I praise The gifts of the river. Its shiftless and glittering Re-telling of a city, Its clarity as it flows, In the company of runt flowers and herons, Around a bend at Islandbridge And under thirteen bridges to the sea. Its patience at twilight — Swans nesting by it, Neon wincing into it.
Maker of Places, remembrances, Narrate such fragments for me:
One body. One spirit. One place. One name. The city where I was born. The river that runs through it. The nation which eludes me.
Fractions of a life It has taken me a lifetime To claim.
‘Anna Liffey’, Eavan Boland
[Boland, Eavan (1994) In a Time of Violence. Manchester: Carcanet.]
Today’s walk was long, inspiring, wonderful, still a bit grim. The home of Sam Wild, who fought against fascists first in Manchester and then in Spain, a piece of history to explore further but I am glad his house is just down the road. The birthplace of actor Robert Donat and a chat at….possibly just one metre with the lovely couple who now live there. His son visited with the Oscar — it turns out Oscars are really heavy! She volunteers at the local food bank which initially shut down, but was about to start up again with different patterns of work.
Talking to strangers, these are mad times.
A Russian Orthodox church. A synagogue. Stone entries falling apart in a way I didn’t know stone could, all student rentals. A bridge club. Pubs shut. Police tape closing off courts. Old moat park with no real exciting history behind it. A huge queue to get into Sainsbury’s (not Nando’s as Mark hoped in vain) so we walked on by.
Sadly the best thing we saw that day might just have been the cat sitting in the window just down the street as we left. But no, Sam Wild won hands down.
Germany played the leading role in the development of the new architecture. Long before the war the Deutscher Werkbund had been formed in Germany. At that time such an outstanding leader as Peter Behrens was not a strange or isolated phenomenon. On the contrary, he already had a powerful backing in the Deutscher Werkbund, a body which formed a reservoir of the forces of progress and renewal. I well remember the animated discussion at the Werkbund’s public sessions during the Cologne Exhibition of 1914 which so many foreigners attended; and the publication of the first of the Werkbund’s well-known yearbooks at about the same time. It was in active collaboration in the latter that I gained my first comprehensive insight into the movement as a result of drawing up a sort of inventory of the existing state of architecture. Between 1912 and 1914, too, I designed my first two important buildings: the Fagus Factory at Alfeld, and the Office Building for the Cologne Exhibition, both of which clearly evince that emphasis on function which characterizes the new architecture. (61)
France: Auguste Perret
During this same prewar period Auguste Perret was the leading personality in France. The Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris, built in 1911-13, was designed by Perret in collaboration with the Belgian Van de Velde, who was then living in Weimar and working in close contact with the Deutscher Werkbund. Perret’s chief title to fame is his extraordinary constructive skill, which altogether surpasses his gifts as spatial designer. Although more engineer than architect, he indubitably belongs to the founders of modern architecture, for it was he who succeeded in freeing architecture from its ponderous monumentalism by his audacious and wholly unprecedented forms of construction. Yet this great pioneer for long remained a voice crying in the wilderness as far as France was concerned. (61)
Austria: Otto Wagner
In Austria, Otto Wagner had built his Post Office Savings Headquarters in Vienna at the tum of the century. Wagner dared to expose plain surfaces entirely free of decoration and moldings. Today, it is almost impossible for us to imagine what a revolution such a step implied. Simultaneously Adolph Loos, another Viennese, began writing those articles and books in which he set forth the fundamentals of the new architecture, and building that large shop in the Michaelplatz, immediately opposite the Hofburg in Vienna, which so inflamed the passions of a population accustomed to Baroque forms. (61-62)
U.S.: Louis Sullivan
Root built a brick skyscraper in Chicago in 1883. About the end of the century Sullivan–Frank Lloyd Wright’s far too little recognized master–constructed buildings of this type which are epoch.making, and also formulated architectural principles which contain the pith of the functional doctrines of today. We must not forget that it was Sullivan who wrote, “Form should follow function.” Intellectually speaking, he was more articulate in his ideas than Frank Lloyd Wright, who was later to inspire so many European architects in both a spatial and a structural sense. Later on, and more particularly in the postwar period, Frank Lloyd Wright began to manifest a growing attachment to romanticism in his lectures and articles that was in sharp contradiction to the European development of the new architecture. At the present moment the Americans have the most fully developed constructional technique of any nation in the world-as I had an opportunity of seeing for myself in the course of my investigations in the United States. But in spite of Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright and a very highly developed technical organization, their artistic evolution has remained in abeyance. The intellectual and cultural background necessary for its preparation does not as yet exist. (62-63)
England: Housing, Planning and Raymond Unwin
England’s contribution has been confined to housing and town planning; but Sir Raymond Unwin’s ideas and the English garden cities have influenced the whole European housing movement. (64)
Gropius, Walter ( 1966 ) Scope of Total Architecture. New York: Collier Books.
