Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Winterbourne House and Gardens...

As time goes by, and I have a clearer idea of what I personally find aesthetically pleasing, I apply a form of selective vision to block out all that is visually unsettling – or just plain ugly. From there, I am free to play in my mind’s eye – imagining another version of reality around me, without the majority of the modern ‘improvements’ which are born of natural progress, pushed through by social and economic necessity. Sometimes, I get carried away in this game of mental photoshop and extend it to its very limits.
A liberal dose of artistic license includes a shameful glossing-over the harder aspects of life past and present and probably results in picture-postcard quaint, with a distinct whiff of gentrification, but there you have it... However, this readjusted reality it is an effective means of escaping dreary 21st century views. Landscapes with their urban development - all typically monopolized by concrete slabs, glass casing and plastic panels - are conveniently rearranged to the flights of fancy and fantasy. Some places, fortunately, require little visual tweaking and on my recent trip to Birmingham, I revisited one of these….
Winterbourne House and its extensive grounds is a perfect example of an Edwardian Arts and Crafts villa and botanic gardens. Often somewhat overshadowed by its better-known neighbour, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses, Winterbourne is set in the leafy suburb of Edgbaston, yet is surprising close to the city centre . So close, indeed, that across the lake can be seen the latest high-rise constructions… Suffice it to say that these were hastily banished from my line of vision! I wonder what John Nettlefold would say of these new towers of modernity, as the industrialist who commissioned the building of this elegant country estate and himself a pioneer in housing reform in Birmingham? The principals that he held dear in the realisation of Winterbourne were also key to his philosophy in town planning, later visible in Harbourne’s Moor Pool Estate. Inspired by Bournville, he sought to provide decent homes for the working classes with housing that would enhance quality of life.
Coming from a wealthy family and working at Guest, Keen & Nettlefold (GKN) – the world’s largest screw, nut and bolt manufacturer - it is probably safe to assume that Nettlefold and his wife Margaret already had a fairly decent quality of life. They were, in fact, second cousins from the Chamberlain family and wished to live in a home that reflected their vision and was in harmony with its natural setting. They opted for a design in the Arts and Crafts style and the house was built to incorporate all the latest amenities that modern technology could offer at the turn of the century; running hot water, electric lighting and telephones.
Built by Birmingham architect Joseph Lancaster Ball, Winterbourne was based on the simple, spacious layouts of 17th century farmhouses making the home light, comfortable and unfussy. This was a far cry from the heavy, dark upholstered interiors of the Victorian era, as was the house’s relationship with the gardens that surrounded it. Light, airy rooms, largely south-east facing, look onto the gardens and are flooded by natural light whilst the French doors on the ground floor open directly onto a terrace that once served as an extended living room. I could almost imagine hearing the clink of china and the noise of croquet being played out at teatime on the lawns!
One of the tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement was the use of simple, natural materials and local craftsmanship and Winterbourne house and outbuildings were indeed built of characteristic Brummie redbrick with casement windows. The decorative wall panels of the interiors were the work of George Bankart, a craftsman who led a revival of 16th and 17th century plasterwork in the region. These are all based on natural forms - plants and animals - and are in line with the movement’s use of flora and fauna in ornamentation, textiles and wallcovering, all exemplified, of course by the work of William Morris.
Throughout the home, there was a harmony between utility and beauty – again a key principal in Arts and Crafts design and a calm still seems to reign there today. When Winterbourne was finally restored to its former Edwardian glory in 2010 - after years serving as halls of residence and classrooms and then left empty – Morris wallpaper and Edwardian furnishings were used throughout to recapture the unique mood of the period.
I did wonder if it was actually quite so beautifully decorated back in its early days but that certainly wasn’t a major preoccupation for me as I walked along the spacious corridors, from room to room, imagining the life that Winterbourne’s inhabitants once led there -without any inevitable hardship, of course. For indeed, as any family, whatever their financial situation, the Nettlefolds did experience pain and loss. Not only did two of their eight children die, but John Nettlefold suffered a mental breakdown that probably led to the sale of Winterbourne in 1919.
