Raymond Charles Erith RA FRIBA (7 August 1904 - 30 November 1973) was a leading classical architect in England during the period dominated by the modern movement after the Second World War. His work demonstrates his continual interest in expanding the classical tradition to establish a progressive modern architecture, drawing on the inherited experience and wisdom of the past.
At a time when traditionalists were routinely dismissed as Neo-Georgian, Erith’s skill and originality set him apart, as did his complex and creative use of his sources of inspiration and his quirky sense of humour. The sheer pleasure he found in architecture is evident in his buildings.
Erith was appointed architect for the reconstruction of Downing Street (1958), elected a Royal Academician (1959) and served on the Royal Fine Art Commission (1960–73). Since his death, exhibitions of his work have been held by the Royal Academy of Arts (1976),Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury (1979), Niall Hobhouse (1986) and Sir John Soane’s Museum (2004).
Raymond Erith was born in London, eldest son of Charles Erith, a mechanical engineer and his wife May. At the age of four he contracted tuberculosis, which led to twelve years of intermittent illness and left him permanently lame. He trained at the Architectural Association (1921–26) and worked for Morley Horder and Verner Rees before setting up his own practice in London in 1928. From 1929-39 he was in partnership with Bertram Hume, with whom he won an international competition for replanning the Lower Norrmalm area of Stockholm (1934).
In 1934 he married Pamela, younger daughter of Arthur and Elsie Spencer Jackson, who had also qualified at the AA. They had four daughters. In 1936 they moved to Dedham, Essex. Among Erith’s early commissions were Great House, Dedham (1937) and gates, lodges and cottages in Windsor Great Park for King George VI (1939). As a young man he looked back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in order to pick up the thread of tradition while it was still unbroken and carry it forward from there. This led him to John Soane, an important influence on his early designs but later he turned to earlier sources of inspiration and especially to Palladio and the robust practicality of his farmhouse villas.
During the Second World War from 1940-45 Erith became a farmer in Essex, where he lived for the rest of his life. This experience and his country practice in East Anglia immediately after the war gave him a profound understanding of the local vernacular architecture, which was to have a subtle influence on his mature style.
In 1946 Erith opened an office in Ipswich, moving it to Dedham in 1958. His architecture ranges from cottages and small houses to public buildings such as the Library and quadrangle at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (1959-1963), Jack Straw’s Castle on Hampstead Heath (1963) and the New Common Room Building at Gray’s Inn (1971). Major work includes 15,17 and 19, Aubrey Walk, London W8 (1951), the Pediment, Aynho, Northamptonshire and its garden buildings (1956–73), the Provost’s Lodgings at the Queen’s College, Oxford (1958) and the Folly in Herefordshire (1961).
His larger country houses are Bentley, Sussex (1960–71), Wivenhoe New Park, Essex (1962) and King’s Walden Bury, Hertfordshire (1969). The best known of his many restorations was the reconstruction of Nos 10 and 11 and complete rebuilding of No. 12, Downing Street (1959–63). He also remodelled numerous houses including Morley Hall, Wareside, Hertfordshire (1955), Wellingham House, Ringmer, Sussex (1955–71), Hunton Manor, Hampshire (1962) and Shelley’s Folly, Cooksbridge, Sussex (1968). After Erith’s death in 1973, his partner Quinlan Terry carried on his practice (now Quinlan and Francis Terry Architects).
That Erith was an outstanding draughtsman is seen in his sketchbooks, working drawings and designs for the many competitions he entered in his early years. His fine drawings were regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions. These showed many of his most important commissions, as well as unexecuted schemes such as a Factory, Warehouse, Offices etc. at Ipswich (1948), a House in Devonshire to be called the Redoubt for Mr Freeman (1949) and Variation on a theme by Palladio: Design for a Church in Italy (1952).
From 1962 onwards Erith’s designs were regularly exhibited at the RA in the form of linocuts by Quinlan Terry, who became his pupil in 1962 and subsequently his partner.
For a detailed information on Erith’s life and work, including full bibliography, see:
Lucy Archer, Raymond Erith Architect (1985)
Margaret Richardson, Lucy Archer, Kenneth Powell, Quinlan Terry and George Saumarez Smith, Raymond Erith (1904-1973): Progressive Classicist, Sir John Soane’s Museum 2004
A neglected architect who shunned concrete
THE outcry at the closure of landmark pub Jack Straw’s Castle on the edge of Hampstead Heath last summer wasn’t the biggest hullabaloo caused by the only post-war listed pub in England.
According to Lucy Archer, daughter of the late architect Raymond Erith, who designed the pub in North End Way, Hampstead: “There was huge opposition when it was built in 1963. People wanted it to be more modern.”
But, typical of Erith, he preferred to show how a modern, open-plan building could be made attractive and functional using a traditional timber frame.
He said: “Wood suits pubs. With a concrete frame, the beams have to be cased. My posts and beams are the real thing. You can see them and touch them and the landlord can knock nails into them.”
