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.
I’m co-ordinating the mentoring programme of the Society of Designer Craftsmen, which we run to help our new young members develop their professional careers, and as I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel I’m talking to organisations that run similar programmes. I’ve always worked this way, believing that standards are raised by sharing good practice.
So I was surprised to find that a few publicly-funded bodies were unwilling to talk to me. Their curt replies mean I can only guess why they are so unco-operative and my conclusion is that, now that such bodies regard themselves as businesses, some treat what they do not as a public service but as a commodity, and they treat other organisations doing the same thing not as colleagues but as competitors.
I’m working on a series of drawings of Morris dancers in English seaside resorts. I’ve been fascinated by this tradition for years, particularly Border Morris because of the way its dress updates a tradition with punk elements and random collections of ornamentation. (The dancer below had sausages in her hat.) And I connect the dancers with the seaside because that’s where I’ve come across them, like modern end-of- the-pier shows.
Border Morris goes in for weird dress and violent dancing, which involve shouting and striking sticks together, and some dancers introduce modern instruments like saxophones and electric guitars. Like all traditions, this one is curated, continually re-invented, altered and embellished.
But Border Morris (unlike the bells-and-hankies type of Morris dancing from the Cotswolds) has become embroiled in controversy because its traditional dance requires black face, which, with the dancers’ penchant for sunglasses, makes their performance look even more malevolent. A Border Morris side in black face was recently stopped from performing in Birmingham, the first time they have been challenged. The bemused response of the dancers is to say that black face has nothing to do with racism and originated in the need of dancers to disguise themselves. But others have said that this story is repeated from an assertion by Cecil Sharpe without evidence, and that there is evidence to the contrary of the co-incidence of black face Morris with black face minstrel shows, and of 19th century dancers talking of “going niggering”. Compared with Cotswold Morris, Border Morris has a sinister back story which its supporters are unaware of. I expect that in a rapidly changing climate it will have to re-invent itself again.
The English seaside resort also has an uncomfortable history. It has been in decline for fifty years and seaside towns are among the most socially deprived in the country, but there is also a steep social gradient on the coast – between, say, chic Deal and squalid Margate.
Driving from St Albans to Letchworth this morning, I was struck by the intense frost in open country.
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.’
In Winchester I looked in at the Cathedral, which, in the bicentenary of Ruskin’s birth, made me think of The Nature of Gothic.
Ruskin said that Gothic ornament was made by uneducated men who were allowed to do the best they could without direction, and because it was the expression of free labour it was bound to be rough and imperfect. The 19th century demanded perfection and accuracy and made workmen into slaves because that could only be achieved if they were told exactly what to do and weren’t allowed to be inventive.
I couldn’t see how this applied to Winchester. The stone carving is accurate and regular and the workmen were not free to work as they pleased and to invent as they worked.
Ruskin’s dislike of factories was understandable in the conditions of the mid-19th century, but he mythologised pre-industrial work and created false antinomies between supposedly rough pre-industrial workmanship and smooth modern workmanship