By David W. Phillipson
The life and work of James Walton
James Walton (1911-99), OBE, FSA made major contributions to the study of vernacular buildings in Britain and in southern Africa. In both areas his research has been highly regarded, and societies that he established still flourish. He was born near Brighouse in the old West Riding, and educated in London and Leeds. In 1938 he joined the Halifax Antiquarian Society, which published his first paper in their Transactions for the same year. His later contributions were published both nationally (e.g. in Country Life and in Antiquity) and locally, that for which he is best known in his native county being probably Homesteads of the Yorkshire Dales (Dalesman Publishing Co., 1947, reprinted 1979). Like most of his publications, this was extensively illustrated with his own delightfully clear and informative drawings, examples of which are reproduced here.
In 1947, Walton went to Basutoland (now Lesotho), where he served as an Education Officer. This was his base for the rest of his professional career; having achieved the rank of Deputy Director of Education, he took early retirement in 1960, moving to Cape Town in neighbouring South Africa. Walton’s interest in vernacular buildings went with him to Africa. He studied and recorded them in Basutoland, South Africa, South-West Africa (now Namibia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). He did not break his links with England: in 1952 he was a founder member of the Vernacular Architecture Group, and in the following year on the proposal of Sir Cyril Fox he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
James Walton’s first major work in his new area, Homesteads and Villages of South Africa (van Schaik, Pretoria, 1952), focused on colonial settlements, but his interests soon expanded to include those of the indigenous peoples and a companion volume, African Village, was issued by the same publisher four years later. Both books relied heavily on Walton’s own illustrations, developing the skill and artistry already displayed in his Yorkshire publications. All these works placed emphasis not just on architecture, but on the technology that was employed and on the functions served by the buildings and by their constituent and surrounding parts. In these studies, he laid a foundation for a fuller understanding of African architecture and settlement, on the basis of which more recent archaeologists and anthropologists have been able to draw important historical conclusions. The innovative quality of his work was widely recognised, not least by the Vernacular Architecture Society of South Africa, of which he was both founder and honorary President. On his death, James Walton’s extensive archive was deposited in the S. Gericke Library of Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Although it contains mainly African materials, Yorkshire is also represented. A detailed catalogue may be consulted on-line at digital.lib.sun.ac.za/handle/10019.2/312.
This note is published so that Yorkshire-based readers may be aware of a potentially important resource, as well as
being reminded of pioneering local work which also made a significant contribution to knowledge in a far-distant
region. In addition to James Walton’s own publications, I have drawn on his notice in the obituary archive of the Society of Antiquaries, and on information kindly communicated by Mr Nigel Amschwand of Cape Town.