Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Remembering Avenue House in Ampthill and the sale of the collection assembled by Sir Albert Richardson.

Sir Albert Richardson at home

Sir Albert Edward Richardson K.C.V.O., F.R.I.B.A, F.S.A., (London, 19 May 1880 – 3 February 1964) was a leading English architect, teacher and writer about architecture during the first half of the 20th century. He was Professor of Architecture at University College London, a President of the Royal Academy, editor of Architects’ Journal and founder of the Georgian Group.

Richardson was born in London. He trained in the offices of Leonard Stokes and Frank T. Verity, practitioners of the Beaux-Arts style, and in 1906 he established his first architectural practice, in partnership with Charles Lovett Gill (the Richardson & Gill partnership was eventually dissolved in 1939).

He wrote several articles for Architectural Review and the survey of London Houses from 1660 to 1820: a Consideration of their Architecture and Detail (1911). In the following year he was appointed architect to the Prince of Wales's Duchy of Cornwall Estate. His massive work, Monumental Classic Architecture in Great Britain and Ireland (1914) established him as a scholar; in it he reappraised the Greek Revival architects C.R. Cockerell and Henri Labrouste.

In his own work he was strongly influenced by nostalgia for the craftsmanship of the late Georgian era and the pared-down Neoclassicism of Sir John Soane in particular, but he recognised that his classical ideals needed to be developed to meet the challenges of Modernism. The result was a synthesis of traditional and modern approaches which was adapted and applied to industrial and commercial buildings, churches and houses. His deep knowledge of and sympathy towards Georgian design also helped him in numerous post-war commissions to restore bomb-damaged Georgian buildings. Ironically, several of his designs – most notably, Bracken House in the City of London, the first post-war London building to be listed and protected from redevelopment – are now regarded as classic milestones of 20th century design.

He was awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1947 and was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1954; he was knighted in 1956.

From 1919 until his death in 1964, Richardson lived at Avenue House, 20 Church Street, Ampthill, Bedfordshire, an 18th-century townhouse in which he initially refused to install electricity, believing that his home needed to reflect Georgian standards of living if he was truly to understand their way of life, though he was later persuaded to change his mind by his wife, Elizabeth Byers (March 1882 – 1958), whom he had married in 1904. They had one daughter.

Rejected Riches: Avenue House

The contents of Avenue House in Ampthill – the collection assembled by Sir Albert Richardson (1880–1964), architect, historian, writer, artist, teacher and sometime President of the Royal Academy – is now being sold by Christie’s in London. Richardson moved into the Georgian brick town house in the Bedfordshire town in 1919 and over the next 40 years filled it with products of the Georgian age he loved and understood so well. The result was not a museum, however; Richardson once described it as ‘a home, an office, and a university’ – a similar role to that intended by Sir John Soane for his creation in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
This sale is a sad and wretched business. Many of Richardson’s things do not look particularly impressive now wrenched from their context. The furniture and decorative objects will undoubtedly appeal to collectors but the paintings are not of the the highest quality. But that is not the point. What is now being sold and dispersed constituted a very special and personal tribute to Georgian England within an appropriate architectural setting. There was nothing else quite like it. And what is particularly sad is to see the architectural drawings that are for sale – not just drawings by architects like Soane but many made for Richardson’s own buildings, as well as some intriguing architectural fantasies. These are things that belong in the RIBA drawings collection.
Richardson may have adopted a pose in Ampthill – refusing to install electric light, dressing up in Georgian clothes and being carried through the streets in a sedan chair – but he was a seriously good modern architect. He began by promoting the Edwardian rediscovery of Neoclassicism and the works of people like Soane and Cockerell. After the First World War he intelligently adapted the abstracted classical language of Schinkel and other Neoclassicists to modern conditions and reinforced concrete construction in a series of impressive commercial buildings, as well as designing an extraordinary streamlined gothic church at Greenford.
Even after the Second World War, when he was perceived by the new modernist establishment as a traditional and reactionary figure, he showed great resourcefulness in his design for Bracken House in the City of London. Barracked by the Anti-Uglies when new, it later became the first post-war building in England to be listed.
But what is most depressing is that this sale need not be happening. Avenue House was lovingly maintained for half a century after Richardson’s death by his grandson, Simon Houfe, who was anxious to secure its future in the public realm. He offered both house and collection to the National Trust on advantageous terms. Negotiations dragged on for seven years, only to end with his offer being rejected.
This seems incomprehensible; especially when this decision is compared – as many have done – with the National Trust’s recently announced intention to open, in a nauseatingly populist gesture, the ‘house’ created for the Big Brother reality television show. Of course there would have been problems in opening Avenue House to the public – as there were with, say, the small houses in Liverpool bought by the Trust because they were the childhood homes of two of the Beatles.
Albert Richardson was an intriguing and important figure in the architectural culture of Britain in the 20th century. He may be forgotten now – just as Soane’s achievement was despised during the half century after his death – but the National Trust should have known better.

