We had lunch in a part of north Oxfordshire I scarcely know, south of Chipping Norton, west of the Tews (yes, I know it’s Cameron country) and were given Adlestrop cheese, named after a village which is itself emblematic of this part of the world, although just over the border into Gloucestershire: forgotten and pastoral (‘Yes, I remember Adlestrop’):
The gradual clearance of my office has meant that I have been able to get to the cupboard which contains my copy of Fritz Saxl and Rudolph Wittkower’s book on British Art and the Mediterranean, a published record of a photographic exhibition held at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington and then travelling to more than eighteen cities, put together by the Warburg Institute in the early days of the Second World War in order ‘to observe in the arts of this country the agelong impact of the Mediterranean tradition on the British mind’ (Saxl had taken British citizenship in 1940, thanks to the support of Kenneth Clark who opened the exhibition on 2 December 1941, and Wittkower was entitled to British citizenship by an accident of his father’s birth). I wanted to discover who had taken the photographs which I remember as being of the highest quality, stored in a filing cabinet of the Warburg Institute’s Photographic Collection (my first employer). There were two photographers involved. One was was Otto Fein, the Warburg’s in-house bookbinder-cum-photographer, who had emigrated with the Library, had worked with Saxl on a study of English Romanesque sculpture, and was also employed by the National Buildings Record under Wittkower’s supervision to take beautiful plate photographs of 10, Downing Street, the monuments of Westminster Abbey, Chiswick House and Greenwich Hospital (monuments mainly of the English classical tradition). The other was Helmut Gernsheim, who was only released from internment in late 1941, so may only have supplied images to the book, not the exhibition. He published New Photo Vision in 1942, based on the lectures he had given whilst interned in Australia, and became a leading historian of photography.
My discovery today is a book on English Cathedrals, published by Thames and Hudson, with photographs by Martin Hürlimann and an Introduction by Geoffrey Grigson. It’s familiar to me as one of a small number of what I thought of as sacred texts kept on a table in my parent’s drawing room and so I was surprised that it was actually a gift from me to my parents, presumably on request, when I was eleven (price 57s. 6d.). Hürlimann was not so much a professional photographer as a publisher, based in Zürich, who had written a doctoral thesis on the eighteenth-century Swiss Enlightenment and took technically beautiful, but slightly bland photographs all over the world on a Sinclair Una camera (James A. Sinclair was a camera maker based in Whitehall).
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.
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:-
We had lunch in the café 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.
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.