On Beacon Hill 5 – John Rupert Bicknell

John Rupert Bicknell 1929-1997

Address by Dr. Bernard Heine at the Requiem for John Rupert Bicknell at the Parish Church, Goring, Oxfordshire, England on Saturday 5th July 1997.

John, at first acquaintance, may have seemed a reserved and contained man, given to little comment and who managed his life in a systematic and measured way.  Certainly, he was meticulous and expected the highest standards of himself and others in everything he undertook.  That does not make for an easy life.  But beneath his reserve lay a wealth of richness and a sense of enjoyment.  I continued to be surprised (and I had known him 30 years), even towards the end, how his ironic humour would suddenly explode with characteristic guffaw and he would tell of some very funny escapade of the past or more recently.

His days at Felsted were full of variety.  He counted himself fortunate to be evacuated with the school, during the War, to Ross on Wye.  Three large country houses were taken over and John already appreciated their architectural diversity.  A lighter side was fast bicycle rides between the buildings and the hazard of crossing the river, especially when in flood, by a makeshift bridge.  Felsted also provided him with a scholarship to begin his architectural studies.  John, of course, never had a doubt as to his vocation.  But he often spoke with great enthusiasm of an early project, shortly after graduation, of organising an exhibition in the City, entitled “Turn Again”, to promote new and fresh and good architectural design after the devastation of the War.  Although young, he was experienced in this field and received tremendous support from a galaxy of modern, established architects, such as Maxwell Fry.  By all accounts, it was an outstanding success and it also provided contacts and a platform for his later professional career.

Another sideline, related more to his adventuresome spirit, was winning a travelling scholarship to Victoria, in Australia.  This had a touch of serendipity, seeing an advertisement in the Evening Standard on the closing date and delivering the application by hand.  In Australia, he inspected buildings, gave lectures and was well entertained by the establishment.  The other side of his nature, with its independence, initiative, and desire to explore, was shown by his taking jobs on large farms, lengthy cycle rides and going on to New Zealand.  He was extraordinarily able at exploring his surroundings fully, a practice he kept up till the end.

John was a keen photographer.  When he showed one his photographs of buildings, of walks and landscapes and of my own garden, it was as if looking at a new vision.  He would say “It’s the architects eye – trained to see!”.  But it was more than this: his inherent ability to see a vision of line and form with a quality of simplicity that made these scenes fresh and memorable.

These qualities can be seen in the buildings that he and Paul Hamilton designed in their fruitful partnership, often for British Rail and also a large housing project for the Army.  Their work has now been recognised by English Heritage, which organised the listing of several: Harlow Station, Birmingham New Street Signal Box and the Engineering Depot at Paddington.  This is an exceptional achievement for any recent architectural practice.  Last week, The Times carried an English Heritage full page advertisement to demonstrate their promotion of listing important buildings.  At the top of the page was a photograph of a small, simple, post-war prefabricated home and at the bottom one of Birmingham New Street Signal Box.  John would have enjoyed that and approved of the juxtaposition.  The text read, and I quote: “It’s a dramatic building of exceptional architectural quality, with strongly sculptural form”.  That description applies to much of Paul and John’s work.  This creative activity was extremely demanding, especially when the highest standards of workmanship and finish were expected and yet there had to be a balance between reality and perfection. 

It seems to me that the best event in John’s life, which added a real quality and a new depth to it, was his marriage to Theresa.  Previously, as an only child he had been looked after by his devoted parents.  His life had been focused very much on his work, his walking and cycling.  With Theresa, a most fruitful partnership developed and a new life was opened up.

John and Teresa

She provided all the warmth, steadiness and support needed for a demanding professional life and a haven from it.  Her love and stability and competence were crucial in sustaining him and enriching his life.  It was fortunate they and the children were able to move to ‘Jordleys’, some 20 years ago, which had been designed by Paul and John for a client and so experienced fully a past personal creation.

The last few years had been exceptionally enjoyable for John.  The stresses of his work dwindled, he was able to enjoy more fully his walking, his cycling, his gardening, and, with Theresa, attend Concerts, Opera and Theatre.  Their thrice-yearly walking trips to Europe, often combined with exploring a City, were a special delight.  Other pleasures were the walking of Willow twice a day, bathing in the Thames, adding a new carriage to his model railway, his regular choir practice and, perhaps less pleasurable, picking up litter on the banks of the Thames.

His children were very important to him.  Before he died, he was able to see them becoming fully independent and finding their own vocations.  Walking or cycling with them always gave him great pleasure and, I recall, when we walked in similar areas, his enthusiastic detailed account of his excursions with them.  Anyone who did walk with him will remember that measured tread, the minimal clothing if the sun was out and the regular checking of the map.

When he knew he was dying, he behaved with such fortitude and strength one felt inadequate and that it was he who was supporting the rest of us.  Until two days before he died, he spoke with clarity and humour.  Typically, he took great care in organising his affairs to reduce any burden on Theresa and their children.
Shortly before John went to the Hospice, I was present at a family Eucharist, celebrated by Father Philip.  It was very moving and I was struck again by John’s inherent strength and spiritual faith and how he towered amongst us.

It is easy to see Theresa as the comforter and provider for the disadvantaged in much of the world.  But our hearts go out to her and to Edward and Bridget and Hannah in their deep personal loss.  We shall need to support them with our continual love and prayers.

