Peter Burton

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PETER Burton, who has died at the age of 87, was a man of many talents – and of immense inspiration. He was born in Whitby and lived much of his early life in Redcar; his father was a primary school headmaster in nearby Grangetown. He went to Coatham School and then to read English and Spanish at Trinity College, Cambridge.

There he had piano and organ lessons with the organist and choirmaster of King’s College, Boris Ord, (he remained an excellent pianist throughout his life) and struck up a friendship with Ludwig Wittgenstein. The philosopher complained when Mr Burton practised the piano in a room below his study, and arrived to complain. The Yorkshireman’s natural charm, and an invitation to tea, won him over, and the two often took walks in Grantchester Meadow to discuss ornithology – never philosophy.

After Cambridge he went to teach at Ripon Grammar School and was later appointed Head of English at Scarborough College. Throughout his teaching career, he engendered deep affection in his students, many of who remained in close contact with him over many years. He was noted for his slightly-unorthodox school productions, sometimes in the face of opposition from educational hierarchy.

There were productions of Shakespeare and Marlowe, and also of plays by, for example, Samuel Beckett (a particularly notable ‘Waiting for Godot’), Harold Pinter and John Arden, and of T S Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ in the ruins of Scarborough Castle. Plays were often put on at the Library Theatre, one of the predecessors of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in the town. Burton was a friend of Stephen Joseph, pioneer of theatre-in-the-round. During MrJoseph’s last illness his mother, actress Hermione Gingold, would come to Scarborough to see him, and Peter Burton would take her out into North Yorkshire between hospital visits. With John Lane, Peter Burton wrote a book about all things dramatic; it was called ‘New Directions – Ways of Advance for the Amateur Theatre’.

At Scarborough College BMr urton set up a Scout troop, which provided an impressive number of Queen’s Scouts and was also a slightly subversive antidote to the Combined Cadet Force; members of the troop recall it being as much about literary and artistic education as it was about camping and woodcraft.

Both architecture and photography were Peter Burton’s early passions, and he was recognised as one of the great architectural photographers of the 20th century. His eye for the telling angle was unerring, his knowledge of detail immense – and his photographic style was deceptively relaxed; The Rolleiflex camera would be pointed in the right direction, the exposure momentarily calculated and the shutter pressed. For inside shots he would cover the lens with a handkerchief, which was removed as he counted slowly up to, say, 12, then replaced. Always working in black and white (‘more romantic’ he said) he spent many hours in his darkroom getting the printing exactly right.

In 1966 he sent some photographs to John Betjeman, then editing the Shell Guides. Betjeman wrote back immediately, saying they were “some of the best topographical photographs I have seen . . . in fact they’re so good I hate to part with them”.

Mr Betjeman, who became a friend, used pictures by Peter Burton in his Guide to English Parish Churches, and introduced him to the artist John Piper, who later took over the role of editor of the Shell Guides, in which many Burton pictures appeared. Piper and his wife Myfanwy became friends of Peter, too, and he would often stay at their farmhouse at Fawley Bottom in the Chiltern Hills. A large print of one of his photographs, of Whitby Abbey, hung in the Pipers’ loo – a remarkable accolade from John Piper, himself one of Britain’s leading topographical photographers, as well as a major artist.

After taking early retirement from teaching, Peter Burton produced a volume in the Shell Guides tradition, ‘North Yorkshire’ – a book that had been commissioned by John Piper but which fell victim to the cessation of the publication of the Guides. He was also one of the prime movers in the recent resurrection of the Shell Guides series; West Yorkshire has already appeared, and others, including East Yorkshire, are to follow.

With a childhood friend, the novelist Jane Gardam, he produced an illustrated book, ‘The Iron Coast’, on the area around Redcar, and a charming volume of photographs called ‘The English Angel’. There were two major works with Shell Guides author Henry Thorold, a close friend, on the cathedrals of England and Wales and on the ruined abbeys and priories of Britain, which saw them crossing and re-crossing the country to visit them.

Peter Burton lived for more than 40 years in Brompton-by-Sawdon, between Pickering and Scarborough, where Wordsworth married local girl Mary Hutchinson. He masterminded the village’s 2002 bicentenary celebrations of the marriage; he was also president of the local history society.

From his cottage he kept in close touch with his many friends, who were always welcome to call for tea and wide-ranging talk. Many of them from around the country, along with his nephews, great-nephews and nieces and his goddaughter, gathered for his funeral at Brompton to pay tribute to a great teacher, photographer and friend.