Professor Peter Kidson (1925-2019) - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Professor Peter Kidson

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Professor Peter Kidson

We announce with great sadness the death of Professor Peter Kidson –  alumnus, Emeritus Professor and Honorary Fellow of The Courtauld Institute of Art.

His death takes away one of the most distinguished academics produced by The Courtauld, who gave back so much to the institution, through teaching and supervision over a long career. Peter was also one of our key links with the earlier history of The Courtauld. We shall miss him and we send our deep sympathy to his wife and family.

There is surely no more appropriate way to pay tribute to and remember Peter, known affectionately as ‘PK’,  than to republish here the words of Emeritus Professor Paul Crossley and Emeritus Director Professor Eric Fernie, which they composed for the festschrift held for ‘PK’ on his retirement in 1990.

“Although he would have been the last to acknowledge it, Peter Kidson was arguably the most influential historian of medieval architecture of his generation in the English-speaking world. Few scholars in his field remained untouched by his special, and very personal, power to illuminate the broadest areas of medieval architectural history. In his hands medieval buildings became much more intelligible as central achievements of the medieval mind.

Peter Kidson was born in York in 1925, virtually in the shadow of the Minster. His fascination with Gothic architecture began in early childhood, for his home was only about a mile from the cathedral, and some of his earliest and most vivid memories were of that gigantic structure. In 1933 his parents moved to Kent, and from 1936 he attended Dartford Grammar School, leaving in 1941 with a School certificate that included the top mark in Geography for the whole of England. It was in Geography that he gained an exhibition (turned into a scholarship) to Selwyn College in Cambridge in 1943, only to be almost immediately conscripted into the Royal Navy. In 1946 he returned to Cambridge where he took the history Tripos Part 1 in 1948 and got a first and then switched to Moral Sciences, graduating in 1950. He arrived at The Courtauld later the same year, and remained here until his retirement in 1990 as Honorary Fellow and Emeritus Professor.

His first two terms at The Courtauld were spent at the feet of Johannes Wilde, but it was the Middle Ages which really attracted him. At that time Peter attended lectures on French and English Gothic architecture given by Jean Bony at the French Institute. But the most important influence on hi came from his tutor Christopher Hohler who introduced him to the values of erudite irreverence, and first kindled his interest in Gothic proportion by setting him an essay on the Milan controversy. He graduated in 1952 with first class honours, despite the fact that he had only finished half the examination paper. What he had written was so brilliant that the examiners (influenced by the confident percipience of Nikolaus Pevsner) were prepared to ignore such a single-minded disregard of the rubric. With the three-year support of a Graham Robertson research scholarship Peter began his doctorate under the supervision of Geoffrey Webb, on Systems of Measurement and Proportion in Early Medieval Architecture. He gained his Ph.D. in 1956 with a thesis which was awarded an informal distinction by the examiners (no official distinctions being allowed). Though never published, the thesis commanded the admiration of scholars as distinguished as Jean Bony (who examined it), Rudolf Wittkower, and Robert Branner. In the meantime, in 1955, he had joined the staff of The Courtauld’s Conway Library under George Zarnecki, who was always to give him encouragement and support.

