Obituary: Peter Boston

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The Independent Culture
A BOY holds a lantern in the bows of a boat, rowed by an old man between the trees of a flooded garden, to a tall single-gabled house beyond. This image, the cover to the original edition of The Children of Green Knowe, was drawn by Peter Boston as one of the illustrations to the first children's story written by his mother, Lucy Boston, in 1954. The fictional boy, Tolly, was based on himself.

More Green Knowe books were published, up to The Stones of Green Knowe (1976), all with Peter's atmospheric but sharply detailed line drawings and scraperboards. He also illustrated works by his mother outside the Green Knowe canon, such as The Sea Egg (1967), and drew the jackets for her adult novels Yew Hall (1954) and Persephone (1969). All his illustrations showed an understanding of the narrative immediacy of the texts, and help the reader to enter their world of imagination and deeper meaning.

The house which inspired them was the Manor, Hemingford Grey, a rare Norman stone house which Lucy Boston bought shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939. Peter, her only child, was at King's College, Cambridge, reading Architecture, to which he had transferred from Engineering. Peter's father, Harold Boston, left his wife in 1935, and Peter shared his time between them. Lucy went to Austria and Italy to study painting but returned to England, taking lodgings in King's Parade to be near her son. They worked on the Manor together, pulling away later accretions to the house with their own hands, guided by instinct, and aware of the palpable presences in its rooms which later inspired the books.

Peter received news of his first class degree when serving with the Royal Engineers in North Africa. In the Italian campaign, he was awarded the Military Cross for his part in bridging the Rapido river at Cassino by the 4th Divisional Engineers in the night of 12-13 May 1944, a feat he personally directed. He ran an annual dinner for his comrades to commemorate the event.

Peter Boston completed his architectural training after the Second World War at Liverpool University, where he won the Pilkington Travelling Scholarship. After working with the practice of Pite, Son and Fairweather in London he joined the firm of James and Bywaters with several student friends in 1956. In 1966, they changed the practice name to Saunders, Boston and Brock, and it later became Saunders Boston, with offices in Ashwell, Hertfordshire (where Peter and his family also lived in a converted mill), and Cambridge, where a number of the firm's buildings can be seen.

The work of James and Bywaters stood on a post-war edge between Neo-Georgian tradition and a polite modernism. Boston, like most of his generation, cut the explicit ties with the past, although he was much involved in conservation and many of his new buildings show a sensitivity both to place and to the value of ideas from older buildings.

One of his most distinctive early works was the studio house he built in 1959 at Hemingford Grey for Elisabeth Vellacott, a painter who was Lucy Boston's wartime companion. Standing in the remains of an old orchard, the "A" frame of timber, with a single large window in its front gable, appears to float off the ground. Inside, the plan and section are ingeniously worked around a central brick chimney-stack, no less simple and grand than the Manor itself. He tried to repeat this idea on several occasions, in Sweden, Switzerland and Essex, but was always refused planning permission.

In Cambridge, the 1960s Gilmerton Court flats on Trumpington Road are a tougher version of Eric Lyons's Span Housing, with some felicitous touches. In the mid-1970s, the firm redeveloped a site at the corner of Bridge Street and Round Church Street, keeping a varied line of historic buildings along the frontages while a modern office building of engineering brick was inserted behind. While the new work is more heavyweight than today's conservation practice would expect, it was a thoughtful solution at a time when total demolition was more normal, and it received many awards.

Not far away are the Mong Building (1998) at Sidney Sussex and the Fisher Building at St John's (1997), an insertion between Rickman and Hutchinson's New Court (1825-31) and the Cripps Building by Powell and Moya (1963-67). Boston managed to show sympathy for both neighbours in a design which is intricate, picturesque and self-effacing, housing a music room and other functions.

Saunders Boston designed Black Swan House, London (1975), a riverside building for the Worshipful Company of Vintners which also received awards, but has since been demolished. In 1987, Peter Boston sold his practice to his senior staff, but he continued to take an active role until retiring as a consultant earlier this year.

In 1967, Peter Boston married Diana Robertson, the widow of a naval officer with two very young sons. When Lucy Boston died in 1990 at the end of a long and active life, Peter and Diana took responsibility for the Manor and its garden, to the delight and relief of those who knew and loved the house, opening it to visitors by appointment and making repairs to the structure.

Peter Shakerley Boston, architect and illustrator: born Looe, Cornwall 10 September 1918; MC 1944; married 1967 Diana Robertson (nee Anderson; two daughters); died Ashwell, Hertfordshire 19 November 1999.