Studio Lives: Architect, Art and Artist in 20th-Century Britain
London, Lund Humphries, 2019, ISBN: 9781848223134 ; 288pp.; Price: £35.00
Institute of Historical Research
Date accessed: 28 March, 2023
The Romantic image of the starving artist painting in a threadbare garret and refusing to bend his talent to please a Philistine public could not be further from the artists and their studios considered in Louise Campbell’s Studio Lives. Although the imagination of artists (and public) was often haunted by Bohemianism, even the archetype Bohemian Augustus John, who famously rejected the studio in favour of a caravan and the open road, commissioned two architect-designed studio dwellings, one modelled on Rembrandt’s house in Amsterdam and the other, a stylish modernist studio in the garden of his newly modernised country house. Built between the late 19th century and Second World War in Britain (or more precisely England), artists’ studios, studio houses and studio flats, featured here, were sites of the production of art for sale on the commercial market, as well as places created for personal expression and accommodation in town and country. Funded by either the sale of work or by inheritance, studios acted as signifiers of artistic and professional identity that both represented and promoted economic success and social position.
Throughout the 20th century architects were perceived as over-controlling often thought to have behaved with little regard to clients’ needs or concerns. ‘No flowers but my flowers’, the Scottish architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh barked to a hapless person who had placed an unauthorized bouquet in the architect’s work. However, Campbell makes the argument that artists’ visions—and egos—were more than a match for architects when it came to the design of studio dwellings. As Alice T. Friedman found in Women and the Making of the Modern House, the idea of the architect as sole creative force in the design can be challenged and remodelled through a reassessment of the interplay of architect and client, showing a more interactive, positive relationship than habitually credited. Looking at the early 20th century, Campbell provides evidence of an even greater role and closer collaboration for artist-clients in the creation of their homes and studios working with architects who were, perhaps surprisingly, open to their ideas and opinions. Moreover, artists, such as Roger Fry and Dora Gordine, who designed their own studio houses, obviated the need to compromise or negotiate and demonstrated that the architect could be confidently dispensed with for the provision of workplace and accommodation.
Synthesising the best recent publications in the field, the text of Studio Lives is richly detailed and amimated by the author’s own archival research. To guide the reader, a firm structure is given—and needed—with chapters and sub-headings organised chronologically and thematically in four overarching sections which mark shifts in the concept of the studio: ‘Legacies’ (c.1875-1910), ‘The Studio as Home’ (c.1910-1920), ‘After the Victorians’ (1920s), ‘On Display: Domesticity, Masquerade, Modernism’ (1930s). Linking ‘art and where it is made’ (p.7), the studios of ten artists and three artist-couples set up broader discussions about inhabitants’ ideas, working practices and their relationships with fellow artists and architects. Intended for specialists and general audience alike, each section of the book, which draws on social history as well as the history of art and architecture, is prefaced by a short informative introduction to frame the narrative and provide helpful background information before considering individual case studies, which range widely, but focus on one key studio, or in the case of G.F. Watts, an estate devoted to making art.
The rituals of display and access by the visiting public to ‘show studios’ in the Victorian period are understood as the starting point for artists’ control over their own exhibitions and sales, useful for cultivating clients and spreading their reputations. G.F. Watts was central to the Victorian Studio Tradition—Campbell’s ‘Legacies’—with its rituals of display and access by the visiting public to the artists’ studios, a fundamental development earlier depicted in Giles Walkely’s Artists’ Houses in London 1764-1914. With Ernest George as architect, G.F. Watts and his wife, Mary Watts, an artist-craftswoman, built Limnerselease, a studio-house, which became the centre of a sprawling complex of art workplaces for creating painting, sculpture and the decorative arts which included a large gallery that became a lasting memorial dedicated to his work. Pursuing rural and decorative crafts and influenced by philanthropic motives, Mary Watts organised and trained local villagers who learned gesso and terra cotta work which were executed in a mortuary chapel under her direction and later developed as a pottery to provide employment.
