John Cornforth

Campaigning historian of English interiors
Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Cornforth, art historian and writer: born Etchinghill, Staffordshire 2 September 1937; CBE 2001; died London 5 May 2004.

Nobody would now doubt that historic interiors deserve serious scholarly attention, yet, when John Cornforth first began to write about decoration in Country Life in the early 1970s, the Editor received letters from members of the Athenaeum complaining about the magazine's dealing with such low-brow trivia.

Perhaps Cornforth's greatest legacy was to help establish interior decoration as a worthy subject for art historians, although very few have matched his energetic visual and intellectual curiosity about the whole range of the subject, from architecture and furniture to wallpaper, textiles and the display of works of art. His achievement was all the more notable in that he was neither a professional academic nor a museum curator.

His ideas and research were almost all first published in the pages of Country Life, to which he contributed articles for over 40 years, for 30 of them as a staff writer. His first article, on Woodperry in Oxfordshire, appeared in 1961; his last, on Chicheley Hall in Buckinghamshire, was published on 15 April this year. His long association with the magazine produced a stream of books, but even more importantly it brought him into contact with the owners of country houses, curators working for the National Trust and other organisations, and members of government concerned with the arts. All led his interests in new directions and all benefited greatly from his expertise.

Cornforth read History at Corpus Christi College, College, Cambridge, in the 1950s, since art history was not yet a tripos subject, but he attended seminars given by the future Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Michael Jaffé, and these convinced him that he wanted to be an art historian. His bemused parents allowed him to move to London to look for a job. Cornforth was on the point of accepting an assistant keepership at the National Gallery when John Adams, Editor of Country Life, offered him a post as an architectural writer. He joined a distinguished team - Christopher Hussey, Arthur Oswald and Mark Girouard - who were charged with writing the magazine's weekly article on a country house.

It was the job he was born to do. He recalled that he had first encountered the magazine before he could read, by poring over the pictures in copies at his parents' house in Staffordshire, to which they had moved for safety during the Second World War. His father was then in the Army, fighting the Italian campaign, an uncharacteristic period of energy in a life otherwise devoted to bridge and golf, cushioned by a private income.

A solitary only child, Cornforth was brought up in a country-house landscape: Shugborough was a neighbour; Ingestre and Tixall were only slightly further away. Bookish and unathletic, he found prep school and Repton a bore; he was already impatient to follow his own interests. When, aged 10, he was asked by an aunt how he wanted to spend the holidays, he replied, "I would like to go abroad to look at old buildings." National Service took him to Germany, where he refused a commission - he wanted to spend his free time visiting churches, not socialising with officers.

He recalled that never having done any research before he was slightly at a loss when writing his first articles for Country Life, and relied on Christopher Hussey's guidance. Almost teasingly, Hussey suggested that he worked on late-17th-century houses, and collaborate with the elderly and somewhat eccentric architect Oliver Hill. Hussey privately predicted disaster, but for Cornforth it was a liberating experience, both intellectually and emotionally.

The book English Country House: Caroline, published in 1966, was an academic success that set him off on his central academic endeavour, the study of 17th- and 18th-century country houses. The writing of it, mostly at Hill's Cotswold house, Daneway, where he lived with his young wife, Titania, was an introduction to a Bohemian way of life that the shy, rather repressed Cornforth had never experienced.

Hill was the first of several such figures in Cornforth's life; the most notable was perhaps the decorator John Fowler, who awoke his interest in the history of decoration. Together they collaborated on the pioneering book English Decoration in the Eighteenth Century (1974), one of the first on the subject to be based on documentary research as well as the study of surviving schemes. A second book, English Interiors, 1790-1848: the quest for comfort (1978) was a compilation of early views of domestic interiors, an interest that Fowler had pioneered. Cornforth's deep attachment to Fowler led to the study of his work that forms the core of what is in some ways his most original book, The Inspiration of the Past: country house taste in the twentieth century (1985).

By the time that appeared, his interests had broadened, particularly in the direction of conservation, which was such a major issue for country houses in the unsympathetic political climate of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1965 he joined the Historic Buildings Committee of the National Trust, and his deep involvement with the trust's work was to be lifelong. His support for the trust's campaigns, either by writing about them or exercising influence behind the scenes, was immensely influential; to take only one example, a 1986 article he wrote on the gardens at Stowe for Country Life prompted a benefactor to make the donation that allowed the trust to acquire them.

His involvement with the National Trust, like his work for Country Life, gave him particular interest in the fate of country houses, and it was he who planted the seed in Roy Strong's mind that led to the immensely influential "Destruction of the Country House" exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1975-76, an event that took many of its arguments from Cornforth's polemical book The Country Houses of England: can they survive? of 1974.

In 1980 he was given his first serious opportunity to engage in decoration himself, when at the suggestion of Lord Carrington, then Foreign Secretary, he was asked to advise on the furnishing and decoration of British embassies. It was a task he enjoyed immensely, as it encouraged him to focus on how elements of interiors such as textiles or wallpapers were made. He also took great pleasure from his appointment as an official consultant for the Victoria and Albert Museum's new British galleries; the triumphant success of their opening in 2001 owed a great deal to his hard work behind the scenes.

Cornforth was a large man who loved his food - he liked to refer to his book-stuffed flat near Baker Street as "the caff" as friends and colleagues streamed through for convivial and superbly cooked kitchen meals. He was curiously ageless - his cherubic face remained untouched by wrinkles, and that perhaps reflects some of his delight in encouraging and helping the young, both artists as well as scholars, for he was an enthusiastic collector of contemporary art.

Although he took great interest in the careers of young academics, National Trust curators and his younger Country Life colleagues, if they could not help him with his current interest - be it the British tax regime for works of art or the role of silver in interior decoration - he could seem aloof and self-absorbed. But, if he was aroused by a question on a subject of mutual interest, he was unstintingly helpful with advice and ideas. His colleagues on the magazine enjoyed teasing him about the number of duchesses who were spotted in his kitchen, but he was not a snob. Country houses were for him places to meet friends informally - he loved picnics, not dinner parties - and subjects for scholarly enquiry. He was no countryman, and once said that he was happiest with tarmac under his feet: his love of London was embodied in London Interiors, a book of photographs from the Country Life archives published in 2000.

Cornforth's sudden death from a brain tumour is a severe loss to architectural history, but the blow is softened by the news that he had completed his last book, on which he had laboured for many years: Early Georgian Interiors, a history of English decoration from 1690 to 1760. When it is published in October by Yale University Press, it is likely to prove his magnum opus.

Michael Hall