OBITUARY : T. A. Greeves
Monday 15 September 1997
Thomas Affleck Greeves was in a noble tradition of architectural draughtsmanship. Piranesi was an inspiration, of course, because of his dramatic depiction of ruined buildings, while another hero was the American Hugh Ferriss, fantasist of skyscrapers.
There were also those architectural draughtsmen who depicted a lost world with exquisite care, like F.L. Griggs who imagined the glory of the late Middle Ages, or William Walcot who recreated the grandeur of Imperial Rome in its glory. But what made Tom Greeves so very unusual was that his ideal world dated not from the remote past but from about 1860, and he drew buildings of a sort that most of his contemporaries unthinkingly regarded as hideous, ridiculous.
Greeves joined the Victorian Society in the year of its foundation - 1958 - and he knew his Victorian architecture very well. Much of the pleasure of his drawings is recognising the sources of his fantastic structures - bits of Waterhouse and Butterfield, Street and Bodley; the clocktower of St Pancras Station kept cropping up while some buildings are in an eclectic, round-arched sort of South Kensington style.
All such mid-Victorian buildings were confident and robust; unless damaged by enemy action, they do not age gracefully. Yet Greeves drew them in ruins, in noble decay with trees growing from spiky parapets, as relics of a lost and incomprehensible civilisation. The resulting drawings are often almost surreal. I particularly like the one he called "Industrial Landscape" or "The Concrete Pipe" in which a vast structure like a giant gramophone horn emerges from a ruined masterpiece of structural polychromy; it is as if Lloyd's was designed by Deane & Woodward rather than Richard Rogers.
Yet the world he depicted is not melancholy, like that imagined by Griggs. For Greeves appreciated that Victorian buildings could be funny. An earlier generation dismissed the earnest creations of the Victorians with blinkered contempt, while for younger enthusiasts in the "Vic Soc" it is politically incorrect not to take 19th-century buildings at face value. But Greeves - along with Peter Fleetwood-Hesketh, John Betjeman and his great friend Peter Clarke, author of humorous architectural poems - could appreciate that there was something absurd as well as tragic about the architectural ambitions of the mid-Victorian years. At the same time, however, they fought hard for their preservation.
The buildings in Greeves's drawings look real and this was because he was a trained architect. His love of architecture began at school at Radley, but his time at the Cambridge School of Architecture was interrupted by the Second World War and he joined the Royal Engineers. Most fortunately, he was attached to the Indian Army and so encountered not only rock-cut temples but Gilbert Scott's exotic Gothic buildings for the University of Bombay - a clear source of inspiration later. Returning home, Greeves completed his training at the Architectural Association in London where he met his future wife.
But his heart was not in the practice of architecture and he never set up on his own; he worked instead for a succession of practices, like Lanchester & Lodge, Cachmaille-Day, and Felix Goldsmith. He always preferred to draw.
In 1951, his entertainingly eclectic and accomplished design for "A Monument to Commemorate the Passing of the Good Old Days of Architecture" was awarded first prize in a competition organised by the Architects' Benevolent Society: the assessors were H.S. Goodhart-Rendel, John Summerson, Osbert Lancaster and Rowland Emett.
However the first drawings to be published showed not architecture but fantastic technology. "Greeves Flying Machines" - inspired by early-19th- century attempts to conquer the air - were included in the Saturday Book no 26 in 1966. They were so popular that the next issue carried a double- page colour spread of "A Steam Palace" - a colossal, preposterous Gothic juggernaut.
The mid and early- Victorian remained Greeves's favourite period, which was odd as he actually lived in a late-Victorian house by Maurice B. Adams in Bedford Park, the "Queen Anne" ideal artistic suburb in West London which he did much to save from further destruction.
When Tom and Eleanor moved to Newton Road, few took the eclectic buildings by Norman Shaw and others seriously, so Tom founded the Bedford Park Society, a model local pressure group which now guards the amenities of the area ferociously while the architectural delights of the suburb are celebrated in the tiles, mugs and other ceramics made by Eleanor Greeves.
In recent years, the kindly, avuncular Tom Greeves became the Grand Old Man of Bedford Park, never tiring of explaining its virtues while holding court in Norman Shaw's "Tabard". That the Victorian Society now has its headquarters in Bedford Park is, in its way, a tribute to him.
Greeves was also a sensitive pianist, having a special interest from his late schooldays onwards in early keyboard instruments, and served as a committee member of the Galpin Society for many years. Another love was 17th- and 18th-century verse, especially Milton and Pope, pages of which he had committed to memory. He used to say that this might one day stand him in good stead for a rainy day, which it certainly did in his last illness.
Until comparatively recently, Greeves's drawings were known only to friends and stalwarts of the "Vic Soc", but two exhibitions of his work were organised by Robin Garton - in 1978 and 1987 - and in 1994 Andrew Best organised a splendid celebration in the beautiful limited-edition book illustrating his work, appropriately entitled Ruined Cities of the Imagination.
Tom Greeves's imagination was truly original and his fantasy drawings are a significant part of the curious story of the rediscovery of Victorian architecture.
Thomas Affleck Greeves, architect and illustrator: born London 4 June 1917; married 1950 Eleanor Pryce; died London 31 August 1997.
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