Mark Girouard, author of classic works on architecture and social history including Life in the English Country House – obituary

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Mark Girouard at home in Notting Hill - Daniel Gould/Country Life/Future PLC
Mark Girouard at home in Notting Hill - Daniel Gould/Country Life/Future PLC

Mark Girouard, who has died aged 90, was an architectural historian fascinated not merely by buildings but, still more, by the ways of life which they supported and by the people whom they served.

This breadth of interest, allied to a determined independence, led Mark Girouard away from academe to plough his own furrow as a writer. This decision was abundantly justified by the success of Life in the English Country House (1978), the first publication of the Yale University Press in London.

The book grew out of the lectures which Mark Girouard had given as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in 1975.

Superbly designed and illustrated by his American wife Dorothy, written with clarity and panache, and immediately hailed as a masterpiece, it presented the great houses of England as essentially centres of power.

Their owners, nevertheless, were increasingly in search of privacy, gradually retreating from their public and formal existence in the medieval Hall, first to the Great Chamber, later to the withdrawing room and the library. In illustrating this process Mark Girouard proved endlessly resourceful at spicing out general trends with particular instances.

The book also considered the lives of servants, required in medieval times to sleep on the floor in the hall, but increasingly separated from their masters in their own quarters.

In addition there were sections on the technology of the English country house, embracing such matters as water supply, bathrooms, privies, heating, lighting and bells.

Received glowing reviews
Received glowing reviews

Life in the English Country House received glowing reviews. “A deeply important book,” wrote the historian J H Plumb, “one of the most interesting contributions to architectural history.” “Informative, balanced, knowledgeable and witty,” enthused The New Yorker.

It won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize in 1978 and the lucrative W H Smith Award in 1979. Better still, it sold some 150,000 hardback copies in the two years after publication.

The second of three children, and the only son, Mark Girouard was born in London at 10 Upper Berkeley Street on October 7 1931.

The Girouards were a French-Canadian family, prominent in the administration and politics of Quebec from the early 18th century. Then, in the 1890s, Percy Girouard, Mark’s grandfather and a brilliant engineer, took Canadian railway technology to Africa.

His work in the Sudan earned generous praise from Winston Churchill in The River War (1899). In particular, Percy Girouard’s speedy construction of a line across the Nubian Desert in 1897 made possible Kitchener’s victory at Omdurman the following year.

During the Boer War, Girouard (Sir Percy from 1900) directed military railways. Subsequently he was Governor in Northern Nigeria and Kenya, then in 1915 briefly Director-General of Munitions, before falling out with Lloyd George.

Percy Girouard married Mary Solomon, whose family had flourished in the 19th century as traders, philanthropists and politicians in St Helena and South Africa. Mary’s grandfather Edward Solomon had been taken as a baby to see the recently deceased Napoleon.

On the maternal side Mark Girouard’s family was merely aristocratic. His mother was a daughter of the 6th Marquess of Waterford and a granddaughter of the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne. His great-aunt Evie married the 9th Duke of Devonshire.

And on the wrong side of the blanket, Mark could claim the great French statesman Talleyrand as an ancestor.

His father, however, was a London stockbroker. Mark remembered him as amusing and lively, with no disposition to undervalue aristocracy: “I absorbed some of that,” he wryly added.

Although Mark Girouard’s family was based in London, as a child it was a matter of course that he should stay at great country houses in England and Ireland. At that time he scarcely noticed the architecture. “I assumed the place was some kind of hotel,” he remarked of an early visit to Chatsworth.

In September 1940, when Mark was nine, his mother was killed in a car crash. It was deemed inadvisable that he should attend the funeral, his prep school, Avisford, having been evacuated from Sussex to Ampleforth.

With Mark’s father in the Army, his great-aunt Evie, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, undertook responsibility for his children. So Mark and his sisters found a new home, first at Edensor House, on the edge of the park at Chatsworth, and then, from 1946, at Hardwick, the work of Robert Smythson, and the greatest of Elizabethan houses.

The Girouards being Catholic, and his mother having become an enthusiastic convert, Mark continued his education at Ampleforth. There he became fascinated by Sacheverell Sitwell’s British Architects and Craftsmen, and began to inspect local houses and churches. He spent enough time on Latin and Greek, however, to win an Exhibition to Christ Church, Oxford.