Albert Richardson

The other day I finished reading The Professor (White Crescent Press, 1980), Simon Houfe’s affectionate biography of his grandfather, the architect Sir Albert Edward Richardson. I’ve been intrigued by Richardson for a while: he often has a passing mention in memoirs and letters produced between the wars although, in spite of an architectural career which lasted from the late 1890s to the early 1960s, his country house output was small. He enlarged or remodelled one or two minor houses – The Hale, near Wendor (1918) and Chevithorne Barton in Devon (1930) are good examples – but the practice he carried on, with C. Lovett Gill until 1939 and from 1945 with his son-in-law, E. A. S. Houfe, focused mainly on commercial premises, usually designed in a light, elegant neo-Georgian style.

Richardson’s real contribution to the period was as a polemicist for the buildings of the past, and in particular for the long eighteenth century – which in his case was even longer than usual, beginning with the Restoration and ending with the death of George IV 170 years later. He travelled the length and breadth of the country in his enormous Rolls Royce, haranguing philistine local authorities to save an England that was in danger of demolition, berating negligent owners of dilapidated mansions. He recorded historic architecture in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fluid, fluent sketches and in a flood of published work: Georgian England, The Old Inns of England, The Smaller English House of the Later Renaissance. John Betjeman once told him that ‘You have written the two bibles of my life – Monumental Classic Architecture of the 18th and 19th Centuries, and Regional Architecture in the West of England. If I were king, I would give you a peerage.’

And not content with promoting the past, Richardson lived in it. In 1919 he bought Avenue House in Ampthill, built for a Bedfordshire brewer in 1780 and extended by Henry Holland in 1792-5. Over the next four decades or so the architect filled Avenue House with art and oddities: oils by Philip Mercier and Angelica Kauffmann, exquisite George III furniture in tulipwood and satinwood; a lamp said to belong to the Lady of the Lamp herself, Florence Nightingale; Clive of India’s door knob and a battered baluster from Doctor Johnson’s house. He refused to have electricity installed, and was fond of dressing up in full Georgian costume around the house.

In many ways Richardson was a difficult character – bombastic, self-centred, a reactionary conservative who hated Modernism as much as he loathed modern society. Imagine an architectural G. K. Chesterton, and you have him. But his contribution to the evolving preservationist movement of the 1920s and 1930s was profound.

By a strange coincidence, just as I reached the last page of The Professor, an email came through from Christie’s announcing the sale of the contents of Avenue House. The place had remained more or less intact since Richardson’s death in 1964, and after years of searching for a way of preserving it for posterity, the family has given up the struggle.

The Avenue House sale took place this week. It isn’t a disastrous Mentmore-type dispersal to be remembered and mourned for decades. It is more of a small sadness. But it is a sadness, none the less. Something has been lost, and we’re all a little poorer for it.

The Saloon at Avenue House in 1934
photo courtesy of Country Life

The Saloon at Avenue House in 1922
photo courtesy of Country Life
Reggie's Rooms II: The Saloon at Avenue House

I first came across images of Sir Albert Richardson's enchanting drawing room at Avenue House in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, in John Cornforth's absorbing book The Inspiration of the Past: Country House Taste in the Twentieth Century published in 1985 by Viking Penguin in association with Country Life magazine.  According to Mr. Cornforth's deliciously informative and lavishly illustrated book, Professor Richardson (as he was also known) was considered to be "one of the first admirers" in England in the early part of the twentieth century "...of the style of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as one of the principal promoters of the continuity of the classical tradition."  This view is amply borne out by the beauty of his decoration of the Saloon (as it was called) at Avenue House.

While many of the rooms shown in Mr. Cornforth's book are beautiful, the image of the Saloon took my breath away when I first saw it and still gives me a frisson of excitement whenever I come across it to this day.  Sir Albert was a true connoisseur and collected many of the furnishings for the Saloon specifically for the room, as opposed to bringing them from other houses that he already owned.  So there is a uniformity of taste and style, rigor perhaps, to the Saloon that is not seen in rooms where the assembled furnishings are more diverse or "eclectic", a word much overused in decorating circles in our day.

