Ian Nairn

As well as clearing my study, an unending and thankless task, I have been catching up on some reading, including, today, Gillian Darley’s excellent account of Ian Nairn, Words in Place, which I bought when it came out and have now finally read.   I thought that I knew about Nairn as a long-term enthusiast for his two guidebooks to London and Paris.   But there is more to him than I had realised, most especially, the curious and egregious, but wholly admirable, cockiness, which led him, with absolutely no qualifications, except half a mathematics degree and a period in the RAF, to join the Architectural Review and produce Outrage in 1955 which condemned all aspects of suburban sprawl – what he called subtopia – with more authority and effectiveness than the combined force of all the Shell Guides.   And I didn’t know about his long, three-month road trip round the States in 1959 in a 1952 Plymouth soft top, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which led to the publication of The American Landscape:  A Critical View in 1965.   Nor did I know the extent to which his enthusiasm for pubs and their contents led to an early decline, sacking by the Sunday Times, and a Pimlico death.


Mount Street Gardens

I was a bit early for lunch, so stopped to read the information board about Mount Street Gardens, which I really like, but never have time to stop and admire.   It occupies the site of the old burial ground of St. George’s, Hanover Square and there was a parish workhouse just to the north, built in 1725 and enlarged in the 1780s on what is now Mount Street.    The burial ground was closed in 1854 following an Act of Parliament forbidding burials in Central London.   Originally, there was going to be a road across the site, but in 1889, it was turned into a garden, with a public library to the west on South Audley Street and a primary school to the south, and it survives, faintly secretive, tucked in behind Mount Street itself:-


The Garden Museum

We had lunch in the cafĂ© of the garden museum, a total pleasure, in the large and airy space designed by Dow Jones in what used to be the churchyard.   I wasn’t completely persuaded by the first phase of their work which created a wooden balcony within the structure of the church itself, but this was done very economically and has now been painted so that the structure tones in with the stone of the church.   And the new phase, which has been part funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is spacious and with good use of wood and bronze.

This is the garden by the street:-

The old churchyard:-

The internal courtyard:-

Details of the wonderful Tradescants’ family tomb, with its inscription by John Aubrey:-

Inside was an exhibition of Eileen Hogan’s paintings of gardens and, upstairs, her surprisingly moving and very humane portrait of the Prince of Wales – very effective, but which I didn’t photograph.


Disinterring Books (1)

After a second day of excavation at the large and accusatory pile of books on the floor of my office at home, I have realised why it is that they are there.   It is not just that I long ago ran out of shelf space to accommodate them, but there are a surprising number of books which fit no obvious category – or are too large to fit the category to which they belong.   So, they just sit there, until I can bring myself to put them into a large box for the annual Courtauld Institute book sale, if such still exists.

Today, I was pleased to locate:-

1.  The catalogue to the collection of Alan Bowness, which was the first exhibition in the Heong Gallery, the beautifully converted bicycle sheds at Downing College, Cambridge, and which includes a notably warm appreciation of Bowness’s character and achievements by Duncan Robinson, as well as an account by Bowness himself of the formation of his taste.   One comment in particular intrigued me when Bowness writes that he was particularly friendly with Ron Kitaj, who ‘was very well read and had a political background – anarchist (as popularised by Herbert Read) – not unlike me’.

2.  A magazine called Res, which appears to be published in Istanbul.   I don’t know how or why I acquired it, maybe at the Serpentine, as I was pleased to discover that it has a long interview by Hans-Ulrich Obrist with Michael Baxandall.   Since Baxandall died in August 2008 and the magazine is dated May 2008, it must have been one of Baxandall’s last recorded statements of his attitude to, amongst other things, working in museums (for a short time in the early 1960s, he was a curator at the V&A), his understanding of the meaning of a period eye and its relation to anthropology, and his views of art history (‘I would like to do art criticism which is more generally historical than Roger Fry but at the same time is more perceptive about aesthetic matters.   So it’s a matter of drawing Roger Fry and a museum cataloguer together’).   One can feel Baxandall intellectually fencing, as he always did, forever anxious not to be pigeon-holed, determined to distinguish his practice of what he described as art criticism from ‘the pressures of the new art history’.   There’s a picture of him looking like an Old Testament prophet, thin and bearded.   As it happens, both Bowness and Baxandall were at Downing College in the 1950s, but not, I think, at the same time, drawn, I assume, by the milieu (and intellectual puritanism) of F.R. Leavis.


The Silence of the Blog

I’m afraid that the blog always tends to go silent in the last weeks of August as I try to use what holiday remains to me to tidy up my life at home – an endless and entirely vainglorious activty which never succeeds in diminishing the large pile of unread books, some still in their plastic wrapping, and out-of-date magazines, which I can’t quite bring myself to throw away.

As I work my way through the dross, I find a few unsuspected treasures:-

1.  A run of The Royal Academy Illustrated , dating from 1927 to 1937.   These must have been acquired from the clear-out of my parents-in-law’s house about ten years ago, since they presumably derive from the clear-out of the house of Arthur Livingstone Savage, my father-in-law’s father, who was trained as a painter at the Academie Julian in Paris in the 1890s and, I suspect, continued to submit work to the Summer Exhibition during the 1920s and 1930s, or, at least, certainly took an interest in it.   Leafing through them demonstrates the extent to which the Summer Exhibition was then dominated by official portraiture, a genre which has now completely disappeared from its walls.