John had, if one can see it in that way, a good death.  He was wonderfully cared for by the Sue Ryder Hospice, at Nettlebed, and he was surrounded by his family and with friends coming and going.  His fancy was tickled by the very large room, originally a billiard one, in which he was placed, with its somewhat over decorated rococo plaster figures and pillars, and with his bed placed between two twisted barley sugar columns.  It was, as he said, almost like a papal throne.

We grieve for the ending of John’s life when so much more seemed to lie ahead for him and Theresa. We can with much feeling give thanks for his life’s richness, some visible in buildings and other creations, but much of which lay in quiet resilience and perceptive care for others, which ran like a thread through his life.

Address given by Sister Frances Dominica, founder and director of Helen House, at the Requiem for John Rupert Bicknell at the Parish Church, Goring, Oxon, England on Saturday 5th July 1997.

My first impression of John was of a shy reserved man whose inner resources and creative genius lay hidden within him.

His humility in asking questions about the needs of the people who would use a building he had been invited to design was remarkable.  It seemed as if the more minute the detail one tried to describe the more patiently and attentively did he listen.

Once he had been commissioned and briefed he would go away for a few weeks.  As with all living, growing things, once the seed was sown the period of gestation had to develop in quiet obscurity, hidden from the gaze of curious eyes.  The first sight of John’s drawings when he was ready to present them was invariably a delight to behold for professional and amateur eyes alike, so clear and precise were they.

John had already designed a guest wing and a small chapel for our Community in Oxford when we invited him to design Helen House, the world’s first hospice for children.  We might well have engaged the services of an architect who had already designed adult hospices or similar institutions, but we wanted the children and families who would come to stay with us to feel they were coming to stay with friends; home was to be the model rather than hospital.  John understood that concept from the start. I have little doubt his experience as husband and father enabled him to understand and interpret the needs of those families, not least the children, so brilliantly.  His own family and the home they loved and shared were vital catalysts in John’s creativity.

Helen House, Oxford
(Architect: John Bicknell)

It was not just the physical needs, important as those were, of the children and families John sought to meet in designing the building but their emotional and spiritual needs too.  In the earlier stages we talked together of red door handles, of flower boxes in all the windows, of colour and light, of a house which was welcoming to those who came for the first time, often frightened and distressed, of a house in which people would feel comfortable and at home, safe and relaxed, and to which they would enjoy returning over the weeks or months or years of the child’s illness and, for the family, after the death of that beloved child too.  Helen House was to be a building in which it was safe to be yourself, a place where you would feel held as you experienced not only the most unspeakable grief but also the most tender moments of family and of friendship, the wonder of being, the mysteries of life and of death.  For those families it is a time when all their sensitivities are heightened, and John understood this.

Fifteen years on, it is impossible to number those who have delighted in the building he created.  Even while it was in the making the men who built it brick by brick were awestruck by the fact that no two rooms had quite the same angles.  Never before had they been asked to work to a design which described triangular rooms, the finished effect being something like that of standing in the prow of a ship.  Later, research showed that one of the things that members of the care team valued very highly in the work they undertook was the building itself.  And one after another children and families have been surprised and delighted by it and have come to love it and to feel it is ‘theirs’.

Sister Frances Dominica (centre), John Bicknell (2nd from right)
and Tony Hill (right) at the topping-out ceremony of Helen House

Artists, musicians, poets, authors and architects through the centuries have suffered much.  We smile as we recall the day when John arrived on site, having cycled from Goring to Oxford, and amidst the mud and cement mixers said he had to have half an hour in a darkened room with wet towels!

Giving birth involves pain and travail.  But sometimes out of suffering something very great is born, something of immeasurable beauty and worth which touches the human spirit as it reaches for that which is beyond its grasp, that which we scarcely dare to name.

In John’s designs, dare I say supremely in Helen House, our own spirits are lifted.  But also we glimpse something of the greatness of John’s spirit in all his humility, the intrinsic beauty and goodness of this man in whose memory we are gathered together today.

John has died, but he lives on in the buildings of which he was the architect and in the countless lives he has touched by his genius.  We thank God that he inspired John in some measure with his own creative energy.

Extract from ‘Helen House News’ – Autumn 1997

Another vitally important person linked with the founding of Helen House was John Bicknell, our architect.  John died in June this year, after a short illness, aged 67. Tony Hill, the civil engineer who worked with John in constructing Helen House, writes:

“The design John proposed fits so naturally into the grounds at Leopold Street and has stood the test of time.  It is strange to note, especially when one thinks of the criticism that some buildings have received, that nothing but praise has been levelled at Helen House for the way in which it works and the wonderful atmosphere of homeliness that it gives those who are able to use it. John was a very sensitive and caring person, sometimes a little unusual, as on the occasion of the topping out of Helen House when he arrived, on a very hot day, on his bicycle in shorts to climb up to the top of the chimney for the topping-out ceremony, almost everyone else being in suits, but in his work he was meticulous and a stickler for detail.

“He was not one to design with an award in mind, he was far too private for that, but he sought after excellence and doing the best he could for his client. Helen House is a marvellous memorial to the work John Bicknell, the architect who designed it, supervised its construction and above all got it so right.”

 John Rupert Bicknell born in Southsea, 13 December 1929, died in Nettlebed, 15 June 1997.