I’m not saying that my artistic prowess was good enough in those days to single me out to become an architect but Anstice Brown’s art department gave me rather more pleasure than the classroom by the Fives courts of Sam Hey’s 4E. I remember in my last year doing some rather splendid sepia pencil sketches of a potter at his wheel which were displayed at Commem. I was inordinately proud of those three drawings. They were quite the best I’d ever done, but when the celebrations were over no one seemed to know where they had gone. Everyone else’s stuff was returned to them – not mine. I hope they found a good home.
My book ‘The Architect’s Tale’ tells the story of what happened to me after I left the School. I thought it worth telling because I’ve had one or two clients and one or two commissions which I feel you might know. In 1987 I was asked by the Prince of Wales to work on the garden at Highgrove where I built a pair of gazebos right outside his drawing room window! I went on to build 30 or so other bits about the place – notably a tree house for the Princes William and Harry. It is all there in the book.
The Churchill family asked if I would redesign Sir Winston’s grave at Bladon which, after some hilarious moments I did. My work is now the focus of the pilgrimage that so many still make to honour his resting place.
Working in Bath is not for the faint hearted. In the early part of my practice (set up when I was 29) I converted a couple of houses in the middle of the crescent, for a client which became known as the Royal Crescent Hotel. It is perhaps less well known than Cliveden which I also converted from Astor’s house into an hotel for the same client. John Tham and I had great fun creating many pieces together culminating in the abortive attempt to transform into another hotel the Salm Palace in Prague for Jacob Rothschild.
Later on I fought the Battle of Cavendish Lodge – a scheme to build a fine classical house in the heart of Bath. I was opposed by every agency in the planning system. It took ten years to get the permissions I needed. Sherborne certainly turns out men who are prepared to fight their corner! The scheme now stands proudly on the wooded slopes well behind the Royal Crescent itself.
I was asked to go to America on the recommendation of Prince Charles. I was to meet the wealthiest man in the State, John Kluge, together with his beautiful wife Patricia. Nothing came of it but the experience of mingling with the super wealthy provided some very memorable and amusing moments.
It’s all there in the book and a good deal else besides. You may be the judge of the stories I tell, but the following critique by Dr John Martin Robinson in Country Life gave The Architect’s Tale a very fair wind. I hope you too will enjoy it.
‘The Architect’s Tale’
William Bertram is well known as an architect working in the Classical tradition. He has been based for many years in Bath, where he was responsible, among other works, for the Royal Crescent Hotel. In his country houses, he handles the Classical manner in the spirit of the earlier 20th-century English architecture with a feeling for texture, varied materials and jolly ornament, rather than the born-again Palladian manner of many contemporary British classicists. Nor is he afraid of jokes. A tree hut at Highgrove for the Princes William and Harry, set high in a holly tree, is called Hollyrood, and has a door with the cusped outline of a holly leaf.
Mr Bertram is a natural story-teller with a wicked humour. This welcome book of memoirs contains hilarious vignettes of clients, the ups and downs of gaining (or losing) commissions and the vagaries of the ‘planning-process’. Those expecting a dry recitation of architraves and ashlar are in for a pleasant surprise. Each chapter unfolds as a set-piece story into which the reader is swiftly drawn.
The battle for Cavendish Lodge in Bath, which involved not one but two public enquiries, judicial reviews, and every planning obstruction known to man, brings tears to the eyes. Our architect prevails in the end against the odds and the implacable opposition of Major Crombie of the Bath Preservation Trust, whose actions are described with chivalry and humour. Mr Bertram has the last laugh. The carved decoration on the front includes a dagger-blade drawn down the centre of which is carved his name in Morse code. More usually, he signs with a stone bee – B for Bertram.
It is difficult to choose among so many plums. But the story of staying with the billionaire Kluges in Virginia is very funny indeed, and captures the strangeness of rich American life to a tee. ‘John got up from his delicate New England spindle-back chair, feeling it was time to shake my hand. He was five foot four inches tall.’
This is one of the most amusing and least pompous of architectural memoirs. As well as colour and black-and-white photographs, it is illustrated with the author’s pencil drawings and architectural sketches. I strongly recommend it, especially to anyone who has recently crossed swords with the planners.
John Martin Robinson
Country Life ©