British Archaeology, no 26, July 1997: Interview

Taking an aesthetic view of buildings

Simon Denison talks to Warwick Rodwell

The genesis of this interview was a letter that Warwick Rodwell, distinguished church archaeologist and historic buildings adviser, sent me in December last year. He wrote, apropos of something or other:

Some people tend to accumulate more junk than others. Although we now live in an 18-room vicarage, with coach house, redundant church and former school in the grounds, they are all full up! To quote Gilbert Scott, we are `rammed, jammed, and crammed', but still collecting . . .

I admit it. Most of the interviews in this series try to be at least vaguely topical, but this one was driven by pure curiosity. You might expect, or hope, a buildings adviser would live somewhere interesting himself; but a church and a school as well? That's pretty rare.

So it was off to Somerset for lunch at the Rodwells' Regency vicarage, surrounded by tall dark trees dripping after heavy rain. Victorian in feel, the vicarage is a busy, multi-patterned place of striking interior design, full of Baroque furniture, re-used Church masonry, gilded plasterwork, clocks, candelabra, curiosities of all sorts. Warwick Rodwell, immensely relaxed and welcoming, tells me over sherry that he has been a collector most of his life, developing collector's luck at an early age. He points to a Roman glass jug he swopped as a schoolboy (probably for a couple of gobstoppers and a comic); a possible Minoan bronze bull's head he spotted in a box of junk; a pair of candlesticks that turned out to have been designed by Pugin . . . The list goes on. Most things in the house are from small-town auctions, junk-shops and skips - haunts of the enthusiast, not of the wealthy.

At lunch, a three-course affair with red wine, conversation touches on the current controversy chez Rodwell. Warwick wants to move somewhere even bigger, perhaps to an Elizabethan or Queen Anne hall. At the moment he has his eye on a 28-room mansion somewhere. Madame Rodwell, the comely and gentle Christine, having spent 13 years painstakingly restoring the vicarage, wants to stay put for a while. `What would we do with 28 bedrooms?' she chides her restless husband. `We'd have one bedroom and 27 studies,' he replies. `Ha ha.' The conjugal banter goes on (`You're such a tyrant.' `No, I'm not.' `Yes, you are.').

Warwick Rodwell is very much the practical man of ideas. Author of the standard textbook on church archaeology and consultant to numerous buildings of note, he not only writes about buildings but also restores and converts them. The vicarage had to be rebuilt virtually from scratch after a fire some years ago; and the church in the garden is now being turned into a threebedroom house. He also repairs furniture, grand pianos, clocks, cars, anything: his stable block is a workshop full of lathes and every conceivable tool. What would he do, I ask, if confined to a desert island? `I would implode,' he says.

`He's a workaholic,' confides Christine, with a hint of reproach. `We never go out.'

For a historic buildings adviser, he has a refreshingly aesthetic view about restoration. He rejects utterly the hard archaeological line, associated with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, that `new additions should look new', or else they are `deceptive'. The Rodwell approach is that additions should look right and be in keeping with the overall architectural style. `It is nonsense to think this is deceptive. You can always tell, if you look hard enough, that something has been replaced.'

The church in the garden, for example, has cast-iron aisle pillars of the right date from an 1830s orangery, and previously unused Victorian tiles on the floor. `Some would say these materials must be destroyed, as there is no further use for them. It is such a misguided view.'

I ask if he has any qualms, though, about converting a church into a house. Not at all, he replies, he has saved it from destruction. `And in any case, as a garden shed it was a rather expensive problem.'

Warwick Rodwell was born 50 years ago, an only child, into a lower-middle class home in Essex. His practical talents he inherited from his father, an engineer, `a man who was never defeated by any task'. An academic `late developer', Warwick was advised not to go to university, and trained instead for three years as a technology teacher. Later, he took under- and post-graduate degrees in archaeology, and for five years directed the regional archaeological unit in Avon, Somerset and Gloucestershire. However, for so practical a man `the management, the paperwork, the meetings' were intolerable, and - determined to regain control of his own life and to pursue his own research - he became an independent consultant at a time when it was unfashionable to do so.

At the close of the interview, he wonders why I haven't asked a single question about archaeology. But he knows, as I do, that while archaeology is a subject for curious people, it is not the only subject to be curious about.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997