The Financial Times have just put online Edmund de Waal’s poetic and deeply moving account of Romilly’s working practices and recent jewellery in advance of her exhibition at Make in Bruton, opening on November 20th.:-
Oddly, the above link opened for me early in the morning on condition that I divulged what I most miss during COVID (the answer was the freedom to travel freely, since I can’t pretend that I miss going to sports matches). So, I am now posting the article instead:-
Then we went down into the Engine House. I loved the sense of the simplicity of the equipment, all with a slightly Heath Robinson aspect, pumping the slip round the factory building twenty four hours a day:-
I ended up inside the surviving bottle kiln:-
The point does not need to be laboured: we have become unfamiliar with the traditions and environments of handwerk. We assume that the only worthwhile labour is on a computer screen. This is why it is worth trying to preserve the monuments and craft skills of traditional workshop production, as are so wonderfully evident at Middleport and could so easily be re-established in Whitechapel.
Throughout the public Inquiry about the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, there was much discussion about Middleport Pottery as a good model for how the Foundry could be kept in operation.
Middleport Pottery, which opened in 1888 for the manufacture of Burleigh ware, was at risk of going out of business ten years ago, the building was on English Heritage’s buildings at risk register, so the site as a whole was bought by the United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust, a subsidiary of the Prince’s Regeneration Trust established in order to be able to attract public funding. It is now called Re-Form. It’s Re-Form which was encouraged to intervene in Whitechapel and they clearly have the skills and expertise to do so.
The factory is on a massive scale – a monument to late Victorian enterprise, designed by a local architect, Absalom Reade Wood, built alongside the Trent and Mersey canal, very carefully designed to be as efficient as possible, Fordist before Ford.
Unfortunately, it was drizzling as I walked from Longport Station along the canal:-
On the left is the only surviving bottle kiln of the original seven, the other six demolished after the Clean Air Act was passed in 1956:-
I started upstairs, above the engine house, in the Slip House, moving next door into the Mould Store:-
Immediately, you see and feel the difference between a sanitised and reconstructed modern environment à la Raycliff and one which has seen the wear and tear of everyday skilled work:-
This is the room where they do the jiggering and jollying in the Potter’s Shop:-
One of the things that I have been very struck by in all the discussions surrounding the potential saving of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is how little currency industrial archaeology now seems to have in the politics of conservation. In the 1970s and 1980s, as Professor Toshio Kusamitsu made very clear in his submission to the Bell Foundry Inquiry, industrial archaeology was a very important movement, mirroring the collapse of industry and ensuring the survival of the major relics of industrial history, putting industrial history close to the centre of the way history was understood and interpreted, alongside the movement to write history from below, History Workshop, and new interpretations of the early stages of industrialisation; but I haven’t detected that anyone in Historic England is any longer much interested in this aspect of architectural heritage. At the Inquiry, I was struck by how totally uninterested Michael Dunn, the Principal Inspector of Historic Buildings, was in the bell foundry, giving a very deadpan rebuttal as to any reason why it might be remotely worth preserving. The London Advisory Committee should have intervened, but was encouraged not to. Is it because issues of gender and race have replaced an interest in work and labour ? Or is it because industrial history is treated as a northern concern, not relevant to London ?
As the lawyers do their summing up and the Inspector closes the last day of the public Inquiry, after two weeks of nearly daily hearings, the profound differences between the two schemes in front of the Inspector have become all too abundantly clear.
On the one hand, you have the Raycliff scheme which consists of the radical reconstruction of the Bell Foundry: spending a lot of money on its refurbishment, no doubt, but using the bulk of it as a café with fifty tables, which will need to be serviced by a kitchen on site: kitchens generally occupy between a third and half of the amount of space used by a restaurant. So the bulk of the existing foundry becomes a café/restaurant. Yes, they have now chosen to insert a small foundry alongside the internal courtyard as a way of securing planning permission, but this was not part of their original plan and is not intrinsic to it. The bulk of the site is given over to a brand new hotel with 103 rooms. It has been suggested by the architect, Will Burges of 31/44 Architects, that the scale of the new hotel and being built in similar materials will enhance the character of the foundry, but in reality is more likely to smother it.
On the other hand, you have a detailed and costed set of proposals put forward by a conservation charity, Re-Form, with recent experience of re-establishing the historic use of Middleport Pottery in Burslem, which would work in conjunction with a long-established international firm, Factum Arte, to protect the character of the existing building by maintaining it in active use as a working environment.