I almost wholeheartedly loved Walter Gropius on the Scope of Total Architecture. One of the key figures of Bauhaus, he still writes this as his preface, reminding us of the ideals behind the best of this new architecture:
CREATION AND love of beauty are elemental for the experience of happiness. A time which does not recognize this basic truth does not become articulate in the visual sense; its image remains blurred, its manifestations fail to delight.
Since my early youth I have been acutely aware of the chaotic ugliness of our modem man-made environment when compared to the unity and beauty of old, preindustrial towns. In the course of my life I became more and more convinced that the usual practice of architects to relieve the dominating disjointed pattern here and there by a beautiful building is most inadequate and that we must find, instead, a new set of values, based on such constituent factors as would generate an integrated expression of the thought and feeling of our time.
How such a unity might be attained to become the visible pattern for a true democracy-that is the topic of this book. It is based, essentially, on articles and lectures written-with a few exceptions-during my years in Harvard University as chairman of the Department of Architecture (1937-1952). (7)
ENTERING A new chapter of my life that–contrary to the normal expectation of life after seventy–looks to me just as turbulent and perilous as the period preceding it, I realize that I am a figure covered with labels, maybe to the point of obscurity. Names like “Bauhaus Style,” “International Style,” “Functional Style” have almost succeeded in hiding the human core behind it all, and I am eager, therefore, to put a few cracks into this dummy that busy people have slipped around me. (11)
So many cracks! I am so glad to have read this.
Part 1: Education of Architects and Designers
He is and architect and planner, but in many ways and above all a teacher. There is so much here about supporting the following generations to think, imagine, create for themselves. It is lovely, open-minded, focused always on self-improvement through collective endeavor. I also love the way he italicises sentences — much like Ruskin’s aphorisms but not pulled to one side. I have highlighted them because the formatting loses them just a little.
MY intention is not to introduce a, so to speak, cut and dried “Modern Style” from Europe, but rather to introduce a method of approach which allows one to tackle a problem according to its peculiar conditions. I want a young architect to be able to find his way in whatever circumstances; I want him independently to create true, genuine forms out of the technical, economic and social conditions in which he finds himself instead of imposing a learned formula onto surroundings which may call for an entirely different solution. It is not so much a ready-made dogma that I want to teach, but an attitude toward the problems of our generation which is unbiased, original and elastic. (17)
This is a little more of what I was expecting:
Only perfect harmony in its technical functions as well as in its proportions can result in beauty. That makes our task so manifold and complex. (18)
But this relates more to understanding architecture as not simply of aesthetic value but its role in our everyday lives. The way he writes shades sometimes into the uncomfortable pronouncements of the expert upon how lives should be lived, but there is enough sensibility of people’s need to have ownership and control over their environments that could win out over such a top-down assumption of privilege. I am not sure they always did of course, but they might have.