First, though, came National Service. Having successfully survived officer training, notwithstanding wounding himself in the nose with his bayonet, Mark Girouard was posted to Nigeria, where he became a company commander, in charge of a platoon of 100.

Looking back, he felt it had been a mistake to read Greats rather than History at Oxford. He was, however, an undergraduate who possessed a Rolls-Royce, always an aid to architectural exploration.

With his friend, Thomas Pakenham, Girouard undertook tours not merely of Europe (France, Italy, Greece and Turkey), but also of the Middle East (Syria, Jordan and Israel).

Having acquired a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and studied architecture at the Bartlett School, Girouard worked at the Architectural Review; then in 1958 he joined Country Life, where he was soon appointed Architectural Editor.

In 1966 he established a reputation with his first book, Robert Smythson and the Architecture of the Elizabethan Era. There followed a succession of well-received works: Victorian Pubs (1975), Hardwick Hall (1978), Sweetness and Light: the “Queen Anne” Movement 1860-1900 (1977), Historic Houses of Britain (1979) and The Victorian Country House (1979).

In addition he was in demand as a broadcaster, both on the wireless and on television.

As the first chairman (1977-84) of the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, Girouard proved himself a dauntless opponent of reckless developers. Until the 1970s the very poverty of Spitalfields, in the East End of London, had ensured the preservation of houses originally built in the late 17th century for Irish and Huguenot silk weavers.

In the 1970s, however, property developers began to infiltrate the area. In 1977 Girouard organised a sit-in of two houses under threat from British Land – the first time, perhaps, that conservationists had resorted to direct action.

“We weren’t brave,” he recalled. “We were just very confident and aggressive… We went as a deputation to British Land, and we’d had quite a bit of publicity, and they just gave up and sold us the houses.” In 1981 similar occupation saved St Botolph’s Hall in Spital Square.

A favourite subject
A favourite subject

From the 1970s Girouard lived at the top of a large house in Notting Hill, where he worked with concentrated intensity. “He lies on the sofa all day and scribbles,” observed his seven-year-old daughter Blanche.

Yet Girouard always found time for friends. His vast knowledge made him a wide-ranging, endlessly fascinating conversationalist.

He also loved women. At the end of his life the noticeboard outside his kitchen was adorned not merely by a facsimile of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, but also by a note from Christine Keeler, whom he remembered most kindly, albeit with some regret for the innocence of their relations.

In the 1980s Girouard extended his range. In The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (1981), he cast a sceptical eye on 19th-century attempts to revive medieval codes of chivalry.

Then, in Cities and People (1985), he surveyed the development of towns in the West, from the Middle Ages to the present. The book afforded him another opportunity to weave the miscellanies of history into a coherent story. It was succeeded in 1990 by The English Town.

Big Jim: The Life and Work of James Stirling (1998) provided a stout defence of the controversial architect. Life in the French Country House (2000) matched the entertainment and instruction of its English predecessor. Elizabethan Architecture: Its Rise and Its Fall (2009) was his last engagement with a favourite subject.

Yet perhaps Girouard’s most delightful writing was contained in two books of short essays which he published in his old age.

Enthusiasms (2011) included, along with vignettes of his own family, an account of his search for the identity of “Walter”, the Victorian sex enthusiast; an exploration of the finances of Oscar Wilde in exile (far less straitened than Wilde put about); and a sceptical enquiry into the procreative activities of the Spanish dancer Pepita, supposedly the grandmother of Vita Sackville-West.

Friendships (2017) recalled some 30 people who had played a part in his life. These included not merely celebrities such as John Betjeman, Henry Lamb and Denys Lasdun but also unknown figures such as Beatrice Stuart, Girouard’s landlady in Chelsea during the 1950s. In her youth she had served as the model for the figure of Victory on top of the Wellington arch at Hyde Park Corner.

In 2021 he published A Biographical Dictionary of English Architecture 1540-1640.

In 1958 Girouard was a founder member of the Victorian Society, and on the committee for eight years. He also served on the Royal Fine Art Commission (1972-96); the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England) from 1976 to 1981; the committee of the Historic Buildings Council (1984-86); as a trustee of the Architecture Foundation (1992-99), and as a member of the Advisory Council, Paul Mellon Studies in British Art (1990-96).

He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1986, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2012.

Mark Girouard married, in 1970, Dorothy Dorf. Their daughter Blanche is a teacher, author and journalist.

Mark Girouard, born October 7 1931, died August 16 2022