I have been trying without success so far to load an article written by the Gentle Author on the back page of the January issue of The World of Interiors. It describes the many campaigns he’s involved with – not just the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, but Bishopsgate Goosdsyar, Arnold Circus, and now a standardly bad […]Spitalfields Life
In the late 1940s and early 50s, during the era of post-war reconstruction, Penguin Books published an attractive, well-illustrated, large-format series called The Things We See, setting out the principles of good design in an attempt to raise visual literacy. There were volumes on Houses, Furniture, Pottery and Glass, Public Transport, Gardens and Ships. The introductory volume was called Indoors and Out, by Alan Jarvis, Director of Information at the Council of Industrial Design (CoID).
The Things we See was descended from the South Kensington museum’s Chamber of Horrors through the Arts and Crafts movement and the art-and-industry debates of the 1930s. Alan Jarvis’s volume, although illustrated with contemporary designs like a factory-built house and an Underground station on the Piccadilly line, expresses ideas about design, taste and industry familiar since Ruskin’s day. He said that the degradation and shabbiness of the built environment resulted from public indifference to the way things look and from liking the wrong things. This had a tinge of immorality about it. When someone said to Henry Cole that people’s tastes varied, he replied, “I think to act on the principle of ‘every one to his taste’ would be as mischievous as ‘every one to his morals’.” The sentiment persisted.
Jarvis said that modern housing is wrong because the Englishman has modelled it on the castle instead of designing at an appropriate scale. He disdained the suburb and the Tudorbethan house (as all design reformers did), but by the late 1940s anti-suburb snobbery had clothed itself in democratic ideals: “Just as manorial rights, feudal economics and a rigid system of social castes are inappropriate to a modern industrial democracy,” said Jarvis, “so are the architectural forms which we still copy.” It was a precept of the good-design movement that one material should not imitate another and that previous styles should never be copied, but the Georgian Revival had played into Jarvis’s thinking and he held up the Georgian house as a model of elegance and restraint.
He compared good and bad taste in design with good and bad taste in food and drew interesting parallels between, on one hand, a modern bedroom and a wholemeal loaf, and, on the other, a bad-taste bedroom and a plate of sticky iced cakes.
There are Arts-and-Crafts attitudes throughout. Industry bred a new type of man detached from the land and confined to the factory. Modern transport systems spoiled the town and the countryside. Mass production debased the quality of goods and suppressed individuality. There is only a grudging acceptance that mass production brought cheaper commodities and no recognition of the value of predictability and reliability.
Jarvis held out Frederic Gibberd’s modest and democratic factory-built steel house (above) as the hope for future design. It had harmonious proportions and no ornamentation other than the integral patterns of brick, roof tiles and fluted panels. It was simple and practical and did not refer to the past or have any connotations or extraneous meaning.
He viewed decoration and ornament with suspicion. He acknowledged the human urge to decorate and admitted that it had to be indulged if we were not to go down the route of “crude or second-hand satisfactions, with a synthetic taste in visual things, like a taste for soups and custard made of powder.” There was the predictable worry about vulgarity and a reminder of Adolf Loos in Jarvis’s horror of tattooing.
At the same time as this Penguin series came out, Barbara Jones, in The Unsophisticated Arts and the exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade, was recording and celebrating vulgar and popular art including tattooing, fairground painting, confectionery and funerary art, at the start of an anti-design movement that accepted demotic taste and even democratic bad taste.
When we were in Puglia in September, I noticed that high baroque churches and palazzi were placed in narrow streets, making it impossible to get a proper view of them. The grand duomo in Gallipoli was a case in point, so were the houses in Martina Franca.
Now, reading Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, I found that in his view this was not a mistake and was wholly characteristic of the baroque style. His concept of the “painterly style” in baroque denoted movement, indefiniteness and impermanence in the visual arts and applied to sculpture and buildings as well as painting.