In 1958 he published his first book, Sculpture at Chartres, still the most lucid presentation of that intricate iconography, and, at the same time, refreshing revision of the canonical pronouncements of the great Emile Mâle. In 1959 he was appointed Conway Librarian, and in 1961 was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. A year later he published what may be his most influential contribution to the study of English medieval architecture in his chapter in the History of English Architecture. Here, for the first time, English Romanesque and Gothic were analysed not in terms of antiquarian detail of ‘interior space’, but as the history of a series of architectural problems the solutions to which precipitated the emergence of new styles. Through most of the 1960s he dazzled a whole generation of students at the universities of Cambridge and East Anglia with the brilliance of his teaching. In 1967 he was made a full Lecturer at The Courtauld, and in 1971 was promoted to the post of Reader. His Medieval World, published in 1967, gave him the opportunity and the pleasure of applying his flair for speculation and synthesis across a thousand years of history. It was a tour de force, and it established his reputation as one of the few historians in his field able to tackle the broadest issues of medieval architecture. No one but Peter Kidson could have completely rewritten the chapters on Gothic for the latest edition of Bannister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture with such magisterial ease and clarity. His more specialised articles reveal the same breadth of vision: from twelfth-century Tewkesbury to St George’s Chapel Windsor, from St High’s Choir at Lincoln to the Master of Naumberg, from William of Sens and the factions of Canterbury, to his three-pronged attack on the most cherished beliefs of Erwin Panofsky, Otto von Simson, and Sumner Crosby about Suger’s St-Denis.

All these studies display a range of rare and inimitable qualities: an elegance of expression that comes, not from some rhetorical formula, but from the strength and clarity of the thought itself; a sensitivity to formal values allied to a deep understanding of the particular historical forces which impinged on the meaning and shape of the architecture; and, perhaps most strikingly, a disciplined grasp of detail combined with an extraordinary gift for connection and synthesis. Virtually single-handed, Peter Kidson took the study of medieval architecture in this country onto a new level of intellectual sophistication. Alongside the study of the great churches of the Middle Ages as objects of antiquarian interest and analysis, he has introduced the rigorous and demanding worlds of medieval theology, history, and mathematics. It is a tribute to his influence that most of those practising medieval architectural history in Britain today take these high standards for granted.

Peter disliked the public display of honours (he refused an invitation to appear in Who’s Who), but it would do both him and us a disservice if we were to ignore his record here. In 1972 he was Visiting Professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. In 1977 he was honoured with the appointment of Royal Commissioner, and from 1985 to 1987 was Chairman of the Commission’s Architectural Committee. In 1982 he was Rhind Lecturer of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and in the same year he began his membership of the British Academy Committee for postgraduate awards in the humanities. Perhaps the most significant tribute to his international reputation was the invitation, in 1980, to deliver the Mellon Lectures at the National gallery in Washington. His theme was a vastly expanded version of his doctoral thesis; a monumental study of systems of proportion and measurement in western architecture from Periclean Athens to the Rayonnant of Louis IX. In 1988, in recognition of a career of great distinction, he was awarded a Personal Chair in London University (now University of London).

In the final analysis, it is as a teacher that Peter Kidson may have exercised his deepest and most lasting influence on the discipline of architectural history. He never cast himself in the role of an instructor or guru; he hated missions and manifestos; he had scant respect for those who confuse education with the acquisition of knowledge. Stimulating and attentive to his students, he inspired their affection and respect. He conducted his classes as a conversation, relaxed, but at the same time demandingly intelligent. He never trod the well-worn highways, and he could open up the broadest intellectual perspective from the smallest archaeological detail, transforming dull collections of data into illuminating experiences of what really happened. Like one of his own intellectual mentors, R. G. Collingwood, he inspired us ‘to re-enact the past in our own minds’; and like all great teachers he showed his pupils what really mattered in education: a love of speculation, argument and originality that they would continue to value long after most of them had forgotten whatever they had learned about medieval architecture. To many of those privileged to be taught by him he passed on something of his own Socratic delight in the unorthodox and the intellectually subversive. Peter Kidson’s example of courtesy, warmth and civilised intelligence will continue in death, as it did during his lifetime, to remind us (adapting a phrase of the elderly Kant) that ‘Das Gefuehl fuer Humanitaet hat uns noch nicht verlassen [the feeling of humanity has not left us]’.

Paul Crossley and Eric Fernie, April 1990

Adapted from the Introduction to Medieval Architecture and its Intellectual Context. Studies in Honour of Peter Kidson, edited by Eric Fernie and Paul Crossley (Hambledon Press London, 1990).


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