Limnerslease became a place of pilgrimage for sitters, visitors and journalists. G.F. Watts—Il Signor, as he was reverentially called— benefited from the new technologies of photography, which Campbell emphasises, to record his work, make it available for reproduction in the press and reinforce his image as England’s most admired artist. The illustrated press featured vivid portrayals of the lives of artists and other new celebrities ‘at home’ from the 1880s. Henry James observed that this was the ‘age of interviewing’ in which the public was more concerned with the artist or writer than their work.
Campbell usefully extends the fashioning of artists and their lives for public consumption in newspapers, magazines and art journals to popular ‘art novels’ and short stories, which often blurred studio fact and studio fiction. The eclectic blend of fact and fiction, myth and history, narrative and personality in the art novel should not, however, lead to its underestimation. Popular fiction established Paris as the home of young artists and shaped artistic aspirations for generations. Campbell observes that the proliferation of Paris-based novels in English, such as George du Maurier’s massively popular Trilby (1893) and Tarr (1916/18) by Wyndam Lewis, indicated ‘a faltering cultural confidence among British writers’ (p.33). But artists too would have felt this impulse and were drawn to French art and practices not least idea of the studio as a vital material and metaphoric place.
‘The Studio as Home’, especially a family home, is most aptly represented by the studio and workshop of Henry Payne, who brought the workshop-studio together with domesticity as a key element in his wholistic approach to life, work and family based on the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. After a busy and productive life teaching at the Birmingham School of Art, Payne, a painter, designer and maker of decorative arts, moved to the Cotswolds with idea of setting up an artistic community, acquiring more workspace and creating a comfortable house for himself, his wife and children in rural surroundings. A Cotswold neighbour, the Arts and Crafts architect and designer Sidney Barnsley, collaborated with him easily and with a light touch to convert an unmodernised medieval manor house into a functioning home and workplace with a garden, which is thought to have been laid out by Henry’s partner, Edith Payne, and Barnsley. The remote and countrified surroundings did however not remove Payne from national civic work, most notably, the project of the Liberal government of 1906 for a series of historical mural paintings in the Palace of Westminster. The Liberals wanted to represent the development of modern political structures and were advised by the historian, G.M. Trevelyan, who called for paintings that evoked ‘living, many-coloured and romantic history’, which, he asserted, ‘could bring the past alive for ordinary people’ (p.50). For his contribution, Payne was asked to represent the ‘The Origin of the Parties’. Choosing to paint from literature rather than history, his ‘Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens’ from Shakespeare’s Henry the VI, Part I. shows in vivid Pre-Raphaelite detail Richard Plantagenet and the Earl of Somerset taking up their opposing symbols. Illustrated in full colour in Studio Lives, the finer points of historical accuracy were of less importance than dramatic effect and rich decoration, while the garden setting depicts the artist’s studio-home where the mural was painted.
Other national and artistic identities were depicted and advanced through studio building by both sculptors and painters in the inter-war period. The sculptor, Dora Gordine, an émigré to England from Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire) via Berlin, Paris and Singapore designed a studio-house on the edge of Richmond Park, ‘Building for Art’ in Campbell’s phrase. She made a place for herself in the British art world by combining an architectural debt to the spatiality and materials of Sir John Soane with an unabashed manipulation of her ‘Russianness’, which was overtly opposed —artistically and politically—to the Soviet regime and its revolutionary art of Constructivism. Instead of non-representational Soviet art, Gordine’s sculpture was figurative and individualistic. Made in studios on the ground and first floors and displayed in the first-floor gallery, her tinted bronzes were viewed through a sequence of dramatically lit spaces. Of almost equal importance for self-fashioning a cosmopolitan and politically correct image was the décor of Dorich House itself, its furniture, rugs and ceramics, which signalled the occupants’ allegiance to the art of south-east Asia —and to the imperial cultures of Britain and Russia. In what Campbell calls ‘a new type of modern domesticity’ (p.205), Gordine and her aristocratic Irish husband (who paid for it all) lived in a top floor apartment, repeating the arrangement of Gordine’s earlier studio in Paris designed for her by the architect, Auguste Perret.
