Obituary: Lord Phillimore
Monday 04 April 1994
CLAUD PHILLIMORE was a British architect of rare talent, a compound of equal individuality and integrity. It was not a large talent: he had no wish or ambition to set his name to great or imposing public monuments. His gift lay in creating a new building or adapting an old one in a way that fitted the site and the needs of the people who had to look at it, and out of it, and use it. His originality as an architect lay in an independence of mind, unswayed by fashion or too rigorous devotion to the past, but even more in a natural sensibility for the visual and tactile properties of landscape and materials.
He was born in 1911, a son of the second Lord Phillimore, a family name commemorated in the area of Kensington, west London, owned and developed by his forebears. It was, perhaps, the chance of growing up in a neighbourhood that they had created that gave him his first impetus to architecture. He always said that he could never remember wanting to do anything else. He went to Winchester, and then to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read architecture and became Licentiate to the Royal Institute of British Architects. His first job was with Cubitt's, then as an independent draughtsman. He set up in practice on his own in 1938.
In one way, the timing was ideal. In a servantless world, many houses of the last century had become unusable and the taste for the simpler architecture that preceded it was growing. 'Neo-Georgian' houses succeeded Norman Shaw's Queen Anne style, and Summerson and Rasmussen's books had created a new fashion for the 18th century. Phillimore joined the Georgian Society early on, and felt modestly confident about his prospects. In another way, however, he could not have chosen a worse time. He had already enlisted as a Territorial before war broke out, and served throughout it, mainly in the Middle East, ending as an acting Major in the City of London Yeomanry.
He returned to his practice in 1947, and the following year was joined by Aubrey Jenkins, who had been at Winchester and Cambridge with him, as a partner. They immediately found work, building and adapting country houses. It was not as profitable as new development, which occupied so many of their contemporaries, but there was not much competition. Altogether, Phillimore built 40 new houses, among them Aughentaire, Co Tyrone, Arundel Park, built on a new site for the Duke of Norfolk who turned Arundel Castle into a show- piece, Bartlow Park near Cambridge, and Tusmore in Oxfordshire. The last was a special challenge; Lord Bicester had demolished the previous house on the site, of no special distinction, and Phillimore had to fit a new building to the place where it had stood.
All Phillimore's houses have a distinctive quality, as might be expected. Externally, they are not specially striking, the flattened roofs with overhanging eaves and full- length columns suggesting, without close imitation, the first quarter of the 19th century. Internally, they are much more original. Phillimore had a genius for a well-placed window, letting in light where it was needed, creating a view to the outside world. All the inside fittings, from joinery to plumbing and door and window furniture, were first- class. The whole was adapted perfectly to the needs of the owner. He was never subservient, and not all these commissions were based on an easy relationship, but his clients often came to realise that he had known, better than themselves, what they needed.
Besides this, he had a real genius for adapting old buildings. At Brocklesby and Aske, and even more at Knowsley, where (it was said) three acres of redundant buildings were pulled down, he could create a smaller, usable house, out of a vast uneconomic pile. His own offices, in Lowndes Street, Knightsbridge, were a perfect example of his gift for creating a beautiful as well as practical area for living and working, as was his Sussex home, Ryman's, a 15th-century house that he restored. Many other houses, in towns as well as the country, benefited from this special talent of his.
All this gives only half an idea of his individuality as a person. He had many other gifts. He was tall, lean and exceptionally handsome in person, and his voice, quiet but carefully articulated, was always a pleasure to hear. What he had to say was even more so.
He loved all old and beautiful things with passionate intensity. His house, his flat in London, were full of pictures and furniture, not specially grand, but all original and lovely in some way. He had, for example, an immensely tall painting of a human pyramid of 18th-century Venetian acrobats, of the sort commissioned (from artists of no great distinction) by the troupes themselves to advertise their skill. He was quite an athlete himself. His constant travels took him to remote places; in his late seventies, among the wilder parts of the Balkans, he fell in with some young men who were canoeing down a rushing mountain stream, insisted on joining them and left them three days later, having kept up with the best.
The Veneto was, perhaps, his spiritual home, and he knew it intimately. As a young man, wandering round the Brenta, he knocked on the door of the Villa Malcontenta and so captivated his hosts that they begged him to stay, and later left him the house. It was, in fact, not an easy house to keep up from England, but his solution was, again, characteristic and unique - he discovered the descendants of the original builder and gave it back to them.
Palladio lay at the roots of his own work (he was passionately keen to see Chiswick restored to Lord Burlington's original Palladian plan). He loved the Palladian villas, the churches and the whole landscape of the terra firma round Venice; it was the alpha and omega of his sense of clarity and beauty. When he gets to heaven, Palladio will be of the company.
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