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Remembering Colin Amery, the man who saved Spitalfields

Blog | By Alan Dodd | Sep 17, 2018

Charismatic. Multifaceted. Quicksilver wit. A chameleon?

This list of clichés approximates but falls short in describing our dear friend Colin, and particularly in that his own exquisite prose remained largely cliché free.

His ironic view of life and his light touch belied what he saw as his serious mission, (now sadly another cliché): that of architectural conservation and appraisal, which was central to his professional life. Though concerned with the past and in defiance of the wreckers (a favourite description), he was as much concerned with present and future architectural developments. He had something of the Janus view or views, and understood that conservation is as crucial to the future as it has been to the past.

Sadly, the London skyline appears to have reduced such concerns to a cry in the wilderness, but nonetheless Colin, with his peers, tried to focus his beam of influence wherever it might settle. For over twenty years, his column in the FT gave him a platform for his opinions on current architecture as well as his support for conservation, and he gained an accolade as Critic of the Year in the Eighties. From that mid-decade into the Nineties he was involved with the Prince of Wales’s Institute for Architecture. Later, as director of the World Monuments Fund in Britain, he made further opportunities to offer his advice and foresight.

With Dan Cruikshank as co-author, ‘The Rape of Britain’, published by the Architectural Press in 1975, drew attention to the dreadful urban destruction of the 1960s. On a personal note, Ashford, Kent, where I was brought up, was categorised as one of the most mutilated towns in Europe.

Colin’s early involvement with the Spitalfields Trust, again with Dan Cruikshank and Mark Girouard from the later 1970s, made him part of a tough, muscular response to the proposed demolition and re-development of those spectacular terraces. But there was a romanticism as well as toughness, with tweedily swaddled members of the Trust, squatting in freezing basements, frying sausages over oil-stoves by candlelight. But it succeeded: damning the local authority’s concept of progress. Concurrent with the Spitalfields triumph can be listed the saving of the Covent Garden, and more recently Spitalfields, markets, as subjects for imaginative re-use. [Pictured is the Dennis Severs House, now owned by the Spitalfields Trust].

So, back to the charming, urbane and elegant Colin we knew. He was a glowing product of the 1950s grammar schools, in his case Southgate County Grammar School, his family living at Wynchmore Hill. His grandparents owned a firm near St Paul’s dealing in Scottish plaid, a company which sadly failed some time in the Sixties, leaving his parents in somewhat reduced circumstances, living near Axminster. Colin was very attached to his mother, and I met his father only once on the day of her death. He was a charming man, somewhat shy and reserved. Richard, Colin’s older brother, sadly recently widowed and represented today by his son Keith, was unlike Colin, sent away to school which he hated, adopting a Colditz policy of regular escape.

But Colin’s real art was the art of living. In Hove in the 1960s whilst reading English Lit. at Sussex University, he shared digs with his long-standing friend David Firth, and they both learned to cook. Working at the Architectural Press over the next decade he was also involved with the Georgian Group and the Victorian Society. His great friendship with John Harris post-dated John’s part as a member of the triumvirate who put on in 1971 ‘The Destruction of the Country House’, the exhibition at the V&A. It proved a seminal wake-up call for the conservation lobby. Amery and Harris became ‘Fortnum’ and ‘Mason’ respectively. (I think I’ve got that right.)

The 1980s was a decade of costume parties, of competing efforts in creating ‘authentic’ historicist interiors, with their contents, and of personal feuds. It was necessary to know who had fallen out with whom to avoid embarrassment around the supper table. For Colin there was also a lot of travel, in company with Glynn Boyd Harte and Gavin Stamp, particularly to New York. ‘AESTHETES FLY IN’, headed a newspaper report. Mosette Broderick who worked with Henry Russell Hitchcock, the baroque scholar, was a friend, and Colin got to know the distinguished architect Philip Johnson, who appeared at one of Gavin Stamp’s rumbustious Pocock Street parties. Architectural visits to the great cities of Europe: Rome, Venice, Paris, Helsinki and ‘St Petersburg’, then still officially Leningrad, were other important destinations, as of course was India, and particularly New Delhi.

The highly acclaimed Lutyens exhibition of 1980-81, designed by Piers Gough, miraculously invested a sense of human scale to the brutalist wastes of the Hayward Gallery. Colin was much involved in getting the loans and producing the catalogue.

It was through the Lutyens show that he met Mary and Joe Links, who were to become such constant and supportive friends. Joe had been one half of Calman Links, furriers by Royal Appointment, and Mary was the youngest child of Edwin and Lady Emily Lutyens. She was a small woman of great warmth and elegance, with a flattering interest in one’s love life. After the exhibition, she presented Colin with one of her father’s newspaper baskets-on-stand, and she left him further things in her will.

‘The House of Life’, by Mario Praz was a strong influence for some of us in the Eighties. The book describes his acquisitions of neo-classical furniture for his Roman apartment on the Via Giulia. (Incidentally, he mentions how his wife finally departed when he criticised her petit-point embroidery.) Colin’s own taste crystallised at this time when he began collecting eighteenth century creamware and black basalt, together with Regency furniture, pieces of Old Sheffield Plate, and spiked bronze candlesticks.

