It all sounds very kinky, really, bringing together the two Sir Johns under one roof; Sir John Betjeman, so amiable, house-trained and telly-friendly, and Sir John Soane, so arcane, Dumbledore-ish and stridently innovative. But I have to say I think it works rather well since, in such close proximity, each of the knights brings out the best in the other.
There’s a marvellous feeling of being in a burrow in the way the exhibition is done. Left, right and then a breakneck turn into the cursed forest of blasted architectural fragments leads you to a warm and cosy Bag End painted some shade of Farrow & Ball or other. Display cases are lined in ultra-Victorian hallway papers that heighten the feeling of a suburban home from home, and since so many of the exhibits are books there is a definite sense that this is where a learned Mr Tumnus has made a makeshift camp.
As a child with acute pretensions to be grown-up-ish and enjoy what my parents enjoyed, I remember sitting rigid through Metro-Land, fascinated by Betjeman, who seemed to be a cross between the walrus and the carpenter. I think my parents had deactivated the ITV button because I have no memories of The Prisoner or Magpie (despite being on it at the age of six). Instead, I was warmly welcomed into evenings of the better sort of BBC programmes. Metro-Land was different, and I keenly remember this difference, because it wasn’t about a remote, theoretical architecture that needed a lot of explaining, it was about the architectural stuff that surrounded us. And there was something really lovely about seeing wine-gum-coloured stained glass, box-room oriel windows and link-attached half-timbered car-ports being recognised and treated rather lyrically. Betjeman didn’t patronise, wasn’t snotty, didn’t dismiss, and that’s what I’ve always loved about him.
It is inevitable that I start with his telly stuff. This exhibition is about Betjeman and architecture but also about his legacy. For my generation, his television programmes were extremely important — we were the first generation not to question the existence of television and not to see it as something unusual or special. As a result the majority of our childhood heroes (Betjeman being one of mine) came prepackaged via TV, which is all rather interesting when you consider how Betjeman himself felt about it.
A.N. Wilson’s marvellous biography, while sniffing at television in an amusingly ‘once bitten, twice shy’ way, suggests that those around Betjeman saw projects like Metro-Land as vulgar distractions from his real work. But Wilson also makes the point that Betjeman almost certainly relished the camaraderie of the experience, the Three Musketeerishness of making a television programme.
Perhaps I am working a little too hard to apologise for my medium. A medium that after all has provided the world with that marvellously amusing subspecies the Big Brother winner, along with Dale (voice of the balls) Winton and indeed the were-show pony I have morphed into. But, as an insider, I can really see that Betjeman used television — television didn’t use him.
Metro-Land, Banana Blush and the Shell Guides feature in a long back passage to the exhibition. The great man’s chiming words escape from hung-up headphones in a tinny tape loop and swirl around the exhibits. The meat-and-two-veg of the show is provided by very successfully pared-down displays that mark roughly chronological phases in his obsession with architecture. His symbiotic relationship with John Piper is nicely dealt with as is his pash for the endangered Victorian relic Sir Ninian Comper.
I particularly enjoyed the section that dealt with Betjeman’s typically raffish reaction to modernism. It seems that in his early days at the Architectural Review he wasn’t damning or belittling about the new ornamentless Continental style, but was keen to make the point that it really did need to be done extremely well for it to work. Yet another instance of his good-natured anti-snobbishness but also a very good point very well made. In fact there’s something prophetic about it since modernism quickly became not only ubiquitous but also astonishingly badly made. And crucially it was made badly at the expense of British townscapes. It is rather disappointing that over 20 years after Betjeman’s death the bullying of our skylines (London’s, in particular) continues with quite such thoughtless gusto. After all he did to encourage us as a nation to engage with our architecture be it big, small, high street, Gothic, Low Church, classical or suburban shoe box, it does seem a shame that we sanction such thoughtlessness by our reticence to speak up.
As I left the exhibition, I found myself feeling really rather tub-thumpy about Sir John B. and his brave knightly stance in the face of the sprawling, gravel-spitting dragon of concrete modernism. Suddenly all the dusty grave-robbing of the other Sir John felt less monumental and more like a rather genial cabinet of curiosities.
© Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen
A Pinch of Posh — A Beginners Guide to Being Civilised by Mr and Mrs Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is published by Collins at £12.99.