Obituary: Dame Elizabeth Chesterton ; Architect and Committee Stalwart
Inskip, Peter, The Independent (London, England)
ELIZABETH CHESTERTON quietly influenced the conservation and public enjoyment of the built heritage of Britain during the second half of the 20th century.
Trained as an architect at the Architectural Association School of Architecture before the Second World War, she spent seven years as Assistant County Planning Officer in East Suffolk, before moving to Cambridgeshire County Council to become its Development Control Officer in 1947. Later, in private practice, she produced a series of influential planning reports over the next four decades.
A study of the historic core of King's Lynn preceded a detailed report in 1966 for Lord Montagu of Beaulieu on the development of the Beaulieu Estate in the New Forest as a tourist attraction. Her sensitivity of approach allowed the incorporation of a highly successful motor car museum with the delicate Palace House. Plans for Chippenham, Eastbourne and Aldeburgh followed, along with the Snowdon Summit Report in 1974 and the Uplands Landscape Study Public access in 1980, both for the Countryside Commission.
In parallel with this, she began teaching, joining the Department of Planning at University College London in 1951 before returning to the Architectural Association as a Unit Master (tutor). At the AA she inspired her students to look at the context of buildings and encouraged them to appreciate the importance of the historic environment.
However, it was through her work on committees that she made her biggest contribution. She was appointed to the Royal Fine Art Commission in 1970, the Historic Buildings Council (later English Heritage) in 1973 and the National Trust's Architectural Panel in 1978; she was to remain active on each well into the 1990s. Although Chesterton possessed many characteristics of an ideological architect of the 1960s, her knowledge of planning meant that her views encompassed a wider picture and she was more concerned with "place" than architectural detail.
She had a remarkable ability to speak in committee, saying something that was profound, but never daunting, and thus inspiring various officers in the development of the projects that they had presented. Despite conflicting opinions with some members of the Royal Fine Art Commission, Chesterton could agree to differ and maintain a close friendship with adversaries who advocated a traditionalist architecture.
On the National Trust's Architectural Panel she was one of three women architects who were soon known as the Three Graces. Chesterton was never happier than when venturing out on a visit to discuss a specific problem with regional staff, often accompanied by Martin Drury, then the Historic Buildings Secretary. Her advice on issues such as the impact of new farm buildings in the landscape did much to formulate the trust's policies and her experience at Beaulieu informed the arrangements for public visiting at many National Trust sites. She was welcomed and respected because her advice was not only positive, but delivered with a wonderful laugh.
One of her primary interests in later life was the landscape garden at Stowe in Buckinghamshire that the trust took over in 1989. She had already served on Stowe School's Landscape Committee for several years, guiding the governors on the management of the substantial temples and garden monuments that they valiantly tried to maintain despite being a public school whose object was education rather than conservation.
When the suggestion was made by an anonymous donor that he might help the National Trust acquire the gardens, Chesterton was the one person that the chairman of the Landscape Committee, George Clarke, felt it essential to confide in. The current state of play, therefore, was discussed regularly over tea at Fortnum & Mason's after meetings of the full committee, which had to remain oblivious to developments. Her perceptive mind ensured the broad view that was necessary during the two years of brokering between the various funders, the school and the National Trust to secure the arrangements that have made available to the public one of the greatest designed landscapes; Clarke is adamant that it was Chesterton's presence that kept the ship afloat. …