When I was an architecture student – admittedly nearly forty years ago – there was a defined modernist narrative that everyone had to stick to if they wanted to pass their exams. That narrative was about great shifts in cultural history rather than the actual nature of the buildings themselves, and it survived in academia long after it had expired everywhere else. We are only now seeing the last of it.
It thus beginning to be possible today to re-evaluate whole periods in architectural history. The project I am now completing is about Edwardian houses, and the Design History Society has very generously supported me with a grant towards a publisher’s subvention. My book looks at residential architecture the way Edwardian architects did, as a practice of design which saw buildings as compositions of designed objects, each with their own history and craft.
Traditionally, historians saw the arts and crafts movement in architecture firstly as part of a glorious progression towards modernism, and secondly as a matter of forms and spaces in which these craft elements were sentimental bolt-ons. Nothing could be further from how contemporary critics and architects saw what they were doing. Looking back, it is very clear that the two architecture critics of Country Life magazine at the start of the twentieth century, H. Avray Tipping and Lawrence Weaver, realised what was going on, even where the most accomplished practitioners of their day did not. They saw that innovation comes from going back into the craft histories of carpentry, joinery, ironwork, decorative carving, and so on, and remaking them in a way that expressed the needs of the 1900s. I was particularly struck by Tipping’s admiration of the way in which the architect Charles Mallows, when restoring a house in the Cotwolds, found part of an old baluster and ‘regenerated’ a new balustrade from this fragment, rather as if he had entered into its DNA.
Tipping was an enthusiastic member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), the primary shibboleth of which was the need to distinguish between new and old when restoring a building. But in practice he did not follow that line. For him, it was the quality of the old object that mattered. In fact, the best Edwardian houses, and some of the much less original ones, made no such distinction. They celebrated the mingling of the old and new. This approach was derived from the houses of the architect George Devey who as early as the middle of the nineteenth century – when the gothic revivalist A.W.N. Pugin was still alive – was working like this, going back into the fabric and spirit of Tudor architecture in a way that was quite unprecedented.
In these buildings one very often cannot distinguish between new and old at all. The greatest example of a new-old house is Vann, designed for himself by the architect W.D. Caröe in 1907. Caröe took a mediaeval house with an early eighteenth-century extension, near Hambledon in Surrey, and remodelled and extended it, moving some of its elements around and introducing ones from other sites in the way that SPAB found appalling. Thus he recycled or repurposed timber members of the roof structure of the barn that he turned into a big billiard and entertainment room, and introduced an ornamental seventeenth century plaster ceiling from Wales into the drawing room. He went on moving pieces around, and adding to them items he had collected, for example Dutch furniture. There is no way of knowing how old anything is without considerable research, but the experience of living and being among designed objects is an authentically Edwardian one. There is also an appealing humility in an architectural approach that welcomes and celebrates the value of old things. My favourite corner of Vann is where an ornamental lead water butt, dated 1733, sits in front of a wall that Caröe had made up from new elements that interweave with those of the oldest part of the house.
Weaver, who succeeded Tipping as Country Life’s architectural writer, had been a salesman for cast-iron building components and became an expert in the history of ornamental leadwork. He loved houses that picked up this element of design history and made something new from them. There is a fine house by the architect F.W. Troup at Sandhills, not far from Vann, that shows how magnificent this type of creative re-entering of past history could be, especially where the fine craftsmanship of the cisterns, gulleys and gutters sits among expressive decorative brickwork. A house in Hoddesdon of the same period, by M.H. Baillie Scott, is built in a simple Elizabethan manor house style, but what marks it out as something really special is the pair of angled gutters across the brickwork, boldly lettered (in Latin) with the biblical words favoured by many architects, ‘Unless the Lord buildeth…’. Scott went through a phase around 1910 of decorating his houses with plasterwork representations of hops, echoing the pargetting of East Anglian houses. A very cheap - £375 – cottage by him in Gidea Park, Essex, has a frieze like this along its front elevation.
One of my own architectural heroes of the period is Horace Field, who did much to turn the Georgian slums to the south of Westminster abbey into a new Edwardian quarter in the ‘Quality Street’ style, that wonderful mingling of late Stuart brickwork with Regency details. If you are visiting the area, look at the magnificent hoppers, downpipes and railings on his 4, Cowley Street. Field was a patron of the sculptor Eric Aumonier, who produced a horse’s head for the canopy of another house by Field behind this one, and who carved a frieze of letters and roses for Field’s own golf cottage near Woking. At a house nearby that he designed, there is a plaque proudly recording the names of all the tradesmen and crafts who worked on it. Their work was not a ‘bolt-on’. It embodies the essential spirit of the architecture.