That the reserve and spareness of his taste in no way compromised his warmth and generosity was not wasted on his lucky guests. Presentation of delicious food and drink became his forte, with fine napery and his good crocks and silver. But this was just the background to Colin’s special rôle as a catalyst in bringing people together. ‘Do you know (so-and-so)?’ was his opening when making an introduction.

For about two years, he took over the Notting Hill flat of the late Dick Girouard, with Dick’s good furniture and several Nailsea boats under domes with little glass sailors climbing the rigging. Just to confirm the hands-on ambition of his hospitality, for a friend’s 50th birthday dinner Colin had to battle with two of the first-course lobsters who had escaped their rubber bands and were patrolling the corridor prior to being cooked.

Back to the black basalts and cream wares, Colin had, to a certain degree, a black and white view of life, and at times some of us fell short of his high standards; but his tart comments were always made to one’s face. His later flat in York House, Upper Montagu Street, had a neo-classical Gustavian dining room with Doric columns after the Haga Pavilion. The contrasting Gothick library provoked from Jennifer Pattison, the late Fat Lady, the comment: ‘Ah AGINCOURT’.

Some people we know are conventionally unconventional, (do I mean wearing a bow tie with trainers?). Colin, on the other hand managed to be unconventionally conventional. Dress was an important aspect of his art of life. I remember a wedding in the Cotswolds in about 1980, when he wore his grandfather’s morning coat with an elegant black and white check stock and pin. The bride’s mother, a student at the Slade under Tonks in the 1930s, exclaimed in her wonderful Slade drawl ‘but dear, you are tooo beautiful!’

At the risk of involving the thought police, I have to mention a bon mot coined by Colin thirty years ago, and also to do with clothes. He suggested that, in those cities and countries where people seem to have no dress sense, (and not just in Scandinavia), they are suffering from ANARAXIA.

Colin was popular, gregarious, and much invited. He enjoyed la vie de château with relish, and Chatsworth in particular, but his introduction to the great house was probably Charlecote near Stratford on Avon. Over New Year 1981, Colin got flu and lay pale and wan in the gothic gloom of the much haunted Green Room. The kind doctor from Wellesbourne, wearing tweeds, admitted that it was the first time he had treated anyone in a four-poster bed. Glynn Boyd Harte also fell under the Charlecote spell, which gave him endless possibilities for his table-scape still-lives.

Colin also had a country life. Through John and Eileen Harris living in a cottage on the estate, he took over the flat in the house at Ashcroft, near Tetbury, owned by Ben and Georgina Harford. The house overlooked its own private valley landscape, and Colin loved walking there with his guests in sun or snow. He also helped the Harrises with their terraced garden, and could have feasibly become a serious plantsman. He also enjoyed an inclusion into family life with the Harfords' young children into their ‘teens, introducing them into the glories of the Russian wooden churches.

Colin was an Anglican for most of his life, with All Saints Margaret Street and St Cyprian, Clarence Gate both near various flats in Marylebone. But he maintained serious ecumenical leanings, and it was following a discussion after his Reception as a Catholic at Westminster Cathedral in 1999, that Cardinal Hume’s original vision for a Millennium Cross began to solidify into a real possibility. The Cross, subscribed to by many denominations, stood in the Piazza for over a year as an ecumenical Christian symbol. The scrolling Titulus with the Latin, Greek and Hebrew inscriptions was given and paid for by Colin.

Colin and Robin met in the early 2000s and they made a formal commitment to each other in 2015. Their new life gave Colin the loving involvement he much needed, and relaxation from his demanding work schedule. He was still very involved with raising funds for the WMF, and sitting on various important committees, including St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

For light relief there were joint appearances on the telly programme ‘Location, Location’, together with their dog Bruno, when ostensibly they searched for the perfect weekend retreat. What was so tragic that, having in real life taken the lease on a charming cottage on the Firle estate in Sussex, with the potential to make a garden, Colin was diagnosed with his debilitating and drawn-out final illness. For the last four years Robin has organised and maintained for Colin a warm and cheerful home life until his last five days spent in the Trinity Hospice. Even in his frail state he could look presented, lying on his bed in a lavender jersey and blue suede boots, and his memory remained sharp. Robin’s extraordinary devotion deserves the utmost gratitude and adulation from the rest of Colin’s friends, some of whom have also given help, in kind, to maintain his comfort. Colin’s constant carer in the daytime has been Jan, a young man of unfailing good humour and tenderness. More recently, Tina and Ruth, two charming young women from Ghana, have alternated as his evening carers.

Dear Colin, we shall miss your generosity, sparkle and wit, and will embrace those occasional barbs, lovingly intended for our improvement.

Just a passing comment: as with Colin, several distinguished members from the world of architectural conservation and aesthetics who have died in the last months seem to have been spared the fond attentions of the Honours Committee. Could it be that they have all been too bolshie, demanding and difficult? If so, keep up the good work – it is what Colin would have wished.