John Summerson

Sir John Newenham Summerson CH CBE (25 November 1904 – 10 November 1992) was one of the leading British architectural historians of the 20th century.[1]

John Summerson
Born25 November 1904
Died10 November 1992
Alma materHarrow School and University College London
Known forArchitectural historian

Early lifeEdit

John Summerson was born at Barnstead, Coniscliffe Road, Darlington.[2] His grandfather worked for the Darlington and Stockton Railway and founded the family foundry of Thomas Summerson and Sons in Darlington in 1869. Summerson attended a prep school at Riber Castle in Derbyshire[a][3] before going to Harrow and the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, where he gained a bachelor's degree in 1928.


Following some unsuccessful attempts to become a practising architect, and greater success as an architectural journalist, Summerson embarked on his first book, a biography of the architect John Nash (1752–1835). Published in 1935, it was "outstandingly successful".[2]

He continued to write mainly about British architecture, especially that of the Georgian era.[4] His Architecture in Britain: 1530–1830 (1st edition 1953; many subsequent editions) remained a standard work on the subject for students and general readers after his death. The Classical Language of Architecture (1963) is an introduction to the stylistic elements of classical architecture and traces their use and variation in different eras. He also wrote many more specialised works, including books about Inigo Jones and Georgian London (1945) illustrated by Alison Sleigh, as well as The Architecture of the Eighteenth Century (1986), in which he describes Boullée in a distinct positive manner, stating that Boullée was clearly the point of departure for one of the boldest innovators of the century, Claude Nicolas Ledoux.

He was one of the founders of the National Buildings Record (NBR) in 1941 and was a Commissioner of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) for 21 years, writing the introduction to the book celebrating the NBR's fiftieth anniversary in 1991.[5]

He served as curator of Sir John Soane's Museum from 1945 to 1984.

He was Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford for 1958–59.[6]

Summerson was noted for his somewhat elitist approach, and he was not always a consistent friend of the conservation movement. He was hired by the ESB in Ireland to speak in favour of their demolition of 16 Georgian townhouses in Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin. The doomed terrace, he said, was "simply one damned house after another".[7]

Summerson lectured at the Architectural Association and became a good friend of his student Roger Westman, who went on to become a noted architect.[8]


Summerson was knighted in 1958; was awarded the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1976; and was created a Companion of Honour in 1987.


English Heritage blue plaque at 1 Eton Villas, Chalk Farm

The term Bristol Byzantine, referring to a style influenced by Byzantine and Moorish architecture and applied mainly to warehouses, factories, and other industrial buildings in the city of Bristol, is thought to have been invented by Summerson.[9] He certainly invented the term prodigy house for showy Elizabethan and Jacobean courtier houses.[10]

An English Heritage blue plaque commemorating Summerson was erected at his former residence in Chalk Farm, London, in March 2012.[11][12]


  1. ^ While Summerson enjoyed his time at the school, the building provoked an early interest in architecture, and a life-long distaste for the Gothic Revival. He described the castle as "an object of indecipherable bastardy – a true monster".[3]


  1. ^ "Sir John Newenham Summerson – National Portrait Gallery". Retrieved 27 June 2019.
  2. ^ a b Girouard 2009.
  3. ^ a b Hartwell, Pevsner & Williamson 2016, p. 570.
  4. ^ "Obituary: Sir John Summerson". The Independent. 12 December 1992. Retrieved 27 June 2019.
  5. ^ RCHME Newsletter 9. Spring 1993. ISSN 0957-0241
  6. ^ "Oxford Slade Professors, 1870–present" (PDF). University of Oxford. 2012. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 February 2015. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
  7. ^ Casey 2005, p. 76.
  8. ^ "Roger Westman: A life in architecture". The Architecture Schools Database. 23 March 2020. Retrieved 18 December 2020.
  9. ^ Brace, Keith (1996). Portrait of Bristol. London: Robert Hale. ISBN 0-7091-5435-6.
  10. ^ Mooney, Barbara Burlison, Prodigy Houses of Virginia: Architecture and the Native Elite, p.2, 2008, University of Virginia Press, ISBN 0813926734, 9780813926735, google books
  11. ^ "Summerson, Sir John (1904–1992)" (xhtml). English Heritage. 2012. Retrieved 11 July 2015.
  12. ^ "Architectural historian gets blue plaque". Building Design. 2012. Retrieved 11 July 2015.


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