One proposal sticks to its former use, the other changes it. So, should the Inspector recommend change-of-use ? I sincerely hope not.
It always seemed incomprehensible that Edinburgh, one of the greatest neoclassical cities in the world, should have remotely considered the conversion of the Old Royal High School, a great building by Thomas Hamilton on such a prominent site on Calton Hill, into a luxury hotel. But as I have learned during the Inquiry into the future of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, there are plenty of solemn-faced pundits, including the Commissioners of Historic England, who think nothing of butchering a major historic building in the name of tourist development. One might hope that post-Covid, the mood might turn towards preservation and protection of historic monuments, not that quisling term ‘adaptive re-use’.
I’ve learned a new architectural term today: bowellism, as a way of describing Richard Rogers’s tendency to turn buildings inside out, with their mechanics on the exterior. First used, apparently by Nikolaus Pevsner of a 1957 student project by Michael Webb, later a member of Archigram, for the Furniture Manufacturers Association in High Wycombe, which was described by Pevsner in a lecture on the return of historicism at the RIBA as looking ‘like a series of stomachs on a plate. Or bowels, connected by bits of bristle’. It was then adopted by Reyner Banham to describe an interest in visible circulation.
I got an unexpected call from a friend who is a trustee of a smaller museum in which he asked me what I thought were going to be the big changes in museums as a result of COVID-19. I had to think on my feet, because although I’ve been reading a lot about what’s happening, I haven’t really had to structure my thoughts on the topic. So, these were my immediate thoughts:-
It’s pretty obvious that there is likely to be a reduction in the number of big blockbuster exhibitions. They are so expensive to organise, they require a great deal of international travel, they only work if there are lots of visitors. I noticed that the V&A’s exhibition of Kimonos was pretty well drawn from its own collection and I can imagine that this will be a more general pattern: packaging up work from the existing collection and work in store in order to save on costs.
Much activity is surely bound to migrate online, and already has. After nine months of working much more actively online – online seminars, online conferences, online teaching, staying at home and having meetings on Zoom, it’s a bit implausible that the pattern will change back to the old normal, however much people may yearn to be back in the galleries.
Visitor numbers are down all over Europe. We’re now in a second wave of COVID and it looks as if there may be a third wave and a fourth wave. We’re not going to get back to normal anytime soon and that includes less international travel, less cultural tourism, fewer visitors, less visitor income, so museums are going to have to change their financial projections not just this year, but for the next five years at least.
Deaccessioning is gathering pace in American museums, not just in order to help provide necessary income, but also in order to re-shape the character of collections and which artists are represented.
In the UK, trusts and foundations and indeed the government have stepped in with grants to help museums survive this year. But what happens next year ? This was the question I was asked and I would love to have an answer.
I have tried to attach a news report from the Architect’s Journal, but it resists all my attempts. It is a very mournful piece of news so far as I’m concerned, announcing the closure of the architectural practice of Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones.
I first met Jeremy and Ed in the summer of 1994, when John Wykeham, the then Head of Administration, and I were going round meeting architects who we might consider to re-design the National Portrait Gallery. They had an office in Percy Street and were working together on the plans for the Royal Opera House, a young practice as they described themselves even though they were both in their mid-fifties, having known one another at the Architectural Association, worked together at Milton Keynes, collaborated on the design of Northampton Town Hall and then gone their separate ways for over a decade until Ed wanted to come back to London from Canada and Jeremy needed help on the Royal Opera House. I worked with them for ten years or so: on the design of the Ondaatje Wing and the reshaping of the ground floor of the National Gallery. They have had a good run and have done an amazing amount of intelligent, well considered and important work, for which they don’t always get the credit they deserve.
I have spent a happy afternoon listening to the talks and interviews which I only half overheard last night connected to the exhibition Of Time and Place organised by the new online gallery ‘Living Object’ (www.livingobject.co.uk). Not least it gave me a much better sense of the gallery and the artists it represents, set up only in March as a way of giving artists specialising in three-dimensional media – ceramics, textiles, jewellery – an online presence, talking about their work, not just as a way of selling it, but as a vehicle of international communication.
Romilly appears after 55 minutes, talking about the relationship between our house and her work, her interest in the structure of medieval bookbindings, the discovery of copper wire and soldering, our trip to Newfoundland and starting to make work with Lucie Gledhill, a journey of collaboration. The talks are currently on WeTransfer, but not necessarily for long:-