This is the second of two posts about Northampton architecture featured in the Conway library that I came across during a visit to the town, you can read the first post here.
Energetic local businessman W.J. Bassett-Lowke (1877–1953), or “WJ”, was the man behind the development of the UK’s model railway industry. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of modernism and this led him to engage two leading architects of the early 20th century to design his homes: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Peter Behrens.
In 1916, WJ’s father purchased a modest Georgian terrace house as his son’s wedding present. But ahead of the marriage WJ decided to remodel the house and asked Mackintosh to provide the redesign. The work was carried out during the difficult circumstances of WW1.
The new interior was striking, especially the decoration of the hall lounge with black walls and a golden frieze. It has been suggested that the couple found the scheme somewhat overpowering because soon WJ asked Mackintosh to lighten it. This second version is depicted in the photograph in the Conway library.
You can still see the original design because it has been reinstated at 78 Derngate which is now a museum.
The Bassett-Lowkes had not been at 78 Derngate long before they decided to move. They wanted a brand new home further away from the River Nene, hoping that this would be more comfortable for Mrs Bassett-Lowke who had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
Mackintosh was in poor health by the time WJ was ready to commission the work. Unable to find a British architect with modern ideas that matched his taste, WJ turned to the pioneering German architect and designer, Peter Behrens. The result was New Ways, probably the first modernist house in the UK and the only one in this country designed by Behrens. It perfectly suited the Bassett-Lowkes whose home it remained for many years.
Modest from the outside, but decidedly modern throughout, this Grade II* listed house was recently on the market and, at the time of writing, could be yours for £875,000.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
During my research project in the photographic library of the Courtauld Institute of Art, I looked through a box of black-and-white photographic prints. In a collection of architectural images, it was amazing to observe images that featured people. These photos record moments of the real world within a past time; the people captured look and dress differently, the culture and atmosphere are different. I found celebrations, weddings, revelry, lonely climbers, busy markets and ports. In choosing the pictures to illustrate my process of creation, I looked specifically for lonely, quiet or peaceful moments, as I get more inspiration from characters who look into the distance in a photograph, or people’s figures seen from behind. I looked at these portraits against the background, at the fascinating relationship between the people and the environment. So I ‘cut’ these ‘characters’ from these moments and turned them into black and white watercolor illustrations, and then combined them with other elements to explore different effects and create an image of a wonderful parallel world. I study costume design for performance, so I often need to do a lot of research on context in my learning process. Different characters tell a different story depending on their surroundings. Looking at the charm of light and shadow was fascinating, I found it so interesting and I really enjoyed the process.
As a separate project, I made miniature versions of a costume, moving towards the project’s more technical aspect. When I finished the illustration series, I was thinking about how to gain more from my Courtauld placement, so I choose a photograph from the photographic library and ‘copied’ the costume in the image. This time, the process was more to do with practicing creating the costume pattern, sewing and doing texture research.
The key aspect, for me, is that all the characters in these photographs and drawings are authentically dressed for their time, which is very important; as my tutor said: costume design is to create dresses for story characters, the clothes help the actors get into character for the role, but they also let the audience believe the story more fully.
During my time at the Courtauld I gained a lot, people were very friendly and it was an unexpected pleasure to get to meet a lot of nice, interesting people who participate to the digitisation project as volunteers. As a foreign student, starting a placement experience in another country can initially induce a sense of tension and anxiety, I worried about my language communication skills and that my behavior might mean that I wouldn’t fit in or even be a nuisance to others. But throughout the whole process I received plenty of help, the communication was friendly and I even made new friends. This is my first internship, and I feel very lucky. This experience made me more confident and encouraged me to seek more opportunities in the future.
During a recent visit to Northampton I soon realised that this Midlands town is a treasure-trove of interesting architecture and so it seemed like a good idea to find out what images the Conway library holds.
The first building I came across was the Guildhall, a striking example of the high Victorian Gothic revival by architect E.W. Godwin and completed in 1864. It is wonderfully ornate (or horribly ornate depending on your point of view):
This was Godwin’s pièce de résistance and established his reputation. He was only 26 when he won the commission to design it.
Amongst the many friezes and sculptures adorning the building is a series of scenes of Northampton life, carved on the capitals of the columns. At the time, Northampton’s most important industry was shoe-making, but it also had a racecourse. Both these are referenced in the Conway, along with many more:
These capitals are by R.L. Boulton who had a successful business in Cheltenham. He worked on a wide variety of sculptures, mostly ecclesiastical, for many of the well-known architects of the day, including Pugin.
