Friday April 5 2019

Peter Collymore, who designed and oversaw the building of the Britten–Pears Library has died, aged nearly 90. Peter and his sister Gill, who survives him, had a lifelong friendship with Britten and Pears, and Peter’s connection with the Britten-Pears Foundation is quite literally written in stone.

Peter was the son of Eric Collymore, Physics Master at Lancing College, Peter Pears’ former school in Sussex (the centenary for which Britten composed Saint Nicolas). His own early education was undertaken at Marlborough College. Here, his link with both Britten and Pears was established through their wartime visits there to perform and rehearse. Peter recalled hearing them taking an early run through of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, before its Wigmore Hall premiere in 1943. An abiding memory was seeing Dennis Brain in his RAF uniform, and of course the extraordinary combination of horn player, singer and pianist producing a magical sound. Following that, he said ‘one just grew up with their music.’

After studying architecture at Cambridge Peter pursued a diploma from the Architectural Association in London. He settled into a London practice, concentrating on domestic design. He also developed a fascination with the career of Ralph Erskine, the British-born architect who worked predominantly in Scandinavia. He published articles on Erskine’s work and also produced the significant study The Architecture of Ralph Erskine, which first appeared in 1982.

Peter Collymore’s interior sketch of the ‘library cum music room’. Reproduced courtesy of Gill Collymore.

Peter’s earliest work for Britten and Pears was the design of the Red Studio for the artist Mary Potter, former owner of The Red House. Mary exchanged residences in the late 1950s, living in Crag House on the Aldeburgh seafront before eventually taking residence in the Studio, situated in The Red House grounds, in 1963. A large room with an expansive west-facing window was the ‘studio,’ and it was here that she produced the bulk of her work until her death in 1981.

Peter’s most significant project for Britten and Pears was the design of their ‘library cum music room’ in 1964, which he described as ‘great fun to do’. His brief was to convert a ramshackle barn and milking shed into a space that would accommodate the bulk of their book collection, provide a wall to display paintings, and also provide a rehearsal venue—not for just one or two musicians, but for a reasonable contingent such as the chorus from the English Opera Group. Additionally, the room was used for entertaining and relaxation. Its cosy fire place in the corner near the north wall gave warmth in the winter and its open terrace to the south enabled easy access to the garden in the summer.

Sketch of the east elevation plan of the library. Reproduced courtesy of Gill Collymore.

Peter was given near free rein with the design, which he made open-plan with a pine roof and faux tile floor (with underfloor heating). Britten’s only concern was that it would be large enough to hold a ten-foot concert grand piano (in its time it housed two Model B pianos as well as the grand piano that sits there now). Pears, however, nearly transgressed the architect’s freedom when he suggested that the library’s central columns (which are made of hemlock) could be constructed from glass. Peter responded with great diplomacy to the idea, acquainting Pears with the cost, and the practicality of resilience, and added in one of his letters, ‘I do not like to say something can’t be done but in this case I may have to!’ Happily Pears yielded to Peter’s expertise.

Plans for the exterior of the library that were never realised. Reproduced courtesy of Gilly Collymore.

The beauty and durability of The Red House Library, as it was originally known, has been discussed often but the style in which it was built is perhaps best summarised by Alan Powers who recognised it as an example of ‘modern architecture that has been a continuous theme in Britain since the 1930s,’ but with links to influences such as the Arts and Crafts movement and also the work of Frank Lloyd Wright (who Peter knew). The Library was and still is used for concerts, readings, browsing of the bookshelves and enjoyment of art. Visitors today remark on its spacious, comfortable atmosphere.

Peter Collymore’s drawing of the fireplace in the library. Reproduced courtesy of Gill Collymore.

Peter also provided The Red House with a porch/vestibule in its north-facing wall. This important feature, constructed of brick (one of Peter’s key materials), is the way most visitors have entered the house since 1967. This was handily added before the Royal visit in June of that year, when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh took lunch before officially opening the Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

Peter’s other major commissions for Britten and Pears involved alterations to Chapel House, the cottage they purchased in Horham in 1970, where Britten spent much time convalescing after his 1973 heart operation, and in 1972 a cottage for long-serving housekeeper and cook Nellie Hudson. ‘Cosy Nook’ cottage, so named by Miss Hudson, is within The Red House grounds and, like the Red Studio and particularly the Library, it remains part of Peter Collymore’s extraordinary legacy.

Peter returned to Aldeburgh many times. He was always willing to answer questions, offer advice and was happy to talk about the Library and how it was constructed. He generously donated his correspondence collection, drawings and his sketches for the projects mentioned here to the Archive several years ago. Each of these items speak clearly of his vital importance to Britten and Pears’ lives, and to the history of The Red House.