Edmund Capon

I sometimes think my blog is at risk of becoming an obituaries column.

Anyway, I have just read of the death of Edmund Capon, the former Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, who I got to know a bit on visits to Australia in the late 1990s, when I was twice a judge (actually, I think I was the one and only judge) for the Moran portrait awards and once a guest of Gordon and Marilyn Darling, who knew him well.

Edmund struck me as a sort of folk hero: very dry, extremely knowledgeable, funny and very hospitable. We once played as partners in billiards and easily defeated whoever our opponents were. One could buy versions of his socks at the Art Gallery and he went on walking holidays with the Prime Minister. He was a candidate to be Director of the V&A in 1988, but claimed to have disqualified himself by saying that he wanted to direct it, rather than be a poodle of the Trustees.

It’s probably unlikely that someone so outspoken and intellectually unorthodox would nowadays be appointed as a museum director, but museums will be the poorer if they don’t have such powerful and effective (and unorthodox) advocates.


Kevin Roche

In reading the recent obituaries of Kevin Roche, the Irish American architect who had worked for Maxwell Fry in London before going to study under Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology, I had forgotten that it was Roche who was hired by Thomas Hoving on becoming Director of the Metropolitsn Museum in 1966 as architect. The brief from Hoving was that he wanted, ‘a new attitude…Hospitality above all’. Roche greatly endeared himself to Hoving by describing the Museum as ‘a bleeding mess; it’s more an open storeroom than a series of open galleries’. And it was Roche who proposed creating the steps at the front of the Museum which most people assume have been there forever, but are actually a creation of the democratic 1960s.


Eileen Hogan

We were sent a copy of the catalogue of Eileen Hogan’s exhibition Personal Geographies at Yale Center for British Art in May. It includes a reproduction of the middle portrait of the triptych Eileen did of Romilly SS between March 10 and April 17, 2010 (the catalogue information is wonderfully precise) in oil, wax and charcoal on medium, rough, white paper mounted on board. I reproduce it, partly in celebration of the book and forthcoming exhibition, which together will be a meticulous record of Eileen’s work as a portrait painter (occasional), but more as a topographical painter recording the secret gardens of London with passionate visual intensity; and, also, because I discovered last night that Yale Center for British Art allows anyone to reproduce any work in their collection, without fear of the copyright police, in the interests of free scholarly knowledge and investigation of their collections:-


Bauhaus in Britain

In the intervals of going to the Maastricht art fair, I have been reading Alan Powers’s book on the reception of bauhaus ideas in Britain in the 1930s – Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America. The myth is that Britain provided an inhospitable environment to Gropius & co., but Powers demonstrates very clearly how Gropius was greeted on his arrival at Victoria Station by a welcoming party, consisting of Jack Prichard, who housed him and Ise at little or no cost in the Lawn Road flats, found him work and introduced him to other architects, and P. Morton Shand, who had already written extensively on German architecture in Architectural Review and was to translate Gropius’s New Architecture and the Bauhaus, published by Faber and Faber in 1935. When Gropius left for Harvard in 1937, Prichard organised a dinner for 100 of his artist and scientist friends at the Trocadero with a menu designed by László Moholy-Nagy. So, it’s hard to view Gropius and the many other graduates of the Bauhaus who emigrated to London, including Breuer and Moholy-Nagy as wholly unappreciated.


John Richardson

I’m sad to read of the death of John Richardson, aged 95, older than I thought, whose grandfather, rather amazingly, was born in 1817, in the reign of George III. One of his many remarkable characteristics was that, although he had written short books in the 1950s, including one on Braque for Penguin Modern Painters and a book on Picasso’s watercolours in 1956, he was already 67 by the time that the first volume of his magisterial four-volume biography of Picasso (one still to appear) was published and was still going strong writing, publishing and organising major exhibitions on Picasso for Larry Gagosian well into his eighties. A lesson to us all.


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).