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Studio Lives : In Conversation with Louise Campbell

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Louise Campbell, author of Studio Lives: Architect, Art and Artist in 20th-Century Britain, talks to Meris Ryan-Goff about the fascinating and varied creative partnerships between architects and artists, which so influenced the studio spaces and artistic creations of the 20th-Century. 

 

MRG: Studio Lives: Architect, Art and Artist in 20th-Century Britain, takes an approach to the subject of artist, studio and architect, which is unlike any previous study. How did you come to view the interaction of artist and architect in this manner? 

LC: I began to think about relations between architects and artists on a visit to Paris.  In areas like Montparnasse, there’s a concentration of stylish studio-houses around the Parc Montsouris, many of them designed by architects like Le Corbusier, Perret and Lurçat. Twentieth-century architects are often said to have ignored their clients’ wishes in order to pursue their own ideas.  But could that be true in buildings which accommodated particular needs and ways of working?  They made me wonder about the importance of the artist-client, and whether the studios built for them actually represented a joint project.

    
Le Corbusier: Ozenfant studio, and studio houses designed by Perret, Lurçat et al. in Montparnasse © L Campbell


MRG: And how did you decide to structure the book as you have?

LC: The book is organised in four chronological sections, running from the fin-de-siècle to the late 1930s. This allowed a new perspective on British art by bringing the physical and social environment of artists into play with the artworks they produced. Another approach might have been to look at a range of studios and their occupants over time – a sort of ‘studios and their after-lives’ book. But that would have allowed much less space for discussing the role of art and the interaction of artist and architect.

MRG: Many of the artists and architects interlink artistically and socially… How did your research for the book progress? And how did you choose the specific studios and lives on which to focus?

LC: Yes, the links were often close, meaning that the architect-client relationship was tested to its limits! Kit Nicholson’s studio extension to Banks Head was criticised by his brother Ben as having spoiled the look of the long farmhouse. Dora Gordine sacked her husband’s architect-friend Godfrey Samuel for not responding to her suggestions, and took over the design of the house herself.

The studios which I chose were built or converted at a significant point in an artist’s life and career. For many, the decision to move occurred in the aftermath of a successful exhibition. This was so in the case of Gluck, who was proud that sales from of her first solo exhibition at the Fine Art Society in 1926 allowed her to build a studio in the garden of her house. Professional needs were often accompanied by personal factors. She told her architect Edward Maufe that it was both an inspiration and a haven. For Henry Payne and Roger Fry, the move to a rural studio-home allowed them to work in closer contact with nature and the chance to live in new ways with their young children.

    
St. Loe's House, Amberley, Glos. & Roger Fry's house, Durbins © L Campbell


MRG: Artists’ Studios are immensely personal, and your book addresses the very complex private yet public nature of the developing studio-home of early twentieth century artists.

How do you see the interaction of the press and the artist? Does media attention become an intrusion when it is applied to an artist’s studio rather than their gallery (as in earlier decades)?

LC: The growth of mass media and the illustrated press perpetuated the idea of the studio as a place of private creation, while of course at the same time exposing it to public scrutiny. And artists, like other creative individuals, quickly learned how to take advantage of the publicity it brought.

G.F. Watts managed to keep visitors away from his studio by creating a separate gallery in Kensington open to the public, something impossible for less financially successful artists. Fifty years on, during the heyday of the newspaper gossip column, Eileen Agar turned interviews with journalists to her own advantage. Her studio-flat provided excellent copy for journalists who described her as ‘the woman painter who was once one of the Bright Young Things’. It helped to consolidate her reputation as a  Surrealist artist.

Eileen Agar and Bella in Bramham Gardens, photograph c.1938, Agar Archive

MRG: Section I of your book opens with a study of G.F. Watts and his art and practice. I am intrigued by Watts’ use of photography – what is particular about his documentation of his work?
Do you think the urge to curate and manage the presentation of his art stemmed from the same motives that drove the building of the studio and gallery space?

