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In Memoriam Kerry Downes

Kerry John Downes (1930-2019)

Kerry Downes, who has died at the age of 88, was a stalwart of the SAHGB, serving for many years on the executive committee and as President (1984-88). He was honoured to be made Hon.Patron in 2017. Kerry was the preeminent historian of English Baroque Architecture, producing a survey book on the whole subect and two authoritative books and ODNB essays on each of its principal protagonists, Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and Wren, as well as revelatory exhibitions on Hawksmoor and Wren. He was for 25 years a well loved teacher at the University of Reading where he found teaching and research to be complementary activities in which teaching kept the work fresh in his mind. Much of that research was carried out with his wife Margaret, a music librarian whom he had met when both worked at the Barber Institute at the University of Birmingham. Her geneological investigations particularly enriched Kerry’s studies of Vanbrugh. They were devoted partners until her death in 2003.

Kerry’s long-term reputation will rest on his ground-breaking analysis of the hitherto less regarded work of Wren’s pupil Nicholas Hawksmoor. His first major monograph, on Hawksmoor (1959), was essentially the PhD thesis which he had completed at the Courtauld Institute under the supervision of Margaret Whinney. For this publication he was awarded the SAH Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion in 1961. He was especially pleased that his work had changed the climate of understanding about the importance of the architect’s work – restoration of Christ Church, Spitalfields and consolidation of St George-in-the-East were to follow. Further books, exhibitions and essays on the architectural titans of the English Baroque followed, establishing Kerry as one of the great architectural historians of the late 20th century. But he was not just concerned with English architecture – there was a notable book on Rubens in 1980 – and after retirement from Reading he revealed an entirely new dimension to his scholarship in a superb translation of the architect’s text, with accompanying commentary, on the Roman Oratory: Borromini’s Book (2009), which married architectural history with his long-standing understanding of the manifestations of religious faith.

Kerry found time in the interstices of scholarship and teaching to serve not only the SAHGB but also the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England as a judicious Commissioner (1981-93). He was appointed OBE in 1994 following among many other contributions his service to the Commission. As a teacher he will be long remembered for his quiet encouragement, his pregnant silences and his dry wit. Those of his students who became lifelong friends will treasure the memory of those very long telephone conversations and those even longer letters, bringing news and advice from his home in retirement in York. He will be greatly missed.

John Bold