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Newsletter, July 2012 (Issue 188)

Architect, Artist, Antiquarian


"Architect, Artist, Antiquarian"

The above was the sub-title of Martin Harrison's lecture about Birkin Haward (1912-2002) on 10 May. It was a Town Lecture organised by Ipswich Arts Association and not an Ipswich Society lecture but it's worth some space in our Newsletter because Birkin was such a distinguished man of Ipswich and a keen supporter of our Society. The three-word sub-title was so thoroughly justified in Mr Harrison's talk that, as he said, he could have given three separate substantial lectures rather than the one in 50 minutes allowed at lunch time.

Birkin's boyhood ambition was to be an artist - and he always remained a good painter and draughtsman, as was seen in the Town Hall exhibition a few years ago. But persuaded by his parents, he was articled to Monro Cautley who introduced him to the delights of Suffolk's medieval churches. After Ipswich Art School, Birkin experienced the neo-classical education of the Bartlet School of Architecture in London but he soon became an enthusiastic follower of Modernism while working for the German emigres, Mendelssohn and Chermayeff.

As Mr Harrison said, the opposite poles of Cautley and Mendelssohn help to explain the marvellous eclecticism of his post-war career with Johns Slater and Haward in Ipswich., where he worked on some 2,000 commissions. The designs of his schools especially revealed his warm humanity and social purpose, making buildings for people to use - as seen in Chantry Infants, Sprites Lane and Gusford, better designed and more interestingly shaped than the more celebrated Hertfordshire schools of the same era, in Mr Harrison's opinion. The lecture also drew attention to some of his other notable buildings such as Castle Hill church, the Fison building in Princes Street (its fourth side never completed so unfortunately it's not eligible for Listing), the work he did with Bernard Feilden at UEA, Ipswich School library and, of course, his own house, The Spinney, in Westerfield Road.

Although Birkin's own artwork had to be somewhat glossed over in the lecture, we were properly reminded of his outstanding antiquarian achievements after he 'retired' in 1982. His books on the (mostly Victorian) stained glass of Suffolk and Norfolk churches, and on roof carvings (using his specially designed telephoto lens) and on medieval church arcades, measuring and analysing "as only a trained architect could do", were pioneering and now standard works. The lecture seemed a labour of love for Mr Harrison who had become a friend of Birkin in the mid-1970s, and it was a masterly survey of such a varied career. There were many Ipswich Society members there to enjoy it.

    Front cover of issue 188 Cover, issue 188

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