Brian Hope-Taylor, an only child, was born in Surrey on 23 October 1923. Although his father was a solicitor three generations of his family had interests in the arts. Brian trained with George Mackley, a wood engraver. This was to influence Brian’s later work with scraper boards. George was to later tell Brian, “You needed no teaching. All that I did was to be present at your learning.” Hope-Taylor was born late in the life of his parents and spent considerable time looking after them in their final years. He was devastated as a young man by the death of his fiancé, who was killed in a road accident in New York, and never married.
While in the RAF in 1943 Brian’s artistic skills were put to use. He was involved in model making for practice bombing targets based on aerial photography. There were a number of archaeologists among the photo-intelligence staff and Brian became interested in the subject. During his leave time he discovered prehistoric field systems on Farthing Down in Surrey. This led, after the war, to a series of excavations on the Norman motte at Abinger in Surrey which was published in 1956 in The Archaeological Journal.
Brian had been elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1950. He was illustrating books and magazine articles in his clean distinctive style. His earlier work at Abinger led to a study of the Motte of Ur in Dumfries and Galloway. Brian’s identification of the Ad Gefrin site from the St. Joseph photographs happened at this time. This coincided with his involvement at another Anglo-Saxon palace site at Old Windsor in Berkshire. Brian spent several challenging winters at Yeavering excavating Edwin’s palace; migrating to Berkshire during the summer months to complete the excavations there.
The Enchanted Forest
Illustration by Brian Hope-Taylor
In 1958 Hope-Taylor was permitted to register at St John’s College, Cambridge, to undertake a PhD thesis on Yeavering, despite not having a first degree, never having been to university. He was awarded his doctorate in 1961, when, encouraged by Glyn Daniel, he was appointed as a University Assistant Lecturer in Archaeology at Cambridge. His promotion to a full lectureship was followed, in 1967, by election to a fellowship at University College.
While at Cambridge he continued to excavate on Anglo-Saxon sites at Lindisfarne, Doon Hill (Dunbar), and at Bamburgh Castle though, sadly, these investigations remain unpublished. In 1966 Brian was Director of Research during engineering excavations within York Minster, when it was realised that the great building was threatened by collapse. In 1973, he directed a rescue excavation when construction of the M11 required a cutting to be made through the Devil’s Dyke in Cambridgeshire.
During the 1960s, Brian was persuaded by Anglia Television to write and present two successful archaeological series, “Who Were the British”? and “The Lost Centuries”. The former was nominated for a Bafta award. He took to television with confidence; his childhood interest in acting bearing fruit as he addressed the hearts as well as the minds of his audience. Brian understood the power of the medium entirely. The programmes are still fresh, innovative and very entertaining.
During one episode Hope-Taylor revisits Yeavering (a frame from the episode is shown here) and archaeologist Roger Miket reflects “Our guide is clearly a master storyteller, versed in the tradition of his subject matter; a modern Caedmon, whose sonorous authorative prose so tightly gathers the period and the halls of Yeavering around his own personality as to be a visible demonstration as to why half a century later his presence remains indivisible from discussion of the early Anglo-Saxon settlement”.
He resigned his Cambridge post in 1977 and moved to Wooler, only a few miles from the site of Ad Gefrin. He suffered a period of ill health, though in 1981 he resumed work on his Old Windsor report. Brian gradually became more and more reclusive in his habits however, and the report remained unfinished. During his latter years he turned to research on East Anglian churches virtually ignoring his earlier work.
Sadly Brian died in Cambridge on the 12th of January 2001.
Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria (1977) will be his lasting memorial. Hailed as “a landmark in British archaeology” and “one of the most brilliant and satisfactory pieces of research ever to be made in such a field”, the text and illustrations are as vibrant and inspiring today, even with the hindsight of modern interpretation of the site, as they ever were. This unique volume continues to inspire and inform. Far from being a dry academic work Brian’s skill as an illustrator and teller of tales leaps from the pages.
Never predictable, often difficult and sometimes impossible, Brian still remains an inspiration. My father knew him (a common interest in wood engraving and ink work) though I never did. However, Brian’s love of his subject, his ease with the latest media innovations and his naive genius ensure his place in the story of archaeology.