Obituary: Cecil Hewett

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE DATING of timber-framed buildings was revolutionised from the early 1960s by Cecil Hewett.

Before that time, there had been a reluctance to attribute timber buildings that lacked an obvious historical context to any time before the 16th or 15th centuries. Two buildings which were to be central to Hewett's work, the barley and wheat barns erected by the religious order of the Knights Templar on their Essex manor of Cressing Temple, were for instance both put by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, in their county-wide survey of 1922, to the 16th century.

Hewett came to the problem from a practical background which led him to pioneer the study of the evolution of carpentry joints. He realised that their use must have been determined by the passage of time and fashionable trends amongst carpenters. At Cressing Temple, he was able to prove this, identifying the features of what are now termed "archaic carpentry", namely straight timbers, passing braces, notched- lap joints and splayed scarf joints.

His only precedent in this research was the Frenchman Henri Deneux, whose research on church and cathedral carpentry indicated an 11th- to 13th- century date for notched-lap joints. Confirmation of Hewett's theories came from carbon 14 dating which put the Cressing barley and wheat barns to c1200 and c1275 respectively.

Hewett's early appreciation of timber-framed buildings first came from his father, a woodworker, and by walking and bicycling round Essex from his childhood home at Laindon. This experience of acquiring knowledge first-hand set the pattern for his later research in which he formulated his own ideas based on knowledge and logic irrespective of traditional received academic wisdom.

After National Service from 1944 until 1948, he trained in drawing, painting, silversmithing and cabinet-making at the former Chelmsford School of Art and at University College, Swansea. These crafts he taught in Essex schools for 19 years before taking up a post with the Greater London Council Historic Buildings Division in 1972, moving to Essex County Council's Historic Buildings Section in 1974.

Hewett's redating of the Cressing barns and other buildings did not go down too well everywhere, and proved to be a bombshell amongst the historical and architectural fraternity. For a number of years, researchers were split over his work, but gradually his ideas have gained acceptance, especially with the coming of the more precise scientific technique of tree-ring dating.

Hewett's ability to illustrate his ideas with arresting sketches and drawings was noticed by the Essex historian and academic the late A.C. (Gus) Edwards who realised that, to reach the outside world, Hewett would need to write about his findings. Edwards took him in hand and, as a result, the new ideas reached Germany, Scandinavia and especially the United States where Hewett was, and is, greatly admired. His numerous publications have reached a wide audience, and he contributed to several television programmes, notably In Search of the Master Carpenters, with Rene Cutforth.

It was most fortunate that in 1980 Hewett published his major work, English Historic Carpentry, his best and most useful assessment of vernacular carpentry, which is still selling well today. Shortly after this book appeared, he suffered a severe stroke that set him back almost totally, except that, even though unable to communicate in any way, he remembered all his knowledge. Gradually, through sheer willpower and battling against appalling frustration, he regained most of his faculties. Hewett had always thought that one should work, as he said, like a "tightly stretched string" in order to extract the most from one's mind. It is possible that this approach to life accelerated the onset of his stroke and of his final illness.

Cecil Hewett was a rather private man who did much of his early research whilst he was teaching. He was an inspired potter, silversmith and modelmaker, and there is a panache about all his work that is unforgettable. His style of illustration has been much copied. He sometimes would make a model to demonstrate a point. He did this to good effect when he confounded a committee appointed in the Seventies to work out the age and construction methods of the famous round table at Winchester Castle reputed to be connected with King Arthur. Hewett appeared at the next meeting with a hatbox containing a complete, fully jointed model which he could wave around to demonstrate the rigidity of the structure.

The Science Museum in London has a number of models of Essex buildings which they commissioned from him in the early days.

Cecil Hewett's influence shows through in every listed building report on timber structures written these days. It is not many people of whom it can be said that they fundamentally changed the whole mode of thinking of experts in a whole field of study. Academic recognition only came late but was timely; in April this year Anglia Polytechnic University awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Technology.

Cecil Alec Hewett, craftsman and historian of carpentry: born Laindon, Essex 26 September 1926; married 1957 Pat Burge (two sons); died Chelmsford, Essex 23 July 1998.

Comments