Derek Sherborn

Long-serving Historic Buildings Inspector
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The Independent Online

Derek Sherborn was a passionate champion of conservation and through his unflagging zeal made a pioneering contribution to the preservation of Britain's architectural heritage.

Derek Ronald Sherborn, conservationist and collector: born London 7 May 1924; Investigator, then Principal Investigator, Historic Buildings, Ministry of Town and Country Planning 1948-78, Principal Inspector 1978-82; died Brighton, East Sussex 4 July 2004.

Derek Sherborn was a passionate champion of conservation and through his unflagging zeal made a pioneering contribution to the preservation of Britain's architectural heritage.

After being discharged from the RAF in 1944 and having rejoined his parents in Oxfordshire, he found himself wondering, as a delicate and somewhat tentative young man of 20, how he was ever going to fill his time. With a self-taught but eclectic knowledge of architecture he decided to embark on a labour of love: to make a survey of every old building in Reading. Four years later this study became his calling card to the newly formed Ministry of Town and Country Planning and in 1948 he was offered a job as temporary investigator of historic buildings.

Although the work was poorly paid, involved him in much solitary travelling from county to county and even, on occasion, had its dangers (he was once set upon by a landowner's dog which sank its teeth into the seat of his trousers), no occupation could have been closer to his heart. Nor could his timing have been more propitious.

Taking up his duties in the grim early years of the peace, Sherborn now faced a world in which years of wartime damage and neglect, the toll of death duties and the rampant depredations of post-war developers, had put in peril many ravaged great estates. For those like Sherborn, aghast that so many architectural masterpieces were in imminent danger of destruction, the new ministry, formed after the passing of the Town & Country Planning Act in 1947, offered at last an official beacon of hope.

His memoir, published in 2003 and aptly titled An Inspector Recalls, contains a doleful lament for Britain's lost glories. In his first year as an inspector, and in spite of his often anguished protests, he recorded the loss of Lockinge Park in Berkshire, Swarland Hall in Northumberland and Redgrave Hall in Suffolk.

Other houses of distinction to be lost soon after included Silhill Hall in Warwickshire, Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk, Garendon Abbey in Leicestershire, Ashburnham Place in Sussex, Brockenhurst Park in Hampshire and a large part of Bowood House in Wiltshire, although the superb orangery by Robert Adam remained. But Sherborn, through his diligent listing and strenuous lobbying, did much to help with some notably successful rescues, among them Cowick Hall in Yorkshire, the splendid Lydiard House at Lydiard Tregoze in Wiltshire and the extraordinary Calke Abbey, a dilapidated, mouldering pile in Derbyshire, its interiors unseen by outsiders for decades until a thrilled Sherborn visited in 1949 and dreamt of how its future might be best secured. The house was to be eventually taken over by the National Trust.

Three years after joining the ministry he compiled a list of 2,000 outstanding country houses for the Gower Report which led to the creation in 1953 of the Historic Buildings Councils for England, Wales and Scotland.

Sherborn rose to become Principal Investigator of Historic Buildings and later, in 1978, was made the Ministry's Principal Inspector, taking his place on the Listing Committee, the Ecclesiastical Buildings Committee and the Outstanding Buildings Committee of the Historic Buildings Council. On his retirement in 1982 he had served the ministry for more than 34 years.

The two other abiding passions of Sherborn's life were collecting pictures and antiques and the intriguing revelations of genealogy. Lunchtime breaks at the ministry gave him time to trawl the London auction houses where he could exercise his sharp eye for quality and leave behind his written bids in the hope of picking up unspotted treasures for a song. This assiduous bargain-hunting laid the foundation for his collection of paintings of the British School, among them works attributed to George Romney, Sir Peter Lely and Gainsborough and, among the best, the curiously haunting Allegory by Hans Eworth, recently acquired by Tate Britain.

Born in middle-class Streatham, Sherborn was the cosseted only son of Ronald Sherborn and Evelyn Allman. He described himself as a sickly child and his family as "vaguely artistic", his father being an amateur photographer and draughtsman, and his great- grandfather Charles William Sherborn a gifted engraver. After attending Streatham Grammar School, where he failed to shine, he joined the RAF, which he found even less congenial and after frequent bouts of illness he was eventually invalided out.

Always much obsessed with establishing his family links with the village of Bedfont in Middlesex, he would claim with pride that the Sherborns' historic seat at Fawns Manor had been in the family since the early 14th century. A glancing aside in his memoirs notes that a Sherborn shot in the Second World War was only the second Sherborn to have died in battle since Crécy. In the Parish Church of St Mary's, Bedfont, both a wall memorial and window dedicated to 17th-century Sherborns testify to the family's history as do more recent gravestones in the parish churchyard.

Sherborn had dreamed, as a small boy growing up in Streatham, that one day he would come into a fairytale inheritance. In fact his dream came true and, after a grumpy, elderly uncle from Parsons Green came into the property, Fawns Manor was passed on to Sherborn's father in 1950.

It was a somewhat curious inheritance, being composed of a row of cottages, believed to be of medieval origin, but made particularly odd by the eccentric renovations in the 1880s of another ancestor, William Sherborn, a railway engineer with a special interest in reinforced concrete who remodelled the house, both inside and out, in casings made from a new form of patent cement. One visitor observed that it gave the interior a claustrophobic effect like being entombed inside an Egyptian pyramid.

The manor's location was also a problem, being situated within the encroaching metropolitan wilderness of urban Middlesex and encouraging Sherborn to style himself, with a nod to Mr Pooter, as the last squire of the outer London suburbs. He was an indefatigable host, and summertime at Fawns was enlivened by parties round the poolside, often attended by handsome young men.

Candid about his own homosexuality, Sherborn maintained that there could be nothing wrong with a practice when, in the greatest schools in Britain, it was a "compulsory subject, part of the study of the classics". About himself he made the enigmatic observation: "I suppose I might never have recognised myself as being gay if I had never joined the Georgian Group."

As the area fell deeper into decline Sherborn became the victim of a series of brutal burglaries, culminating in 1982 with an organised armed robbery, the raiders leaving their victim gagged and bound as they made off with many of his fine possessions. This last vicious assault prompted him to move to Brighton, where, in a tall, stuccoed house on the seafront he unpacked vast quantities of pictures, china and furniture and settled into his last home.

Still active in conservation, Sherborn became President of the local Kingscliffe Society, sat on the committee of the Friends of the Royal Pavilion and became Vice-Chairman of the Regency Society of Brighton and Hove. With this last society his relations grew stormy after he had fiercely criticised the committee for not acting more robustly to save Brighton's Imperial Theatre. Sherborn had failed to realise, such was his sometimes misplaced idealism, that his dream of converting the theatre into a house for opera and ballet could never have worked without gigantic subsidies.

Meanwhile he continued to entertain with great generosity and warmth, often giving dinner parties for 12, and greeting his guests (invariably male) with his characteristically benign and gentle smile. To enter his high, narrow drawing room, decorated in the style of William IV, with its dark crimson hangings and red velvet- covered furniture, gleaming marble busts, elaborate light fittings, giant candelabra, the walls densely hung with heavy gold-framed pictures, was like walking on to a particularly opulent stage set for some high Victorian drama by Pinero.

Although his last years were clouded by a decline in health and debilitating arthritis, he enjoyed seeing the publication of his memoirs. This last achievement, while frequently rambling and repetitious, contained much that was illuminating, including some enjoyably excoriating opinions on barbaric property developers, lazy ministers, philistine officials and timid conservationists - a small triumph of his restless, fighting spirit.

Derek Granger