On Beacon Hill 7 – Peter Bicknell

Peter Bicknell of Cambridge, England – 1907-1995

Peter Bicknell, architect, mountaineer, teacher of architecture and art history, was a Renaissance man.  After more than fifty years of architectural practice and teaching at Cambridge he developed a new career as a presenter of exhibitions and as an expert on the art and literature of the Lake District.

After schooling at Oundle he went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1926, to read architecture.  He and his younger brother Claud were of the third generation of Bicknells to become members of the Alpine Club.  Their father had died, possibly of a heart attack, in 1927, while leading a group of climbers in the Alps and Peter Bicknell had the grizzly task of cutting the rope holding his father’s body and seeing it fall down the mountainside.

Peter Bicknell was a very fine rock climber and was the first person to traverse the whole of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye in one day.  He was president of the Climber’s Club and in the thirties was twice invited to join expeditions attempting to conquer Everest.

After graduating Bicknell combined academic teaching with a successful architectural practice in partnership with H.C. Hughes. He supervised architectural students in various colleges and eventually became a Fellow of Downing.  Once when lecturing in America, a country he loved to visit, he said that he regarded architecture and the teaching of it as a service.  His professional career of over fifty years reflected this philosophy. Much of the partnership’s work was for educational institutions, such as additions to Cambridge Colleges and building the cricket pavilion at Oundle.  They also did much work for the Dean and Chapter of Ely Cathedral.

One of their early commissions was from Caius College to divide into two the distinctive house on the Backs called Finella, which had been designed by Raymond McGrath for Mansfield Forbes. When Sir Nikolaus Pevsner came to see what Caius had done he commented “Vot a tragedy!”

In 1936 Bicknell married Mari Scott Henderson who had been a dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and was a pupil of Karsavina.  She founded the Cambridge Ballet Workshop and introduced several generations of Cambridge children to the pleasure of classical ballet dancing.  At the beginning of the Second World War the Bicknells themselves moved into Finella.  Later many glorious fireworks parties were held there.

In 1947 Bicknell was asked to write British Hills and Mountains for the Britain in Pictures series.  His last writing, this year, came full circle.  It was a review of the history of the series written for the Book Collector.  He was also a collector himself, with a fine set of eighteenth century topographical books and prints.  He gave those concerned with the Lake District to the Library of King’s College.  Over the years he also assembled a splendid collection of lustre ware.

Soon after his retirement from teaching, in 1981, Bicknell started on a new career.  The Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Professor Michael Jaffé, invited him to stage an exhibition entitled Beauty, Horror and Immensity, which dealt with the Lake District before the coming of the railways.  The Fitzwilliam also staged an exhibition by Mari Bicknell about the Children’s Ballet Workshop.

The success of Bicknell’s exhibition at the Fitzwilliam, for which he produced an excellent catalogue, brought him into the museum world.  He became a trustee of Dove Cottage Museum at Grasmere and edited the Illustrated Wordsworth Guide He wrote an important bibliography Picturesque Scenery of the Lake District, a subject about which he also broadcast.

Peter Bicknell had a talent for light verse and was a keen gardener.  A most hospitable man, he loved conducting American visitors round Cambridge or through the Wordsworth country.  He also greatly enjoyed travel abroad. He died very peacefully staying with his eldest daughter in France, within sight of his beloved Alps.

Leonard Miall