Talks and courses by Philip Wilkinson

‘What a super course you gave us at Dillington! One of the best I have ever attended.’  
‘A fascinating talk, beautifully illustrated: thank you.’ 
‘A tour de force!’ 

Philip gives talks about buildings, historical subjects, and his work as an author to a range of audiences around Britain. He also teaches courses on architectural history and similar subjects. He has spoken at major events such as the Cambridge History Festival, the English Heritage Festival of History, and the Cheltenham Literature Festival, as well as to various societies, local history groups, and others.

A selection of his talks and courses, most of which are illustrated, appears below.

If you are interested, please get in touch with Philip by email.

These talks are designed to last about an hour and are all illustrated.

High Street histories
The British have long been known as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ and the history of shops and shopping in England is long and enthralling. Drawing on the research he did for his book Turn Back Time: The High Street, Philip Wilkinson tells the colourful story of England’s high streets from the elegance of the Georgian period, via the showmanship of Victorian shopkeepers, to the beginning of the 20th century. Shops from all these periods can still be found on our high streets, and their architecture has much to tell us about the people who owned them and their customers.

Great British brands 
Britain's food manufacturers are some of the most famous in the world and have produced unforgettable brands that have become part of our lives. Their stories are tales of heroic individual endeavour, dedicated work forces, and instantly recognisable advertising and design. This talk tells the story of some of the greatest and most enduring: Bird's custard, Cadbury's chocolate, Twining's tea, Ovaltine, Tate and Lyle, and others that stick in our minds, enliven our tables, and bring back happy memories.

Exploring our churches, or Church-crawling around England
Philip Wilkinson has been visiting England’s parish churches – an activity that John Betjeman described as ‘church-crawling’ – since he was a teenager. Attracted at first by a fascination with their architecture, he has come to love their history, atmosphere, and eccentricities too. He has found things of unexpected beauty in churches – fragments of ancient carving, stained glass, mosaics, the list is endless. But he has also discovered the most bizarre things tucked away is aisles and side chapels – curious bits of ironmongery, musical instruments, a fire engine, a ducking stool – all of which tell surprising stories. This talk explores a selection of Philip’s church finds, and recalls some of his most memorable human encounters as he has church-crawled his way around the country.

Bizarre buildings and singular structures: Gloucestershire’s unusual architecture
If you think you know Gloucestershire, think again! Philip Wilkinson explores some of the county’s little known buildings. A fascinating guided tour around the county’s hidden treasures, from lych gates to lock-ups, bee-houses to breweries.

Wonder material of the Victorian age
Most people don’t giver a second glance to the corrugated iron sheds and barns that fill yards and gardens everywhere. In the pecking order of building materials that puts stone at the top and concrete lower down, corrugated iron comes about as low as you can get. Yet corrugated iron has a surprising history. Developed as a way of providing strong, lightweight roofs for dockside buildings and warehouses, it impressed the Victorians, who built everything from it, from workshops to museums, schools to churches. Corrugated iron houses and churches – the first flatpack buildings – were sent by ship all over the British empire. And, flexible, easy to use, and light, the material still has its followers today. Philip Wilkinson explains the curious history of the material that helped Britain rule the world.

Mr and Mrs Charles Rennie Mackintosh: a creative partnership
Charles Rennie Mackintosh is one of Britain's most innovative architects and designers. His celebrated houses, his work on Glasgow School of Art, and his striking furniture designs make him one of the most famous architects the country has produced. His wife, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh is less well known, but her metalwork, textile designs, and the stunning decorative panels she created for Mackintosh's interiors are the equal of his work and complement it perfectly. This lecture explores the couple's unique creative partnership.

Art nouveau in British architecture
Art nouveau, the decorative style fashionable between c. 1890 and 1910, is known for its use of plant motifs, the female form, and sinuous curves. Especially popular in Belgium, France, and elsewhere on mainland Europe, it is less common in Britain – but some beautiful examples survive. This talk traces the patterns of British art nouveau in shopfronts, cafés, pubs, museums, public buildings, and shopping arcades to explore a beautiful but little known aspect of our architecture.

The strange roots of modern architecture
We can all recognise modern architecture: it's about flat roofs, long windows, and plain, unornamented concrete boxes, isn't it? But how did modern architecture come about? Why is it so different from the revivalist styles of the Victorians and Edwardians. This talk looks at modernism's origins in the 19th century – in the Arts and Crafts movement, in Victorian boat sheds and office blocks, even in the decorative style of Art Nouveau. Modernism is stranger than it seems...
Quiz question: How old is the building in the black and white photograph above? 1930s? 1950s? 1960s? Some other date?  For the answer, please scroll down to the very bottom of this page.