The creation of views in architecture, in which buildings were designed to be seen in different ways and from different perspectives, was one aspect of the painterly style and explains why it was unimportant for a façade to be viewed square on or from the front:
Although the full front view will always claim for itself a certain exclusivity, we now find compositions which clearly set out to reduce the significance of this view. This is very clear, for instance, in the Carlo Borromeo church in Vienna [the Karlskirche, above], with its two columns placed in front of the façade, the true value of which is revealed in the non-frontal views, where the columns lose their equality and the central dome is cut across.
For the same reason it was regarded as no misfortune if a baroque façade was so placed in a street that it was almost impossible to obtain a front view of it.
After reading my post on Suburban Modernism, someone drew my attention to Pablo Bronstein’s 2017 RIBA exhibition on Pseudo-Georgian architecture. There was a book (above) to accompany it.
“The reality is,” said Bronstein, “that we have created much more pseudo-Georgian architecture over the last 30 years than any other kind of building. For most of us, it seems, a cheap yellow-brick facade evokes almost effortlessly a rosy everlasting British prosperity.”
Oliver Wainwright wrote a haughty review of Bronstein in The Guardian: “His pen and ink drawings, drafted in a quaint style reminiscent of postcards from National Trust gift shops, depict a world oozing with aspiration. There are humble homes gussied up with pediments and plastic porches, as well as banal commercial apartment blocks with facades arranged in vaguely Georgian proportions.”
Bronstein noticed a connection between pseudo-Georgian and the Conservative right-to-buy-policy, which encouraged council tenants to purchase their own flats. In their own homes they turned from modernism to nostalgia. The parallel with Tudorbethan is inescapable: between the wars, when home ownership was rapidly expanding, there was a similar turn to designs that evoked the past.
A few years ago I organised public consultations in Hatfield and met people who had been asked by officials about the design of the new town in the 1950s. They recalled that they were listened to and then ignored. They may not have wanted Tudorbethan or Pseudo-Georgian, but the leaders of good taste and good design had already decided what they should have.
I wrote earlier about W.T.Curtis and William Burchett, architects to Middlesex County Council, who were responsible for many schools and public buildings in north-west London, including the iconic Kenton Public Library, recognisable by their brick construction, strong horizontal emphasis, flat roofs and prominent staircase tower. I was pleased to find that they’d designed my primary school, Pinner Park, in 1934, which used innovative construction methods. (No usable pictures, alas.)
My secondary school, Harrow Weald Grammar, a Neo-Georgian brick construction, opened in 1933, was very different. As the building is now being converted to housing, I became curious about its designer. I was amazed to find that it was also W. T. Curtis. Curtis’s change from traditional to modern was very sudden.
In their page on Curtis and Burchett, Modernism in Metroland explain how it came about:
The Wall Street crash and world financial crisis of 1931, one year into W.T. Curtis’ reign, forced a change in the departments’ designs in order to cut costs. Aiming to reduce spending by 30%, Curtis and Burchett adopted a more modernist utilitarian approach to school building. Their first innovations were using steel framing at Uxendon Manor School, Wembley (1934), and then concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School (1934). These techniques allowed flexibility in internal planning, whilst also keeping the traditional Victorian school courtyard layout.
Does anyone imagine you can understand the past simply by looking at statues?
That’s not exactly what’s meant by saying statues are “part of our history”, but it implies that if statues are removed people will know less about history. The history they record, however, is not the deeds of those commemorated but the beliefs of the age that made the monuments.
Most people don’t know much about history. I had an educated colleague who thought the followers of Bonnie Prince Charlie were Jacobins and that Oliver Cromwell came in with the Glorious Revolution. The statue of Cromwell in Wythenshawe Park, Manchester, which has just been vandalised by anti-racists, wouldn’t have helped him.
The protesters daubed FASCIST, RACIST and COCKROACH on the plinth. The pretext was Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, which was pretty savage. Cromwell, as it happens also readmitted the Jews to England after an exile ordered by Edward I. If you want get het up about that too, there’s a statue of Edward above the street at 114 High Holborn and a prominent one at Burgh by Sands.
In Ulysses James Joyce wrote about about Ireland’s attitude to the Jews:
Mr Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.
—I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being
the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No.
And do you know why?
He frowned sternly on the bright air.—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.
I’ve been reading my diary for 1993 when I worked for Luton Borough Council, where I moved from the London Borough of Camden.
Luton was the worst example of callous post-war town planning in England. It was cut in half by the massive Arndale Centre (now called The Mall), where ghosts of old vanished streets lingered in the names of corridors. In the deserted side roads, old trades survived – a grocer with a bacon slicer, a bag and case shop with a window full of jumble, a stove enameller – and an exceptionally large number of nonconformist chapels. I liked Luton, which was untidy, varied, comic and glum. Although it was in the south, it felt like a northern city, largely because of Vauxhall Motors.
The philosophy of town planning was very different in the 1990s from what it had been in the 1960s and the Council was trying to atone for its sins. The district surveyor, who was on the point of retiring when I arrived, told me that the greatest regret of his professional life was acquiring the land for the Arndale. In the town planning guidance of the period, modernism was bad and Victorianism good.
I was reminded how much I liked the town hall. It was built in 1935 to replace the old town hall burned down in the infamous Peace Day riots of 1919, when disgruntled ex-servicemen revolted against their mistreatment and their exclusion from the official celebrations. Although the mayor was lucky to escape with his life, the riots had a funny side when a music shop was looted and a piano pushed out into the street to accompany a rendering of Keep the Home Fires Burning.
The listed building by Bradshaw, Gass and Hope is a mixture of civic classical and art deco, with a Doric entrance and a neon clock. The council chamber is walnut-panelled and lit by cubist pendants and retains original fittings and finishes in timber, plaster and metal designed by the architects.
When I worked there, the office doors had PRIVATE in gold letters on frosted glass panels but no name of the officer who worked inside. The building was beautifully preserved and smelled of furniture polish, a welcome change from working in Camden town hall, whose walls were smothered in unofficial placards and whose stairways smelled of piss.
Pursuing the theme of public statues, I was curious as to why Tamás Szabó, who made the Lutz monument in Budapest, had been asked to make a statue of Abraham and Isaac on an isolated housing estate in Kisvárda, a small town in eastern Hungary.
As it happens, the circumstances were similar. Lutz saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust and the Kisvárda statue commemorates the ghetto into which local Jews were forced before being sent to Auschwitz.
There is still a Jewish community in Budapest – and in the area around the Lutz monument and the Great Synagogue, it’s chic to eat in Jewish-style restaurants – but there are no Jews in Kisvárda. It was in the Maramures region, the centre of Hassidic Hungary. A few Jews returned after the Holocaust but they left in 1956. Their descendants probably live in Williamsburg now.
The Kisvárda town council features the Abraham and Isaac statue Touch prominently on its website. But in 2009 the figure of Isaac was taken, as the Hungarian website Köztérkép, which helpfully maps public art, explained:
For several months now (if not for a year), Isaac, the third figure, has been missing from Tamás Szabó’s ‘Touch’ on the housing estate in Tompos Street, Kisvárda.
According to a narrative in the Old Testament Books of Moses, the patriarch Abraham, obedient to the his God’s commandment, took Isaac his son to the mountain, built an altar and prepared to sacrifice him. When Abraham raised the knife to Isaac, the Angel of the Lord appeared, declaring that the father and child were merely participants in a divine ordeal, and so prevented the tragedy.
This exemplary, dramatic conflict of faith and sacrifice has been captured in many masterpieces throughout the history of art. In Kisvárda, prize-winning sculptor Tamás Szabó placed a bible-themed public work of art depicting the sacrifice on a pedestal in the urban setting of Tompos Street.
The triple statue was inaugurated on June 9, 1988. At the centre is a standing, stepping male figure. In front of him, slightly sloping and turned towards him, kneels the bound Isaac. To Isaac there comes from above a floating, leaning angel in female form.
In this bronze three-figured sculpture, Szabó created a genuine 360-degree composition. The personality of the mummified Isaac’s is unknowable. His painfully bound and leaning body can be interpreted as the futility of resistance, as impotence, as an expression of helplessness. Or so it would be if the figure were not missing from the base of the sculpture.
This triple form has been vandalised many times and Isaac is probably being guarded in a better place now. But will someone send the angel to return him to the pedestal and back to that missing moment of tragic sacrifice?
Isaac remained in the council’s possession for some time, but it’s not entirely clear whether he was stolen or simply removed and whether he has been returned or not.
There are obviously bigger issues around public statues at the moment than artistic merit but I wondered about it. Are statues even art?
If they are, they occupy a different space from gallery art. Everyone knows the equestrian statue in Whitehall (above), but who knows its creator, Adrian Jones? Jones and The Duke of Cambridge are ignored except as landmarks. Some of the creators of statues shown here have been hard to trace. Paul Day, creator of The Meeting Place in St Pancras Station, has been treated worse and has been consistently ridiculed since his statue went up in 2007.
I asked on Twitter for suggestions about statues of artistic worth.
I learned –
- We now put figures democratically on park benches and not on plinths.
Alan Turing, Glyn Hughes. Manchester.
Oscar Wilde and Estonian writer Eduard Vilde, by Tiiu Kirsipuu. Tartu.
- Soldiers and politicians are out. We memorialise ostracised figures like Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing and rebels like Gandhi and Emmeline Pankhurst. (Perhaps Antony Gormly’s Turing monument in Cambridge will be more convincing than Glyn Hughes’s bloke on a bench.)
- We have lots of blokes. As Daniel @djbirkinshaw tweeted, “In Leyland they don’t have statues of slave traders or war criminals. They have this bloke. Just an ordinary worker. Life sized, not on a pedestal, just walking in the middle of the path with the rest of us.” I couldn’t find out who the artist was – he or she doesn’t seem to be recorded. Beeston has a beekeeper, also on a bench.
- There are one or two black figures, like Mary Seacole and Nelson Mandela. After Colston we will see more.
- Public art by noted artists, like Elizabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna in Salisbury, is uncommon. Public bodies may be reluctant to commission work from established sculptors after the long-term mistreatment of Henry Moore’s Family Group in Harlow New Town – or to spend proper money on art. No-one on Twitter nominated The Angel of the North – a shame.
- The Communist-era statue of Slovene liberator Boris Kidrič in Ljubljana got a few votes, which pointed up the fact that shouty politicians standing on the ground are also rare: it’s almost unknown to find a public sculpture without a plinth.
- Georgia has a surprising number of striking monuments and I very much liked the one of an unidentifiable poet in Kutaisi – if you know who he is, please get in touch and I’ll add his name.
Top of my list of monumental art, also in eastern Europe, is the monument to Carl Lutz (top of post), Swiss vice-consul to Budapest, 1942-5.
Lutz saved half the city’s Jewish population from the Nazi deportations in 1944. Tamás Szabó’s sculpture recording Lutz’s achievement depicts an angel high up on the wall letting down a bolt of cloth to a prostrate victim. It’s a stone’s throw from the Great Synagogue, which publicly remembers the names of those who were murdered. Szabó anticipated his Lutz monument in an earlier sculpture of Abraham and Isaac, Érintés (Touch), on a housing estate in Kisvárda in east Hungary. It has a comparable nobility to the Budapest installation but it gets few visitors.
The toppling of the Colston statue brought to mind Saddam’s statue in Iraq, 2003, and Stalin’s in Budapest, 1956 – and then other episodes in which works or art were destroyed for what they represented. (Memorial statues, incidentally, are often bad and I would happily see the statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station pulled down.)
Without much thought, I wrote on Facebook about the destruction of religious images in the English Commonwealth and the 1643 Act of Parliament that ordered the demolition of church monuments that contravened the second commandment – and that on top of the iconoclasm of a hundred years previous. For many years, I said, Cromwell’s soldiers had visited churches to destroy pictures, crosses, stained glass, altar rails and rood screens. If you want to see medieval Christian art you have to go to the continent, and not just to Catholic countries because even Lutherans didn’t go in for vandalism the way that English Puritans did.
Nick Rowling, an art historian who knows more about it than I do, put me right. Cromwell’s bad press seems to stem partly from William Dowsing, an active iconoclast in Suffolk. Dowsing fixed upon Popish relics in the Cambridge colleges, foreshadowing the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford:
“now we have an army at Cambridge it might be a fitt time to write to ye Vice Chancellor of Cambridge & Mayor to pull down all ther blasphemous crucifixes, all superstitious pictures and reliques of popery according to the ordinances o’ parliament.”
But Dowsing was not typical of the Commonwealth. This is what Nick said:
Sadly, Marshall, you are merely perpetuating a Royalist myth about Oliver Cromwell. The great period of ecclesiastical iconoclasm occurred during the reign of Edward VI and was directed by Thomas Cromwell (no relation). This stopped after Mary became queen.
Under Elizabeth many churches fell into decay but in Catholic (recusant) parts of the country much medieval art was saved. The real problem was that most of the great buildings – especially the monasteries were sold to the vast army of Protestant lawyers who financed the protestant revolution and the stones and lead were sold for scrap. These were the ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’ referred to in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.
Everything changed when Laud was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Charles I and he did a great deal to protect, preserve and restore the fabric of many English churches and cathedrals though by then most of the artistic treasures of the medieval monasteries had disappeared.
Oliver Cromwell seems to have been totally indifferent to church worship, saying that God could just as well be worshiped in a barn, but he did issue explicit commands that damaging churches was a capital offence. And it is thanks to General Fairfax that the glorious glass of York Minster, for example, was preserved after the Battle of Marston Moor, when the Parliamentary army was prevented from sacking the city of York.
For the next two hundred years church and cathedral buildings simply decayed, and it wasn’t until the Victorian period and the agitation of high church revivalists like Pugin that anything was done to restore medieval architecture, but the problem is that church ‘restoration’ was in the hands of cultural barbarians like George Gilbert Scott – architects who actually destroyed some of the greatest surviving works of medieval architecture under the claim that they were restoring and ‘improving’ it! And if it hadn’t been for William Morris who was so shocked and appalled when he passed through Burford and saw what the ecclesiastical vandals were doing that he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
Since then, thankfully, much of what was thought to be lost has been uncovered again behind later tombs or under whitewash: glass has been found, sculpture has been identified in English country houses, and some of the greatest masterpieces of medieval art were opened to the public for the first time. The best example of this are the Royal Chapels in Westminster Abbey which were preserved intact because they were not places of public worship but the property of the crown.
How do I know all this? Well, about thirty years ago I was commissioned by the BBC to make a programme about this very question – it was called The God that Rules (BBC2/Open University, 1984) – and what astonished us when we began to research it was just how much medieval art has survived if you know where to look for it, and how the myth that Oliver Cromwell was responsible for the iconoclasm is simply untrue.
We really looked hard to find the evidence that Oliver Cromwell was an iconoclast, but it simply isn’t there. What we did discover almost everywhere were modern guidebooks blaming the destruction on ‘Cromwell’ but they were clearly confusing Oliver with Thomas. And I am certain that much of Ely survived because Oliver Cromwell was MP for Ely – further evidence that he wasn’t an iconoclast.
Another thing we learned was that medieval art was very much ‘an international style’ and that artists and works of art traveled all over Europe. For example, almost every stone screen in England was destroyed but there is a wonderful example of English craftsmanship remaining in Trondheim Cathedral, which appears to have been made by Canterbury craftsmen and then exported to Norway in the 12th century. And Nottingham alabaster sculptures were also exported all over Europe – there is a wonderful collection for example in the Bargello in Florence.
In the end we found that we had so much material to choose from to make our programme that we confined ourselves to just four ecclesiastical buildings. But one thing which still amuses me is that we had a reputation of being a gang of marxist anarchists, and BBC management kept on trying to censor our programmes, but we were absolutely scrupulous in only quoting 17th century voices – Milton, Cromwell, Winstanley, and of course the Bible itself – so we got away with it!