When I first met David Watkin I was beginning my second year as a Research Fellow at Peterhouse, and David had just been elected to the Fellowship. There was much muttering in the Senior Combination Room concerning this scandalous appointment. Dr Watkin, it was rumoured, dressed in a manner too stiff and punctilious ever to be tolerated in a liberal institution. He believed in God, possibly in Hell and damnation. He was an outspoken opponent of modern art, modern architecture, modern music and modern everything else. Worse still he had impeccable manners in a place where manners, if they existed at all, had to be decidedly peccable. His appointment was a retrograde step in the college’s on-going march towards liberty, equality and diversity, a breach in the armour of enlightenment through which the counter-reformation might at any moment gush in like a suffocating wind.
I attended to these rumours with incredulity. Surely a person like that would never be admitted to a fellowship in a respectable college? It was too much to hope for. I decided to call on Dr Watkin in the rooms that had been assigned to him in St Peter’s Terrace, on the staircase next to mine. I was astonished to discover that he had already transformed the day-quarters of the dingy don who had previously occupied them, to the chambers of a Regency gentleman, with furnishings, prints and ornaments that might have been rescued from a great estate, and a great disaster. It had the air of someone who had fallen from the heights of inherited affluence and who was struggling to maintain himself in elegant decline.
The impression was enhanced by the presence of Monsignor Gilbey, meticulously dressed in the style of an Anglican clergyman of Jane Austen’s day, crouching forward in a bergère chair as though interrupted in the course of a confessional. David himself was dressed in a double-breasted suit and starched collar, from which his thin neck rose like a fluted hat stand. The Monsignor confined his adverse judgement of my bohemian dress to a rapid sweep of the eyes, and then rose to take me by the hand as though welcoming the Prodigal Son. The two of them began to talk with a kind of Firbankian allusiveness of the appalling nature of David’s new surroundings. The dialogue between them, in which I was included as a sympathetic audience, could have been conducted by two out-of-work actors, consoling themselves with their favourite Noel Coward roles.
And indeed, as I came to know David better, and through him Alfred Gilbey, I came to understand both of them as accomplished actors, who had chosen their roles and chosen to be meticulously faithful to them. To say this is not to make a criticism. On the contrary, it is testimony to their great strength of character that, having understood the moral and aesthetic chaos of the world into which they were born, they each of them recognized that there is only one honest response to it, which is to live your life as an example. This is what Alfred Gilbey was to David; and it is what David was to me. As I got to know him I found myself roused first to admiration and then to wonder that a person should be able to live as David lived, his deeply romantic sensibility confined in a dramatic role entirely devoted to the classical idea. He had absorbed that idea from the Monsignor, who taught that chaos lies all around us, and that our first duty is to impose upon it whatever order – spiritual, moral, aesthetic – it can bear. The alternative to order is not freedom, which is a form of order and its highest purpose, but disorder, randomness and decay.
That was what we – David and I – as refugees from the sixties, had witnessed: the decay of everything, when law-governed freedom gives way to random self-expression. And when spiritual certainty and moral discipline find their aesthetic equivalent, the result is the classical style. That was the idea that inspired David, and it is an idea that he exemplified in his life. Those who say (as many do) that the classical idea, transported into the world of modern architecture, is just so much dressing up, fail to realize that the choice before us is not between dressing up and a kind of primeval Lawrentian nudity, but between dressing correctly, so as to be pleasing to others, and dressing indifferently, so as to disregard the surrounding world. I would go further, and point to the sheer affectation of the architecture produced by the likes of Ghery, Libeskind or Rogers, whose buildings flaunt their metallic baubles in our cities like bejewelled old queens at a gathering of councillors. And I would contrast the polite and public-spirited demeanour of Quinlan Terry, John Simpson and the others whose architecture David heroically defended. The neo-classical movement is a movement towards order, dignity and grace, towards an architecture that does not stand out but fits in, politely taking its place in the city’s shadows.
David was the most intelligent, committed and iconoclastic architectural historian of his generation. He believed that the passing glances that we bestow on buildings tell us nothing about their real meaning, and that the task of the architectural historian is to explore what we otherwise merely see. When our architectural heritage is threatened with destruction, therefore, the architectural historian must be at the forefront of the battle.
Architecture, David believed, has been misrepresented. The modernists conceived it as the disposition of space, materials and forms, without regard to the textures through which buildings weave themselves into the fabric of the city. They did not recognize that form needs proportion, that proportion needs boundaries, that boundaries need mouldings, and that mouldings belong to a complex grammar of detail that generates facades, doors, windows and colonnades in something like the way that the deep grammar of language generates the sentences that we speak. It is largely because modernist forms lack such a grammar that they are so strongly disliked.
