Obituary: William Anderson

Click to follow
William Anderson was a man of immense creative energy, generous wit and courtesy, a raconteur, linguist, philosopher and traveller, a European as much at home in Italy, France or Germany as at his own fireside.

He was a man of renaissances, and his visionary mind turned naturally to the great renaissances of the 12th and 15th centuries. He would not have been out of place planning the rebuilding of St Denis with Abbot Suger; he could have discoursed with Dante. In a sense he was doing just that in his profound book Dante the Maker, awarded the International PEN Club Award in 1981. Yet he was also a man of the 20th century, with an understanding of science, mathematics and technology seldom found amongst contemporary poets.

At Exeter College, Oxford, he read History and established the foundations of much of his later writing. The renaissance he cared about above all, however, was the emergent, potential renaissance of our own day - the realignment of science, religion, political philosophy and art as complementary facets of human living.

He did all he could to foster this ideal as head of publications of the Nuffield Foundation Science Teaching project and, from 1985, as Research Fellow of the Centre for Educational Studies at King's College London, and as originator and first editor of the Bridge, the journal of the Study Society. It is implicit in his poetical writings (Haddow Sonata, 1980, Humans, Beasts and Birds, 1981, The Waking Dream, 1983, and What I Am Is Stillness, 1992) and it recurs in a succession of distinguished books, Castles of Europe (1970), Cathedrals in Britain and Ireland (1978), Dante the Maker (1980), Holy Places of the British Isles (1983), The Rise of the Gothic (1985), Cecil Collins (1988), Green Man (1990), and above all in the comprehensive work The Face of Glory, published nine months ago.

Bill Anderson grew up in the shadow of war, his father, Newton Edward Anderson MC, soldier and architect, having died of wounds in the Normandy campaign. His outlook and values were shaped by the rending of Europe and the long process of healing its wounds. He saw peace not simply as the absence of war but as a time of opportunity. Writing flowed from him. Books, periodicals and jottings littered every room in his house, mingling with wine, good food and tobacco, and friends. Yet out of this chaos emerged a stream of poems, completed books, articles, lectures and projects for workshops and conferences.

His historical works are vivid tributes to architects and masons and to the buildings themselves. Studded with close observation, they illuminate the concepts that give life to space and stone. He saw all the arts as Imagination - the making of images - in whatever medium, stone or bronze, word, sound or dance, line or colour. In images he perceived idea and emotion, past and future, gathered into one. For him, images were the most enduring expression of all of cultures through the ages, unimpeded by differences of language.

To walk with him in the hills or in a street, to drink in a pub, or to explore any kind of building, was always a surprise. One not only shared his knowledge of botany, geology, peoples, architecture, materials, or whatever else was to hand, but one's eyes were opened to a world brimming with significance, revealed by images on every side.

In recent years the most fertile image of all was the Green Man, the strange face of wood or stone found tucked away in countless European churches, regarded as a dubious influence by ecclesiastics of the last century, but quite otherwise by him:

The Green Man signifies irrepressible life . . . He appears and seems to die and then comes again after long forgettings at many periods in the last 2,000 years . . . It is my aim . . . to show that his reappearance today in art and as a symbol of environmental movements is of the profoundest significance for humanity.

Aided by Jennifer, his second wife, the Green Man released in Anderson a flood of ideas that took form in The Face of Glory, the most far-reaching of all his writings, being about creative inspiration itself and its consequences for science, technology, philosophy, the arts and politics. Drawing examples from centuries of human endeavour, he shows that civilisation arises only from consciousness and that its natural fruits are freedom and joy. He sees the awakened human mind as the image of a universal consciousness that Dante himself apprehended as "the Love that moves the sun and all the stars".

William Francis Desnaux Anderson, writer: born London 7 February 1935; married 1960 Gillian Dalziel (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1981 Jennifer Cang (three stepsons); died London 6 February 1997.