Andor Gomme: Critic and architectural historian

Thursday 30 October 2008 01:00

Andor Gomme was fired as a young undergraduate at Cambridge by the literary and moral criticism of F.R. Leavis and, equipped by that great tradition, became one of the best British architectural historians since John Ruskin.

At Clare College, he won a first in Moral Sciences while keeping up his prodigious familiarity with English literature. In 1956, after a year editing the Cambridge Review, he was appointed to a three-year fellowship at Caius College. He proved, to those of us lucky enough to be his students, an utterly inspiring teacher of English: open, ardent, egalitarian, cheerful, convinced and convincing about his mentor's great lesson that the best literature is at once "the storehouse of recorded value" and our best bulwark against the depredations of both a demented commercialism and nerveless political reaction.

There was in his splendid teaching no taint of the narrowness and insularity of which Cambridge English sometimes stands arraigned. His father was A.W. Gomme, Professor of Ancient History at Glasgow. Andor (the name a family joke for the sexless baby not yet born) not only knew classic literature, he read and wrote French and Italian easily and was dauntingly familiar with the masterpieces of the European canon.

Indeed his first book, Attitudes to Criticism (1966), largely a critical celebration of the very similar sensibilities and minds of Leavis and the American Yvor Winters, is at pains to split open the notions of both a narrowly Anglophone and a merely literary conception of culture, and to replace it with a livable definition of full lives, lived in all the variety, rootedness and glad reciprocity which the good society will make possible.

He embodied these precepts by example. He was not only a fine teacher, he lived his allegiances in his everyday life. When he left Cambridge, he took a post as tutor in the extra-mural department at Glasgow, living in Wigtown, and committed himself to an arduous round of evening meetings and tutorials in village halls scattered across south-west Scotland. His students then were all volunteers, come not for any qualification but for the love of the learning, for the conversation and, when they hit lucky, the self-discovery and fulfilment they found in Hugh MacDiarmid or Bleak House (Gomme's second book, Dickens, published in 1971, is a far from partisan introduction beautifully judged for just these people).

In 1962 he made what was by then a rite of passage for British academics, and spent a year abroad, as Visiting Professor at the University of Montana, ribbing their house seigneur of literature, Leslie Fiedler, for some of his American excesses and winning great popularity with his sallies as a dandy at campus dinner parties, clad in sky-blue ski-pants and chased cowboy boots.

He came home in 1963 to a post at Keele University, finding in A.D. Lindsay's democratic vision for the place a congenial home for his tranquil Fabianism and his excellent determination to make the life of teacher, scholar, cook, moral critic, lover, husband, father, gardener, musician, carpenter and collector into a single work of art. He and his staunch collaborator, co-scholar and wife, Susan, bought a beaten-up pile, Barleybat Hall, restored it mostly with their own hands and stayed there for nearly 50 years.

For most of the editorship of Arthur Crook at the TLS in the Sixties and Seventies, Gomme had been a favoured front-page and (in those days) anonymous reviewer. It is much to be regretted that those long articles remain uncollected, and here it must suffice to give their flavour, their handsome periods, and their great generosity of spirit by quoting the peroration to Gomme's review of one of Pevsner's classic volumes: "As The Buildings of England continues to grow, so does the conviction of our good fortune that the undertaking has fallen into the hands of perhaps the one man in Europe capable of carrying it to a triumphant conclusion."

Gomme himself wrote an incomparable quartet of architectural histories. In Architecture of Glasgow (1968, with David Walker but Gomme's the lion's share), Bristol: an architectural history (1979, with Michael Jenner and Bryan Little but ditto), Smith of Warwick (2000) and, out this year in the nick of time, the magnificent Design and Plan in the Country House (with Alison Maguire), he completed an enviable and monumental statement on the nation's architecture. It is much to the point of his life that architecture is the most public, political and commonly possessed of a people's arts.

Naturally, his scholarly schedule was long filled with duties to the Society of Architectural Historians, which he chaired for years, whose journal, Architectural History, he edited, and which elected him Life Patron earlier this year. But in bidding him farewell, the emphasis must fall on the remarkable breadth of his accomplishments, whether of his writing, his absorbed and passionate interests (he reconstructed and published in 2004 a Performance Edition of the St Mark Passion for the Cambridge Baroque Camerata), of his anxious commitment to the common good which so movingly transpired in his activity on behalf of a dozen third-world causes, or in his unlapsed Anglican faith.

Fred Inglis

Andor Gomme, English scholar and architectural historian: born London 7 May 1930; Lecturer in English Literature, Keele University 1963-74, Reader 1974-84, Professor of English Literature and Architectural History 1984-95 (Emeritus); Chair, Society of Architectural Historians 1988-91; married 1960 Susan Koechlin (one son, three daughters); died Church Lawton, Cheshire 19 September 2008.

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