Record in 1941, an initiative founded an attempt to document structures before they were destroyed by bombing. Although his title was assistant director under Walter Godfrey (1891-1986), the Record was effectively Summerson’s own project. When Arthur T. Bolton, the keeper of the John Soane Museum, died in 1945, Summerson was appointed his successor. Only then did he abandon hopes of concertizing. His book on Georgian London appeared in 1946. As director of the Soane Museum, Summerson skillfully changed the museum’s funding to governmental while retaining its board of trustees. He moved to the Chalk Farm area in north London with his family in 1949, the same year his book Heavenly Mansions, appeared. In the early 1950s, Nikolaus Bernard Leon Pevsner contracted with Summerson to write the volume on Architecture in Britain, 1550-1850 for the Pelican History of Art series. It appeared in 1953. Summerson was knighted in 1958. His interest in architecture spanned the entire range, at times his enthusiasm for modern architecture at cross-purposes with historic conservation. In 1961 he was part of a group supporting a new building in Dublin. Summerson wrote his popular architectural primer, The Classical Language of Architecture in 1964. A catalog on the architect John Thorpe was issued as volume 40 of the journal of the Walpole Society in 1966. In 1968 the Soane Museum purchased the adjacent property, also designed by Soane, and the Museum expanded. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Summerson began a protracted affair with the artist Nancy Culliford Sharp Spender (1909-2001), the estranged wife of the artist William Coldstream and widow of the war hero Michael Spender (brother of the poet Stephen Spender). In 1976 Summerson published the first of his two books covering royal architecture between 1485-1660, known as the History of the King’s Works edited under Howard Montagu Colvin. He rewrote his earlier Nash biography completely, publishing it as Life and Work of John Nash Architect in 1980. Summerson retired from the Museum in 1984. He supported demolishing a Georgian building in favor of designed by Mies van de Rohe in 1984. He retired from the museum the same year. In 1988 he again backed raising traditional buildings (Victorian era) in London in favor of replacing them with a modernist building by James Stirling. These modernist beliefs rankled many among his architectural history friends. His collected essays, The Unromantic Castle (1990) ranged from analysis of minor architects such as an essay on Thorpe to pieces on the (second) design for St. Paul’s Cathedral by Christopher Wren. His wife Lady Summerson, died in 1991 and the following year, his body ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, Summerson himself died. He left an uncompleted and unpublished autobiography. Summerson’s long curatorship at the Soane Museum transformed the quaint though stodgy institution into a specialty museum of international stature. As an architectural historian, he changed British architectural history from the hobby of architects to an academic discipline. His impressive research skills and judgment were acquired without formal education in the subject. Instead, he learned from the German expatriate architectural historians (Pevsner among others). He read Karl Marx and believed in materialism’s determining artistic form. He admired Lewis Namier, H. S. Goodheart-Rendel, and Robert Byron. His book Georgian London examined landownership and building regulations as much as stylistic development to write a new kind of architectural history. The architectural historian Howard Montagu Colvin, however, found this Summerson book, which he revised in 2001, so factually carelessness. His Pelican History of Art volume set British architecture in the larger context of European architecture, demonstrating that English architects employed pattern books and continental theory as opposed to the notion–expounded by Reginald T. Blomfield and others, that Insular architecture sprang from individual inspiration. Deborah Howard noted that Summerson, like academically trained art historians of his time, believed that a clear, “coherent line of stylistic development could and should be traced based on the artistic authority of certain key figures and their buildings.” David Watkin notes that Summerson was one of the first architectural historians who did not wish to see the historic styles he studied designed by modern architects.

    Selected Bibliography

    [selected bibliography:] The Country Seat: Studies in the History of the British Country House Presented to Sir John Summerson. London: Allen Lane, 1970; [collected essays:] Heavenly Mansions and Other Essays on Architecture. London: Cresset Press, 1949 (includes “The Tyranny of Intellect” essay), and, The Unromantic Castle and Other Essays. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990; John Nash, Architect to King George IV. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1935, fundamentally rewritten as, The Life and Work of John Nash, Architect. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980; and Richards, James Maude. The Bombed Buildings of Britain: a Record of Architectural Casualties: 1940-41. Cheam, Surrey: The Architectural Press, 1942; Georgian London. New York: C. Scribner, 1945 [not available until 1946]; The Classical Language of Architecture. Cambridge, MA: M. I. T. Press, 1963; Architecture in Britain, 1530 to 1830. London: Penguin Books, 1954; The Architecture of Victorian London. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976; Colvin, Howard Montagu, ed. The History of King’s Works: 1485-1660, (Part I). London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1976, and The History of King’s Works: 1485-1660, (Part II) . London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1982.


    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.


    "Summerson, John Newenham." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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