It turns out that the Conway does not carry any general photographs of the interior of the Guildhall, so here is a snapshot of the colourful main hall:
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
For almost ten years, I have had an intense love affair with Canada. Why exactly I love Canada has always eluded me; maybe it’s the friendliness of the people, or the vastness and natural beauty of its varied landscapes from sea to shining sea, or the numerous films and TV shows that are reeled out every year.
While the entire country inspires me, no other region of Canada inspires me more than the east coast. My dream of visiting Canada was finally realised a couple of years ago, when I visited Nova Scotia and Newfoundland for a week – in the midst of winter. Although the weather was far less than ideal, it did help me discover what life in Canada was really like, away from how I’d imagined it to be in my mind.
During my time at the Courtauld, browsing the Conway Library I discovered some old photos taken around Canada. Although it is a rather young country by political and geographical standards (it only became an independent dominion in 1867, and finally ratified its own constitution in 1982), Canada nevertheless does have a rich history – both socially and architecturally.
These photographs were taken in Charlottetown, the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island, in possibly the 19th century. PEI is very close to Nova Scotia, the province I went to, so I was naturally very attracted to these photos. The province is well known for being the setting of the classic children’s novel Anne of Green Gables, about a redheaded orphan girl with braids, Anne Shirley, adopted by a family on PEI. The family originally wanted a boy, but Anne – originally from Nova Scotia – was sent instead as a mistake. The story has enchanted many generations and has been adapted into TV shows and films countless times, including – most recently – a series release with a major online content provider.
As the former capital of New France (Nouvelle-France) and now the capital of Francophone Canada, Quebec is often called the Europe of North America. Its architecture is greatly inspired by Old France, with the castle-esque Chateau Frontenac – now a hotel – majestically overlooking the historic French fortress and the St. Lawrence River with its verdigris domed roof.
Quebec is one of Canada’s largest inland ports, being an important stop along the St. Lawrence River for cargo and passenger ships heading out to the Atlantic Ocean. It is also a pleasure port, as can be seen in this drawing, where rowers sail their boat along the river waves. Quebec’s history as a French fortress is clearly visible, as the city is raised above the river on a cliff.
I often watch a TV show called Murdoch Mysteries. Set in Toronto around the turn of the 19th and 20th century, the titular character is often called Canada’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Using methods contemporary to the period, William Murdoch is on the trail of crime in Toronto, even meeting a few icons of the day in his pursuits, like Alexander Graham Bell and even Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock himself.
Upon seeing this photo, I immediately thought of Murdoch Mysteries and the Toronto of the turn of the century. Even the fashions of the people and the horses and carts remind me of the characters and how they get around the city on the journey to a crime scene, so if I didn’t know this was a real photograph, I would’ve thought this was a scene from the show itself.
So far, I’ve only seen two places in Canada – namely Nova Scotia and Newfoundland – but I want to go on a road trip there one day, visiting all the sights and cities that grace the country, and even make it my home.
Over the last few centuries, London has inspired architects to imagine how they would reshape the city to their own distinct styles. After the fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren proposed a new street layout for London, with streets dividing building blocks into rectangles around St Paul’s Cathedral but branching out from central points in the areas east and west of this. This plan was never carried out and the majority of the old irregular street layouts were maintained. Since then architects, either as individuals or groups, have presented their visions of how they would alter the skyline, buildings and roads of London. Many of these designs were never built and now all that remains of these abandoned plans are the drawings the architects produced.
Some of these designs can be found in the Conway Library of the Courtauld Institute, alongside collections of photographs showing buildings and monuments across the globe. The collection’s three boxes on the architectural drawings of 20th-century British architects reveal three planned design projects for buildings and streets which were never fulfilled which show great variation in their visions of a reshaped city with differing architectural inspirations from classical and romantic to more futuristic.
This monumental tower was intended to be built on the roof of the Selfridges store on Oxford Street and was designed by architect Philip Tilden in 1918. His other completed designs often included restorations and extensions of politicians’ houses although none of those quite matched the scale and ambition of this project. Not much is known about why Selfridge had commissioned this design or the exact reasons for why it was never built but it shows a vision of great grandeur and is reminiscent in some ways to the tombs for rulers and kings from the Classical period such as the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus which is believed to have had a similar large podium with colonnaded areas and sculpted figures but the proposed tower appears to be larger in scale than even these monumental tombs.
The proposed tower would have fitted stylistically with the pre-existing Selfridges building which features more Ionic columns along the shop front, conforming to the concepts of “Beaux-Arts” architecture which was particularly popular in the 19th century. This was achieved by including classical and neoclassical decoration while using more modern features such as steel frame interior.
The expense of such a construction may have contributed to it never being built but its existence would have also radically changed the skyline of London at the time. The drawing makes the tower appear to be around 4 to 5 times taller than the main building. Since Selfridges is already five storeys high, the tower would have equalled or potentially surpassed the 111m high St Paul’s Cathedral which would have been the tallest building in London in 1918 and had been since 1710. Even today, it would have probably ranked among the hundred tallest buildings in London.
20 years later, the Glass Age Town Planning Committee proposed their own vision of a changed London. This time, these architects were not limited to a single building but instead proposed plans for rebuilding the entirety of both Bond Street and the Strand. Luckily for the Courtauld, Maxwell Fry seems to have allowed Somerset House to remain intact in the upper right corner of his drawing. Alongside a reimagined Bond Street by Howard Robertson, these designs formed part of the February 1939 issue of Architectural Review. The two images in the Conway Library would have been among designs for several other parts of the country including Princes Street in Edinburgh and parts of Liverpool, all depicting buildings using glass as their main exterior material.
The large scale destruction of older buildings required for these plans to happen and a lack of any form of planning permission are both factors which prevented these designs from becoming a reality. But the purpose of the committee itself was initially mainly to be part of an advertising campaign by Pilkington Brothers Ltd., a glass production company, to both promote their product as a building material and also present concepts of how buildings in the 21st century could look with further developments in technology and modern architectural styling. These designs could subsequently be as radical and unrealistic as the architects wanted because they were so unlikely to ever be built. Yet it still presents an interesting insight into how architects in the 1930s may have thought architecture could develop and how they imagined a future London could look.
The view of the Strand now is different to how the Glass Age Committee would have seen it but it may not have changed as much as they would have expected. The formation of tower blocks has never occurred in this area although the redevelopment of Charing Cross station later in the 20th century increased the amount of glass in its design. The skyline of London is also now dominated by glass skyscrapers, most prominently the Shard. In some ways, the Glass Age committee’s ambitions for greater use of glass in building came true, although not necessarily in the ways they had imagined or proposed in these drawings.
Less than a decade after the designs which aimed to promote modernist architecture and technology to 1930s Britain, the Royal Academy Planning Committee took a very different approach to how they would redesign London.
This picturesque drawing of St Paul’s Cathedral was published as part of a book, London Replanned, by the Royal Academy in 1942 in response to 1940 and 1941 bombings of London causing large scale damage. Unlike the clear and precise images of Bond Street and the Strand produced by the Glass Age Town Planning Committee, this pencil drawing is much more delicate with atmospheric clouds, a focus on more traditional architecture and featuring several small steamboats in the foreground. This image could depict a Victorian or Edwardian period London, a contrast to the emphasis on modernity proposed by other architects only a few years before and has much greater stylistic links to drawings and paintings by 18th and 19th century Romantic artists.
Although it is the only image from the Royal Academy’s book stored in the Conway Library, it would have been part of a building project even more extensive than that of the Pilkington commission. Among their plans for most of central London were a new road layout around St Paul’s, wide roads around Piccadilly Circus and a redevelopment of Hyde Park.
These drawings in the architectural drawing collection of the Conway Library give a snapshot into how different architects and groups thought London could be redesigned and how these views changed throughout the first half of the 20th century in response to the emergence of modernist architecture or the damage to London in the Second World War presenting the possibility of a significant redevelopment. The drawings of Bond Street, the Strand and St Paul’s also form parts of wider projects to redesign large proportions of London which were never fulfilled and little evidence remains of their ideas other than in these types of drawings. When considered together, these designs present interesting contrasts between a structure with links to classical features alongside more contemporary building materials, plans which imagined how the future London would look and a redesign of London combining traditional buildings with large expansions of roads and parks. If any of these plans had been carried out, they would have significantly reshaped the layout and design of London as it is today.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern
Parnell S (2014) In praise of advertising. Architectural Review.
Whilst digitising the Conway Library, I often come across confusing visual anomalies like the one at the bottom left of item CON_B00756_F007_025. Understanding what has caused the image fault requires a bit of a technical explanation. In this case, what we are seeing is an example of vignetting, which happens when using large format cameras capable of perspective adjustments.
Anyone interested in mastering these issues should study the fantastic Ansel Adams‘ The Camera, in which he states the vignetting “occurs when part of the negative area falls outside the image-circle of the lens and thus receives no exposure” (see chapter 10 “View-Camera Adjustments”).
In this image we can see that the photographer has adjusted the camera movements to control perspective in order to construct an accurate representation of the building that is aesthetically pleasing and free from distortion. However, in making such adjustments, they have inadvertently moved the lens out of the negative area, cutting off part of their image (either by tilting or shifting the front standard too far).
These kind of errors are fascinating as they exhibit the high levels of control required to practice the medium of photography successfully. This type of image control is still carried out by architectural photographers today when they choose to utilise tilt/shift lenses on modern digital cameras. Here, minimising lens distortion and configuring perspective to meet highly rigorous visual requirements.
Adams, A (2003) The Ansel Adams Photography Series 1 The Camera. Little, Brown and Company.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
When I started volunteering on the digitisation programme, I never thought it would reignite my interest in the history of art. Yet here I am in the second year of a part-time M.A. in History of Art and Photography, and loving every moment of the challenge. I am about to start my final essay before commencing the dissertation, and I have chosen as my final option This is Tomorrow – Architecture and Modernity in Britain and its Empire, 1930-60.
Professor Mark Crinson (University of London) describes the option module as a study of the entanglements of architecture and ideas of modernity, the home and the city in mid-twentieth century Britain, as well as how these issues related to Britain’s place in the world and its relation to its empire. Modernity, whether through the arrival of modernism or the various forms of state modernisation, has long been the focus of written accounts of modern architecture in Britain.
The Conway library has led to this and is already proving a fantastic resource in my initial reading and research. There is an excellent collection of London photographs, which I am slowly helping to label, while also identifying useful images for use in the Architecture and Modernism essay and for discussion in seminars.
While I am looking forward to studying the Conway photographs in relation to mainstream Modernism, the influence of émigré architects and the search for utopia is already evident and enthralling in the photographs I have labelled and catalogued. The amazing Bevin Court (a personal favourite) is one of several post-war modernist housing projects in London designed by the Tecton architecture practice, led by Berthold Lubetkin, a Russian architect and pioneer of modernist design in the 1930s.
An organised visit to the penthouse at The Isokon Building (Lawn Green Flats) was impressive. Built in 1934, The Isokon is a rare Grade 1 listed modernist building and an example of a progressive experiment in urban living at the time. The building was home to Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer, designer of modernist furniture, and László Maholy-Nagy, headteacher of art at the Bauhaus school. Early advertising stated: “All you have to bring with you is a rug, an armchair and a picture.” Acquired by Camden Borough Council in 1972, it gradually deteriorated until the 1990s, when it was abandoned completely. Avanti Architects, specialists in refurbishing modernist buildings, restored the Isokon in 2004. The Conway photographs and images from the current sales listing of the Isokon penthouse – at nearly a million pounds – provides a fascinating insight into the concept of ‘one-room living’.
Then there is BRUTALISM! I really am spoilt for choice, as photographs of key Brutalist buildings in London are also found in the Conway archives. Watch this space, as I delve further into this incredible resource and identify a research title worthy of the Conway collection of London’s 20th century architecture.
While digitising a box of photographs of Oxfordshire churches with fellow volunteer Muny, we found a wonderful wall painting in a Kersting print; a welcome surprise after the usual mix of white-walled naves and pillars.
In the Middle Ages, it was common practice to paint the walls of churches. Few people could read, so it was necessary to teach by using pictures. During the Reformation, these images were covered over as they were considered symbols of Popish idolatry.
The painting is on the wall which separates the nave from the chancel, and is an example of how certain images became assigned to specific positions in the church. One of the most common is Doom, or the Last Judgement. The symbolism explains the positioning of the Nave as representing the ‘Church militant’ and the chancel as the ‘Church Triumphant’, separated by the judgment before which all souls must pass.
The Last Judgment in South Leigh follows a traditional pattern. Two angels with trumpets are waking up the dead. On the left, an angel in white is calling to the saved, with a scroll above announcing ’Venite Benedicte Patris Mei’ (Come you blessed to my Father). They then move towards the north wall where (not visible in the photograph) St Peter awaits them at the gates of Heaven. On the right, the angel wears dark clothing and summons the damned, the scroll above saying ‘Discedite Maledicti’ (Depart you cursed). They are bound together with what looks like barbed wire and are being pushed towards the jaws of hell, which are just visible on the south wall.
The image is clearly designed to scare the wits out of the congregation:
The original paintings were discovered in 1870, when the old layers of whitewash were removed after the new vicar, Gerard Moultie, decided the church needed restoration. The work was carried out for £85 by Messrs Burlison and Gryllis, a firm heavily influenced by William Morris. This is particularly evident where the originals were too faint to copy and were effectively replaced by 19th-century design, for example in the painting of flowers and birds beneath the Last Judgment.
The original artists were probably trained in monasteries. They were not necessarily monks, but young men who showed artistic ability and were trained in monastic scriptoria. There is also evidence of a growing number of itinerant painters who were associated with the Guilds of Painter-Stainers in London and other cities.
For a small village church, South Leigh has several associations with the famous. The ancestors of William Morris owned land there, and it is only 10 miles or so from Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s country house.
In 1725, John Wesley preached his first sermon from the pulpit (he returned in 1771 and was refused entry).
Between 1947 and 1949, the poet Dylan Thomas and his wife lived in the village and maintained an eccentric lifestyle. This was many years after he wrote ’It is the sinner’s dust tongued bell claps me to churches’, though it would be wonderful to imagine him seeing the Last Judgment through an alcoholic haze and wondering which way he would go.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
When I catalogued a box of London photos from the Conway Library I came across this image of the Wellington Arch.
The view today looks very different.
The Arch was originally commissioned by George IV to celebrate the victories of the Napoleonic wars and was positioned at the entrance to Green Park, opposite the screen wall on the south side of Hyde Park. In that position, it was straight in front of Apsley House, the Duke Of Wellington’s London residence. The Duke was, of course, a national institution, Napoleonic war hero of Waterloo, statesman, Prime Minister, and pin-up (look at the statue of Achilles behind Apsley House, it was funded by a charitable body known as ‘The Ladies of England’, and originally it did not have a fig leaf.)
In 1836, a decision was taken to erect a statue of the Duke on horseback on top of the Arch. It was huge, the biggest equestrian statue of its time, 28 feet tall. As a result, it was widely ridiculed and the arch became known as the Wellington Arch. Despite the derision, and it being considered an eyesore visible from Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria refused to allow it to be moved as she did not want to offend the Duke in his lifetime.
And so it stayed until 1882, when, in order to improve the traffic flows in that part of London, the Arch was moved 60 feet to its present position at the top of Constitution Hill.
The statue was replaced, however, and the current ‘Quadriga’ (Nike goddess of Victory riding a chariot pulled by four horses) took its place.
The Wellington statue was sent to the Army Barracks in Aldershot, where it remains, for those who may wish to see it!
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer
Managing the digitisation project of one of the most varied, mysterious, and extensive photographic collections in the world, in one of its most prestigious art institutes can look a lot like this:
and not much like the constant carousel of wonderful architectural detail that one might imagine. The volunteers, busy sorting through the images and penciling the accession numbers on the mounts, or zooming in to check the focus in the digitisation studio, are the ones who get to really see the collection, really make serendipitous discoveries. I have to make the time to go and explore, and be sure to do it too or else I might get to the end of whole months having only seen filenames, spreadsheets and conversion code on Terminal.
Today I thought I’d go looking for my hometown – Belluno, in the Italian Dolomites – and see it through A.F. Kersting’s eyes. The 4293 Kersting negatives, which we plan to digitise as part of our project, are numbered sequentially and neatly stacked in their cases. To every negative number corresponds a handwritten entry on a ledger, so if you were to pick a number from the shelf you could easily look it up in the ledger and find out where the image was taken. It’s a bit more difficult to start your search from a specific city; on the negative there are only accession numbers and entries on the ledgers are also sequential by number, not by location. Besides, part of the mystery surrounding photographer A.F. Kersting is that he would travel so extensively: opening a page at random of his ledger you can see that one day he was in Jersey, the next in Scotland, the following entry would be in Munich, then Dubrovnik, then Madrid… which makes tracing his steps and locating a particular town very tricky – and transcribing the ledgers (another fascinating task reserved for our volunteers) very necessary!
What I do have to go by in my quick morning search is the prints collection, the selected negatives for which we have prints, and which are arranged by country. These prints were created by Kersting and are unnumbered but annotated in pencil at the back. I ventured to the Italy box and looked for my small town almost as a challenge, and there, to my delight, I found the squares and fountains of my childhood, almost untouched by time, with the only exception being the clothes of the passers-by and the cars parked where they shouldn’t be.
We are not there yet with the digitisation so what you see below are just some quick group snaps, but hopefully they will give you a taste of how wonderful a photographer Kersting was, and how extensively he documented every corner of the world he could reach. When we’ll have completed the digitisation of the whole collection you’ll be able to search by place and by date, as well as by accession number, and the collection will be truly open. For now, enjoy this small selection as a Friday treat.
Digitisation, Database and Cataloguing Manager Courtauld Connects