The result was a building lauded by Highgate-born poet laureate Sir John Betjeman at Erith’s memorial service following his death in 1974 as “true Middlesex” and “a delight”.
According to Mrs Archer, Erith’s adherence to tradition in an age of modernist architecture “inevitably limited his commissions, especially for public buildings, which is why Jack Straw’s Castle is so important”.
The former pub, while retaining its outside appearance, is being turned private inside, with flats and a gym. However, many more Erith buildings can now be appreciated in a new exhibition of his work, Raymond Erith, Progressive Classicist, at Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Holborn.
The show marks the centenary of the architect’s birth in 1904 and has been curated by Mrs Archer, not only his daughter, but also an architectural historian.
The show includes Erith’s extensive yet seamless remodelling of 10 Downing Street, where one contemporary wag wrote Harold Macmillan “was chased out by termites” in 1959.
Also on show are pictures of more local Erith buildings, including the new Common Room and Buttery at Gray’s Inn, South Square, Holborn (1971) and the 1968 London Underground ventilation tower in Gibson Square, Islington.
Mrs Archer says the exhibition couldn’t be in a better place – The former house of Sir John Soane, the neo-classical architect active around 1800. “My father trained in the age of the young modernist architects,” she says, “but he didn’t want to throw out tradition. He was genuinely inspired to learn from Soane, to move classical architecture on, as he felt Soane had done.
“So he must have spent a lot of time at Sir John Soane’s Museum when he was young, and I can remember coming to meet him here when I was about
The resulting Erith designs, Mrs Archer says, were never pastiche, but “modern and geometric. They couldn’t be anything but 20th-century buildings. But he would also always look at the surrounding neighbourhood and wanted them to fit in and appear as if they had always been there.”
So Jack Straw’s Castle, which replaced an earlier, bombed-out pub on the site, was unusual in being “a completely free-standing one-off, and the only time when Erith achieved the shock factor”, Mrs Archer says.
The Hampstead Heath pub was typical in showing the famous Erith sense of humour.
Jack Straw was the deputy leader of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt, who is said to have lived on the site and bequeathed his name to the earlier pub. The architect of its replacement therefore gave Jack Straw’s Castle wooden battlements and two towers and one housed the building’s water tanks and the other the lift gear.
London born but Surrey bred, Raymond Erith had a highly unusual childhood.
Mrs Archer explains: “He contracted tuberculosis at the age of four and was largely bedridden until 16, when he recovered. But this gave him a lot of time to think, and he developed a great intellectual independence.
“He spent a particularly lonely time between the ages of five and eight at a nursing home in Margate, Kent, where, to pass the time, he started drawing. One picture of a lighthouse was precociously drawn on fancy grey paper which he had specially requested to be brought from home.
“He never talked about his illness afterwards, because he absolutely didn’t want to be seen as an invalid. And he was always a very happy person from a very affectionate family, who made his sick room the centre of the home.
“Nevertheless, he only managed to complete four terms at school. But he still got accepted to train at the Architectural Association in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, at the age of
17, in 1921.”
Now 65, Mrs Archer, lives in an Erith house originally built for her grandparents in Essex, the area he later moved to himself.
“It was very exciting to watch him at home, drawing,” she recalls. “He had tremendous concentration. If one of us four girls would come marching down the corridor, he used to shout out ‘Don’t shake!’ And sometimes he would draw through the night. Then, over breakfast, he’d make a deliberately provocative remark, to get us all thinking and discussing.”
The exhibition features some of Erith’s sketchbooks, filled not only with exquisite watercolours, but obsessive drawings of nuts and bolt, reflecting the intensely practical interest he inherited from his father, a mechanical engineer.
Raymond Erith died suddenly, aged 69. Mrs Archer recalls: “He had a cough which was diagnosed as lung cancer, he got through a dangerous operation, then died two days later from a heart attack. He had been so active so it was a tremendous shock.”
Raymond Erith (1904-1973): Progressive Classicist
An Exhibition in the Soane Gallery from 8 October to 31 December 2004
Sponsored by Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin / Sir John Soane Museum http://www.soane.org/exhibitions/raymond_erith_1904_1973_progressive_classicist
Sir John Soane's Museum is pleased to announce a new exhibition examining the work of Raymond Erith, one of the most accomplished and original English architects of the last century. Raymond Erith: Progressive Classicist will take a fresh look at Erith's extraordinary body of work, bringing together the best of his drawings with a series of stunning new photographs.
Raymond Erith occupies an unusual position in the history of British architecture. Like his great hero, John Soane, he did not always follow the prevailing stylistic currents of his age. He also shared Soane's belief in 'progressive classicism', deciding not to reject tradition but draw creatively on its accumulated wisdom. Although in sharp contrast to the work of many of his contemporaries, Erith's architecture, with its subtle use of natural materials, meticulous (sometimes playful) detailing and skilled craftsmanship earned him wide respect and admiration. His work ranges from small houses to public buildings, such as the library and quadrangle at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford; Jack Straw's Castle on Hampstead Heath and the New Common Room Building at Gray's Inn, London. The best known of his many restorations was the reconstruction of 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street.