Although the name Winterbourne is closely associated with the Nettlefolds for whom it had been specifically designed in 1903, when they left just 16 years later, it went on to belong to two subsequent families. The final occupant of Winterbourne - John MacDonald Nicolson - was a keen gardener who added additional features such as the Japanese bridge and the scree garden to the original grounds. Nevertheless, he maintained the harmony created by Margaret Nettlefold’s designs which had been inspired by the gardening theory of Gertrude Jekyll, with emphasis on utility and beauty.
Today, Winterbourne encompasses both house and grounds – it is no longer considered as separate entities, as had been the case on the death of the last owner, Nicolson, in 1944. Indeed, he had bequeathed house and garden to the University of Birmingham with the botanic garden becoming the main focus of the acquisition for research by the School of Botany.
As with the house, the seven-acre grounds have been restored to their former splendour and the garden was Grade II listed by English Heritage in 2008. So it is that we can walk around Winterborne today, across lawns, beside sandstone rock gardens, along woodland walks, and into greenhouses. We can wander next to the geometric patterns of the walled garden and find ourselves surrounded by ‘traditional’ English plants but then discover exotic species from all across the world.
Winterbourne now offers public events, alongside a variety of courses, talks and workshops. A simple visit to house and gardens is made all the more enjoyable by a trip to the café, serving all the usual teatime treats on a daily basis – on William Morris trays, no less. The latter can also be purchased in the shop, incidentally… The second-hand bookshop in one of the former outhouses also has a great selection of books and even the outside toilet was pretty.
All in all, Winterbourne was the perfect experience on a grey day at the end of August; in my head I was enjoying its sunlight spaces at the turn of the 19th century! Below is one of a series of linocut works by the artist Sarah Moss in 2018 - They Called it Winterbourne, inspired by a William Morris woodcut.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Cathedral in Autumn Night Sky...

Walking home, I love looking at the cathedral. Whatever the time - day or night, whatever the weather or my mood, the cathedral always makes me feel contented. However, I think it looks even more beautiful when illuminated at night.
It never fails to amaze me that this same edifice has stood there for over 800 years, dominating the horizon from afar, and towering over the streets around it.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Old and New... Past and Present... And the Future?

So how should we treat the social and historical markers of our past – namely the architecture and edifices that have made up our urban landscapes over the last centuries ? How should we care for the people who inhabit these spaces today ? These are questions I keep asking myself and yet can never find any appropriate answers.
As restrictions are lifted in line with the lessening of Covid’s grip over our movements, we are once again largely free to travel to towns, cities and other countries, rediscovering or recreating a sense of normality after so many months of limitations.
I would love to believe that the extended period of rigidly-confined geographical boundaries at least enabled us to nurture a new awareness and appreciation to all that is precious in life, past and present, and the world about us.
However, the speed in which we seem to have resumed normal activities – the admirable ones and the less so - with only the slightest backwards glance, appears to dash that hope somewhat.
Last month, I finally made it back to England at great expense and effort and was relieved and yet taken aback to note that everything initially seemed much as it had in the ‘before’ days, barring the face masks, of course. In many respects, this was uplifting albeit a little unsettling…
On closer expectation, the ravages of the economic hardship wrought by the situation soon became apparent, etched on both individuals more down-trodden than ever and the streets around them, with buildings and edifices facing different, yet equally destructive challenges.
Extreme poverty and poor health are nothing new but Covid has underlined these in a vicious, insidious manner. Are we at risk of growing almost ‘accustomed’ to seeing make-shift tents shacked up below overpasses and on wasteland and to encountering beings in unspeakably poor states of physical and mental health ?
In an eerily similar act of stealth, the blight of urban development has been steadily gnawing away at city centres, using the plea of Covid-induced economic necessity as justification to send in the wrecking ball. The building sector seems to have been quietly thriving over these last 18 months.
