Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Off to Canterbury

Canterbury glass

“Ye goon to Cauntererbury—” says Harry Bailley, host of the Tabard Inn.  “God yow speede!”  Well, I hope so.   This post is a day early, and the next one will be very late—just how late, I am not yet prepared to predict, but more than a week.  For very shortly after pressing the fatal “PUBLISH” button on the Blogger desktop, I am leaving for the airport and a fortnight in Britain, the focal point of which is a special event in Canterbury.  I have in the past endangered my health in various pestilential continental cyber-cafés simply to achieve a regular weekly post, however feeble, but not this time. I find that the computer, while an excellent servant, is a wretched master--don't you?  The dogged search for Wi-Fi is intrinsically boring and tends to be futile to boot, at least when conducted among my wife’s nonagenarian relatives in Scotland.   So my imaginary loyal readers can expect to hear from me next considerably later in October.

            What commands our trip this time is a ceremony in Canterbury in honor of my brother-in-law, John Newman.  He is not the same chap as John Henry Cardinal Newman, and the ceremony is not beatification—though perhaps it should be.  No, the occasion is the formal recognition of the publication of the revised edition of one of the two volumes devoted to the county of Kent in the Buildings of England series.  This publication will be the culmination of John’s long association with that extraordinary project, to which he has contributed several earlier volumes.

    John Newman (center) at an earlier book launch

        The one inconvenience of having John for a brother-in-law is that the brother-in-law joke is rendered meaningless.  In a long professional life I have met few people whom I more sincerely admire.  He read Greats (Classics) at Oxford just before my time there, and set out on the career for which his education had so obviously prepared him.  He became a classics master in one of the fine public schools of southern England.  He was very good at what he did—I actually once visited one of his classrooms—but his real “bliss” was an amateur interest in architectural history, an interest he had developed as a boy on long bicycle trips through the Kentish countryside.

            So he did something very bold.  He abandoned his job teaching classics to become a graduate student at the Courtauld Institute, which is in effect the Art History department of the University of London, and one of the world’s greatest seminaries of art historians and museum directors.  He certainly could not have known then—having absolutely no formal training in art or architectural history--that he himself would have a most distinguished teaching career at that very institution, serving in time its Assistant Director.

            The Buildings of England series was the invention of Nikolaus Pevsner (1902 –1983), among the most famous of the great generation of German émigré art historians who settled in Britain and America.  John Newman became (in rough chronological order) Pevsner’s chauffeur, his assistant, his friend, his collaborator, and his successor.

 Some of Nikolaus Pevsner's "Buildings of England" volumes

One of John Newman's two volumes devoted to Kent           

 Though he has published architectural guides to several counties in the west, there is a special appropriateness to the culminating Kent volumes.  In the first place, they are major revisions his own most important original work.  Secondly, he is actually a Kentish man, with a geographical trajectory ever deeper into the Kent countryside.  When I first knew him he lived technically in Kent, but actually in the London suburbs.   His young married life was passed in New Ash Green, a community that could legitimately be described as experimental both from the social and the architectural points of view.  His next sojourn was in Sevenoaks, an old and prosperous town full of interesting buildings and estates, including Knole House, once home of Vida Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, one of the most eminent “power couples” in pre-War Britain.  Now John and Margaret have moved once again, and once again yet deeper into Kent, taking up residence in the ancient village of Wye.  At last he is in a house suitable in its antiquity for one of the world’s great experts in Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture.

Wye: the parish church

            This puts him, too, very much in Chaucer country.  Wye is about twelve miles south of Boughton-under-Blean, where the Canon on his lathered horse caught up with the pilgrims, and a shorter distance still from Canterbury itself.  We think of Canterbury as the ecclesiastic center of Britain, and so it is; but the word Canterbury means “the fortified place in Kent”, so that the city’s secular history is hardly less important than the sacred.  On either ground, Canterbury is the indispensable place to honor a Kentishman who is one of the nation’s great champions of its sacred and secular architectural treasures alike.