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Thursday 14 March 2013

Peter Smith, architectural historian, 1926–2013

Peter Smith, architectural historian, Secretary of the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Wales 1973–1991, died on the 12 March 2013 in a nursing home in Devon.  He leaves a widow, Joyce, and three children.

Peter Smith FSA, architectural historian and author of the classic Houses of the Welsh Countryside, died on the 12 March 2013 in a nursing home.  Born in 1926 at Winlaton-on-Tyne, Co. Durham, the son of a schools’ inspector (H.M.I.), subsequent moves gave Peter Smith an early appreciation of the diversity of Britain but he never lost the regional accent acquired in his childhood.

After Oxford, where he read Modern History, there was a brief career as an Assistant Principal in Whitehall in the Ministry of Transport. His enthusiasm for historic buildings, however, led him to study successfully for the R.I.B.A. intermediate exam.  In 1949 he was appointed to the Welsh Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments, one of a small number of standing Royal Commissions, and began his long professional study of Welsh antiquities. In Wales, too, he was to find his wife, Joyce, bring up a family, and acquire a new language.

The Commission staff – the Secretary and four investigators – all then worked on monuments of every period.  However, encouraged by Cyril Fox, Peter Smith developed an enthusiasm for the interpretation of historic farmhouses, and his contribution to the Caernarvonshire Inventory shows him as a pioneer in a new subject - vernacular architecture.  Peter was to become one of the early members of the Vernacular Architecture Group and served as its President.

After Caernarfonshire, Peter investigated the stone houses of Glamorgan with forays into central and north-east Wales.  The opportunity for a broad study of Welsh architecture was presented by the transfer of the National Buildings Record in 1963, when Peter was moved from inventory work to the emergency recording of threatened buildings throughout Wales, including timber-built houses.

Peter Smith’s provisional views on the development of vernacular architecture were published in 1967 as a chapter on ‘Rural Housing in Wales’ in The Agrarian History of England and Wales, 1500-1640,  and then  developed into a remarkable full-length study arranged around original distribution maps and reconstruction drawings.  Houses of the Welsh Countryside was published by the Royal Commission in 1975 as its first thematic volume, was awarded the Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion of the Society of Architectural Historians, and received many glowing reviews which recognised the book’s originality.

Peter Smith was appointed Secretary of the Royal Commission in 1973 (delighting in the antiquated title Secretary, which was confusing to some) and a steady output of Inventory volumes followed as well as several thematic volumes, all distinguished by their scholarship but also by explanatory illustrations of very high quality, including much admired cutaway drawings.

In retirement Peter Smith continued to research and write, reflecting on the European context of the vernacular architecture of England and Wales.   In 2010 a Welsh-language television series commissioned by S4C introduced a new generation to the themes of Houses of the Welsh Countryside.    The bilingual book of the series, Discovering Houses of the Welsh Countryside: Cyflwyno Cartrefi Cefn Gwlad Cymru (2010), has Peter’s reflections on some of the houses he had helped save.  This was Peter’s last publication and an appropriate coda to his life-long engagement with historic buildings in Wales, which has greatly influenced the contemporary appreciation of vernacular architecture.

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pdboyinsuffolk said...

Very sorry to hear this news. "Houses of the Welsh Countryside", along with with Barley's "The English Farmhouse and Cottage", were instrumental in firing up my interest in vernacular architecture. I am sure that I am not alone in feeling indebted to Peter Smith for lighting the flames of my enthusiasm for this area of study.

He has been responsible for the saving of many buildings that would have, prior to the publication of "Houses", been removed without much thought for heritage and sense of place. His book did so much to raise awareness of the built heritage of the Welsh countryside and thereby saved it for future generations. Thanks.

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