Obituary for Ronald W. Brunskill, RIBA, OBE, FSA, PhD, 1929-2015

18 Apr 2016 2:00 PM | Christine R Henry (Administrator)

Ronald W. BrunksillRonald W. Brunskill, architect, conservationist, and teacher, whose many books on English vernacular architecture appealed to a broad audience of students, scholars, and antiquarians in Britain and America, died on October 6, 2015. He was 86 years old. He is survived by his wife Miriam, “Mimi,” and two daughters, Lesley and Robin, and several grandchildren. A man noted for his modest demeanor and exceptional talents, Brunskill was born on January 3, 1929 in Lowton, near Leigh in Lancashire in northwest England. His passion for traditional architecture blossomed early as he walked and bicycled the lanes of the Eden Valley nestled between located between the Lake District in the west and the Pennines in the east. The stone dwellings and farm buildings of this lush rolling landscape captured his imagination. In high school he wrote a prize-winning essay on its early buildings.

Trained as an architect at Manchester University just after World War II, Brunskill also received his MA and PhD from that institution where he studied under the legendary R. A. Cordingley, who pioneered the study of regional architecture and offered him a job in the School of Architecture where he taught from 1960 to 1989. His academic training may have shaped Professor Brunskill’s intellectual perspective, but early encounters with vernacular buildings in the Eden Valley led him to revisit the area in his master’s thesis. This work was eventually expanded and incorporated in Vernacular Architecture of the Lake Counties.

The pattern of his scholarship was set and would have a tremendous impact in Britain and the United States from the 1970s onward. “Brunskill’s Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture is where we all started,” observed Barbara Watkins, Secretary of the English Vernacular Architecture Group.  This and others such as Traditional Farm Buildings of Britain, English Brickwork, and Timber Building in Britain have been primers for two generations of amateur recording societies and professionals alike.  Their orderly presentation of plans, structural elements, and decorative details emphasize the richness of regional building practices in Britain, but most importantly, opened the sometime esoteric study of traditional buildings to a broad readership. They emphasize that recognizing and preserving this architectural heritage is not merely the preserve of the scholar but beckoned the lay person as well, appealing to an ethos that did not fully blossom in this country in the way it has long bloomed among the scores of amateur historical and antiquarian societies in Britain.  In the United States a few students in special programs are taught the rudiments of recording historic structures; in the British Isles, men and women from all walks of life come together to spend their weekends and holidays to measure neighboring farmhouses accompanied by a Brunskill volume in their kitbag.

Brunskill was a highly successful missionary and publicist for vernacular architecture. J. T. Smith, the retired principal investigator for Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, described Professor Brunskill’s lectures as “inspiring and beautifully delivered.” He recalled that one of them given in the mid 1960s “aroused the audience’s enthusiasm to a remarkable degree and made even a seasoned practitioner like myself want to rush out and record whatever lay to hand.”

Brunskill remained a practicing architect throughout his career. Following two years in national service, he joined a group of architects at London County Council working on large scale housing projects that helped alleviate post-war shortages in the metropolis. In 1956 he received an architectural fellowship and spent a year at MIT teaching as well as traveling extensively throughout the United States. On his return to England, he took up an architectural post at a bank where he was responsible for the design and upkeep of many branch buildings. He was a partner in the firm of Carter, Brunskill and Associates, which was founded in the late 1960s. The firm did much conservation work as well as new projects in Britain and internationally.  On the domestic side, in 1962 he designed a house in Wimslow where he and his wife lived for more than fifty years.

In addition to his academic responsibilities, Dr. Brunskill more than shared his time as a committee member serving as an advisor, reviewer, and leader of numerous architectural, antiquarian, and historical commissions and professional societies. He served as president of the Vernacular Architecture Group, vice-chairman of the Weald and Downland Museum, and was a member of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, commissioner for six years at English Heritage, and was chairman and president of the Ancient Monuments Society and the Friends of Friendless Churches to name but a few in an exhaustive list of national heritage bodies. He also remained firmly tied to his origins, serving as president of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, through which he had published his first articles on vernacular architecture many years before.

Ronald Brunskill’s career bounded the Atlantic in ways that have allowed us to claim him as one of our unofficial founders.  In 1960 he married Mimi Allsopp from Georgia and that bond that united our two countries gave rise to his deep interests in America over the next half century.  During his traveling fellowship in 1956, he visited the newly reconstructed settlement at Jamestown Festival Park with its collection of cruck buildings that demonstrated to him the remarkably limited understanding that Americans had of English vernacular building.  Not long to be discouraged, he discovered an affinity in the farm buildings of Pennsylvania and those in his beloved Eden Valley in Westmoreland and Cumberland. From this discovery, he was emboldened to introduce the term “bank barn” to vernacular building in England. In his teaching at Manchester and courses at the University of York, he managed to attract American students including Charles Peterson, one of the founding lights of the Historic American Buildings Survey, and organized several exhibitions in England of HABS work. 

Professor Brunskill at the San Franciso VAF meeting in 1985Professor Brunskill traveled widely in the United States and met most people who were involved in the study of traditional architecture including Jay Edwards, Abbott Cummings, and Blair Reeves. He was a visiting professor at the University of Florida for a year and also lectured in Virginia and Toronto. Intriguingly, in the late 1960s he met with John Pearce, Rusty Marshall, Richard Candee (another summer students at York in 1968), and others to discuss the establishment of an American organization equivalent to the English VAG but the general consensus was that the time was not yet ripe for such a venture. More than a dozen years later after the VAF was formed, he attended a number of our early meetings including Sturbridge, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Portsmouth. Even from afar, he continued to keep an eye on the progress of field work in America. He would inquire in his gentle manner about the research that we were doing at Colonial Williamsburg when we attended the VAG spring meetings in the 1980s and 1990s. No mere courtesy, he would often follow up with a letter to see how that work was progressing.  Ronald Brunskill received the Henry Glassie Award from the VAF at the 2009 annual meeting in Butte in honor of his long and distinguish career in teaching and the promotion of the study and conservation of vernacular architecture in Great Britain and in this country.

Carl Lounsbury

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


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