2.  Quite a number of books published by Notting Hill Editions, a small, but wholly admirable press which specialises in the publication of reprints of classic works, long out of print, including, for example, Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf and a book about Katherine Mansfield, as well as interesting oddities, like Jonathan Keates’s London Library lecture about guidebooks, The Portable Paradise, and Jon Day’s Cyclogeography .   I realise that I acquire them as much for their quality of print and typography as for their content.

3.  A booklet called Ibid., which includes a short essay I wrote about the origins of the V&A/RCA MA course on the History of Design.

4.  I am very pleased to find a pamphlet about the late Nigel Greenwood and his gallery at 41, Sloane Gardens, which I can’t remember when or how I acquired it, but commemorates an exhibition held at Chelsea College of Art, which I didn’t see.   It reveals the amazing roll call of artists that Greenwood represented from 1970 onwards, including John Golding, Gilbert and George, Alan Johnston, which is how I got to know the gallery, Richard Tuttle and Ian McKeever.   He represented an era when gallery owners were able to be more interested in the art than the money.   In an interview, he claims that the contemporay art world consisted of 150 people ‘in the whole enterprise worldwide’.


Indian Independence (3)

Now that I’m back in London, I’ve discovered that I’ve got a copy of my father’s very brief diary entries for the last 74 days of his time in India, which were published in the Indo-British Review, XIV, no.2, June 1988.   He had transferred in 1946 from a short period as a District Commissioner in Malda in West Bengal (he had previously been an under-secretary in Government House in Delhi) to be Deputy Secretary to Sir Frederick Burrows, the newly appointed Governor General of Bengal, who was a former President of the National Union of Railwaymen and who both my parents liked and respected.   The diary is deeply and sadly uninformative about his attitude to Independence, or that of anyone else around him, concentrating on the business at hand – the drafting of consitutional telegrams, without description of their content, discussions about Partition, again without detailed comment, working on the Indian Independence Bill, visits from Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the Fellow of All Souls responsible for the detailed terms of Partition, and Christopher Beaumont, who acted as Secretary to the Commission, a visit from Gandhi (he adds in a footnote that ‘What I remember especially about the Mahatma’s visit was that he was the only Indian leader coming to Government House of whom all the office staff asked permission to down tools so that they could have a personal sight of him’).   There was a certain amount of bridge playing and snooker with the Governor after dinner, as well as packing up his typewriter and gramophone (he later gave the typewriter to a church fete).   On Friday 15th. August, 1947, the Indian flag was hoist and my father boarded a flying boat to leave for Karachi and home.   Maybe the very ordinariness of the description of the transfer of power is itself eloquent of British attitudes at the time.


Piedmont (2)

Before departing, I wanted to photograph a particularly good example of a Piedmontese mountain farmhouse on the hillside up above Bagnolo with its stone rooftiles and long, overhanging eaves, combining barn and living quarters in a single composition:-

This has been one of the pleasures of where we have been staying:  the craftsmanlike details of traditional farmhouse construction in the stone roof:-

The wooden doors:-

And the details of the roof construction:-


Piedmont (1)

I am prompted by Mark Fisher’s comment about how little Piedmont is known to reflect on the reason why this is so.   Part is presumably historical, the hybridity of the Kingdom of Savoy, part-French, part- Italian, not quite in the mainstream of European politics in the way that European history has been written.   Turin’s historical importance is essentially nineteenth century, in the battles for Independence and in Italian industrial history as a prosperous northern working city, still working now with its air of coffee houses, offices, privacy and arcades.   Much of the countryside is quasi-industrial, built over in the unplanned, undiscriminating way of so much of northern Italy.   So, it is superficially unattractive, which effectively keeps most tourists, apart from Scandinavians, away.   This conceals the sense of history where the mountains meet the plain, the long prosperity, the sense of being a land over which armies marched and the pleasures of the smaller towns, the rhythms of rural life, the enjoyment of Slow Food and vernacular buildings.


Joseph Rykwert

Since it is now far too hot to do anything other than sit in the sun and read, I have spent the morning reading Joseph Rykwert’s recently published intellectual autobiography, Remembering Places, which provides a fascinating account of his upbringing in prosperous, middle class, Jewish Warsaw, before escaping, but only just, on the outbreak of war and travelling via Lithuania, Latvia, Stockholm and Amsterdam, to London, where his father had an office in Bush House and kept a motor car (a Buick).   He was then sent, improbably, to Charterhouse, half trained as an architect under Albert Richardson at the Bartlett, then stationed in Cambridge, transferred to the Architectural Association, and found his spiritual home in the library of the Warburg Institute, which was still in the old Imperial Institute in South Kensington.   After the war he embarked on a study of Italian architecture, never completed, before transferring to the translation of Alberti’s Ten Books of Architecture, published in 1955, and to the analysis of the origins of Italian towns, which appeared, in 1963, as The Idea of a Town.   His book gives the best possible description of the life of a post-war, Soho intellectual and the free-ranging development of his architectural interests.


Pizza in the Castello

For nearly our last evening, we had pizza in the grounds of the Castello on a balmy evening overlooking the whole of the Po valley beyond Cavour towards Turin and in the other direction up into the woods and the mountains:-