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Response to Review of Studio Lives: Architect, Art and Artist in 20th-Century Britain

I am very appreciative of this careful reading of the book, but wish to take the opportunity to respond to two points raised by the reviewer.

I chose to use Britain in the title because although the studios and studio-houses I discuss are located in England, a number of the artists who used them originated elsewhere: Wales (Augustus John), Ireland (William Orpen and F.E.McWilliam) and Scotland (Mary Watts, William Reid Dick and his architect Thomas Tait, and Alastair Morton). Their artistic identities and the studios which they used and built register these origins; their geographical location reflects the centripetal nature of the art world before the Second World War. Interestingly, Morton’s house, Brackenfell, suggests that the dominance of London and England was starting to falter in the late 1930s, partly as a reaction against high modernism and a growing interest in traditional materials and forms. It was built in Cumberland, conveniently near his factory and reflecting his attachment to the border country and its landscape; but Morton frequently had cause to visit London – where he stayed at the Mall Studios or Nicholson’s nearby studio – to oversee the marketing of Edinburgh Weavers and Constructivist Fabrics and to meet artists.

Gender imbalance in the Hampstead studio of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson is a more complex issue. It is clear that Nicholson had a cuckoo-like tendency. He roosted happily in Winifred Nicholson’s Paris flat as well as Hepworth’s Hampstead studio, and annexed and occupied other people’s workspaces throughout his career. Photographs in Unit One presented the Mall Studios as Nicholson’s working environment, and a lean-to shed as Hepworth’s studio. However, after 1936 when Nicholson began to rent a studio around the corner, the Mall studio functioned more as a living and display space. The plaster, stone dust and wood-shavings visible in photographs of Hepworth and her first husband John Skeaping were banished; the space of the studio assumed the character of a carefully crafted artefact, its fastidious arrangement of objects forming the basis for Nicholson’s still-life compositions. In the inter-war period, the practice of direct carving had often been characterised as virile and vigorous. With Hepworth carving and chiselling outside, and Nicholson organising objects inside, did the Mall Studios represent not so much gender imbalance as a challenge to traditional gender roles?