Perhaps the principles behind the ultra-modern architectural offerings that are thrown up today are no different to those behind the massive, wide-spread generation projects of the last centuries. Architects presumably trust that these changes will bring a bright new future or at least the hope of such a perspective. That was certainly the case for the Birmingham of the 1960s.
Yet try as I might, I just can’t find the wonder or beauty in any of these new buildings, present or past, and nor can I believe that these towering, oppressive constructions just being completed now will contribute to the community or outlive the populations therein. Nor are they intended to in many cases since real estate offers lucrative opportunites that do not necessarily need to address such issues.
It is indisputable that the cramped back-to-back Victorian housing and over-crowded tenement buildings needed to be overhauled. Such accommodation had created insalubrious slums for the poor, especially around the city centre, with no access to gardens or public green spaces. Not surprisingly, they were deemed « unfit for human habitation ». But ultimately, did they all have to be demolished, taking with them the unique spirit of close neighbourhoods? Perhaps this would have been lost anyway, but the new housing, building complexes, roads and fly-overs did nothing to secure it.
From the post-war years, successive waves of modernity have swept away all that is deemed outdated and hence ‘ugly’, so that swathes of the past lay buried beneath this crazy modern-day geological strata. Each generation of developers lays down another layer of progress, leading locals to mourn what has been lost. Even the demise of the Brutalist archictecture of the 60s, with its infamous, iconic Bull Ring shopping centre and concrete noose inner ringroad incites nostalgia for a ‘better time’.
How can we possibly take the measure of a place and its people if there is nothing left but anonymous, soul-less constructions of concrete and glass ? Does a community of buildings shape and enhance the community of the people inhabiting these spaces ?
Sometimes, developers leave a nod to the past, with the choice juxtaposition of state-of-the art modernity next to some remnant that has managed to survive to the present day. The effect is certainly striking but there is an emptiness and cruel irony that makes me sad. From its position as fulcrum of the Industrial Revolution, along with Manchester, this « city of a thousand trades » acting as the workshop of the nation does not seem to take enough civic pride in its past when it comes to maintaining its architectural heritage.
Wandering around Birmingham city centre, I admired the old buildings that have made it through the last few months and earlier decades, and wondered how much longer they can hold on in a state of disrepair before their existence is no longer justifiable and they too just disappear? Surely the architecture of the past reflects our own resilience and ingenuity, a witness to events that have marked our collective and individual histories.
Wiping that out may leave a blank slate to start anew, effectively removing any grimy, shameful secrets. Yet how do we learn where to go if we no longer have any trace of where we have been, and how far we have evolved in the course of that journey? What is left of a Black Country that has been whitewashed and glazed over ? That said, the humour and welcoming ways of today’s Brummies appear to hold fast and are the most lifting aspects of a trip here. And yes, I do love the Brum accent.
Fortunately too, some of the revelopments have fully embraced the cultural and social heritage of the city to success, but if only there were more of these. Old red-brick buildings around the canal waterways, for instance, have been adapted in a manner that does justice to the Brummie past and present and there are many other examples besides. Yet the spectre of bland modernity still looms over the old vestiges, casting a cold, mercenary shadow over their ornate facades.
Ignorance and limited access to information has often left the large majority of populations ill-equipped to fight worldly ills in the past. Today we should know better yet we have so much ‘data’ at our fingertips that we are overwhelmed to the point of complacency. It would seem that everybody is now so busy looking at their screens for distraction, comfort and validation that they are safely blinkered from the 3D reality about them. Are we being encouraged to believe that just as long as we can shop and swipe, we should be content, whatever our surroundings ? We need to look up and around overselves, to reconnect with the places and people that are part of our present and finally to try to retrace the good, the bad and the ugly of the past that built this brave new world. Pouring concrete over the whole lot can surely not be a solution….

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Café Américain Amsterdam...

