Obituary: John Harvey

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The Independent Online
John Hooper Harvey, architectural historian: born London 25 May 1911; FSG 1939; FRSL 1945; FSA 1949; married 1934 Cordelia Story (died 1996; two sons, one daughter); died Frome, Somerset 17 November 1997.

John Harvey was the greatest British historian of Gothic architecture of the 20th century; Gothic, that is, of the Middle Ages not of the 19th- century revival which he, generally speaking, excoriated (although for him the Houses of Parliament were an unequivocal "masterpiece").

His initial training was at the hands of his father, William Harvey (who worked for the Ancient Monuments Board), whom he was to serve as a personal assistant, and the architect Sir Herbert Baker, for whom he manifested genuine affection. He practised only as consultant architect to Winchester College, a post he held from 1947, and as a part-time Investigator for the then Ministry of Public Buildings and Works in 1949, being responsible for the first of the statutory lists of protected buildings in large areas of Surrey (from 1963 to 1970 he held a similar post as Inspector for the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments in York).

In 1950 he accepted his only academic appointment, at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, as a lecturer in the first course of its kind, rather verbosely described as one on "the Preservation and Restoration of Historical Buildings". He stayed there until 1959.

By then Harvey had already entered the field where he was to acquire a national and international reputation - the study of medieval architecture. Although he produced at least two or three scholarly articles a year he will perhaps be best remembered for his books. The first of these, composed even as the Second World War was coming to an end, was Henry Yevele, a biography of the great architect-contractor of Chaucer's England (1944).

It was typical of the author that this was written as applied as well as pure history and contained the rather astonishing quote in the Preface: "I am advocating the study of the 14th century as a means of solving the problems of the 20th, and especially the architectural problems." This was his conscious contribution to the post-war Reconstruction debate.

Gothic England (1947) was followed closely by The Gothic World (1950), itself a result of John Harvey's inveterate appetite for travel, as well as the greater freedom of movement occasioned by peace. Four years later came his greatest work, English Mediaeval Architects: a biographical dictionary down to 1550, written jointly with Arthur Oswald. For two researchers working virtually on their own this was a remarkable achievement, cataloguing and bringing to life some 1,300 hitherto shadowy figures and for ever shattering the myth that the great cathedrals were the product of some undirected communal effort by the lay faithful. Thirty years later a revised edition by Harvey alone identified up to 400 more architects.

The research that underpinned The Cathedrals of Spain (1957) testified to his remarkable linguistic gift. If there was an annus mirabilis in terms of productivity it was 1972, when he produced both The Medieval Architect and The Conservation of Buildings, the latter being one of the first, and still one of the best, philosophical, historical and practical essays on the Architectural Conservation Movement.

Cathedrals of England and Wales followed in 1974, Medieval Craftsmen in 1975 and The Perpendicular Style in 1978. Perpendicular was not favoured in the 19th century, except in the last decades, and was especially attacked by Ruskin. For Harvey this was hard to understand, impossible to defend. There are many who will agree with his view that King's College, Cambridge, is the summation of Gothic rather than its decadent climax.

By that stage a new passion had taken over - garden history. This was an interest developed early in his life, but one where he redirected his prodigious mind from the 1970s. Hitherto the discipline had been the study of design, but Harvey focused it on the history of the plants and nurserymen themselves. He is as famous among those who love parks as among those hold cathedrals to be unsurpassable triumphs.

He was a man of strong views, always expressed in a rich and flowing English, for whom, for example, the Renaissance, which overwhelmed his beloved Gothic, was a "catastrophe". He was, however, neither a po-faced critic nor an ideologue. His favourite fictional writer was P.G. Wodehouse, and it was Summer Lightning that he was reading on his last night.

He thoroughly distrusted William Morris, whom he regarded as a quasi- fanatic, and although a lover of Christian architecture was a public sceptic on the faith which sponsored it. In a voluminous correspondence with Alec Clifton-Taylor, of which an edited version was published by the Ancient Monuments Society in 1981, he declared his admiration for the 20th-century Italian engineer Nervi, and came to the unexpected conclusion that the most beautiful building in the world was "the Selimiye mosque at Edirne (Adrianople)", designed by the great Ottoman architect Sinan.

He had an inexhaustible fascination with the railways, unsurprising as he never owned a car and always tried to travel by public transport or by foot. His hatred of killing led him to six months in Wormwood Scrubs, where he was sent as a conscientious objector in the war.

The last 18 months of his life were overshadowed by the death of his wife, Cordelia, who was companion and "proof-reader", as well as wife and mother.