LC: Watts used photography in diverse ways and for different purposes.  Like many artists, he wished to create a record of his work as it disappeared into galleries and private collections. This was certainly one motive for building his Kensington gallery and later one at Compton. The artist himself was much photographed. The photographs included in the biography written by his wife Mary evoke the informality of their existence at Limnerslease, their Surrey studio-house. They contrast with the carefully staged portrait photographs taken by George Andrews, the Estate Steward, which helped to reinforce Watts’ image as heir to the Old Masters. He was described as ‘our Titian of Limnerslease’ on the occasion of his eightieth birthday in 1897.

 
Watts Gallery, Compton, exterior. The portrait busts of G.F. and Mary Watts by Marcus Cornish in the gable apertures were installed in 2014; Watts Gallery


MRG: Many artists mentioned in your book made use of photography, and F.E. McWilliam’s work is especially interesting. How is his photography unusual in relation to the architectural or geographic space and the artworks placed therein?

LC: F.E. McWilliam was a talented photographer. He drew on the example of Brancusi in recording his own sculpture from angles and in lighting conditions which showed it to advantage. McWilliam used his camera to transform his New Malden studio into a sort of stage peopled by his sculptures, pieces of un-worked wood and stone, tools and found objects. His camera allowed him to expand his creative arena:  in his garden, he recorded the forms and textures of his sculpture under natural light. He fused two photographs of the interior of his newly-built studio to create a panorama which explored the relationships between objects, spaces between them and their architectural envelope. It underlined the role of the sculptor as creator of his own world.


F.E. McWilliam, Photographic Self-Portrait in Studio, Private Collection & F.E. McWilliam, Photographic Panorama of the Studio Interior, 1939, Private Collection


MRG: You also address geography and in particular the artistic influences of London and Paris. How much is the artist’s studio about retreat or social involvement?

LC: The Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1890s challenged the idea of the studio as a place of solitary endeavour, instead proposing a more democratic model of collaborative creation.  The rural studio-workshop run by Mary Watts and that of Henry Payne were part of this alternative concept of art-making. They were embedded in the creative communities which flourished in Surrey and in the Cotswolds.

In the cities too, community was important. Paris’ attraction for artists derived from its teaching studios, its museums and its cafés. But London – though a much more spread-out city than Paris – also had important colonies of artists in areas like Chelsea, Kensington and Fitzrovia.

When Mondrian arrived from Paris in 1938, he wrote that Belsize Park, with its concentration of sociable artists, reminded him of Montparnasse. Herbert Read was later to describe the area around the Mall Studios as a ‘nest of gentle artists’.

 
Cecil Stephenson, The Artist’s Studio (Mall Studios, 6 Tasker Road, Hampstead),
1919, oil on canvas/oil on panel, 40.5×30cm; Liss Fine Art


MRG: In the examples you have looked at, how much are the studios built to facilitate the art practice, and how much does the building of the studio become part of this very practice?

LC: William Orpen’s studio is an example of a place customised for painting portraits, and also for the comfort of his sitters. Country Life wrote in 1930: ‘Orpen’s studio is as light as an operating theatre.’ The enormous plate-glass windows which were installed there in 1929 helped him to produce the highly-finished portraits of society figures for which he was renowned, with their sculptural lighting and carefully delineated accessories. 

For sculptors, there’s an even closer relationship between their work and their architectural environment. ‘Studio House’ which McWilliam designed with his friend Horace Townsend was an intriguing collaboration. Townsend had studied architecture at University College while McWilliam attended the Slade School of Art. Not only did the resulting house provide the sculptor with a setting for photographic experiments, but its robust brick walls, textured concrete and play of solid and void complemented his own exploration of form and space.

  
William Orpen's studio today © L Campbell


MRG: The contemporary idea that women’s studios differ necessarily from men’s is something that you tackle in the Section IV of the book. I was fascinated by the description you gave of Eileen Agar’s 1936 exhibit, “The entrance to the Underworld”, ‘suggesting that the home was a domain of hidden secrets and suppressed desires’.

