The other day I finished reading The Professor (White Crescent Press, 1980), Simon Houfe’s affectionate biography of his grandfather, the architect Sir Albert Edward Richardson. I’ve been intrigued by Richardson for a while: he often has a passing mention in memoirs and letters produced between the wars although, in spite of an architectural career which lasted from the late 1890s to the early 1960s, his country house output was small. He enlarged or remodelled one or two minor houses – The Hale, near Wendor (1918) and Chevithorne Barton in Devon (1930) are good examples – but the practice he carried on, with C. Lovett Gill until 1939 and from 1945 with his son-in-law, E. A. S. Houfe, focused mainly on commercial premises, usually designed in a light, elegant neo-Georgian style.
Richardson’s real contribution to the period was as a polemicist for the buildings of the past, and in particular for the long eighteenth century – which in his case was even longer than usual, beginning with the Restoration and ending with the death of George IV 170 years later. He travelled the length and breadth of the country in his enormous Rolls Royce, haranguing philistine local authorities to save an England that was in danger of demolition, berating negligent owners of dilapidated mansions. He recorded historic architecture in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fluid, fluent sketches and in a flood of published work: Georgian England, The Old Inns of England, The Smaller English House of the Later Renaissance. John Betjeman once told him that ‘You have written the two bibles of my life – Monumental Classic Architecture of the 18th and 19th Centuries, and Regional Architecture in the West of England. If I were king, I would give you a peerage.’
And not content with promoting the past, Richardson lived in it. In 1919 he bought Avenue House in Ampthill, built for a Bedfordshire brewer in 1780 and extended by Henry Holland in 1792-5. Over the next four decades or so the architect filled Avenue House with art and oddities: oils by Philip Mercier and Angelica Kauffmann, exquisite George III furniture in tulipwood and satinwood; a lamp said to belong to the Lady of the Lamp herself, Florence Nightingale; Clive of India’s door knob and a battered baluster from Doctor Johnson’s house. He refused to have electricity installed, and was fond of dressing up in full Georgian costume around the house.
In many ways Richardson was a difficult character – bombastic, self-centred, a reactionary conservative who hated Modernism as much as he loathed modern society. Imagine an architectural G. K. Chesterton, and you have him. But his contribution to the evolving preservationist movement of the 1920s and 1930s was profound.
By a strange coincidence, just as I reached the last page of The Professor, an email came through from Christie’s announcing the sale of the contents of Avenue House. The place had remained more or less intact since Richardson’s death in 1964, and after years of searching for a way of preserving it for posterity, the family has given up the struggle.
The Avenue House sale took place this week. It isn’t a disastrous Mentmore-type dispersal to be remembered and mourned for decades. It is more of a small sadness. But it is a sadness, none the less. Something has been lost, and we’re all a little poorer for it.