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Richards, Sir James Maude [Jim] (1907–1992), architectural writer and critic, was born on 13 August 1907 at Ladypath, Park Lane, Carshalton, Surrey, the second son of Louis Saurin Richards, a London solicitor of Irish protestant ancestry, and his wife, Lucy Denes, née Clarence, who was born in Ceylon. As a child he was isolated and obliged to wear a splint to cure a tubercular hip joint. Only in 1921 did he go to Gresham's School, Holt, where his contemporaries included the future architect Christopher Nicholson as well as Benjamin Britten, W. H. Auden, and Donald Maclean. Owing to a family financial crisis he did not then go up to Cambridge University as intended but studied architecture at the Architectural Association Schools from 1924 until 1929.

Richards first worked in the architect's department of J. Lyons & Co., where he assisted Oliver P. Bernard on the drawings for the illuminated entrance of the Strand Palace Hotel. Bernard, sensing that his assistant did not care for that style of decorative design, sent him on to work for the engineer Sir Owen Williams. In 1930 Richards crossed the Atlantic to travel in Canada and the United States, and then worked in Dublin before joining the office of C. Cowles Voysey in 1932. He was by now acquainted with the new architecture of Europe and out of sympathy with Voysey's classical designs for civic buildings; nevertheless another assistant, John Brandon-Jones, recalled that
he was a first-rate draughtsman and did some excellent work on Voysey's competition drawings … He also shared with me a nearly disastrous adventure in a small boat on the Tideway at Greenwich when we were nearly lost by being swept under the bows of a moored lighter. (private information)
Richards found his true métier as a journalist in 1933, when he was hired as an assistant editor of the Architects' Journal by Hubert de Cronin Hastings, the inspired and eccentric chairman of the Architectural Press. Two years later Richards became assistant editor of the Architectural Review, working from the same office in Queen Anne's Gate. In 1937 he became the resourceful and imaginative editor of that monthly journal, a position he held until 1971. Among his colleagues was Nikolaus Pevsner. Both the Architects' Journal and the Architectural Review were influential in promoting the new architectural ideas coming from Europe, and Richards became an enthusiastic propagandist for the modern movement. He embraced the social ideals of the new architecture and recalled in his autobiography, Memoirs of an Unjust Fella (1980), how at that time
I and my friends and acquaintances joined and subscribed and protested and marched—marched in support of left-wing and anti-Fascist causes that seemed desperately to matter … decades of disillusioning happenings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were needed before we relinquished our deep-seated belief that in seeking the social ideal we should look always towards Russia. (Richards, 119)
In consequence, John Betjeman, Richards's sometime colleague at the Architectural Press, often referred to him as Karl Marx. He was a member of the Modern Architectural Research (MARS) Group and in 1940 published the influential Pelican paperback Introduction to Modern Architecture. On 31 July 1936 he married Margaret MacGregor (Peggy) Angus (1904–1993), a painter, and daughter of David Angus, a civil engineer. They had one son, who died young, and one daughter.

At the beginning of the Second World War Richards served in the night watch at St Paul's Cathedral—which he much enjoyed—and, with John Summerson, published a photographic survey of The Bombed Buildings of Britain (1942; 2nd edn, 1947). In 1942 he joined the Ministry of Information, and he was posted to Cairo in the following year. In 1946 he returned to the Architectural Press. In 1947 he helped to organize the first post-war congress of the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) at Bridgwater, and in the same year he became the architectural correspondent of The Times. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1948, and on 31 July 1954 he married Kathleen Margaret (Kit), a painter, widow of Morland Lewis, a painter, and second daughter of Henry Bryan Godfrey-Faussett-Osborne, a probate officer. They had one son.

In 1951 Richards was invited to become a member of the Royal Fine Arts Commission. Through that committee and the others on which he served, as well as in the publications he edited or contributed to, Richards became, in the 1950s, the most influential architectural commentator in Britain, wielding considerable power which he used to promote architects committed to the modern movement while denying opportunities to even the most talented traditionalists. However, despite this public and bureaucratic orthodoxy, there was another side to him. Reyner Banham, his colleague on the Architectural Review, concluded that he
was much less committed to the Modern Movement than even he himself had supposed … his position in ‘the middle’ of it may have been to some extent protective colouring, part of the public façade of his guarded person, part of the programme of holding things and people at arm's length. (Banham, 31)
On his return from Egypt he had published The Castles on the Ground (1946), a nostalgic but perceptive social study of suburbs, illustrated by John Piper, one of his many artist friends, but, as he recalled, ‘The book was scorned by my contemporaries as either an irrelevant eccentricity or a betrayal of the forward-looking ideals of the Modern Movement’ (Richards, 188). His intelligent interest in historical architecture was shown when he encouraged the founding of the Georgian Group in 1937 and when he published his study of The Functional Tradition in Early Industrial Buildings in 1958—the year in which he became a founder member of the Victorian Society.

Richards joined the campaign to prevent the demolition of the Euston Arch and was mortified when in 1961 the editor of The Times, Sir William Haley, published a leading article arguing that it was not worth saving. He became increasingly frustrated with the newspaper, and was not disappointed when his contract was terminated in 1971, shortly before he left the Architectural Press (and the editorship of the Architectural Review) in unhappy circumstances following disagreements with de Cronin Hastings. By this time he was also disillusioned with the consequences of the architectural ideals he had espoused, and when invited to give the annual discourse of the Royal Institute of British Architects for 1972, the year he was knighted, he shocked many in the audience by questioning the policy of comprehensive redevelopment associated with the modern movement, as well as architects' eagerness for self-expression. More and greater unhappiness followed when, also in 1972, Richards's second son, Alexander, was killed by a speeding car at the age of sixteen.

Richards was particularly happy in the company of artists, including Eric Ravilious with whom he published High Street in 1938, and he wrote about the work of Edward Bawden. His many other books included New Buildings in the Commonwealth (1961), An Architectural Journey in Japan (1963), A Guide to Finnish Architecture (1966), and Modern Architecture in Finland (1964). Finland was a country of which he was particularly fond.

Richards was short in height and exuded an air of puzzled melancholy, particularly in his later lonely and isolated years. Banham recalled that he was ‘grey and grave, with a face whose musculature sagged all too easily into an expression of guarded sadness’ (Banham, 31). This dogged advocate of modernity was notably punctilious in his old-fashioned courtesy, particularly to women. He died on 27 April 1992 at Charing Cross Hospital, Fulham, London, after suffering a stroke. He was survived by his second wife and the daughter of his first marriage, Victoria, who married Richard Gibson, the leading architect in Shetland.

Gavin Stamp

Sources  

J. M. Richards, Memoirs of an unjust fella (1980) · The Independent (30 April 1992) · The Times (28 April 1992) · Daily Telegraph (30 April 1992) · The Guardian (28 April 1992) · R. Banham, ‘Sir Jim’, London Review of Books (22 May–4 June 1980) · WWW, 1991–5 · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · b. cert. · m. cert. [Margaret MacGregor Angus] · m. cert. [Kathleen Margaret Lewis] · d. cert.

Archives  

University of Middlesex, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photograph, repro. in The Independent

Wealth at death  

under £125,000: probate, 22 July 1992, CGPLA Eng. & Wales