“THE THINGS WE SEE”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

WREST PARK

marshall@marshallcolman.com

We went to Wrest Park to break the monotony of lockdown, but I wanted to see it anyway because it has one of the few remaining baroque gardens in England.

The house was built in a thoroughgoing French style between 1834 and 1839 by Thomas, Earl de Grey, but the garden was laid out in the first decades of the 18th century by Henry Grey, Duke of Kent, and is a rare example of a formal woodland garden in the French style, though there are Dutch influences as well, reflecting the Duke’s loyalty to William III. Its principal features – the Long Water on the axis of the house, with woodland walks beyond and parterres near to the house – remain and much of it has survived alteration, Batty Langley, Thomas Wright and Capability Brown having respected it in their later improvements.

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This kind of formal garden is now deeply unfashionable, and even the mixed herbaceous border – the staple of garden design in houses of all sizes for a hundred and fifty years – is under pressure from wild and ecological gardening, but English Heritage are embarked on a twenty-year programme to restore it.

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HATFIELD HOUSE

 

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I last visited the gardens of Hatfield House when the late Dowager Marchioness, Mollie Wyndham-Quin, presided over them. She was an inspired gardener and a significant garden historian until her death, aged 94, in 2016. The West Garden, which looks good in spring, was past its best the other day, not just because of the late season but also, I thought, because of the loss of that guiding hand. The East Garden, which is not always open to the public, still has reminiscences (above) of the Stuart garden of Robert Cecil, though a photo of the garden taken in 1895 (below) shows that the modern parterre is softer, greener and less labour-intensive than it was a hundred years ago. I also liked the Dutch garden with its peaceful pond (bottom, right).

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BATTERSEA POWER STATION

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Photo: Alex McDonald

The picture above, by Alex McDonald, shows two of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s memorable designs: the red phone box and the brick exterior of Battersea Power Station. The overused word “iconic” can be properly applied to both. Pink Floyd put the power station on one of their album covers and redundant phone boxes are now being bought and displayed in gardens, precisely as icons.

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The first phase of the power station redevelopment, where I exhibited at the weekend as part of the London Design Festival, is a mix of flats, offices and restaurants.

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Coffee Works, where I took my lunch breaks, served large sourdough-bread sandwiches at £7. The General Store indicates who the local customers are, selling, alongside the croissants and cauliflowers, magnums of champagne and jars of truffles. I didn’t look in the estate agents’ windows, but one of my fellow exhibitors told me I couldn’t afford all the noughts. A local nanny visited my stall and told me she traveled with her boss to her other houses in Gstad and Los Angeles. Friends who moved to Battersea in the  seventies told me that in the eighties the gentrifiers had already started calling it South Chelsea and saying their postal address was SW one-one.

Not everyone has been complimentary about the development. In the Architect’s Journal, Owen Hatherley describes it as dystopian and grim and says it is “devoid of planning, intelligence or character – a tangle of superfluous skyscrapers around parodies of public spaces.”

ADAM KOSSOWSKI

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On the way back from the Kent coast we stopped at the Aylesford Friars to see the ceramics of Adam Kossowski, whom I discovered by chance a few years ago when I passed his ceramic mural on the old Peckham Town Hall depicting the History of the Old Kent Road. I wrote about him here.

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I knew that he had done work for the Carmelite friars at Aylesford, so I was keen to see his ceramics in the chapels there, which were far more extensive than I had imagined, complemented by paintings on canvas, murals, sgraffito, large metal lanterns and stunningly beautiful modern stained glass.

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Kossowski was born and studied in Poland, went east to escape the Nazis and found himself in a Russian gulag for several years. There he made a promise that if he ever escaped that hell he would devote himself to the service of God, and his promise was realised in the work he did for the Friars over a period of twenty years.

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As Christian art it is anonymous and Kossowski was not a man to push himself forward. Even his secular “Old Kent Road” is unsigned, and there is only a brief mention of him at Aylesford. His work is outstanding, but here I have illustrated only his “Rosary Way”, his first foray into ceramics, which he was asked to do by the Carmelite Abbot, Father Malachy, who responded to his modest demurral by insisting that he was sent to do this work and that God would enable him to do it. He developed greater mastery of the technique in his later ceramic reliefs (for example, the Fallen Christ in the Relic Chapel, below), but his Rosary Way is an artistic triumph, showing his typical boldness of form, direct modelling and sensitivity to colour.

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The Friars explain, “The Rosary Way is a place of prayer and peace, where you will see the first ever ceramics created by the Polish artist, Adam Kossowski. The Rosary Way was laid out between 1950 and 1951 with images of the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries. …

“The Joyful Mysteries reflect upon the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus and include the early life of Jesus up to the finding of him as a boy in the Temple.

“Mysteries of Light focus on the public ministry of Jesus, from his Baptism by St. John the Baptist to the Last Supper.

“Sorrowful Mysteries ponder the glorious moments of Jesus and Mary from the Resurrection of Jesus to the Coronation of Mary as the Queen of Heaven.”

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MY NEIGHBOUR’S GARDEN

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You can keep your Kews, Wisleys, Munsteads and Great Dixters. My favourite garden is at the end of my street.

It belongs to an elderly neighbour who has tended it and loved it for years, without design manuals, Homes and Gardens magazine or TV makeover programmes. It’s his own, personal, DIY garden, made without spending much money, just as he likes it, with any old bits and pieces that came to hand. He can’t get around so well now, but he still potters and keeps it tidy. It’s unique and wonderful.

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Borders are kept in check by bits of Dexion and cement walls studded with pebbles. A few tiles he found were made into a short length of paving. Concrete animals, gnomes and caryatids live under shrubs. A bit of irrigation has been built into his own Manneken Pis.

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The fig tree is the statement plant. Windfall apples are too many to be picked up and pattern the path like stars. A shady bench under the trees reminds me of an Italian courtyard garden.

Of course, this is all too posh and high flown. It’s just one man’s private garden. But as it’s on a corner, it’s also public, and I stop and admire it every time I go by.

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