Thursday, April 30, 2015

Clandon Park damaged by fire yesterday, left "essentially a shell"

Clandon Park
18th-century Palladian mansion West Clandon, Surrey, England
A National Trust property since 1956

"On the afternoon of 29 April 2015, a fire started in the house's basement, and quickly spread to the roof. At 16:09 Surrey Fire and Rescue Service received an emergency call, and the fire was subsequently attended by a total of 16 fire engines and more than 80 personnel. While fire fighters tackled the blaze National Trust volunteers were joined by conservators in recovering items from the house. Items were first stored on the lawns then placed in bubble wrap and sent to a local storage unit.Surrey Fire and Rescue Service remained at the property until the fire was fully extinguished and then began an investigation into the cause of the fire.

A significant number of items were salvaged, but the house was left "essentially a shell" according to Dame Helen Ghosh, director general of the National Trust with the roof, ceilings and floors having fallen into the basement, leaving only one room intact." 

From Wikipedia

Saturday, April 18, 2015

There are times when I wish she had never taken the boat

Nonetheless, take the boat she did, and after arriving in England in 1927, Mrs Ronald Tree began to create the mythic Englishness at the heart of sappy Virginian Decoration in England – a style now known on this side of the pond as "English" or a tad less mystifyingly as "English Country House."

It was, one might suppose, one of history's happier coincidences – if less earth-shattering than some might have one believe given the amount of twaddle written about them – the eventual partnership of Tree, or Nancy Lancaster as she became, and John Fowler, and given its success, inevitably, the association led to many imitators. After years of maudlin chintzes being pitchforked across battalions of bergeres, tables, sofas and windows, this so-called English style has been reduced to a wretched formula, leading to rooms that are prosaic and analgesic, where elements are constant, whoever the decorator, from magazine to blog to Pinterest to Instagram and back again. Some decorators strive to convince us it's a snappy American style and, arguably, given with whom it began, they're not wrong but my point remains, English or American, it's still the same stuff all the time.

Where's the originality, I wonder? Who has the ability to look at a space and not want to recreate what everyone has published in magazines, books, and online for the past umpteen years: be it a Fifth Avenue version of a salon from Chateau de Ferrieres; a dining room from Pavlosk; Nancy Lancaster's Brook Street yellow room; everything by no-lady Mendl; the same white room by Syrie Maugham;  badly-drawn cabbage roses, black-and-white-stripes and big baroque moulding by Dorothy Draper; nothing I can remember of demimondaine Rose Cumming's outré offerings, and far too much by Cecil Beeton. The list is longer but I'll draw the line here.

Mentioning Cecil Beeton does bring to mind an idea I occasionally have – that there might be a difference between gay and straight decorating. Not that I am suggesting that Mr Beeton was homosexual – heaven forfend! – but if he were, would it be possible to infer that there was a certain gayness in his work and his houses, theatrical as one might say they were. BUT, I digress …

Perhaps I'm wrong in hoping for originality and individuality from decorators when I suspect what clients mostly want is to conform to a perception of monied propriety. Respectability, like virtue and good manners, is a concept created in copywriters lairs, so why would a client want to stand out when conforming and being told one is unique is merely a matter of image creation by publicist, photographer, stylist and copywriter?

Consider the undoubtedly beautiful room above – and to be clear, I really do find it beautiful but, to my point, it's more of the same. I have not read about the room in Elle Decor (which I do not take) but to my eye it conforms to mainstream expectations of social background and economic status, and it projects a strong image to the world about the inhabitant's status against that background. In other words, it is a room of parade – not quite a State Room but nearly so.

By contrast, the room above, by a decorator in England, has some of the same elements but the objective is different – here I don't have to rely on deductions based on a photograph but can read a text. A quotation will be illustrative.

