Obituary: Walter Ison

A few years ago Walter Ison attended a post-restoration party at a Georgian house in Fournier Street, Spitalfields, London. He had last visited in 1952, when the house was a crumbling banana warehouse and he was researching the buildings of Georgian Spitalfields for the Survey of London. Crossing the threshold he remarked: "When I came to record this building, I thought I was writing its obituary." A few yards away stands the magnificent spire of Christ Church, Spitalfields. It was Ison who made the first serious study of Hawksmoor's design and this masterpiece is now being restored with Lottery funds.

Ison's favourite cities and buildings have survived better than he dared hope, not least due to his achievements as an architectural historian. Bath is still - as Ison declared in his introduction to The Georgian Buildings of Bath of 1948 - "beyond any question, the loveliest of English cities", and his classic book has been a cornerstone of its preservation.

Ison was born to a middle-class family in Leamington. He worked as a junior assistant in the office of Frank Verity, the theatre architects, and studied architecture in the evenings. These early years at the drawing board were fundamental to his merit as a historian: he was unusually attentive to the visual subtleties of a building and his written descriptions were delineated with the precision of a draughtsman. The occasional verbal flourish was all the more delightful for its rarity.

Ison lived and breathed the language of classical architecture. In the last letter I received from him he pondered: "I wonder if Lutyens is the only English architect who has really made use of Sanmicheli." His heroes were the architects who played the Great Game of the classical tradition but also the 18th- century master-builders: the unknown men, such as Marmaduke Smith of Spitalfields or Thomas Jelly of Bath, who shaped our terraces and squares. Ison showed how they adapted the vocabulary of ancient temples to ceilings and stair balusters, window frames and doorknobs.

Ison continued to practise occasionally as an architect, and his principal patrons were Sir George and Sonia Binney, who valued his ability to capture a period style. At Horham Hill, near Thaxted, Essex, he designed a drawing room re-using some early-18th century panelling salvaged from London and a walled garden and swimming pool pavilions. He also designed the interiors of the townhouse in Eaton Row, Eaton Square, in the refined manner of Thomas Leverton's 1770s houses. Most notably, at Domaine des Vaux, St Laurence, Jersey he designed a formal garden in which a stepped amphiteatre faced a fountain garden. Ison also encouraged their son Marcus Binney, today President of Save Britain's Heritage, to study Sir Robert Taylor for his PhD.

In 1931 he married Leonora Payne, the artist and architect, whom he had met when they both worked in Verity's office. During the Second World War Ison worked in the highly secret model-making section of the RAF at Medmenham, Buckinghamshire, where his friend the distinguished calligrapher and artist Reynolds Stone stirred Ison's interest in Bath. Leonora also fell in love with the city and when, just after the war, she received a small legacy, they moved to Bath and bought a Regency house, No 5 Sion Hill Place. The legacy also enabled Ison to research The Georgian Buildings of Bath, which he published in 1948 and is still in print. His reputation in Bath is still infallible: well-thumbed copies of Walter Ison are as ubiquitous as Dr Spock in the city's middle-class households.

His next book was The Georgian Buildings of Bristol of 1952 and later he wrote English Architecture Through the Ages (1965) and English Church Architecture (1972) which became standard texts for the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board. All his books were beautifully illustrated by Leonora.

In the 1950s the Isons moved to London and restored an early-18th century house in Colebrook Row, Islington. Ison had come to work on the Spitalfields volume (1957) of the Survey of London and stayed there until his retirement in 1970. He became Architectural Editor and wrote descriptions of the buildings for the volumes on Soho (1966), Westminster (the four volumes on the Parish of St James's, Piccadilly, 1960) and Covent Garden (1970). During his time there the publications added 16 inches of shelf-width to the four feet amassed by this colossal research project - still in motion since it was begun by London County Council in 1900.

On retirement, the Isons sold the house in Islington to Cyril Rae and moved to Rainham Hall, Essex. This is an outstanding early-18th century brick mansion, and stepping out each morning from underneath its fine Corinthian porch put a spring in Ison's step. The last years were spent in a flat in St Leonards, East Sussex, where he became President of the local conservation society, and his last article was published in the Journal of Decorative Arts in 1982, describing the Regent Cinema, Brighton. Built in 1921 and demolished in the 1960s its gaudy style was still unfashionable when Ison wrote, and his appreciation of the quality of its decoration is all the more remarkable because he wrote from his recollections of visiting as a teenager.

Ison had a very acute aesthetic sense. His interests also included a fine collection of Chinese porcelain and of rare musical recordings; next to architecture, music was his motivating passion. The flat in St Leonards was decorated in what might be described as a pre-Colefax & Fowler Regency style. Ison, a large man, could seem formidable at first but he had a gentle and mischievous wit which remained sharp to the very end. When he and another architectural historian, Dr Mowl, disagreed on a point of Palladio's architecture he asked: "Who is this man Mole [which is how Mowl is pronounced]? He's so prickly he should be called 'Hedgehog'."

His outstanding characteristic was his devotion to Leonora and his fear that he would die first and thus abandon her. She died in November 1996, a few days after their 65th wedding anniversary. Ison talked of making a final pilgrimage to Italy but he died after a short illness.

Walter William Ison, architectural historian: born Leamington, Warwickshire 20 September 1908; married 1931 Leonora Payne (died 1996); died St Leonards, East Sussex 2 May 1997.

Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone