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William Morris and Edwin Lutyens in Normandy: “The Noblest Works of Human Invention”

William Morris and Edwin Lutyens in Normandy: “The Noblest Works of Human Invention”

William Morris and Edwin Lutyens in Normandy: “The Noblest Works of Human Invention”

As summer advances and turns into autumn a wide and impressive variety of tributes are being paid this year to the ten million soldiers who died during the First World War. The 8th of August marked the centenary of the Battle of Amiens, which, although not decisive in itself, is seen in the light of history as marking the beginning of the end of that war. The centenary was marked by a service in Amiens’ thirteenth century Cathedral attended by representatives of Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Ireland and the United States, and the lead article in the London Times the following day commented that although the German generals did not lose the war at Amiens ‘they lost the will to win’. June next year will see another such landmark centenary, the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, so what better moment to make a centennial visit to Normandy and Picardy?

We plan to follow in the footsteps of William Morris, who first visited Amiens with Edward Burne-Jones and Cormell Price in 1855; the cathedral inspired him to write ‘A Night in the Cathedral’, a short story which was published in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine the following year. He later described the cathedrals of Amiens, Rouen and Beauvais as being among ‘the noblest works of human invention’, remarking of the latter that ‘seen by twilight its size gives one the impression almost of terror: one can scarcely believe it.’ William Burges was also an admirer, making four separate visits to Amiens and Rouen but, like Morris, he reserving his greatest admiration for Beauvais, which he visited no less than eleven times; on one of these occasions perching precariously on a scaffold the better to draw the cathedral’s mighty apse.

Claude Monet shared Morris’s love of Rouen with its craggy gothic facade, which he painted many times at different times of the day. Slightly north of Rouen and on the coast he also painted the church in the beautiful little village of Varengeville, where we will visit Le Bois des Moutiers, one of Sir Edwin Lutyens’s earliest and greatest country houses with gardens laid out by Gertrude Jeckyll. The house, built in 1898, was commissioned by Guillaume Mallet, who had purchased five hundred acres of virgin countryside falling away to the sea, where, in addition to the house, he created what are now world-renowned rhododendron and azalea gardens with the English Channel as a backdrop. The house is still in the possession of the family and we will be welcomed by the present occupant. In 1998, the centennial year of Le Bois des Moutiers, I had the good fortune to be Master of the Art Workers’ Guild (Lutyens had been Master in 1933) and organized an exhibition, encouraging members to produce work inspired by the house and gardens. For that summer the Guild lent to Le Bois des Moutiers the bust of William Morris, the portraits of Lutyens and Robert Anning Bell, whose polychrome plaster reliefs decorate the bedroom corridors, and the Master’s chair. The opening of the exhibition was celebrated with a concert of English music in the great, double-story music room, attended by the British ambassador and his wife, along with the préfet of the region and the mayor of Dieppe. That evening many speeches were made lauding l’esprit de Guillaume Morris.

Le Bois des Moutiers is the earliest but by no means the only building by Lutyens in Northern France as, in the wake of the First War, he became the principal architect for the British War Memorials, several of the most important of which, including the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval, we will also be visiting. As Fiona MacCarthy so poignantly wrote in her 1994 biography of Morris ‘Those long straight roads of Northern France remained in Morris’s mind as they would remain in the memories of the English veterans of the First World War.’

Elaine and I will make a recce to Normandy and Picardy in October to scout out good hotels, plan our route and make further contacts with museum directors and others to ensure a very special tour for next June.

 

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The Gothic Revival and the Arts and Crafts Movement

The Gothic Revival and the Arts and Crafts Movement

The Gothic Revival and the Arts and Crafts Movement

THE GOTHIC REVIVAL AND THE ARTS AND CRAFTS MOVEMENT
Peyton Skipwith

John Ruskin described Gothic as ‘not only the best but the only rational architecture… Undefined in its slope of the roof, height of shaft, breadth of the arch, or disposition of ground plan, it can shrink into a turret, expand into a hall, coil into a staircase, or spring into a spire, with undegraded grace and unexhausted energy.’ For many years I have described the Arts & Crafts Movement as being the secularisation of the Gothic Revival, while my old and much-lamented friend, Clive Wainwright, an inspired Keeper at the Victoria & Albert Museum, used to define it as ‘Gothic without the crockets’.

London's Houses of Parliament

Perhaps the most iconic British Gothic Revival building is the London’s Houses of Parliament.

During October I was lucky enough to be in Italy as well as Provence and Edinburgh, which set me musing. It was Ruskin’s love of Venetian and French Gothic that inspired Pugin and the Gothic Revival and it was the Gothic Revival in England that led, by evolution, to William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement – Scotland followed a little later, and for slightly different reasons.

Jessie King, who had been a fellow pupil with Charles Rennie Mackintosh at Glasgow School of Art, in her little book published by T.N. Foulis in 1910, dubbed Edinburgh The Grey City of the North. Why was it that it was in grey northern Europe rather than the sunny South that the seed of Gothic sprouted and blossomed into the Arts & Crafts? It can’t just have been the Protestant work ethic because the Cevennes, an hours drive from Uzés, a perfect Provençal medieval town, was a stronghold of Protestantism and, although it has a traditional pottery-making industry it has no vestiges of the Arts & Crafts Movement.

Uzes, Old Town, Edinburgh

Uzés Old Town, Edinburgh

The old town of Edinburgh, like Uzés, is clustered around its castle which is perched on the summit of a grim volcanic outcrop rather than overlooking the lush vineyards of the Gard. As one climbs towards the Castle, with its lowering grey towers, turrets, spires and stairways one is as near being in a mediaeval city as the modern world allows, until one comes in sight of Ramsay Gardens, an extraordinary arts and crafts infil, or rather slum clearance and replacement, with its houses built in red ashlar with white harling, clinging to the hillside like birds’ nests on a cliff face.

Ramsay Gardens

Ramsay Gardens was the dreamchild of the visionary town planner, Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) and his wife. They were acutely aware that people, like bees, are social animals and, unlike most planners, were concerned with what he defined as ‘primary human needs’. To this end, rather than sweeping away the slums wholesale in the name of progress, he and his wife employed two little known local architects, Stewart Henbest Capper and Sydney Mitchell to create this imaginative scheme.

Geddes’ background and training was unusual. Although he never took a degree, he studied at the Royal College of Mines in London under T.H. Huxley in the 1870s, before moving on to University College as a demonstrator in the Department of Physiology, where he met Charles Darwin. At the end of the decade, he moved back to Scotland, first becoming Lecturer in Zoology at Edinburgh University, before being appointed to the Chair of Sociology at Dundee. A further Chair in Sociology was to follow when, in the wake of the First World War, he transferred for five years to the University of Bombay, before returning to Europe and founding Scots College at Montpelier.

His vision was always based on human values, in stark contrast to those of the next generation of planners inspired by Le Corbusier, whose Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, was built only fifteen years after Geddes’s death. Le Corbusier’s ideas, about buildings being machines for living in led inexorably, particularly in post-1945 Europe, to the creation of some of the most soulless cities ever built.

The Arts & Crafts Movement was always about human values rather than theories, whether in architecture, furniture design, textiles, metalware, pottery, printing or even garden design, which accounts for its enduring appeal. As D.H. Lawrence wrote:

‘Things men have made with wakened hands,
and put soft light into
Are awake through years with transferred touch,
and go on glowing
For long years.’

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