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Memorial plaque, in Latin, at St John's College, Oxford

Sir Howard Montagu Colvin CVO CBE FBA FRHistS FSA (15 October 1919 – 27 December 2007) was a British architectural historian who produced two of the most outstanding works of scholarship in his field: A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600–1840 and The History of the King's Works.

Life and works

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Born in Sidcup, Colvin was educated at Trent College and University College London. In 1948, he became a Fellow of St John's College, Oxford where he remained until his death in 2007. He was a member of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England 1963–76, the Historic Buildings Council for England 1970–84, the Royal Fine Art Commission 1962–72, and other official bodies.

He is most notably the author of A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600–1840 which appeared in its original form in 1954. Yale University Press produced a third edition in 1995, and he had just completed his work on the fourth edition at the time of his death. On first publication this reference work of heroic scale immediately became the standard in its field: it "changed the face of English architectural history", according to David Watkin. In the revised edition, Colvin expanded the range to include Scottish and Welsh architects as well.

The work includes every building within its time range with which the name of an architect can be associated, based on documentary evidence from extensive archival research, both by him and a growing network of correspondents. He was particularly an enemy of attributions based on style alone. This resulted in an index that is an architectural gazetteer, and which also gives a comprehensive listing of architectural books published in Britain, listed by author. The prefatory essay, "The Practice of Architecture, 1600–1840", is divided into two sections, covering the building trades and the architectural profession, both contributions to the broader social history of Britain.

He also was general editor, and wrote large parts, of the official multi-volume study of all the buildings with which the Crown had been associated through history, The History of the King's Works, published in stages between 1963 and 1982.

Colvin's work in government parallels his academic achievement. Just as he rose to become the acknowledged authority within academia, he also rose via membership of the bodies listed above and others to be Chair of the committee of English Heritage that dealt with Britain's built environment.

His most famous coup was to lead a campaign which succeeded in inducing the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson to alter the 1984 Budget so as to save Calke Abbey in Derbyshire for the nation.


Colvin was knighted in 1995. He served as president of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain 1979–81; and a special issue of its journal Architectural History was produced in his honour in 1984.

Personal life

Colvin married Christina Edgeworth Butler, a literary scholar and historian of Oxfordshire, in 1943; they had two sons. She predeceased him in 2003.[1]

Archive and library

Colvin's research papers and correspondence associated with the Dictionary of British Architects, 1600–1840 are held in the archives of the Paul Mellon Centre in London. These arrived along with a number of architectural history publications including country house guidebooks which were bequeathed to the Paul Mellon Centre's library.[2]


The History of the King's Works

Other works


  1. ^ "Lady Christina Colvin". Oxford Mail. 23 August 2003. Retrieved 6 April 2021.
  2. ^ "Howard Colvin Archive Howard Colvin Library". Retrieved 9 August 2017.
  3. ^ "Colvin, Sir Howard Montagu". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 20 September 2016. Howard Colvin contributed the following 2 articles ... (subscription or UK public library membership required)