With the Surrealist Eileen Agar, Gordine and the painter Gluck (born Harriet Gluckstein), Campbell pulls together a major theme of women artists’ visibility and gradual recognition in the inter-war period, reiterating the importance of press coverage and the studio’s key role as a ‘vehicle’ of publicity, as well as a place to make art. Like Agar, Gluck rebelled against a wealthy family and social convention. In Campbell’s most explicit examination of sexuality and space, Gluck, a lesbian and cross-dresser, is shown to have articulated and performed different versions of her identity over time in diverse studios and places: from a tomboy with a frilly shirt and pipe in Cornwall before the First World War to a dignified ‘Old Masterish’ look when living in a flat in London, to the booted and cloaked ‘dandy-aesthete’ of her persona in 1918; but by the 1930s, Gluck inhabited a chic androgynous figure in Schiaparelli evening culottes. In contrast, she is illustrated in a photograph at her highly successful exhibition at the Fine Art Society in 1926 dressed as a country squire in tweeds and plus fours. Gluck ‘collected’ studios of artists that she greatly admired, taking over the studio in Chelsea once occupied by both Whistler and (later) by John Singer Sargent, and buying Laura Knight’s studio in Cornwall as a country retreat. However, it is Gluck’s purchase of an 18th century house in Hampstead (paid for by family funds) where architect, art and artist are considered most fully.
Gluck collaborated closely with the architect, Edward Maufe, and his wife Prudence Maufe, a designer and interior decorator, to create a garden pavilion-like studio (1931-2), which Campbell describes as part ‘working studio’ and part ‘temple of love’ (p.183). Masked by its seemingly conventional form and smart Neo-Georgian modernity, Campbell observes that ‘Gluck’s studio alluded to an icon of lesbian desire, the Temple of Friendship’ (ibid), built by the writer, Natalie Barney, in the garden of her house in Paris. In her chic, private Hampstead ‘temple’, behind insulated double doors, Gluck could paint, avoid the servants, meet her friends and enjoy her lover, Constance Spry, the society florist, who filled the space with her signature white arrangements which inspired Gluck’s decorative flowerpieces.
Heterosexual relations of married artists also impacted their shared spaces, as well as their creative and personal lives. However, their sexuality and its implications are addressed implicitly and more circumspectly than one would anticipate in a section entitled ‘After the Victorians’. None more obliquely than Winifred and Ben Nicholson whose rugged Cumberland farmhouse, Banks Head, was a centre of visual culture, domesticity and sociability but had no electricity and only makeshift studios: hers in an upstairs bedroom, and his in a converted hayloft, where they nonetheless produced work, modern in feeling, which depicted the surrounding landscape and put a toe in the water of abstraction. However, at this time, her work sold better than his at a joint exhibition in London, but with three young children each born two years apart, Winifred’s travel to their London base was restricted, while her partner hungered after urban life and artistic networks. Winifred Nicholson also had financial support from her family (her grandfather was the Earl of Carlisle); however, money was tight and debts escalated. Nonetheless, a new studio extension was designed for Ben by his architect-brother, Christopher Nicholson. Campbell concludes that ‘the integration of art and daily living at Banks Head and its singular aesthetic’, which was both vernacular and contemporary, ‘helped to shape the form and concept of the modern studio’. (p.151). Nevertheless, it is only in a footnote that the reader first finds that Ben left Winifred Nicholson and never occupied the studio.