Historically, we immediately associate Amsterdam with tulip and cheese and tend to forget that in the 17th century - during the Dutch Golden Age - its port was key to the coffee and tea trade in Europe as the Dutch East India Company (VOC) brought back goods from afar . Over the centuries a café culture established itself and there are some beautiful establishments to visit. The beautiful Café Américain is within an imposing heritage-listed art nouveau hotel, built in 1900, situated in the Leidseplein quarter. Although it has to share space with a Hard Rock Café, none of its charm has been lost and the service was very efficient and friendly...

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Magical Interiors... Dutch Cabinet Dollhouses.

Reading about the social significance of elegant display pieces in 17th century Netherlands – namely the tulip and the cabinet dollhouse - made me dream of going back to the beautiful city of Amsterdam. And so a few weeks ago, as torrential rain pounded down outside here, repeatedly flooding parts of the city, I decided to take the plunge and organize a quick visit of the ‘Venice of the North’.
I was in no way disappointed, for even if tulip season was officially over by this stage of the year, I was able to go to the Tulip Museum in the heart of the city and did in fact see a few stray flowers in bloom by the lofty canal houses. Wandering alongside the waterways that crisscross the city, I spent hours looking up and into these stunning Golden Age buildings, with their multiple floors and extensive, tall windows, admiring their intricacies and peculiarities, just as I had been hoping to observe, up close, the magnificent dollhouses at the Rijksmuseum.
Finally finding myself in front of these cabinet dollhouses was quite humbling. So many centuries separate the lives of their original owners and ourselves, and yet, in theory, we apparently share a fascination and appreciation for these scaled-down domestic universes. Throughout the ages it would appear that any type of miniature has the ability to cast a spell of enchantment over us – but especially the oldest, with their individual histories that add to the intrigue. We are drawn to antique automatons imitating living beings, model railways, charm bracelets weighed down with tiny, perfect replicas of chattels, people and places. But the dollhouse always seems to occupy a unique position, and above all the Dutch cabinet poppenhuizen with their weight of social significance.
It should be noted that such dollhouses were not actually intended as an elaborate plaything for young children ; quite the contrary. Indeed, 17th century Dutch dollhouses were commissioned for and often by, the fully-grown wives of men of considerable power and wealth within the merchant class and their interest was anything but plain child’s play. In fact, the pronk poppenhuisen, or ‘dollhouses for show’ were works of art that served several adult social functions. Given that a fully-furnished cabinet specimen, complete with an extensive range of functional and decorative objects, could reach the price of a real Amsterdam canalhouse, it comes as no surprise that such possessions were the preserve of the most affluent classes in society.
In many ways, the cabinet houses could be viewed as equivalent to the gentleman’s wunderkammer – wonder cabinets – the room, space, or finally display cupboard given over to the collection and exhibition of naturalia and artificialia ; natural oddities, artworks and historical artifacts. These items had thus been gathered from the natural world, with wonders such as skeletons, stones, shells and fossils, or again from the cultures of newly-discovered lands, recently acquired colonies or archaeological finds. With the extensive trade routes opened up by the Dutch East India Company, a magnitude of specimens streamed into Dutch ports from the distant lands of the Indies, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Carefully selected and laid out, the collection of curiosities in these cabinets mapped out a microcosm of the ideal world for the man of means, social standing and learning, and one which would therefore reflect these qualities in the owner, for the benefit of a select, privileged audience.
Likewise, the cabinet dollhouses allowed privileged Dutch wives to set out their personal vision of domestic harmony, beauty and refinement – with spaces and objects miniaturised to perfection in the cabinet shelves that created an ideal world. Furthermore, as with the wonder cabinets, the cabinet houses could be placed in the reception areas of the family home, on display at eye-level to guests in order to highlight the taste, means and status of the female owner, but could also be closed up at her discretion too with curtains, so that when closed, the cabinet resembled a four-poster bed.
