John Summerson Biography

British art historian John Summerson (1904–1992) enjoyed a long and eminent career as an expert on London architecture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His 1945 work Georgian London has been termed "a masterpiece of British art history" by Simon Jenkins in a London Sunday Times review of the book's 1988 edition. Jenkins called the work "a great shout of clarity amid a postwar babble of destruction and stylistic confusion. See beauty and worth in the London all around us … before trying to improve on it."

Summerson was born on November 25, 1904, in Darlington, England. This town in northeast England had been known for nearly a century by then as the birthplace of the English railroad, and John's grandfather Thomas Summerson served as director of the local steel foundry that played a leading role in making the first locomotives for public transport. But Summerson's father died in 1907, and he and his mother, Dorothea, moved frequently for the next few years around Europe. Many years later he would write of coming upon an abandoned garden near the Rhine River in Germany as a lonely child, and how from that point forward "the 'wilderness with a broken swing' has been a recurrent theme in my life," according to an article by Alan Powers in Building Design . It was then, Summerson continued, that he first understood "that mysterious sense of inspiration in the presence of forgotten, deserted, broken things: derelict houses, forlorn castles, overgrown gardens, neglected graves, blitz ruins."

Joined "Old Harrovian" Ranks

Between 1915 and 1918 Summerson attended school in Derbyshire, a county in the East Midlands region of England. That school was located at Riber Castle, a monstrosity from 1862 that was the work of a local tycoon who had declined to hire a professional architect for the job. In his teens Summerson attended the Harrow School, a prestigious private academy for boys in northwest London that opened in 1572, and graduated as a talented organist. Rejecting the pursuit of a musical education or career, he enrolled at the University College of London's Bartlett School of Architecture in 1922, and after graduating he practiced as an architect for a few years. In 1929 he headed north to Scotland, taking a teaching job at the Edinburgh College of Art School of Architecture for a year. He then spent some time traveling throughout Europe and the Soviet Union. Hired by the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARS), a think tank founded by a group of modernist architects, he settled back in London, moving on to a job as an assistant editor for the magazine Architect and Building News in 1934.

In 1932 Summerson had come upon some drawings by architect John Nash (1752–1835) in a print shop. Nash had been responsible for London's famous Regent Street, a graceful thoroughfare designed as the ceremonial route from St. James Palace to Regent's Park for the Prince Regent; after it was laid out in 1811 it became one of the city's most elegant shopping streets, and remained so well into the twenty-first century. Nash also designed Trafalgar Square and many other London landmarks for the prince, who later became King George IV (1762–1830). Summerson believed that it was time for a renewed appraisal of Nash's important contributions to what became known as Regency London, and his 1935 book John Nash, Architect to George IV was the result.

The king's interest in architecture spawned the term "Regency," which denotes the period from 1810, when his father, George III (1738–1820), became too ill to rule, and he was designated "Prince Regent" until formally assuming the throne in 1820. Regency architecture followed many of the same tenets as the previously dominant style, Georgian, so named for the quartet of King Georges who reigned from 1714 to 1830, though the term is usually used in British architecture to refer to the years between 1720 and 1840. Georgian architecture was neo-classical, or a revival of the signature elements of Greek and Roman antiquity. In the parts of London laid out during these periods, entire façades of homes or businesses on a street were planned in such a way as to give off a harmonious, symmetrical appearance. There was also an emphasis on balance, with mathematical ratios used to set exact proportions for roofs, windows, and other elements of a building's interior and exterior.

London In Flux

When Summerson began his career as an architectural historian, some of the most famous Regency properties in London were in danger of extinction. The original 99-year leases on the parcels were ending, and a British aristocracy suddenly impoverished by World War I and the Great Depression could no longer afford to keep some of the century-old Regency villas built in the western part of the city. Summerson hoped to draw public attention to the beauty of this style and help preserve London for future generations. His mission brought him to the National Buildings Record in 1941, a professional, largely voluntary organization dedicated to photographing London landmarks before they were destroyed by bombs during World War II, when German aircraft inflicted heavy damage on the city. Summerson served as the deputy director of the organization, and roamed the streets with a camera photographing many of the landmarks himself.