"To accommodate the owner's preference for contemporary art, a balance had to be struck between the majestic interior and the contents planned for it. Chester achieved this by buying a huge painting by Mimmo Paladino, which is even larger than the room's dominant central wall panel, and by placing below it a 3-metre (10-foot) banquette fronted by a massive coffee table. The style may be entirely different, but the scale and weight of these elements are so compatible with the room's architecture that the problem is resolved. The rest of the room is a mixture of contemporary art, modern furniture, tribal artefacts, and appropriately scaled antiques." [Italics mine]

I added the italics because the sentence is not about decoration but about design – note the words "the problem is resolved." So much of modern interior decoration, especially by the devotees of mid-century-anything, seems a lemming-like rush to publicity with a consequent dumbing-down of expectations by everyone concerned. I read yesterday of a designer without design education dancing her way into fame and product lines in fabric houses and wondered if her experience was not untypical. I have no idea how many of the media darlings have any design education but I wonder if it matters for with fame and fortune comes image creation by publicist, photographer, stylist and copywriter. Quite where education fits in any longer is hard to say.

This room with its George I paneling I find one of the best examples of twenty-first-century traditional interior design. I have scored through the word "traditional" because I feel this room shows exactly how a cultured and literate decorator can span the demarcations we normally think of in decoration.  Besides that highfalutin' stuff, this is a room one would enjoy walking into, sitting down with drink to hand, reading one's iPad (rediscovering Georgette Heyer in my case), listening to sublime music (Missa Papae Marcelli) – if one is not napping on the sofa – or simply waiting peacefully for dinner to be ready. What better in such a room?

First photograph from Instagram but I think originally from here.
Second and third photographs also from Instagram but originally from here.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A man rarely mentioned

A man rarely thought of nowadays, except perhaps by design students in thesis research, Herman Muthesius, a German architect, author and diplomat, is best known outside Germany for three volumes published in 1904 and 1905 as Das englische Haus (The English House) and for promoting the tenets of the English Arts and Crafts movement in Germany after his return home after a sojourn in England – a championing that eventually influenced the founders of Modernism such as the Bauhaus.*

That's a pretty strong statement to make about a man – "a championing that eventually influenced the founders of Modernism" – even when one has known about him for years, but especially if all one has "known" is that he was German, that he wrote a book titled The English House that allegedly influenced the beginnings of Modernism, and that one has never read it. Such a statement could be considered the essence of foolishness, academically speaking. 

I had set off looking for inglenooks, still finding the photograph (above) from the modern house in Germany intriguing and, in my professorish way, thinking about tropes for shelter and retreat (yawn) when, in one of my books, I found a late nineteenth-century English house Muthesius had actually known and written about. Something new and much more fun than tropes, I thought.  

"Built in 1898-1900 as a holiday home for the Manchester brewer Sir Edward Holt, Blackwell is a masterpiece of great subtlety and artistic imagination by the Arts and Crafts architect H. M. Baillie Scott. Herman Muthesius described it in Das englische Haus (1905) as 'one of the most attractive creations that the new movement in house-building has produced,' and it is regarded as a pivotal work in the architect's career. There are references to C. F. A. Voysey in some of the vernacular detail; much of the internal decoration belongs to a late flowering of the Art Nouveau style, while the clean, unadorned lines of the exterior and the play with abstract space look forward to modernism."

"Blackwell signifies an important moment in European domestic building, when architects began to reconsider the way houses were used. The flowing open plan revolves around a large, double-height hall, a place where the family could congregate at the heart of the house, with an inglenook hearth and adjoining window seat representing warmth, solidity, and comfort. This emphasis on the hearth, with the inglenook fireplace as a theme running through the house, reflects the influence of Norman Shaw, as does the 'Old English'-style half-timbering on the wall of a small room above the inglenook. There is a certain complexity about the way the hall is compartmentalised, with areas of lower ceiling representing different functions within a single space. The billiard room occupies one end, doing away with the Victorian tradition of segregating the male domain. The dining room is a separate room beyond. Everywhere light, space, colour, and texture are carefully orchestrated to create a sense of drama. The climax comes in moving from the warm, oak-wainscoted hall into the brilliantly lit White Drawing Room, one of Baillie Scott's finest interiors and an intensely feminine room. Here, capitals, frieze, ceiling, and stained glass flow with naturalistic decoration in a delicate Art Nouveau style. The room has a great feeling of modernity and exemplifies Muthesius's claim that Baillie Scott was 'the first to have realised as an autonomous work of art.' "

Odd to think, at first glance, a house such as this, even remotely, having an influence on those who founded modernism, but some, reading the quotation, will recognize similarities with Lloyd Wright's work and would also certainly know that during those years, there was for the first time a two-way exchange of ideas about architecture, art and society, across the Atlantic, as America took its place in the world. 