These sizeable pieces were truly works of art in their own right, and measuring an impressive two and a half metres in height and two metres in width, they were imposing too. Not only were the cabinet houses filled with expensive and often exotic items that reflected the interest in the new worlds opening up thanks to Dutch trading, they were also made from rare and precious materials too. One of the cabinet dollhouses in the Rijksmuseum – that of Petronella Oortman – bears tortoiseshell panels all exquisitely carved with pewter inlay and crafted by a French cabinetmaker. Unfortunately I can't label any photos on Blogger anymore, so the following images are an unspecified mix of the two houses on display...
It was then curated by its proud owner between 1686 and 1710, and then handed down to her daughter. The other house on display belonged to another Petronella – Petronella Dunois - and dates back to 1676, therefore some years before the Oortman work. Interestingly, as a wealthy individual in her own right, she owned her cabinet house prior to marriage and it comes complete with actual dolls which appear to have inspired the televised adaptation of Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist. These strange figures, with their perfect detail and rather disconcerting expressions certainly seem to create a very particular atmosphere!
Just as the domestic interiors of upper-class families were being filled with characteristic blue Delftware and Chinese porcelain and decorated with paintings from famous artists throughout the Golden Age so too were the cabinet houses, as miniatures were readily commissioned from the most skilled artists who often also created the life-size versions.
All the objects of life in the wealthy home are recreated with great craftsmanship so that we can feast our magpie eyes on perfectly rendered upholstery, furnishings, flooring, ceiling reliefs, decorative objects, tableware and practical utensiles and linen in the domestics’ quarters, all crafted from the original materials used in the full-size equivalent. Just as the actual townhouses, the interiors are decorated with Oriental carpets, tapestries, paintings and frescoes, exotic wood, lacquerwork, marble, mother-of-pearl, silver and gold!
Silver was indeed often used throughout for the dollhouse furniture and household objects and personal possessions as a further demonstration of wealth and taste. In fact the collection of such silver miniatures – referred to as ‘silver toys’– was commonplace in its own right, although again, not destined as children’s playthings. These precious objects were generally displayed on mantelpieces and shelves around the home and were perhaps intended for those who could not afford a complete cabinet house. There are many examples of these in the museum, with all manor of items crafted in the tiniest detail, leading us to wonder over their intricacies.
Even curiosity cabinets were featured within the dollhouses, each with their own collection of naturalia and artificalia ! Other rooms on display likewise reflect the values of the period for the wives of the elite menfolk. Each space is well-ordered and immaculately laid out, even those typically hidden from visitors’ eyes as we are offered a glimpse into the female domains of the home. There is the show kitchen (with its display of pewter and Delftware), the ‘lying-in’ chamber for nursing mothers, the linen room (with its array of costly ‘whites’) and the peat loft.
Although the cabinet houses may have mirrored aspects of actual homes, they were, perhaps strangely, rarely direct replicas of the owner’s personal universe. This may have been from modesty in a Protestant country, but the decoration of a dollhouse enabled young women to leave their own mark and inhabit a personal domain of fantasy and creative imagination. This represented one of the few areas in which wives could take some control of their lives and were even granted the freedom to visit craftsmen to commission articles for their miniature world. A young woman would often receive such a cabinet house as a wedding gift.
Collecting for a cabinet house was often viewed as an educational pursuit, and its organisation considered preparation for the appropriate running of a real household, just as the earlier ‘baby houses’ of Germany had been used as a learning tool for young girls. Petronella Oortman apparently owned hers following her second marriage to a silk merchant, prior to the arrival of their four children, whilst Petronella Dunois (in the painting below) obtained hers before marriage.
It is said that children were encouraged to observe the house lay-out in order to see how a decent home was set up, furnished and managed. Some owners kept accounts of the expenditure on their houses, and given the high prices each commissioned object could command, this was probably wise yet somewhat daunting. The beauty of Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse was captured in a painting by Jacob Appel, wherein we have a copy within a copy – an artist’s representation of a replicated, idealized whole created from all these incredibly detailed elements. Perfection!