First published exactly seventy years ago, Sir John Summerson’s Architecture in Britain, 1530–1830 has never been out of print. Compact and clearly written, it somehow managed to encompass a lifetime’s learning in some thirty short but lucid chapters. In a review of 1954, the distinguished architectural writer J M Richards predicted, ‘It will certainly remain the standard textbook for many years to come.’ Nine editions later, it is indeed still essential reading for anyone interested in the subject.
Summerson’s skill was twofold. In the first place, as Richards recognised in his review, he managed ‘to deploy masses of facts while producing a readable narrative’. Secondly, and just as importantly, he was not a neutral commentator. Summerson had views. He had trained as an architect and combined his work as curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum with a career as a proponent of modern architecture. He was also strongly influenced by the development of art history as a discipline. His narrative was an argument as well as a story.
Even the chronological limits of the text were ideological. Beginning with what he called ‘The English Renaissance’ and ending with the first glimmerings of the Gothic Revival, Summerson’s book was focused on the rise and development of classical architecture. His heroes were the architects who imbibed the principles laid