Deco delights
In the often gloomy period between the two World Wars, Britain embraced the jazzy, upbeat style of Art Deco with enthusiasm. This style of sculpted forms, fins, streamlining, bright colours, Egyptian-influenced details, neon lighting, and porthole-like windows suggested European sophistication to some, the American dream to others, the escapism of the jazz age to others still. This talk looks at Art Deco cinemas, theatres, houses, factories, and more.

Baron of the boulevards: Georges-Eugene Haussmann and the making of Paris
 During the 1850s and 1860s, Napoleon III and his Prefect of the Seine Georges-Eugene Haussmann transformed the French capital, giving it the avenues, boulevards, theatres and parks for which it is still famous. This talk explains how, against all the odds, they demolished huge parts of old Paris, and built some 80 miles of new streets, installed 17,000 gas street lamps, and brought into being such landmarks as the Opéra Garnier. Today's Paris is still the creation of these two remarkable men – together with architects and the army of workers they employed, conjuring out of the old dark and dirty streets a city of lights.
Image Camille Pisarro, Avenue de l'Opéra, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Reims

Restoration: wrong from the start?
All around us, old buildings are falling into disrepair and, if we’re lucky, getting restored ‘to their former glory’. But what are the decisions that have to be made when planning the restoration of a building? Old buildings usually have complex histories, so which ‘former glory’ are you trying to recreate – the early Georgian days or the adaptations made by the  Victorians – and what about the 1930s art deco extension around the back? How much of the old fabric do you replace? And how is the building going to be used – and maintained – once the job is done? Philip Wilkinson, who wrote books for the BBC’s three series of the programme Restoration, addresses some of these questions, looks at the troubled history of restoration, and draws some conclusions for the future.


It’s not just the architecture
‘How do you find such interesting buildings?’ That’s a question that people often ask Philip Wilkinson. This talk is his reply:
‘Many of my readers are surprised when I pick out an old house in a back street, an obscure chapel, or even a public lavatory, and find things to say about it in my books and on my blog. This talk explains how I come across my discoveries and describes how I look at buildings. It’s all about keeping one’s eyes open, listening to hints from locals, respecting the obscure or unregarded, and not following guidebooks. I’m not in search of great architecture, but I do look out for interesting oddities, unusual structures, and tantalizing fragments. Join me as I explain that it’s not just about the architecture...’

Blogging about buildings
Philip Wilkinson has been blogging about his encounters with the amazing buildings of England for some ten years. This talk explains why he blogs, and how:
‘The English Buildings blog describes some of my most revealing and amusing encounters with buildings, and explains how often, the fascination of a building is not just in great architecture but also in what might seem at first glance incidental things – discovering minor, hidden, and unusual buildings; encountering the people who care for buildings or are fellow visitors met by chance; finding bits of unexpected beauty or architectural ingenuity. Blogging has made me look more inquisitively, and think more deeply about what it is that might interest my readers – and regular comments from readers show that I do often raise their interest and provoke their own enquiries. My blogging has also encouraged some of my friends (among them other writers, an indefatigable traveller, and an art dealer) to blog about their own interests. The web of fascination continues to grow…’

Adventures in authorship
How did you start out as a writer? How long does it take to write a book? Do you have a writing routine? What are you going to write next? How can I find a publisher?
These are some of the questions Philip Wilkinson has often been asked in 25 years as a writer. This talk provides some of the answers. From his early years as an editor, his work in children’s non-fiction, international publishing, tie-ins for TV, and books for English Heritage, this talk covers some of the highlights of Philip’s life as an author.


These courses have been designed to last a weekend, but can be adjusted to suit other time-spans. Please enquire for more details.

Five cities in their heyday
This course examines the key points in the stories of five of the world’s greatest cities – all popular tourist destinations, all rich in art and architecture – illustrated with photographs of important buildings and key works of art. The cities covered are: Amsterdam in the 17th century ‘Golden Age’, the time of Rembrandt when the canals were dug and the city’s canal-side houses were built; London in the Georgian era of terraces and squares; Paris in the 19th century, when it virtually rebuilt by Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann; Prague in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when it  was a cradle of Art Nouveau architecture and Cubism; and New York in the 1920s and 30s when the skyscrapers were going up and art was in ferment.

