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Research Interests, Critic, Mentor, & Supervisor


New Historical Fields of Study

JSC has pioneered more than one key new field of study.

His book,The Victorian Celebration of Death (1972 and several later editions culminating in 2004) opened up an entire neglected and disparaged subject-area for fresh consideration. JSC asserted the serious historical architectural and landscape importance of the nineteenth-century cemetery, and recognised its development as a catalyst for the evolution of urban hygiene and for changing attitudes towards the dead and their disposal. He has published widely on corollary fields such as funerary architecture, church monuments, and memorials, in journals such as Church MonumentsCountry Life, Journal of Garden History, Garden History, and Ars Quatuor Coronatorum

In researching the impact of Freemasonry on art and architecture, JSC is recognised as a trail-blazer, opening up a completely new area of study avoided for far too long by those of less adventurous dispositions. Little attention had been paid to the links between architecture and the Craft before his award-winning book, the Art and Architecture of Freemasonry: an Introductory Study, appeared in 1991: this was despite the fact that during the Renaissance period numerous works devoted to Geometry and the Temple of Solomon had been published, with obvious and visible results in realised architecture, notably the Escorial in Spain and other not exactly obscure buildings. He consolidated his work on the subject with his weighty Freemasonry & the Enlightenment: Architecture, Symbols, & Influences (2011).

Although scholars had investigated the early history of the English settlement of Ulster, nobody had researched the vast amount of evidence of the building-works carried out since the early seventeenth century under the aegis of 55 Livery Companies of the City of London in the colonisation of Ulster until JSC commenced delving into the subject, resulting in two monographs (on the Drapers’ [1979] and Fishmongers’ [1981] Companies) both published by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society. The interest these aroused encouraged him in further research, resulting in two substantial volumes, The Londonderry Plantation 1609-1914: The History, Architecture, and Planning of the Estates of the City of London in Ulster (1986) and The Honourable The Irish Society and the Plantation of Ulster. 1608-2000: The City of London and the Colonisation of County Londonderry in the Province of Ulster in Ireland (2000), which not only drew heavily on vast archives held in London, but examined the surviving built fabric of the involvement over four centuries. Work will begin in 2015 on a new study, concentrating on early-seventeenth-century maps and other drawings in various archives in both London and Ireland, analysing and illustrating documentary evidence, explaining building-works in terms of architectural style and construction, and making comparisons with contemporary structures in England.

As a biographer of nineteenth-century architects, JSC’s focus has been upon figures such as Henry Roberts (1803-76) and Bassett Keeling (1837-86), both of whom had been largely ignored by commentators, but who deserved attention, not least for their ‘model’ housing and controversial church designs. Although a few other scholars had recognised Roberts’s importance as a pioneer of working-class housing, none had examined his life and works as a whole until JSC redressed the balance with The Life and Work of Henry Roberts (1803-76), Architect: The Evangelical Conscience and the Campaign for Model Housing and Healthy Nations (1983), while Keeling had generally been dismissed as a ‘Rogue Goth’ until JSC and his colleague, John Sambrook (1933-2001), discovered an enormous cache of his original drawings, reassessed his work, and published two papers reconsidering his work in Architectural History (1973, 1999). Both Roberts and Keeling were re-examined by JSC in two essays published in The Practice of Architecture: Eight Architects 1830-1930 (2012).

Other topics on which JSC has published original works in learned journals (see Lists of Publications) include European Gardens of Allusion in which associations and ideas are encoded to be read by visitors, and the impact of the Night Thoughts of Edward Young (1683-1765) on eighteenth-century European sensibilities, expressed in various gardens. Both subjects are little-known among Anglophone students.  


Other Areas of Research

JSC’s expertise on church architecture is extensive, demonstrated by his books, Victorian Churches (1995) and Piety Proclaimed (2002). His comprehensive studies, Georgian Architecture in the British Isles 1714-1830 (2011) and Victorian Architecture: Diversity and Invention (2007—which was a massive development of his earlier studies entitled Victorian Architecture: its Practical Aspects [1973], Victorian Architecture [1990], and numerous articles in various journals), feature substantial sections on ecclesiastical architecture. His involvement with the work of the Survey of London concerned the growth of Victorian London and study of numerous churches erected to serve the new estates in Kensington.

The long-defunct spas, wells, and pleasure-gardens of London have fascinated JSC over some forty years, and, following the publication of articles in Country Life and Garden History, he determined to gather all the material he had collected for publication in a book. The result was his widely acclaimed Spas, Wells, and Pleasure-Gardens of London (2010). 


JSC as a Critic of Modernism

JSC has been for many years been a trenchant critic of the second- and third-rate buildings resulting from the widespread adoption of the Modern Movement, something he regards as a cult with an impoverished vocabulary (see, e.g., his review-articles in Journal of Urban Design [2009] and other journals cited in the Lists of his Publications). Deeply concerned about the environmental and visual impoverishment of British towns and cities since the Second World War, he is particularly scathing towards the profound lack of interest, understanding, and respect towards the endeavours of our forebears which the Modernist enterprise has engendered. Many have come to appreciate architectural history afresh through JSC’s writings: his ideas have been an inspiration to some, and a warning to others that Modernist pretensions pave the road to Dystopia. He believes there is considerable scope for defending our built environment by careful analysis and refutation of arguments employed by apologists of Modernism to foster their cause, the results of which are there for all to see. His Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism (2018) encapsulates 63 years of thinking about and researching this phenomenon.


Supervision of Young Scholars 

As a tutor, James Stevens Curl has encouraged young scholars to pursue uncharted and original topics across the entire field of architectural, landscape, and urban design. Successful doctoral theses on which he recently advised include studies of the Monumental Cemetery in Italy, and of a group of distinguished Victorian architects with Masonic connections: University of Cambridge Doctorates were conferred on the candidates in each case.

JSC is particularly interested in supervising studies of gifted architects whose works have been airbrushed out of history because they did not suit the Modernist narrative. Such studies might also reassess rejected plans for architecture and urban design undervalued, denounced, or, as was usual, ignored by Modernist apologists. As the Modernist enterprise descends into mere utilitarian commercialism, where Form Follows Finance, he believes the time is ripe for a surgical reappraisal of the whole history of the subject, dispassionately analysed and rationally dissected.