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Peter Willis (1933-2016)

Deborah Mays

Engaging communicator and academic fascinated by architecture, landscape architecture, music and America

Peter Willis BArch, PhD, ARIAS (1933-2016).
Peter Willis BArch, PhD, ARIAS (1933-2016).

Peter Willis possessed an exceptional fusion of academic skill, professional breadth and engaging communication. While based in north-east England, his outreach was international. He kept in touch with friends with postcards carefully inscribed in black ink, and the old fashioned care he applied to his work was also put into his friendships, punctuated by an explosive laugh.

Born in Yorkshire on 26 August 1933, Peter took his BArch at King’s College Newcastle and then, thanks to an RIBA scholarship, studied under Nikolaus Pevsner in Cambridge in the fifties. A subsequent period at Edinburgh and Cambridge enabled him to research the life and work of the 18th century landscape designer Charles Bridgeman, and this eventually became his seminal work. Landscape architecture, architecture and music were his passions, threaded through with a fascination in America. He practised a little too, including early on with Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners in Edinburgh, where he worked on a scheme for Queen’s College, Dundee, and the competition for St Paul’s Choir School, London. 

In 1960, after a stint in practice in Middlesbrough, he won a Fulbright Scholarship to UCLA, and from there he researched the Stowe Papers in the Huntington Library. His junior fellowship in landscape architecture at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington DC enabled him to lecture across the United States and continue work on Bridgeman. He also ran up designs for a sculpture court in Washington for the National Collection of Fine Arts.

For over 30 years from 1965 to 1996, Peter lectured in architecture at Newcastle University, teaching in the studios, supervising undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations and running courses in the history and theory of architecture. This work was recognised with his appointment as a fellow of the RIBA in 1970. He also worked as architect on a group practice surgery in Alnwick, jointly with the university project office (1984).

Peter’s links to America were lifelong and maintained through frequent academic appointments there, from visiting professor or fellow in a stint at the University of Minnesota in the late sixties to time at Yale University in the history of art in the early eighties and as Frederic Lindley Morgan Professor of Architectural Design at the University of Louisville in 1994. Indeed, his fascination with the life and work of Dom Paul Bellot the architect-monk best known for his Canadian projects, led him to take an MA at the department of theology at Durham (awarded 1995).

Multi-talented, with a thirst for knowledge, after he ‘retired’ Peter continued to cross disciplines, taking a Diploma in Music, followed by his second PhD in 2010, this time at Durham with a thesis on Chopin in Britain.

Many working in the built environment both in Great Britain and America had the pleasure of knowing Peter, through his active membership of the Society of Architectural Historians and through his writing. He was co-author of the classic The Genius of the Place, writing an anthology of its principal literary and visual sources. A review of the second edition of his Charles Bridgeman and the English Landscape Garden, by Maggie Roe, senior lecturer in Landscape Architecture at Newcastle University, captured something of his spirit. ‘Meticulous in his referencing and generous in his acknowledgements, Willis's approach might seem old fashioned, and yet the style of the text is lively, informative, accessible and compelling.’ She writes now: ‘I think the words I used in this review probably sum up for me much about what I loved about Peter: his old fashioned charm and manners, his meticulous scholarship, his generosity of spirit, his liveliness and compelling friendship.’

In June 1968 Peter had married Jennifer Gilchrist who, following his death on 12 August 2016, he leaves with their son, Magnus, and grandchildren Imogen and Erin.