The 1926 Yearbook of Decorative Art published by The Studio magazine was frank about British design conservatism: ‘On the Continent and in the United States the enterprise was greater than in this country and the results more hectic. We Britons have always been somewhat slow in the uptake in the matter of design; but our conservatism in the long run has done us little harm.’ Remember that the 1925 Paris Exhibition is seen as the launch pad of Art Deco and then see that many if not most of the designs featured by The Studio are still in Arts-and-Crafts mode.
Architectural examples were predominently vernacular in inspiration, with a trace of neo-Georgian in the examples from Welwyn Garden City. But although interiors were traditional, they were stripped down and free from clutter, as in work by the Deutsche Werkstätten. Gordon Russell’s simple and useful furniture was made by the best cabinet makers available. Heal’s furniture anticipated Utility, with which Russell, of course was associated.
British ceramics emphasised craft methods: hand-painted pottery from Pilkington, Wedgwood and Poole, work by the up-and-coming studio potters, William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach, figures by Stanley Thorogood, Wilfrid Norton, Harold Stabler and Stella Crofts. Handicraft was also emphasised in Continental ceramics but the Deco element was evident in pieces designed by Claude Lévy and Madeleine Sougez for Atelier Primavera (top), who had exhibited at the 1925 Paris Expo.
Figurative ceramics were more evident in the illustrations from the Continent, despite the fact they were at the height of their popularity in Britain.
By 1933, there had been a major change. The rchitecture and interiors featured in the Yearbook were now mainly modernist, including British examples by A.V.Pilchowski and Stanley Hall and Eastern & Robertson. Fewer ceramics were shown but they included mass-produced factory wares like those designed by M. Friedlaender.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mackintosh’s innovative architecture and his link to continental design and modernism made me consider again why the English Arts and Crafts movement, after revolutionising design in the late 19th century, ran into a dead end in the 20th.
The movement created several initiatives that had more to do with social change than design, such as The Home Arts and Industries Association, Haselmere Peasant Arts Industries and the Clarion Guild of Handicraft. They tended to be backward-looking, utopian and to encourage the participation of the poor in the crafts, but they did not contribute to product design or the manufacture of of well-made goods at a reasonable price and they fostered amateurism. Lewis F. Day told a government inquiry into the Royal College of Art that, in his opinion, W. R. Lethaby, the professor of design, paid too little attention to the requirements of industry and that the Arts and Crafts Movement had drawn the College towards “the more or less amateurish pursuit of the Handicrafts.” After William Morris’s death, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, the principal arts and crafts body, lost its way and repeated what it had done before, and by the First World War its leaders were elderly. Roger Fry said they “represented to perfection the hideous muddle headed sentimentality of the English – wanting to mix moral feeling in with everything.” I think it’s that mixing in of moral feeling that was the reason it was overtaken by design in in Europe and America.
Although the Bauhaus was at first inspired by arts and crafts ideals, it gradually abandoned them and turned to industrial design. Lethaby, whom Day may have judged too harshly, co-founded the Design and Industries Association with others who were concerned that the growth of the arts and crafts had “been arrested for the last ten years in the country of its birth.” They believed that “The principles of the movement are now more consistently and logically studied in Germany and America”.
Mackintosh also absorbed arts and crafts ideas and went beyond them. The Hill House, for example, (top) has Scottish vernacular features and uses local materials, and some of the decoration was executed by Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. But he never thought that every designer should execute his own designs, that everything should be made by hand or that art was a moral crusade, and however much The Hill House resonates with Scottish precedent, its form is radical and anticipates modernism in its bold, abstract shapes.
I wrote about Károly Kós’s buildings in the Budapest Zoo, and earlier about his work on the Wekerle housing estate on the outskirts of the city, mentioning his use of Transylvanian vernacular styles. Like his contemporary Bartók, Kós made studies of the folk art of the region in the early 20th century and several of his illustrations were re-published with a text by András Székely (Kós Károly, Corvina, Budapest, 1979).
Illustration from The Song of King Attila (Atila kiráról szóló ének), 1923
Belfry and entrance to the churchyard at Mezőcsávás (Cenanasul-de-Campie)
The drawings show how closely he based the zoo buildings on folk styles, but they are more than a record of folk architecture and they are beautiful in their own right, ink drawings and linocuts, characteristic of the the period and reminiscent of the graphic art of The Beggarstaffs.