In 1944 Summerson was appointed a member of the Listed Buildings Committee, a government agency that designated certain public or private properties as protected because of their architectural, historical, or cultural importance. He served on the committee for the next 22 years, chairing it once in the early 1960s, and held similar posts as a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, and the Historic Buildings Council. At Oxford and Cambridge universities, he held the Slade Professorships for one academic year at each, beginning in 1958 and 1966, respectively, and also lectured for many years on the history of architecture at the Architectural Association and then at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London system. As his Times of London obituary noted years later, Summerson "was a first-rate lecturer in spite of a somewhat aloof, and seemingly haughty style, which was much in vogue among certain art historians at the time. He was also an effective broadcaster and was heard regularly on the [British Broadcasting Corporation's] Third Programme . Both as a writer and as a speaker he was remarkable for his polished elegance and fluency, peppered by a dry wit."

Summerson's best known work, Georgian London , appeared in 1945, delayed in its publication due to World War II. In it, he chronicles this period of the city's architecture in detail, describes its most important figures and their contributions, and explains the influence of commercial real estate developers on urban planning over the years. He termed London "the least authoritarian city in Europe. It is remarkable for the freedom with which it developed," he noted, according to a Times Literary Supplement review from Charles Vince that appeared in March of 1946. Vince gave the work high marks, noting that "Summerson's judgements on both buildings and men are brief, firm and clear." Georgian London quickly became the classic text of the period for historians of art and architecture, and remained in print for decades. More than 40 years later, a new edition of the work, updated by Summerson, was critiqued in the Sunday Times by Jenkins, who commended the author for his "analysis not just of the major buildings, but of the integrated nature of the 18th and early-19th century townscape. To him, Georgian London was an interplay of taste and wealth, producing a distinctive pattern of street and square, terrace and church, market and shopping arcade."

Knighted by Queen

In 1945 Summerson became curator of Sir John Soane's House and Museum at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Soane (1753–1837) was an important architect of the Georgian era who designed several notable buildings, and left his equally noteworthy home and collection of art and artifacts to the British public. Summerson served as curator for the museum until his retirement in 1984, and the job allowed him time to pursue his scholarly work. He published several more volumes, including Heavenly Mansions, and Other Essays on Architecture , a 1949 collection of his essays that became a staple for first-year architecture students for decades to come. The survey Architecture in Britain, 1530–1830 appeared in 1953, followed by Sir Christopher Wren , a biography of the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral.

Made Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1952 and knighted in 1958 for his professional achievements, Summerson was a well-known expert in his day. He wrote regularly on preservation issues, such as the bid to save Euston Station in north London. In a article that appeared in the June 11, 1960, issue of the Times of London, he deemed it "perhaps … the greatest railway curiosity in the world" and "the first of Europe's metropolitan terminals" when it was built in the 1830s. His contribution to the rescue effort helped make it successful, and Euston remains both a "tube" stop for the London Underground subway system and the terminus for rail lines that carry passengers to and from London and the cities of England's northwest and Midlands. Several years later Summerson penned another essay for the newspaper, in which he wrote about the coming European Architectural Heritage Year of 1975. "The preservation of historic buildings is not (as, say, tree-planting is) something which can be activated as a gesture of celebration in a designated year," he asserted. "The essence of both conservation and of preservation is in long-term policy, watchfulness, technical research and, above all, the intelligent analysis of problems, whether structural or financial, before they actually arrive on the doorstep."

When Summerson retired from the Soane Museum in 1984, he had been there since the year World War II ended. As his Times of London obituary noted, the architectural historian "preferred the past. While others might have been tempted to modernise both the organisation and presentation of the collections, Summerson worked on an antique typewriter, amazing callers by answering most of the calls himself on the museum's only telephone." His final published work, The Unromantic Castle , appeared in 1990. This anthology collected some of his best writings about the rich history of England's architecture. He died in London of Parkinson's disease on November 10, 1992. His wife, a dancer he married in 1938 named Elizabeth Alison Hepworth, preceded him in death. They lived in the Chalk Farm section of London, where they raised triplet sons.

Summerson left an unfinished autobiography, but his legacy remains unmatched. An essay on him in the online source Dictionary of Art Historians praised him for his stewardship of the Soane Museum, during which he "transformed the quaint though stodgy institution into a specialty museum of international stature. As an architectural historian," the profile continued, Summerson "changed British architectural history from the hobby of architects to an academic discipline."


Building Design , November 2, 2001; June 18, 2004.

Sunday Times (London, England), August 28, 1988.

Times (London, England), October 11, 1951; June 11, 1960; July 12, 1974; November 12, 1992.

Times Literary Supplement , August 31, 1940; March 30, 1946; January 13, 1950; January 22, 1954; January 5, 1967; August 17, 1990.


"John (Newenham) Summerson," Contemporary Authors Online , (December 5, 2006).

"Summerson, John (Newenham)," Dictionary of Art Historians, (December 6, 2006).

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