Gropius and Christ’s

In reading about Gropius, I have been interested to find out more about the context surrounding the decision of Christ’s College to turn down a set of proposals for a new building on Hobson Street, drawn up and presented to the Fellows by Walter Gropius on 2 March 1937, ten days before he set sail for America and regarded by his partner in professional practice, Maxwell Fry, as one of the reasons why he left.

But the story is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not quite so simple. The college had commissioned a set of plans from Oswald P. Milne, a much more conservative architect who had worked with Lutyens. Conrad Waddington, one of the younger fellows, an evolutionary biologist with wide cultural interests, including expertise in Morris dancing, had recently divorced. Through his close friendship with John and Myfanwy Piper, he had met Justin Blanco White, a young, avant garde architect who he married. She had studied at the Architectural Association in the late 1920s and corresponded with Gropius ‘in connection with a book about housing’. He suggested that the college should consider alternative plans drawn up by their friend, Gropius, as an international modernist and recently arrived émigré.

The then Master of the College, Charles Darwin, grandson of the Charles Darwin, described in a letter to the Warden of All Souls, who was also planning to commission Gropius, how ‘The whole college was torn into fragments with passionate hatred of one or both of the architects’. As it happens, this was an occupational hazard of the College which had recently been torn apart by the election of its new Master, as described by C.P. Snow, one of the fellows, in The Masters.

Gropius’s scheme was rejected by the Fellows by thirteen votes to eight.

(I am grateful for this information not so much to Fiona MacCarthy’s biography which treats the episode cursorily, but to a much more detailed article she refers to by Alan Powers in a volume of essays on Twentieth-Century Architecture in Oxford and Cambridge).

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Walter Gropius

I have been enjoying Fiona MacCarthy’s wonderfully well written and highly readable biography of Walter Gropius, which does everything in its power to humanise this stiff, energetic, highly sexed and physically attractive ex-hussar, with a passion for Alma Mahler and cacti, who, after distinguished service in the first world war, was recruited by the Thuringian government to be director of the Weimar Kunstgewerbeschule and turned it, with the help of the more idealistic Johannes Itten, into the first, more craft-oriented version of the Bauhaus, later transferring it to its more technically and factory oriented formation in Dessau. What emerges is that Gropius was excellent at organisation, brilliant at attracting remarkable people to work under him, known as Pius to Herbert Bayer who had a long affair with his wife, Ise.

He was already in his mid-fifties when he was forced, reluctantly, to emigrate from Berlin to London, where he feared his ability ‘to survive in this inartistic country with unsalted vegetables, bony women and an eternally freezing draught!?’ His time in London, living in Lawn Road, was brief and not entirely happy. His English was poor, hoped for architectural commissions fell through, apart from Impington Village College, the English did not embrace his machine aesthetic, and he and Ise left for Massachusetts in March 1937.

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Stepney

I took the young patrons of the RA on a walking tour of Stepney this morning.

I always enjoy showing people who are more used to the pavements of Chelsea how green parts of East London are: partly owing to bombing admittedly, but also because of determined efforts of social improvement, which, in the preservation of green spaces, began remarkably early, beginning with the creation of Stepney Green as a public garden in 1872 and the opening of the cemetery of St. Dunstan’s Garden as a garden on 18 July 1887.

The other thing that struck me is how remote the events of the 1980s are to millennials. Standing on the north side of Limehouse Basin (originally known as the Regent’s Canal Dock) and remembering how it was open water at least twice the size before it was filled in by the LDDC in the 1980s to create a marina, surrounded by urban dereliction as the result of the closure of the docks, I felt how remote the creation of Canary Wharf and the Docklands Light Railway now are, fragments of ancient history.

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Phyllida Barlow

I enjoyed Phyllida Barlow’s exhibition, which makes adventurous use of the old laboratories at the back of Burlington Gardens, filling the high vaulted Victorian spaces which the engineers wanted to abolish with objects like triffids – strange and imaginative and full of danger:-

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Renaissance Nude

I wasn’t prepared for the incredible range and quality of work contained in The Renaissance Nude, the exhibition which the RA has organised jointly with the Getty.

Cima’s Saint Sebastian from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Strasbourg:-

Piero di Cosimo’s Satyr Mourning over a Nymph generously lent by the National Gallery:-

Perugino’s Apollo and Daphnis from the Louvre:-

Titian’s Venus Anadyomene from Edinburgh:-

It’s an amazing feast in different media from north and south of the Alps.

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Royal Society of Sculptors

We went down the Old Brompton Road, past the Shell station, to the Royal Society of Sculptors, which occupies a pair of houses which used to be 7 and 8, Gloucester Terrace, but was much enlarged and enriched in the mid-1880s when it became the photographic studio of Elliott and Fry. From 1919 till 1976, it was occupied by Cecil Walter Thomas who designed memorials and coins and, on his death, he left it and the studio at the back to the Royal Society.

It is currently showing an exhibition What isn’t here can’t hurt you by Frances Richardson and Alison Wilding.

This is Because the two parts don’t quite touch by Frances Richardson:-

And this is Inversion by Alison Wilding, bought by the Arts Council in 2000 and not previously exhibited, looking good in the old photographer’s studio:-

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