Blue Plaques

SUMMERSON, Sir John (1904-1992)

Plaque erected in 2012 by English Heritage at 1 Eton Villas, Chalk Farm, London, NW1 4SX, London Borough of Camden

All images © English Heritage


Architectural Historian


History and Biography


Sir JOHN SUMMERSON 1904-1992 Architectural Historian lived here from 1949 until his death



John Newenham Summerson was born in Darlington, Co. Durham on 25 November 1904 in a house that he later referred to as 'uncommonly dreary'. After the death of his father Samuel in 1907, the young Summerson led a nomadic life with his mother Dorothea, lodging in numerous resorts in England and on the Continent. He dated his fascination with old buildings to being educated at the Gothic Revival Riber Castle, 'a castellated mansion of prodigious size and gaunt aspect' near Matlock, Derbyshire. After Harrow School (1918-22) Summerson forsook a career in music to train at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London.

After training, he worked in several junior roles, most notably in the office of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, but architectural practice was not for him. He taught at the Edinburgh College of Art and while there, championed modernism in print, and continued to do so as assistant editor of the Architect and Building News (1934-41). He belonged to the MARS (Modern Architectural Research) group, but later came to believe that modernism had 'conquered the whole building world and was repeating itself endlessly'.

As an architectural writer, Summerson is better known for his erudition on earlier periods: a chance find of drawings in a Bloomsbury bookshop's bargain bin encouraged him to embark on the biography of John Nash (published 1935) that made his name. In March 1938 he married Elizabeth Hepworth, the sister of Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor; they had triplet sons in 1947. During the Second World War Summerson was the main founding spirit of the National Buildings Record. The organisation was set up to record buildings threatened by bombing, with Summerson as its Deputy Director. It is now the Historic England Archive.

In 1945 Summerson was appointed Director of Sir John Soane's Museum, a post he held until 1984. He transformed a 'shuttered and shattered' relic into a financially secure institution of international standing. During this time, he wrote a series of important works, including the essay collection Heavenly Mansions (1949) and the influential Georgian London (1946) and Architecture in Britain, 1530-1830 (1953).

Summerson's subsequent attempt at an overarching survey of Victorian architecture proved less successful - he felt less empathy for the period - but resulted in several smaller works, including Victorian Architecture: Four Studies in Evaluation (1969). Summerson also wrote biographies of Sir Christopher Wren (1953) and Inigo Jones (1966) and contributed two volumes to The History of the King's Works (1975, 1982). A late essay collection, The Unromantic Castle (1990), included an important piece on the seventeenth-century architect John Thorpe, as well as an article on Riber Castle and its builder. Summerson was knighted in 1958 and created a Companion of Honour in 1987.

Summerson sat on numerous public bodies and committees, including the Royal Fine Arts Commission (1947-54), the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (1953-74), and the Historic Buildings Council (1953-78). A founder member of the Georgian Group in 1937, his attitude to conservationism was selective, unsentimental and occasionally controversial. For example, he supported the post-war rebuilding of Chelsea old church and the selective reconstruction of Nash's Regent's Park estate, but damned part of Georgian Dublin as being of 'very slight architectural distinction'. Summerson held several visiting professorships and honorary degrees, and was known to the wider public as a broadcaster, notably from the radio programme 'The Critics'.

1 Eton Villas

1 Eton Villas, Chalk Farm, NW3, was his home for more than forty years. He died here on 10 November 1992.

"The Most Eloquent and Elegant of British Architectural Historians"

Tim Knox, the Director of Sir John Soane's Museum, describes Summerson as:

" a magisterial figure in British architectural history: a great writer and an eloquent speaker, and for forty-five years Curator of Sir John Soane's Museum in London. It is fitting that his residence at No.1 Eton Villas, is to be commemorated by an English Heritage Blue Plaque, making him part of the history of the city he so loved and celebrated in his writings."

Gavin Stamp, architectural writer English Heritage Blue Plaques panellist said:

"Sir John Summerson, who wrote about Georgian architecture and much more, was the most eloquent and elegant of British architectural historians and one who bridged that unfortunate modern divide between history and architecture. If ever a London resident deserved a Blue Plaque it is he, for this distinguished and influential author of Georgian London lived in the house where it is to be placed for over forty years."

Nearby Blue Plaques

Nearby Blue Plaques

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