Obituary: Peter Bicknell

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Peter Bicknell, architect, mountaineer, teacher of architecture and art history, writer and exhibition presenter: born Rowland Gills, Co Durham 16 June 1907; married 1936 Mari Scott Henderson (one son, three daughters); died Avignon 31 May 1995.

Peter Bicknell, architect, mountaineer, teacher of architecture and art history, was a Renaissance man. After more than 50 years of architectural practice and teaching at Cambridge he developed a new career as a presenter of exhibitions and an expert on the art and literature of the Lake District.

After schooling at Oundle he went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1926 to read architecture. He and his younger brother Claud were of the third generation of Bicknells to be members of the Alpine Club. Their father had died, possibly of a heart attack, while leading a group of climbers in the Alps, and Peter Bicknell had the grisly task of cutting the rope holding his father's body and seeing it fall down the mountain side.

Peter Bicknell was a very fine rock climber and was the first person to traverse the whole of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye in one day. He was president of the Climber's Club and in the Thirties was twice invited to join expeditions attempting to conquer Everest.

After graduating, Bicknell combined academic teaching with a successful architectural practice in partnership with H.C. Hughes. He supervised architectural students in various colleges and eventually became a Fellow of Downing. Once, when lecturing in the United States, he said that he regarded architecture and the teaching of it as a service. His professional career of over 50 years reflected this philosophy. Much of the partnership's work was for educational institutions, such as additions to Cambridge colleges and building the cricket pavilion at Oundle. They also did much work for the Dean and Chapter of Ely Cathedral.

One of their early commissions was from Caius College to divide into two the distinctive house on the Backs called Finella, which had been designed by Raymond McGrath for Mansfield Forbes. When Sir Nikolaus Pevsner came to see what Caius had done he commented, "Vot a tragedy!"

In 1936 Bicknell married Mari Scott Henderson who had been a dancer with the Sadler's Wells Ballet and was a pupil of Karsavina. She founded the Cambridge Ballet Workshop and introduced several generations of Cambridge children to the pleasure of classical ballet dancing. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Bicknells themselves moved into Finella. Later many glorious fireworks parties were held there.

In 1947 Bicknell was asked to write British Hills and Mountains for the Britain in Pictures series. His last writing, this year, came full circle. It was a review of the history of the series, written for the Book Collector. He was a collector himself, with a fine set of 18th-century topographical books and prints. He gave those concerned with the Lake District to the Library of King's College. He also assembled a splendid collection of lustre ware.

Soon after his retirement from teaching, in 1981, Bicknell started on a new career. The Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge, Professor Michael Jaffe, invited him to stage an exhibition, Beauty, Horror and Immensity, which dealt with the Lake District before the coming of the railways.

The success of Bicknell's exhibition at the Fitzwilliam, for which he produced an excellent catalogue, brought him into the museum world. He became a trustee of Dove Cottage Museum at Grasmere and edited the Illustrated Wordsworth Guide. Another of his books was Picturesque Scenery of the Lake District, a subject about which he also broadcast.

Peter Bicknell had a talent for light verse and was a keen gardener. He loved conducting visitors round Cambridge or through the Wordsworth country. He also greatly enjoyed travel abroad. He died very peacefully while staying with his eldest daughter in France, within sight of his beloved Alps.