As Loyd Grossman comes to end of his time as Chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust, he talks to SPAB communications manager Kate Griffin.
Loyd Grossman is a pleasingly difficult man to pigeon hole. His diverse enthusiasms and commitments could almost be seen as the accomplishments of someone from earlier age when a person could be defined by their interests rather than their profession. Loyd’s distinctive swooping vowels made him instantly familiar as a broadcaster when he fronted several hugely popular television series in the 1980s and 90s, but it is perhaps another small screen appearance that gives the clue to his range and depth. In 2009, he won an edition of BBC’s Celebrity Mastermind and his specialist subject was 18th century art and artists, something that viewers of Through the Keyhole or MasterChef, might not have expected. Then again, they might also have found it surprising that Loyd has an ongoing parallel ‘career’ as a rock musician. In 1977 his punk band Jet Bronx and The Forbidden reached number 49 in the UK singles chart with “Ain’t Doin’ Nothing” and he returned to performing music in 2008 with a new version of the group.
The son of a Massachusetts art and antiques dealer, Loyd graduated from Boston University with a degree in history before arriving in the UK in the 1970s to study for a master’s in economic history. He subsequently read art history at Cambridge where he received his PhD. In addition to his television work, a lifelong interest in history and the arts has led to his involvement with a number of heritage organisations. In 2007, he was appointed Chairman of The Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) and in 2009 he was appointed Chairman of The Heritage Alliance, the UK membership organisation that represents more than 100 leading non-governmental organisations across the heritage sector.
You’ve enjoyed a very varied career, how would you describe yourself?
I try very hard not to describe myself. I’m very fortunate in that I try to pursue the things I’m interested in with a great deal of commitment, passion and love. It may be heritage, it may be higher education, and it may be playing the guitar. I am a great enthusiast and an optimist. I always believe that things can be made better if we try. I don’t have a career, I have an attitude.
You are clearly an anglophile, how did your enthusiasm for Britain and its heritage begin?
I love this country. I came to London in 1974 to do a post graduate degree at the London School of Economics. And I’m still here. My academic discipline has always been history. I grew up in Marblehead, a famously beautiful part of New England with a very strong sense of history. From childhood, thanks to my parents and my environment, I was always interested in history, and architectural and art history. Really, I think it was inevitable – for someone like me who grew up in New England and who was interested in history – that Britain would have an appeal. For Americans, the Revolution of 1776 is an extraordinarily evocative and romantic thing – it’s the moment at which American history and British history seem to be on a threshold. You can’t understand one without understanding the other.
Why is the past relevant?
I think it sets us in the context of all those who’ve come before and makes us think about the future. I’m very clear that it’s not just about us and it’s not just about us feeling good, productive or aesthetically satisfied. It’s about us as inheritors of this incredible history and wanting to pass it on to future generations – wanting our children and grandchildren and so on, to grow up in a beautiful, inspiring, historically rich and meaningful environment.
How did you become involved with the Churches Conservation Trust?
In 2007 I’d finished six wonderful years as a commissioner for English Heritage and I knew I wanted to stay in the heritage field. Everything is a matter of timing. Miraculously, the Chairmanship of the CCT was available. I had met, and greatly admired, the two previous Chairs – namely Liz Forgan and Frank Field – so I knew what a great organisation it was. I thought, what the heck, I should try for it. I must add I never expected to get it. In those days ‘celebrity’ wasn’t in any way a necessary part of the criteria for the chairmanship. Oddly enough, at that stage I don’t think the fact that I was in some way well known played a part in the process.
You are stepping down from the role of Chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust in 2016, looking back what do you consider to be the most satisfying achievements during that time?
It’s been nine years and it’s been amazing experience – a really incredible part of my life. I’ve worked with so many interesting people who share a real passion. It’s an organisation that punches way above its weight because we all love the mission. I’m pleased that during my time as Chairman the size of the charity has increased by more than threefold, which means we are doing and are able to do more and more and more wonderful stuff. Of course, there’s still a huge amount to tackle, but I think, modestly, I’ve helped to play a part in creating a framework or platform to enable it to go on doing and achieving great things in the future.
There are thousands of ancient churches across the UK. With diminishing congregations and huge care challenges, what does the future hold?
Nationally, I believe there are around 16,000 listed churches. The CCT is a smallish charity and we only look after 350 of them, which, actually, still puts us in the same category in terms of the number of properties in our care as, say, English Heritage or the National Trust.
It’s a huge challenge, but I am full of optimism. I hope that the CCT leads by example. I think we have created very innovative models which show the extraordinary and imaginative things you can do with listed churches, while remaining consistent with their consecrated status. We try very hard to exercise a pastoral role and we’ve shown that one can be creative and full of hope and full of commitment to do the best things for the communities that surround our churches. Of course, it’s not a uniquely British challenge. We’ve exported our model to other countries. We’ve taken a leadership role in something called Future Religious Heritage Europe which is trying to help others deal with the similar issues facing their own historic buildings.
What will never change – and this is true for everyone in the heritage world – is that our aspirations, which are so great and so beneficial, will always outstrip our resources, but nonetheless we will keep moving forward and keep improving things.
The challenges and difficulties are great, but so are the opportunities. Do we believe that historic buildings have the ability to inspire people and make them more creative, more entrepreneurial and more complete?
The answer to all those questions for me – for all of us – has to be ‘yes’. We are all nuts to be doing this, but we believe it will help people now and in the future, and we will keep on doing it. We will triumph.
Is it about people or buildings?
It’s about people. It has to be. It’s about saving buildings to help people have better, more interesting, more fulfilled lives.
The full interview was published in the summer 2016 SPAB Magazine. The magazine is just one of the benefits of SPAB membership.