Muthesius's books (plural) are, in fact, a survey of British nineteenth-century domestic architecture, predominantly by Arts and Crafts architects; H M Baillie Scott, C R Mackintosh, William Morris, Norman Shaw, C A Voysey, William Lethaby, and Philip Webb.** 

When he left England in 1903, Herman Muthesius continued to write about architecture and design and returned to his architectural career, concentrating on houses. For many, if not all, in the English Arts and Crafts movement, industry was rejected in favor of handcraft; in America, in the Craftsman movement, not so; and in Germany there was debate about the old way and the new (I am of necessity simplifying here, hard as it is to reduce a movement to a few words) – a debate of which Muthesius was part. During a lecture in Berlin in 1907 he extolled new construction methods and materials, things so commonplace to us nowadays – steel and reinforced concrete, the very the innards of modernism – that he was vilified by the Association for the Economic Interests of the Arts and Crafts for being perfidious about German products. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose you may well be thinking at this point – if you're still with me, that is. The fuss, also known as the "Muthesius Affair," led to Muthesius's supporters leaving the Association and founding the Deutscher Werkbund which led eventually to the creation of the Bauhaus and thence… but that's for another day. 

Most of us work in, and many of us live in (like it or not) a Modernist world. And yet, madmen that we are, many of us prefer to romanticize it, quietly ignoring the fact that mid-century "modern" is now, at 60 years and counting, as historicist as is decorating with Art Nouveau or Craftsman.

*Based on Wikipedia's entry on Herman Muthesius. 

** Wikipedia's entry on The English House is more extensive than I could ever cover but explains      the content of Muthesius's work very well.

Quotation from text of Chapter Blackwell of The English Country House: From the Archives of Country Life, by Mary Miers, Rizzoli, 2009. 

Photographs are from the book and are by Country Life photographers. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Book of Kells, Complexity and Ramification and the Death of a President

"Have I ever told you about the first time I saw the Book of Kells? The flight last year to Ireland … my ancient age … I shall not travel again but, I can tell you, I'm so grateful I was able to travel as much as I did when I was younger … places you daren't go anymore. Some places are no longer even there to go to! It was all different … Etruscan sites you trudged to through fields and the farmer let you in … you've been to the Villa Julia in Rome of course … that lovely reclining couple. " So began another Friday lunchtime conversation with my old prof. 

"The first time I saw the Book of Kells it was covered with a glass box and, other than the librarian, I was the only person there and I paid nothing. It still is covered by a glass box and the place now is full of people, there are informative displays all beautifully done and it costs $18 to get in. You've seen it, of course."

"Actually not," I said, "I have never been to Ireland and I haven't ever wanted to go." As surprised as she was she listened as I began my tale.

Kate knew I had lived in London during the 1970s but had never connected that with the IRA (Irish Republican Army) beginning its terrorist operations there. The history of those ten years is complex and not unhappy (after all, towards the end of them, I met the Celt) but I remember the fear and the uncertainty caused by the terrorists (they considered themselves military and people like me as civilians) – I remember twice turning corners in the West End and hearing and feeling bombs explode behind me; I remember sitting with friends above Bond Street and, on opening the window after realizing how quiet it was outside, being screamed at by a policeman behind a barricade to get out of the building and away from the isolated car parked but yards away down on the street; I remember too, a bomb detonated at a bus stop outside Green Park tube station, killing a twenty-three-year old man … just standing at a bloody bus stop, for God's sake … and injuring many other people including children; and … and… etc. I remember a lot and have, thankfully, forgotten much.

Forgotten, maybe, yet this story, such as it could be over lunch, made me angry and I wanted to stop talking about it, which I found hard to do, so resentful was I about those years.  I did say though I wasn't in any way comparing IRA terrorism with the Holocaust, to some extent I understood why my old friend, a Jew, would not visit Germany, and that I still couldn't hear the word Boston without remembering where much financial support for the IRA came from.

Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation, indeed.

Every Friday we lunch, my old prof and I, and that day we ended with how she'd been in Cork when John Kennedy drove by in a big American automobile that must have been specially imported for him. One year later the President was dead and, if you are given reading the entrails, so began civilization's tumble down the rabbit hole.