When the home and studio merge, does this kind of idea also apply to the studio space? How do you think a kind of ‘domesticity’ actually manifested itself in female artists’ studios?

LC: Gluck’s elegant studio symbolised a bid for personal freedom and allowed her the privacy to conduct love affairs out of sight of her domestic staff. Escape from the restrictions of middle-class family life was also key to the organisation of Agar’s studio-flat. Located immediately above that of her partner Joseph Bard, it allowed a companionable autonomy. Thus Agar, like many women after the First World War, broke with expectations of a life defined by marriage, children and comfortable home. At the same time she burlesqued another ideal: that of the well-organised, uncluttered, white-walled interior. She gradually customised the studio which Rodney Thomas designed for her with a collage of found objects, photographs and artworks, transforming what began as a modernist interior into something more personal and more fantastic. An alternative domesticity emerged in this studio-flat: liberated, non-patriarchal and accommodating.

 

Gluck at work on a portrait in her studio, photograph 4 November 1932, Hulton Archive, and Gluck, 1937, Private Collection.


MRG: The artist’s relationship with their studio space is very personal - but also often political. 
Is the political made necessarily more personal by its expression in architecture and the spaces in which art is created?

LC: Particularly interesting is Dora Gordine’s studio space in Dorich House – could you tell us more about how this space reacts to Gordine’s desire to align or distance herself from certain artistic and political movements?

Latvian-born Gordine, like McWilliam, was fascinated by the effect of light on her sculpture. She created  a series of galleries and studios lit as the sun moved round the house she designed at Kingston-on-Thames. It was built in 1936, the year when Russian artists like Naum Gabo were exhibiting their work in Britain. Gordine’s house – like her sculpture - was a rebuttal of Gabo’s investigation of volume and use of synthetic materials. Dorich House, with its simple massive forms and ribbed brickwork spurned Constructivism in favour of a different Russian tradition: that of Byzantium. In the 1940s, Gordine and her husband Richard began to assemble a collection of pre-Revolutionary Russian textiles and porcelain.  As Britain embraced the monumental abstract sculpture of Moore and Hepworth, Dorich House became a showcase for Imperial Russian art and figurative sculpture.


Dorich House exterior, photograph by Ellie Lawson

MRG: In this time of lockdown, people are discovering the benefits and drawbacks of home working…  Does this provide us with a new lens or perspective with which to view the studios of your book? Are there comparisons to be drawn?

LC: Present conditions are often compared to those during the Second World War. Then as now, everyone suffered from restrictions on travel, separation from loved ones and queues for essentials. As today, museum closures and shortages of materials affected artists. But though a few artists like Alastair Morton and Ivon Hitchens went to ground, wartime did not involve widespread social isolation.  

Instead, it caused a massive reconfiguration of the artworld. It brought unexpected opportunities as official war artists, designers of camouflage, photographers and decorators of British Restaurants and war-workers’ hostels.  In the present lockdown, artists (though barred from museums and galleries) are fortunate in being able to communicate electronically, to tour exhibitions virtually, to work with apps on their IPads, and to hone their networking skills. But the long-term economic consequences will be dire.  I hope that in the aftermath of this epidemic we will see a public programme for the arts just as the US government attempted to help artists survive the Depression with its WPA, or as in Britain when from 1946 the Arts Council began to support artists with grants, commissions and exhibitions, inaugurating a golden age of postwar public art.

 
Alastair Morton at painting window, Vaughsteil, Bampton, photograph c.1942–5; Private Collection

 

Studio Lives: Architect, Art and Artist in 20th-Century Britain by Louise Campbell is available here!

 

Hardback • 288 Pages • Size: 240 × 170 mm
40 colour illustrations and 70 B&W illustrations
ISBN: 9781848223134 • Publication: October 11, 2019

 

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