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Sir  Howard Montagu Colvin (1919–2007), by Lucy Anne Dickens, 2001Sir Howard Montagu Colvin (1919–2007), by Lucy Anne Dickens, 2001
Colvin, Sir Howard Montagu (1919–2007), architectural historian, was born on 15 October 1919 at Inglenook, 4 Longlands Park Road, Foots Cray, Kent, the elder son of Montagu Colvin (1888–1938), an engineer's buyer, and his wife, Annie Winifred, née Randle (1888–1944), daughter of George Beavis Randle, photographer. He grew up in Sidcup, attending Merton Court School until 1933, when he became a boarder at Trent College in Nottinghamshire. This provided an excellent education and also an escape from home, where the death of his only brother had precipitated the breakdown of his parents' marriage.

As a young boy Colvin was chiefly interested in the natural world. But as he grew older he became more and more intrigued by the built environment. He cycled round west Kent in search of architecture when at home, and at school was permitted to do the same in place of cricket during the summer term, exploring the buildings of the east midlands. A trip to Cleeve Abbey in Somerset awoke a fascination with medieval architecture and he led a schoolboy dig at Dale Abbey in Derbyshire, publishing his findings in five articles. By the time he was ready to leave school he was determined to become an archaeologist. Advised by Sir Mortimer Wheeler to read history as preparation, he entered University College, London, in 1937. There he specialized in medieval history. He was also involved in successive digs at Clarendon Palace near Salisbury. The disruption of the Second World War and the college's evacuation to Aberystwyth provided no obstacle to his achieving the highest academic honours—though it did prompt a publication on the buildings of the town. He graduated in 1940 with a first-class degree and the Rosa Morrison medal.

Colvin left college with more than just a degree. It was there that he met Christina Edgeworth Butler (1919–2003), a fellow student, daughter of the professor of Latin, Harold Edgeworth Butler, and granddaughter of Arthur Gray Butler, first headmaster of Haileybury College, and of the historian Albert Frederick Pollard. They were engaged in 1941 and married on 16 August 1943. Christina shared many of his interests and herself later published on eighteenth-century literature as well as contributing to the Victoria County History series. They had three children: a daughter who died in infancy and two sons. It was at university, too, that Colvin first came up with the idea that was to make his name, a biographical dictionary of architects. He and a fellow student, David Young, knew little of modern art-historical methods but, as he later recalled, they ‘did realise that the factual basis of English architectural history was hopelessly amateurish’. They concluded that the solution ‘was to apply to architecture the ordinary processes of historical scholarship’ (Colvin, Essays, 292). From 1938 onwards Colvin worked steadily on a book intended to do just that.

The war did not derail this work. In 1940 Colvin joined the RAF and became an aerial photography interpreter. In 1941 he was posted to Malta, where ‘To watch—as we did almost daily throughout the first half of 1942—60 or 70 Stukas diving through the massed fire of more than 100 guns was to experience both the Awful and the Sublime’ (Colvin, ‘Early life’, 8). It was an exciting time, and in later years the usually reserved scholar would become animated when describing it. Malta had its scholarly side, too. Inevitably the island inspired an article on its architecture. The well-stocked Garrison Officers' Library proved to possess numerous books on British building, not least the nineteenth-century Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, which was to be central to Colvin's future work.

Demobilized in 1946, Colvin abandoned his ambitions of becoming an archaeologist and accepted John (J. E.) Neale's offer of an assistant lectureship in medieval history back at University College, London. A condition of his appointment was that he should register for a doctorate. ‘As it seemed unlikely that anything architectural would find favour with Neale (who was a ruthless sacker of those who lost his favour)’ he decided to work on the Premonstratensian order, which had founded Dale Abbey (Colvin to Nigel Ramsay, 24 April 2004, Colvin MSS). A year later his circumstances changed completely. The election of the historian Austin Lane Poole as president of St John's College, Oxford, created a vacancy there for a tutor. Almost certainly pushed by his supervisor, Vivian (V. H.) Galbraith, who was a close friend of Lane Poole and who believed that Colvin was ‘probably the best young mediaevalist since [Richard] Southern’ (Galbraith to OUP, 2 Dec 1949, OUP archives, PB/ED 006473), he beat the formidable early modernist John (J. P.) Cooper to the job. In December 1947 Colvin was elected a fellow of St John's. Initially his term of appointment was only three years. In fact he was to stay for six decades.

Colvin had been hesitant about moving to Oxford. He would be the first fellow of St John's not to have been educated in the university and he subsequently observed that the closest any member of his family had ever come to such a role was the Victorian comic actor J. L. Toole, who had once starred in a play called The Don. But he was encouraged by his wife, whose family had taught in Oxford and Cambridge for generations, and whose brother, David Butler, had just arrived at Nuffield College. Colvin was always grateful that he had listened to her advice. He found ‘that Oxford was a place where, once established, one could do whatever one liked provided only that one did not neglect one's pupils’ (Colvin, ‘Early life’, 11). He thus began what he called ‘a double life as a medievalist and an architectural historian’ (Musson, 120). The thesis was completed (but never submitted) and published as The White Canons in England (1951). It was well received. None the less, the real focus of his research quickly became the Biographical Dictionary of English Architects, 1660–1840, the contract for which was signed in 1949.