Erith was a superb draughtsman and a selection of fine drawings, produced for the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibitions will be included in the exhibition. These will be augmented by a series of new photographs of Erith's work commissioned from the acclaimed architectural photographer Mark Fiennes.
This exhibition, curated by Lucy Archer, will not only provide the opportunity for a reassessment of Erith's architecture but it will also introduce his work to a new generation, too young to remember the exhibition which was held at the Royal Academy in 1976. During the thirty years since his death there has been a growing awareness of the continuing relevance of architectural tradition and there is much in the skilful blending of classical and vernacular in Erith's work to inspire designers of the twenty-first century.
Raymond Erith: Progressive Classicist will be accompanied by a lavish 80-page colour catalogue featuring essays by Lucy Archer, Ken Powell and George Saumarez Smith.
Catalogue available from Museum shop
10 Downing Street
Restoration and modernisation / https://www.gov.uk/government/history/10-downing-street
By the 1950s, the material state of 10 Downing Street had reached crisis point. Bomb damage had worsened existing structural problems: the building was suffering from subsidence, sloping walls, twisting door frames and an enormous annual repair bill.
The Ministry of Works carried out a survey in 1954 into the state of the structure. The report bounced from Winston Churchill (1951 to 1955) to Anthony Eden (1955 to 1957) to Harold Macmillan (1957 to 1963) as one Prime Minister followed the other. Finally, a committee set up by Macmillan concluded that drastic action was required before the building fell or burnt down.
The committee put forward a range of options, including the complete demolition of Number 10, 11 and 12 and their replacement with a new building. That idea was rejected and it was decided that Number 12 should be rebuilt, and Numbers 10 and 11 should be strengthened and their historic features preserved.
The architect Raymond Erith was selected to supervise the work, which was expected to take 2 years and cost £500,000. It ended up taking a year longer than planned and costing double the original estimate. The foundations proved to be so rotten that concrete underpinning was required on a massive scale.
Number 10 was completely gutted. Walls, floors and even the columns in the Cabinet Room and Pillared Room proved to be rotten and had to be replaced. New features were added too, including a room facing onto Downing Street and a veranda at Number 11 for the Chancellor.
It was also discovered that the familiar exterior façade was not black at all, but yellow. The blackened colour was a product of two centuries of severe pollution. To keep the familiar appearance, the newly cleaned yellow bricks were painted black to match their previous colour. Erith's work was completed in 1963, but not long afterwards, dry rot became apparent and further repairs had to be undertaken.
Margaret Thatcher (1979 to 1990) appointed architect Quinlan Terry to refurbish the state drawing rooms at the end of the 1980s. Two of the rooms, the White Drawing Room and Terracotta Room, gained ornate plasterwork ceilings. In the White Drawing Room, this included adding the national emblems of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
All the building work of the past few decades could have been ruined when a terrorist bomb exploded in 1991. An IRA mortar bomb was fired from a white transit van in Whitehall and exploded in the garden of Number 10, only a few metres away from where Prime Minister John Major (1990 to 1997) was chairing a Cabinet meeting to discuss the Gulf War.
Although no one was killed, it left a crater in the Number 10 gardens and blew in the windows of neighbouring houses. John Major and some of his staff moved into Admiralty Arch while damage caused by the bomb was repaired.
By 2006, it was clear that the Downing Street complex was no longer able to support the business of the Prime Minister's Office reliably. Independent surveys established that the building was no longer weather-tight, the heating system was failing, and the information and communications technology (ICT) network was at the limits of its operation. Power outages and water leaks were frequent occurrences and impacted significantly on the day-to-day operation of the Prime Minister's Office.
In addition to deterioration through age, pressures on the buildings had increased dramatically over recent years, through an increase in occupancy (stable at around 50 for many years) to around
170. In 2006, Prime
Minister Tony Blair (1997 to 2007) authorised a new programme of improvements,
with the building remaining operational throughout. Work was launched to
address structural failure, renew the infrastructure, improve access and
enhance the building's sustainability.
Structural issues were among the first to be tackled, and a phased exterior repair project was launched to address failing lead guttering, cracking brickwork and other structural issues. The distinctive black colourwash was also renewed, as it had faded away in many areas to reveal the yellow brickwork beneath. During the course of the works it was discovered that the façade of 11 Downing Street was unstable, and had to be secured using 225 stainless steel pins. All work was carried out in consultation with English Heritage.
Other projects have been undertaken to renew the building's ageing infrastructure and to replace many of the building's key services, including heating, fire protection and electrical power distribution. Sustainability is a key feature of the programme and a 10% reduction in carbon emissions was achieved during 2011. Rainwater harvesting was introduced in 2009, providing a sustainable source of water for the garden. Accessibility for disabled visitors has been significantly improved through the introduction of ramps and modernisation of lifts. Many of the public areas of the building have also been restored, including the front entrance hall, the state and small dining rooms and the study.
An ongoing programme is in place to upgrade facilities to modern standards, and to ensure the preservation of this historic building for years to come.