Obituary: Pamela Cunnington
Saturday 19 June 1993
ARCHITECTURE was a passion from Pamela Cunnington's youth; she was introduced to it by an interest in old churches inspired by her grandfather who, though not an architect, would probably have described himself as an ecclesiologist. And this led to an interest in other old buildings including, of course, houses.
During the war she was evacuated to Devon and Gloucestershire, finishing her school education at Cirencester Grammar School with nine distinctions in the Schools Certificate. She started her architectural training immediately, in 1942 at the Brixton School of Building, followed between 1945 and 1949 by evening classes at Regent Street Polytechnic. In 1950 she was elected an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, having gained a distinction for her final examination thesis, 'The Development of Modern English Church Design'.
The springboard for the career which she was to carve out for herself as an architect specialising in historic buildings was a six-month Lethaby Scholarship, one of five awarded in 1951, by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. As a Lethaby Scholar she was fully exposed to the influence of the society, working all over the country in the offices of great figures like John MacGregor, Marshall Sisson, Alan Reed and David Nye, gaining first-hand experience of conservation methods, materials and craftsmanship of high standard. Donald Insall, one of the other 1951 scholars, has recalled: 'From our architect-mentors, steeped in the philosophy of the society, we absorbed ideas new and yet old, unacademic yet total truths. Buildings, we began to realise, have a biography. They drink in character from their occupants, from the elements, and from time.'
On these foundations Pamela Cunnington built, gaining a wide experience of historic buildings and developing an exceptional talent for unravelling their historical and architectural development. She had a remarkable eye for archaeological detail and a flair for making accurate measured drawings.
Between 1953 and 1969 Cunnington ran her own practice from 59 Great Ormond Street, London, next to SPAB's headquarters, in the same building as the office of John MacGregor with whom she had worked. She specialised in work on churches and other historic buildings, mainly in Kent and East Anglia. Two commissions in King's Lynn she used to recall with pleasure, for proud she never was: Thoresby College in Queen Street and Hampton Court in Nelson Street, a large timber-framed building which she had surveyed with two other Lethaby Scholars in 1951.
Ill-health caused her to give up her practice in 1969 and move to Dorset as Historic Buildings Officer for the County Council, a post she held until 1986 when she retired. Her quiet, and to some, slightly shy character concealed a dry sense of humour which could be nudged into the open by a gentle tease. Her enthusiasm often bubbled to the surface, as when an outwardly rather uninteresting house turned out to be much older than expected. Cunnington's investigations, like all her work, were thorough and painstaking, playing great attention to detail. She always insisted on inspecting roof spaces, however small the trap-doors or steep the ladders. Many house owners were often puzzled by her earnest examinations of cupboards, floor-boards and chimneys, but as the history of their house began to emerge they became more and more interested, were taught very gently about how the house should be cared for and encouraged to take appropriate action.
In the harsher world of property developers and commercial pressure, when it came to defending historic houses from demolition, unacceptable alterations or additions, Pamela Cunnington's quiet exterior hid a determination of steel and forceful tenacity which few developers found they had the stamina to overcome.
Cunnington was much in demand as a lecturer for the WEA and Bristol University's Department for Continuing Education, as a leader for guided walks and as the organiser of lecture programmes, courses and tours, particularly those for the Historical Fellowship. Every member of her audiences was invariably struck by her simple delivery and the self-effacing way in which the full range of her knowledge and practical experience was shared. It was a newspaper report of one of her talks, entitled 'How Old is Your House?', that caused her to be sought out by a publisher. The happy and successful outcome of that encounter launched her into a career as a writer, with four books published in 10 years: How Old is Your House? (1980), Care for Old Houses (1984), Change of Use (1988) and How Old is that Church? (1990). They are all written in a pleasant and readily accessible style and demonstrate the extraordinary breadth of her knowledge of historic buildings and her personal crusade for their proper respect and sensitive conservation.
Pamela Cunnington's humility and learning so lightly borne no doubt account for the fact that her significant contribution to the understanding and conservation of historic buildings has not received the recognition it undoubtedly deserves. But the buildings that survive, that are loved and cherished, are sufficient testimony of her dedicated and single-minded endeavours. And her books will continue to reach a wide public and generate understanding and enthusiasm for many years to come.
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