The Comfort of the Past

8 June 2015


The Comfort of the Past: Building in Oxford and Beyond 1815 – 2015, a new book by Kellogg Fellow Steven Parissien, provides a new view on private architectural patronage in Britain during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This architectural history of modern Oxford examines the stylistic dictates and historicizing whims of academic and civic patrons since 1815, demonstrating how they invariably eschewed the radical and cutting-edge in favour of ‘the comfort of the past’, using traditional idioms which lent the client status and reassurance. It looks at why college dons and private patrons preferred the security of historic templates derived from human scale, historical context and personal experience over the aesthetic and moral certainties of High Victorian Gothic and, in
the twentieth century, the Modern Movement.

Traditionally, Oxford’s dons and councillors sought an architecture that was familiar, reassuring and comfortable. Accordingly, they turned not to metropolitan stars but to more malleable and sympathetic local architect-builders such as Daniel Evans, Henry Underwood and Joshua Symm – contractors who were well-placed to provide historical continuity and to design and build in the traditional idioms with which they were familiar – and to local architects such as William Wilkinson and T.G. Jackson, men who would be amenable to their suggestions and who were equally at home in the Senior Common Room and the drawing office.

This beautiful and original book paints a picture of private architectural patronage in Britain during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries considerably at variance with the orthodoxy of standard architectural and design histories, with their inevitable emphasis on big-name architects and cutting-edge innovation. It seeks not to chart the building process itself but to analyse why private patrons consistently chose the proven styles of the past over more abstract theoretical certainties – and celebrates their choice in lavish images. In its later chapters it examines the architectural environments in which individuals or institutions, both in Oxford in the United States, have chosen to live and work, as seen through the prism of Oxford’s principal building contractor and craft practitioner, Symm and Company.

This is not just a book for the architectural and building professions, but rather an accessible cultural study which will appeal to the general reader. Written in a flowing style, it constitutes a provocative and witty examination of what patrons preferred to have built, rather than what architects sought to have them build, and their ever-recurring preference for the tried and trusted.

Steven Parissien is Director of Compton Verney, Warwickshire. He has written extensively on architectural and cultural history, and appears frequently on television and radio. The book is available from Paul Holberton Publishing.