Giles Worsley

Architectural historian


Giles Arthington Worsley, writer and critic: born 22 March 1961; architectural writer, Country Life 1985-88, Architectural Editor 1989-94; Editor, Georgian Group Journal 1991-94; Editor, Perspectives on Architecture 1994-98; Architecture Correspondent, The Daily Telegraph 1998-2006; FSA 1999; Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Historical Research 2002-06; married 1996 Joanna Pitman (three daughters); died London 17 January 2006.

Giles Worsley was one of Britain's most original and productive architectural writers. Unusually, he succeeded in spanning the worlds of scholarly research and popular journalism, writing treatises on Palladian architecture with panache and bringing an unusual depth of knowledge and perception to his newspaper pieces.

Only a few weeks before his too early death from cancer, he was planning more books and more programmes of articles.

Giles Arthington Worsley was born in 1961, the second son of Sir Marcus and Lady Worsley, of Hovingham Hall, in North Yorkshire, and his interests were largely shaped by his patrician upbringing. He imbibed a love of classical architecture from his childhood in one of the great Yorkshire country houses.

It was Hovingham's indoor riding school that set his mind thinking about the relationship of horses to houses, the theme of the doctorate that he took from the Courtauld Institute in 1989. The result was eventually published as The British Stable (2004) - virgin territory for the architectural historian, and achieved despite what Worsley cheerfully admitted as being a distant personal relationship with horses. Birth also made him a Yorkshireman: a fact not lost on colleagues impressed by the tenacity with which he pursued his ideas.

After Eton, Worsley read History at New College, Oxford; perhaps surprisingly, in retrospect, his passion for architecture did not develop fully until the Courtauld years. Still, it was fitting that he should have joined the staff of Country Life as an architectural writer, during the editorship of a fellow Etonian, Marcus Binney. The magazine's outlook, in which architecture is one strand among others in the civilised ideal, corresponded to his own, and for nearly 10 years (1985-94), he thrived there. He powerfully believed in the landed estate as the best vehicle to ensure the survival of the culturally rich, varied countryside that he loved.

As architectural editor from 1989, Worsley preserved a rigorous standard of scholarship. In other circumstances he would have made a good professor: colleagues were impressed by his ability to read a book at the same time as walking down Stamford Street. His formidable mastery of his subject - Georgian architecture - found expression in his magnum opus, Classical Architecture in Britain: the Heroic Age (1994). Driving intellectual curiosity led him to find new interpretations of even familiar subjects.

Fools may have quailed before the memorably intense gaze of those ice-blue eyes, but Worsley took considerable pains to develop younger contributors. He also championed the best new architecture in the countryside. Mischievously, the trend for what he called "bungalow eating" (the reclothing of ugly buildings in classical skins) gave him particular joy. One of the board members of Country Life's owners, IPC, was so taken with the idea that he commissioned Quinlan Terry to add a new front to his previously undistinguished house.

With his strong beliefs, Worsley was a natural polemicist; he enjoyed writing leaders, and relished the pursuit of an argument in print. He also stood his ground with editors when space for architecture was threatened. "Doors were slammed," remembers Binney's successor, Jenny Greene, "but he was one of the few people one worked with who could be guaranteed to tell the truth." His love of cooking - "I'll swap you a pheasant for four quinces" - helped re-establish relations once the tempest had passed.

Worsley left the staff at Country Life to edit the Prince of Wales's Perspectives on Architecture magazine, to which he gave a new sense of purpose. It might have been expected that, with his background, Worsley would have pursued a monotheistically New Classical line; typically he showed his independence by developing a much broader approach to contemporary architecture. Royal protocol did not influence his sartorial style, characterised by old pullovers with holes at the elbows; nor did the imbroglio of politics at a prince's court prevent him from throwing his heart and soul into the magazine, until the plug was pulled in 1998 and Worsley found himself without a job.

Two years earlier, however, he had married the Times journalist Joanna Pitman. Friends not only noticed that the marriage was exceptionally happy, but that a subtly new Giles Worsley was emerging; more relaxed and perhaps less of a fogey. Fatherhood, to which Giles took with enthusiasm, continued the process. Soon he had found an opening at The Daily Telegraph, where he became architecture critic, forced to accommodate what had until then seemed an ivory-towerish personality to the rough and tumble of journalism.

The Telegraph gave him a new platform and a new sense of direction, in keeping with his evolving home life. While continuing to lambast unimaginative planners and support conservation, he discovered a passion for contemporary architecture which, characteristically, he carried into his private life. When he and Joanna chose James Gorst to remodel their house in North Kensington, it may have been because Giles thought of him as a restrained classicist. Little did Giles know that, since the article in Country Life, Gorst had eschewed classical detail and come out as a minimalist. The result may not have been what Giles had expected at the outset, but he adored it.

On Christmas Eve, some Telegraph readers may have spluttered into their mince-pies to find Giles Worsley praising the "sinuous, spaghetti-like forms" of the radical Zaha Hadid's BMW building in Leipzig. Yet he did not abandon the country house. In 2002, he published England's Lost Houses, from the Country Life photographic archive. This immediately went through several printings and the exhibition that accompanied it became the most popular in the history of the Soane Museum. On top of this, Worsley found the time to attend the meetings of the many bodies of which he was a member.

Friends will remember Giles Worsley as a man of integrity, who stood out against fashions when he disliked them, and - despite grand family connections - hated pomposity and bombast. He faced his last illness with bravery. Only 10 days ago, his brother Peter took him to Oxford to deliver a lecture on the subject of Burlington House, which he gave with all his usual wit and authority. Facing the end, Giles joked: "At least it means I shan't have to worry about global warming."

He died surrounded by the loving wife and family who were so important to him. He remained a Worsley to the last: the thought of the generations who had come before him, and those who would come after him, helped him conquer the fear of death.

Clive Aslet

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