David wrote with an erudition and love for the subject that have rarely been equalled. His first intention was to rectify the one-sided narratives that have in recent times dominated the curriculum. These narratives, typified by Pevsner’s Outline of European Architecture, and Pioneers of Modern Design, have seen aesthetic history as a continual progress, with each new style discarding the exhausted language of the last and shaping itself according to the emerging spirit of the age. Shorn of the idealist metaphysics with which Hegel embellished it, that view of history is patently unbelievable, and unbelievable above all in the case of architecture, the greatest monuments of which have belonged to movements of revival, such as the one that transformed the art of building at the Renaissance. And it is to a particular revival – the classical revival of the early 19th century – that David devoted his most penetrating works. His comprehensive studies of Cockerell and Soane have changed completely the way in which the classical revival is now perceived; they have also prepared the way, one hopes, for another such revival today. For David’s writings show the continuing relevance of classicism as an evolved solution to the problems of urban design.
Pugin thought that the classicists were putting back the clock, but not far enough. Their buildings were simply testimonies to the godless culture of the modern city. Ruskin developed this argument in prose that was both self-consciously sublime and scrupulously observant, and it was inevitable that he would carry the day. But, in David’s eyes, Pugin and Ruskin were the first of a new breed of critics, who confuse aesthetic and moral values, and who condemn errors of taste as sins.
That thought gave rise to the polemic Morality and Architecture, 1977, in which he attacked the flawed reasoning that had, from Pugin to Pevsner, sustained the ‘progressive’ view of architecture. David’s book is a vivid, passionate and amusing account of the handful of doctrines through which the Modern Movement was able to convert itself from an interesting aesthetic experiment into an aggressive political crusade. The ideology of the movement has always been materialistic, secular and egalitarian; it has been against ornament, excess and grandeur; it has been in favour of the collective against personal imagination, of historical forces against individual will, of social justice against privilege, patronage and class. Nevertheless, David showed, the Modern Movement has relied on arguments that were used as much by Pugin in his polemics on behalf of ‘Christian’ architecture, as by the eggheads of the Bauhaus, in their pursuit of functional hygiene. And behind the moralising was the great Zeitgeist illusion, the Hegelian illusion that all art, all thought and all institutions must be true to the ‘spirit of the times’.
Morality and Architecture was panned by the architectural establishment, and regarded with suspicion by David’s academic colleagues. But the book, like his extraordinary character, turned my thinking in a new direction. David was a dissident, but not a rebel. He became my intellectual guide not only to buildings, but also to the life that had created them and which had found expression in their forms and styles. Like Osbert Lancaster and John Betjeman, whose insights he shared and supplemented, David was an amused and amusing observer of architectural fashions. For everyone he met he imagined the building best suited to accommodate him, and for every building that interested him he imagined a corresponding form of life. And his own life too was a work of the imagination, meticulously constructed according to the rules of Regency taste.
It was by observing David’s daily routine, his way of dressing, his way of speaking, and his way of arranging everything around him, that I began to understand why classicism and the sense of detail are inseparable, and why the grammatical instinct, as it might be called, is a fundamental part of any durable civilisation. I had never met anyone like him before, and will not meet his like again. He was ordered and composed from the bottom to the top. The turn-ups of his trousers were a kind of pediment, resting on a stylobate of polished shoes, and the carefully buttoned suit rose from them in a slim tube of spotless cloth, culminating in a starched collar from which the head emerged like a marble frieze. He had remade himself as a classical column, and the thin Ionic smile with which he greeted the world expressed a profound and ironical detachment from the randomness by which columns tend to be surrounded. He was an illustration of the classical ideal, and his stiff exactness of manner – acquired through years of self-discipline – was expressly designed to deter any easy informality. Behind it, however, was an irrepressible gaiety, stemming from the Catholic faith that David had acquired from Monsignor Gilbey, and from the unremitting joy that he felt in creating and appreciating order in the midst of chaos. He himself was an example of that order, and his special brand of isolation was not a form of harshness or snobbery, as his critics so often assumed, but the protective shield of a deeply vulnerable person, whose affection was freely and abundantly given whenever he was confident that it would be returned. I was a grateful recipient of that affection, and it shone a light on my world that has, to my great sorrow, gone out.