These houses are next to one another in a street I visited in Letchworth Garden City today. They were built in the inter-war years in the vernacular, Arts and Crafts tradition established by Raymond Parker and Richard Unwin, and although they’re unique they appear familiar because the Letchworth style dominated suburban England between the wars. Jonathan Meades, in a scathing opinion piece on Letchworth (below), described this kind of architecture as a trip down false-memory lane.
I think it was Colin Ward who pointed out that the design of Letchworth seemed to realise the world invented by Kate Greenaway (below). Its characteristics are whitewashed roughcast walls, gables, dormer windows, hanging tiles, timber boarding, low-slung roofs, casements and mullions.
I tweeted about the Ruskin exhibition at 2 Temple Place, mentioning that Ruskin’s great influence on English thinking came about partly because his books were given as school prizes right up to the 1920s. Michael Rosen commented that he read Ruskin’s tale The King of the Golden River many times over as a boy and loved it. I had never read it, in fact I’d never heard of it, but I read it last night.
Ruskin wrote the story for the young Effie Gray and it became very popular. Ruskin is one of the great prose stylists of the 19th century and this is a beautiful moral tale, beautifully written, but it is the only children’s story he ever wrote.
The illustration above is by Arthur Rackham, from an edition made in the 1920s. Rackham was good at myths and fables and had done good illustrations for Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen ten years earlier. All Rackham’s illustrations are now hugely collectible.
It will be obvious from my comments about Ruskin that I’m an admirer of David Pye, (above) who was the first person to talk sense about the crafts. Here’s a quotation from The Independent‘s obituary:
In The Nature of Design (1964), Pye exposed functionalism as fantasy. ‘Things simply are not ‘fit for their purpose’. At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery; and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose now. Everything we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But, even at that, we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance, we will have it in appearance.’
I’m reading Michael T. Saler’s The Avant-Garde in Interwar England, about the English version of modernism that carried forward the social ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The book focuses on Frank Pick (above), the boss of London Underground, who commissioned the modernist stations of the Piccadilly, Northern and Metropolitan Lines and the posters that advertised the underground.
Pick played a leading role in the Design and Industries Association (DIA) and the Council for Art and Industry (CAI) putting him at the centre of design reform.
The CAI , which stood in a line that linked the Chamber of Horrors in the South Kensington Museum to the Design Council, was central to the art and industry debate of the 1930s, which sought to raise the standard of consumer products, ostensibly because better design would improve sales and exports. What I’ve never been able to understand about this movement is that it saw the need to raise the sights of industrialists and to improve the taste of consumers. But why, if poor design was a brake on sales, was it necessary to improve consumer taste?
Saler makes it clear that the idea of fitness for purpose that drove the modernism of the DIA, the CAI and Pick’s underground was more than the physical usefulness of objects and entailed moral ans spiritual fitness as well. As Pick put it, “Fitness for purpose must transcend the merely practical and serve a moral and spiritual order as well. There is moral and spiritual fitness to be satisfied. We know it sure enough when we see it.” Good design was not a matter of taste, understood as consumer preference, but objective standards with moral and spiritual significance. The ideas of good design that ran from the 1850s to the 1960s are hard to understand from our viewpoint, in which we see no aesthetic absolutes and see one design is as good as another. Design was associated with planning and and state direction and was not to be left to the vagaries of the market and personal preference.
A walk from Deal to St Margaret’s Bay, via Kingsdown and St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, took in a variety of building styles, vernacular and polite.
Flint and brick is characteristic.
I liked the fretted fascia on this house.
Oldestairs House in Oldstairs Road, Kingsdown. Red-brick, roughcast and tile hanging. Large, Edwardian and intrusive.
Kingsdown Cottage, one of a pair of Arts-and-Crafts houses on the outskirts of St-Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, with its roughcast walls, high chimneys and steep-pitched roof, recalls Voysey’s High Gaut in the same village (which we didn’t get to see), but I couldn’t find out anything about it.
Tin shacks pop up everywhere for chapels and clubs. I thought the St Margaret’s Bowls Club looked homely.
Portal House, a Kent County Council special school, is well described by its architects, KSS: “The double pitched roof concept for the new building draws on the local Kent vernacular, and the use of humble traditional materials with simple modern detailing gives the building a quiet but distinct contemporary identity.”
The star of our walk was Ness Point, a bold, orginal design by Tonkin Liu, with curving white walls that echo the White Cliffs. There are plans and more photos, including interior photos, at Design Curial.
Leighton House Museum, the house Frederic Leighton built for himself in Holland Park, which I visited yesterday, will start a big improvement programme soon, due for completion in 2021.
Leighton House is famous for its Orientalist decoration, furnished from Leighton’s travels in the near East, and notable for walls covered in Iznik and Persian tiles set in glazed turquoise panels by William de Morgan. (No photos allowed, but good illustrations in the guidebook ISBN 0902242237.) Its lavish and exotic public spaces contrast with Leighton’s monastic bedroom. He fiercely guarded his privacy and left almost no personal documents, but the design of the house suggests that he never intended to marry and it is now generally supposed that he was gay, which influences the way we look at paintings like Daphnephoria, (above), where the youths are painted with more conviction than the girls.
The peculiar design of the house, with a large studio, one bedroom and public rooms unsuitable for family living, made it unsaleable on his death in 1896. The sale of the contents, however, raised enough to keep it as a museum. But it was really only eighty years after Leighton’s death that it began to be run as a proper monument to him. Disagreements between his sisters and Mrs Emilie Barrington, his adoring neighbour and biographer, blocked development for years. On their death the property was sold to the local council, then managed in a half-hearted way, a victim of indifference to Victorian art, and by the 1950s it had fluorescent lighting and cream-painted walls and was being used for exhibitions of modern art. John Betjeman spearheaded its revival, which began in the early 1980s, since when it has been carefully restored and appropriately furnished, original contents recovered wherever possible.
The final phase of the restoration will remove some late additions, restore the Perrin Wing, make a new entrance, improve disabled access and create stronger links with the local community.
I’m taking the opportunity to post a message from the SDC’s website about the refurbishment of our gallery and workspace in Rivington Street, a project that I’ve been involved with as a Trustee of the Society. I’ll continue to post news about the plan as it advances.
Fundraising for a Sustainable Future
“In our 130th year, the Society of Designer Craftsmen is excited to be working with Elliot Payne Architects to ensure the Society continues to be the success it is today. To help secure our future, we are currently fundraising to refurbish our headquarters in London’s vibrant Shoreditch to provide a members gallery for public exhibitions and creative spaces where members can meet clients and take part in workshops. If you wish to support us in this venture please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.”