The narrative of an idyllic studio homelife which ends in separation and divorce was repeated by the sculptors, John Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth, who lived an artistic, bohemian life marked by his rough clothes, serious music making and ground breaking work in the new tradition of direct carving which replaced modelling as the basis of progressive sculpture. Barbara Hepworth became one of the few British artists to have an international reputation in the late 20th century, but life with Skeaping in the Mall Studios in London ends precipitously (for the reader) and he is replaced by Ben Nicholson. Nicholson exhibited with Hepworth, painted her grand piano white, ruining its sound, and significantly in Campbell’s terms, he and Hepworth developed a new concept of the studio as an architectural space in its own right, ‘a place of display’ (p. 158) for their work and for the found objects which they composed in abstract arrangements, delighting in their colour, shape, weight and texture. The downside for Nicholson was that the working life of the studio sat uneasily in what had become a gallery for experimentation and display, as well as the artists’ living room and social centre. Ultimately, art was not created in their studio home. Hepworth and her messy sculpture-making were removed to work in a lean-to shed in the garden and Nicholson soon acquired his own studio nearby with the help of an unnamed benefactor. This gender imbalance passes without comment or elaboration by the author.
Artists had been called on to design for industry from the 19th century to the Bauhaus, but the Great Depression and the political turbulence which accompanied it jolted artists into engaging with the market for household furnishings and goods, designing fabrics (and posters, rugs and ceramics), as well as showing their work in department stores and participating in exhibitions organised by interior decorators. In the final section of Studio Lives, ‘Building for Art’, relationships of art, industry and modernism are best exemplified in the studio-house Brackenfell, near Carlisle in Cumberland (plans finalised in February 1939). The client for Brackenfell, Alastair Morton, was the design and publicity director of Edinburgh Weavers, the experimental wing of his family’s textile manufacturing firm which produced furnishing fabrics that worked well with contemporary architecture. Under Morton’s label, Constructivist Fabrics, a new range of designs was created by artist-friends, who designed for industry, including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson (then living nearby in Banks Head only during summer holidays). The textiles were promoted as thoroughly modern but in keeping with the English tradition of enlightened design for the home reminiscent of Morris & Co.
Designed by husband and wife team, Leslie Martin and Sadie Speight, Brackenfell combined the knowledge and experience of architectural modernism with an Arts and Crafts concern for local materials and architect-designed interiors and furnishings, which Campbell suggests were Speight’s contribution. The plans, which are reproduced, show an intelligent, rational layout of spaces to accommodate family life and a studio-study for Morton where he pursued his aspiration to become an abstract painter but also advanced his work as a manufacturer with a desk and huge cupboard which contained his reference collection of textiles and a screen to display textile designs and samples. The house was, in Campbell’s word, a ‘showcase’ for the textiles made by Morton’s firm—furnishings were covered in Edinburgh Weavers’ fabrics—but Morton also declared his avant-garde credentials in a domestic setting through a collection of modern art which included a relief by Ben Nicholson and a piece of Hepworth’s sculpture which was hung near his own abstract painting.
To celebrate the modern house and the importance of place and landscape, Morton insisted on siting the house at the top of a hill rather than tucked away in a fold as the architects preferred—a prime example of the artist-client having the upper hand. However, the exposed position turned out to be a fatal flaw when war broke out and its exposed position on a hilltop led to the abandonment of Brackenfell by Morton and his family.
For Campbell the main problem with ‘architectural analysis’ is that it ‘allows little space for discussing life inside the studio, and the work which emerged from it’. (p.8). Indeed, the most neglected aspect of architectural analysis generally and the most difficult area of architecture to research is the lived experience of the building’s users. The great strength of this book is that it makes space to explain in detail how studios and studio dwellings were used and what their impact was on the occupants and their art. This approach foregrounds the art in its own right and swings the focus and balance of power from the architect, traditionally the key figure in architectural history, to the buildings’ users and to a consideration of how the building and its spaces were employed and what they meant to their occupants and to the wider world. In this context, the studio inhabitants’ social, professional and domestic activities and the changing nature of the interconnection of architect, art and artist in the modern period is given a fresh perspective and interpretation.
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?