The Dictionary was published in 1954 and marked a revolution in architectural history. Colvin had done just what he planned when he was still a student at University College, London. He had applied the ordinary standards of historical scholarship to a subject still mired in amateur antiquarianism and what he called ‘irresponsible attributionism’ (Colvin, Essays, 294), that is the tendency to attribute buildings to the most famous architect of the period. Travelling the country, often accompanied by Rupert Gunnis, ‘who used his old Etonian network ruthlessly’, or Lawrence Stone, ‘who got us into one reclusive ducal house by charming the Duke's former nanny over the phone’ (Musson, 120), he pored over manuscripts and rewrote the architectural history of the period. Frequently he was only just in time: arriving at Malmesbury Abbey in 1949 he found the verger tearing out pages from the churchwardens' accounts to light his pipe.

Colvin's Dictionary transformed the field. His careful use of documents and systematic survey of sources made it a model for subsequent studies. He was to rewrite it three more times. In 1978 the second edition extended the chronological range, starting in 1600. It also widened the geographical scope by including numerous Scottish architects. The third edition in 1995 was swelled by the inclusion of more minor names and Welsh architects. Finally, in 2008, the fourth edition was still bigger and more detailed. The work was not just exacting, it was also a good read. On publication of the second edition John Betjeman wrote to say that ‘Each entry is as good as a thrilling short story … You have lifted architecture out of German art history into literature’ (Betjeman to Colvin, 19 June 1978, Colvin MSS).

Colvin's achievements did not end there, however. Between 1951 and 1982 he was the general editor of the History of the King's Works (1963–82), a six-volume, multi-author account of the department of state responsible for building between the middle ages and the modern day. He wrote much of it and edited the remainder ruthlessly. He also published scores of articles, edited collections of building accounts and architectural drawings, and supervised a number of important doctoral theses. He wrote Unbuilt Oxford (1983), a history of failed architectural projects, and Architecture and the After-Life (1999), an ambitious survey of funerary buildings. His achievement in securing a significant building for the National Trust was celebrated in Calke Abbey : a Hidden House Revealed (1985).

This academic industry was rather grudgingly recognized by the University of Oxford, which made Colvin a reader in architectural history in 1965 (and abolished the post on his retirement in 1987); he was never made a professor. Outside the university, however, he was in great demand. He sat on the Royal Fine Arts Commission (1962–1972), the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (1963–76), the Historic Buildings Council (1970–84), and the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (1981–8). He was also a founding commissioner of English Heritage in 1984. He became a fellow of the British Academy in 1963, was appointed CBE in 1964 and CVO in 1983, and was knighted in 1995.

Howard Colvin was a small, shy, reserved man, often formal and sometimes a little remote. But he came alive when discussing architecture. He had an extraordinary visual memory and was hugely proud of having designed his own house, as well as an addition to the senior common room at St John's. He was also pleased to have been instrumental in commissioning the Architects' Co-Partnership to build the first modernist addition to the college. None the less, his real memorial was undoubtedly the Dictionary. He finished proofreading the fourth edition on 24 December 2007 and died in his sleep on 27 December at his home, 50 Plantation Road, Oxford. He was survived by his two sons.

William Whyte


Home and Garden (May 1960), 72–3; (May 1978), 110–11 · D. Watkin, The rise of architectural history (1980) · Design and practice in British architecture: studies in architectural history presented to Howard Colvin (1984) [Architectural History, 27, special issue] · K. Powell, ‘Historian with modern views’, Architects' Journal (2 Nov 1995) · H. Colvin, Essays in English architectural history (1999) · H. M. Colvin, ‘The Historic Buildings Council and the country house’, The twentieth century great house, ed. M. Airs (2002), 101–8 · G. Tyack, Modern architecture in an Oxford college: St John's College, 1945–2005 (2005) · J. Musson, ‘Leading architectural historian’, Country Life (3 May 2007) · The Times (1 Jan 2008); (11 Jan 2008); (23 Jan 2008) · The Independent (1 Jan 2008); (3 Jan 2008) · Daily Telegraph (7 Jan 2008) · The Guardian (15 Jan 2008) · History Today (April 2008), 7 · Newsletter of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, 94 (summer 2008), 1–4 · Burlington Magazine, 150 (2008), 613–14 · Oxoniensia, 73 (2008), ix–x · R. Hewlings, ‘A scholar's lair’, Country Life, 202 (2008), 60–63 · Sir Howard Montague Colvin, 1919–2007 (privately printed, 2008) · WW (2007) · Burke, Peerage · priv. coll., Colvin MSS [inc. ‘Early life of Howard Colvin’] · J. Summerson, autobiography, RIBA BAL · OUP archives, PB/ED 006473 · personal knowledge (2011) · private information (2011) · b. cert. · m. cert.


priv. coll. |  Derbys. RO, papers relating to Calke Abbey and Harpur Crewe family


T. S. LaFontaine, pen and ink sketch, 1981, St John's College, Oxford · H. C. G. Matthew, bromide print, 1998, NPG · L. A. Dickens, C-type colour print, 2001, NPG [see illus.] · obituary photographs · photograph; Bloomsbury Auctions, 25-26 Sept. 2008

Wealth at death  

£2,204,212: probate, 22 May 2008, CGPLA Eng. & Wales