Five more great cities
After the success of Philip’s course, Five Cities in their Heyday, he explores a further five fascinating cities through their history, architecture, and art. The course covers: Athens in the 5th century when the Greeks defined the city; Rome in the time of the Colosseum and the Forum; Venice when Doges ruled the city and Venetian ships ruled the waves; Barcelona at the time of Gaudí’s visionary architecture; and Vienna in the age of Gustav Klimt and Gustav Mahler.   

20th-century British architecture
The 20th century was one of the most innovative periods for British architecture, but also the most controversial. People argue intensely about whether or not 20th-century buildings work, whether they look good, and whether they are worth preserving. This course provides a virtual guided tour through the history of 20th-century architecture in Britain. We look at the origins of modern architecture in the 19th century and its evolution through the 20th, discovering how architects came to design in the way that they did, and examining the artistic, technical, and social thinking behind their work. Along the way, we explores an array of buildings, from houses to schools, factories to churches, that are interesting, varied and, sometimes, beautiful.

How the Victorians built our world

During Queen Victoria's long reign, Britain was transformed. Industry expanded, cities grew vastly, and the country reaped the benefits of a large empire. Builders and architects responded with relish as Britain's greatest building boom took hold. This course explores the variety of Victorian architecture. We discover the often dazzling ways in which Victorian architects revived ancient styles of architecture to design all kinds of structures, from churches and town halls to schools and factories. We also look at the new kinds of buildings that the Victorians developed, including railway stations, large hospitals, and exhibition halls, and the striking use they made of the latest technologies in their construction. Over a number of sessions we discover how Victorian builders laid the foundations for our own times in all kinds of areas including housing, city planning, school building, industrial architecture, and the creation of what is probably Britain's most famous and symbolic building, the Houses of Parliament.

The architecture of Georgian Britain
Much of Britain’s most beautiful architecture was created by the Georgians in the eighteenth century. This course looks at how the Georgians transformed our towns and cities. With a particular emphasis on the architecture of major cities such as London, Bath, and Edinburgh, it explores the evolution of the town house, the careers of the great architects, the beauties of interiors, and the planning of towns. It also looks at smaller towns that were rebuilt or extended in the 18th century, particularly those, such as Blandford Forum and Warwick, that saw major building work after fires. The course highlights the glories of Georgian urban architecture, but does not ignore the crafts, from masonry to plaster-working, that made it all possible.

Tudor and Stuart architecture
From picturesque timber-framed houses to great monuments like St Paul’s Cathedral, the architecture of the Tudor and Stuart periods is some of the most impressive in England. This course looks at the full spectrum, including yeoman’s houses, vast mansions like Longleat and Burghley, stunning university buildings in Oxford and Cambridge, and the grandiose and sometimes bizarre churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Is ornament a crime?
‘Ornament is crime,’ said the pioneer modernist architect Adolf Loos in 1910. In making this pronouncement, he was setting a trend for modern architecture and turning his back on centuries of decorative art, craft, and tradition. In this course we look at that tradition: the rich and varied history of architectural ornament in Britain. We explore the skills of masons, carvers, plasterers, painters, and workers in a range of materials from stucco to wrought iron. We examine the different decorative styles, including Romanesque, Gothic, and Classical, explaining the variety of ornament, the thinking behind it, and the influences (often from outside Britain) that led to its creation. We also explore the ideas ornament conveys, decoding the symbols of Christian piety on medieval churches, discovering the thought underlying renaissance ornament, and looking at the political ideas underpinning some of the ornament on country houses and their garden buildings. In exploring the fascinating world of architectural ornament, this course examines some of Britain’s most famous buildings, from Lincoln Cathedral to Manchester Town Hall, while also looking at little known parish churches and smaller houses – all of them providing visual revelations.

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Answer to quiz question: The building in the black and white photograph is the Sheerness Boat Store, Kent, and it was built in 1860. Strange, but true...


Anonymous said...

I've just returned from your excellent course on 'Is Ornament A Crime?' at Dillington House - thank you for a very enjoyable and informing weekend. I hope to come to your talk in August which you mentioned, regarding Building Materials.

I was the lady with whom you talked about the regeneration/regression of Gloucester, and about two churches in Shropshire (both now under the care of CCT) - these were Upton Cressett (which you knew) and the other was St Leonard's, Linley. I realise you'll have many names fired at you, but the church at Linley is a strange place and I am sure, if you are up that way, you would find interesting. A definite pagan feel to the place

With kind regards
Sue Scrase

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you very much indeed, Sue, for this appreciative comment, and for the information about Linley. It certainly does look like an interesting and atmospheric building and I do hope to see it when I get up the Shropshire. With best wishes, Philip.