According to Mr. Cornforth's book, Sir Albert acquired Avenue House in 1919 and spent the better part of twenty years furnishing it.  And furnishing it he did, exquisitely, with supreme taste and restraint--the true hallmarks of elegance.  While the photographed interior is lovely to look at (the quality of Country Life's mid-twentieth-century photography is mesmerizing), the black-and-white image does not convey the room's color scheme, which, according to Country Life, was as follows: "A greenish grey carpet covers the floor, and grey, too is the colour of the walls, in contrast to which is the purple taffeta, with old-gold filigree used for the window hangings, and the yellow chenille of old French pattern used for some of the chair coverings..."  How I would love to see color images of this room.

So what is it about the Saloon at Avenue House that so vividly speaks to me?
It is finely proportioned, with high ceilings, handsome plasterwork, and large windows;
In it hangs a lovely, appropriately scaled chandelier;
The furnishings are from a narrow band of time, drawn from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so they are not slavishly in only one style or period; they include a mix of Regency and earlier furnishings;
There is plenty of airspace and breathing room.  Sir Albert had the luxury of space to furnish the Saloon sparely and appropriately for a drawing room devoted to entertaining and congenial pursuits;
The furnishings and architecture are arranged symmetrically and with balance;
The furniture is attennuated and leggy, which gives the room a light appearance--all "en pointe;"
The seating is easily movable, to provide for intimate groupings and diverse purposes, the signature of a successful drawing room.  There are no stationary to-the-floor upholstered club chairs or Lawson sofas to lower the room's sight lines or confine the occupants to one place.  This is appealling to me because we have also furnished our (much smaller and far less grand) drawing room at Darlington House in a similar manner, with no fully upholstered seating.  While I don't object to entirely upholstered chairs and sofas, I prefer them in more intimate rooms devoted to cozier pursuits;
Most of the furniture is painted, rather than stained and varnished.  Painted furniture is most pleasing in drawing rooms, I believe, as it is pretty and less serious-looking than brown wood furniture, which is more appropriate in dining rooms and libraries.  Much of the seating in our drawing room at Darlington is also painted, but--unlike the Saloon at Avenue House--ours is mostly Louis XVI, with only a smattering of Sir Albert's English Regency;
There are large, plate-glass mirrors over the fireplace and between the windows.  I have a weakness for mirrors in rooms, and large ones in particular when the room's proportions allow for them.  Mirrors, when used such as Sir Albert does, lend a light and fresh appearance to the rooms in which they hang;
The floor is covered with a large, single-color, velvet carpet, providing a unifying and visually serene base for the furniture.  I think that there is a tendency today to believe carpets should have some pattern in them, to create "visual interest" (another much over-used expression) in rooms and to avoid the dreaded broadloom "wall-to-wall" carpet look of the 1960s and 70s.  It is noteworthy that our forebears had other views, as pieced carpets such as Sir Albert's were quite expensive and luxurious in their day, bearing little resemblance, when examined closely, to the more modern and degraded versions for sale in today's big-box retailers;
The curtains are plain and unfussified, with neither swags nor jabots.  My only complaint with them is that I wish the valances had been placed a foot higher on the wall, above the windows, rather than hanging down over them.  As in Canon Valpy's drawing room, my first and previous "Reggie's Rooms" subject, Sir Albert's curtains lack any extraneous upholsterer's tricks, relying on the beauty of their materials rather than bows or gimgracks.

But it was nearly 10 years later when I first came across this earlier photograph of the same room that I truly came to appreciate what Sir Albert had wrought at Avenue House.  And how fortunate we are that Country Life chronicled the Saloon's transformation from an under-furnished, almost raw, and obviously only-recently-moved-into space into the beautiful swan that it became over the twelve years of Sir Albert's careful attention.  It is in examining, comparing, and studying these two photographs that we come to fully appreciate Sir Albert's academically grounded genius.  (It also appears that the curtains faded considerably in the period between when these photographs were taken.)

Almost all of the rooms we see today in books and magazines (and now on the blogs) are presented as fully realized and "done," giving no indication of the thought, effort, and consideration that went into creating them.  Seeing a room's transformation over time, as we do here with the Saloon,  is a rarity and a treat, and something of great interest to those of us who enjoy the pleasures (and dare I say "process") of interior decoration.  What else would explain the enduring popularity of the "Before and After"--or, as Boy and I call them, the "During and Done"--issues of the often odious Architectural Digest magazine?

I believe that the Saloon at Avenue House is a room that merits careful study and has much to teach us today regarding placement, proportion, symmetry, and purpose.  It is one of my most-admired interiors and has been one of the inspirations for the furnishing of our more modest drawing room at Darlington House.

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