More than ever before is it in the hands of us architects to help our contemporaries to lead a natural and sensible life instead of paying a heavy tribute to the false gods of make-believe. We can respond to this demand only if we are not afraid to approach our work from the broadest possible angle. Good architecture should be a projection of life itself and that implies an intimate knowledge of biological, social, technical and artistic problems. (18)
My Conception of the Bauhaus Idea
After that violent eruption, every thinking man felt the necessity for an intellectual change of front. Each in his own particular sphere of activity aspired to help in bridging the disastrous gulf between reality and idealism. It was then that the immensity of the mission of the architect of my own generation first dawned on me. I saw that, first of all, a new scope for architecture had to be outlined, which I could not hope to realize, however, by my own architectural contributions alone, but which would have to be achieved by training and preparing a new generation of architects in close contact with modern means of production in a pilot school which must succeed in acquiring authoritative significance…
I tried to put the emphasis of my work on integration and co-ordination, inclusiveness, not exclusiveness, for I felt that the art of building is contingent upon the co-ordinated teamwork of a band of active collaborators whose co-operation symbolizes the co-operative organism of what we call society. (19)
I can’t help but feel that this is the genius of Gropius, not so much in what he designed but in the open vision he developed and invited others to own, the creation of collaborative spaces that respected all aspects of creative work, the support of an ideal that working together we are always better than working alone. This thread runs throughout his writings, as does the necessity of reconciling the new industrial reality with a high quality of art and life in a way that someone like Ruskin never could.
Thus the Bauhaus was inaugurated in 1919 with the specific object of realizing a modern architectonic art… It deliberately concentrated primarily on what has now become a work of imperative urgency–averting mankind’s enslavement by the machine by saving the mass-product and the home from mechanical anarchy and by restoring them to purpose, sense and life. This means evolving goods and buildings specifically designed for industrial production. (20)
And so we have interdependence rather than individualism:
What the Bauhaus preached in practice was the common citizenship of all forms of creative work, and their logical interdependence on one another in the modern world. (20)
Our conception of the basic unity of all design in relation to life was in diametric opposition to that of “art for art’s sake” and the much more dangerous philosophy it sprang from, business as an end in itself. …
Here again the emphasis on an openness of vision:
The object of the Bauhaus was not to propagate any “style,” system or dogma, but simply to exert a revitalising influence on design. A “Bauhaus Style” would have been a confession of failure and a return to that devitalizing inertia, that stagnating academism which I had called it into being to combat…
God knows we have too much of the stagnating academism. He opposed this as much as he did the early specialisation to the ignorance of other forms of art and knowledge:
The Bauhaus aimed at the training of people possessing artistic talents as designers in industry and handicrafts, as sculptors, painters and architects. A complete co-ordinated training of all handicrafts, in technique and in form, with the object of teamwork in building, served as the basis. (23)
It embraces this idea of industrialisation as a force that can free us from labour rather than enslave us further. When exactly did we lose that?
The standardization of the practical machinery of life implies no robotization of the individual but, on the contrary, the unburdening of his existence from much unnecessary dead weight so as to leave him freer to develop on a higher plane. (20) … Ruskin and Morris were the first to set their faces against the tide, but their opposition against the machine could not stem the waters. It was only much later that the perplexed mind of those interested in the development of form realized that art and production can be reunited only by accepting the machine and subjugating it to the mind. (21)
and this, refining and repurposing their critique for modern times:
The difference between industry and handicraft is due far less to the different nature of the tools employed in each, than to subdivision of labor in the one and undivided control by a single workman in the other. (22)
His solution? Perhaps not immediately obvious, I am not sure even now perhaps with the benefit of hindsight given all the complexities of capital and consumerism.
DEVELOPMENT OF STANDARD TYPES. The creation of standard types for everyday goods is a social necessity. The standard product is by no means an invention of our own era. It is only the methods of producing it which have changed. It still implies the highest level of civilization, the seeking out of the best, the separation of the essential and superpersonal from the personal and accidental It is today more necessary than ever to understand the underlying significance of the conception “standard”–that is to say, as a cultural title of honor–and firmly to combat the shallow catchword propaganda which simply raises every industrial mass product to that high rank. (26)
Last point here, the importance he set on practice, on experience, on book learning and classroom teaching less than half an education. I love how the material space of the Bauhaus came to be.
In particular, the erection of our own institute buildings, in which the whole Bauhaus and its workshops co-operated, represented an ideal task. (27)
Is there a science of Design?
This looks at design psychologically, understanding how we experience reality and illusion, how children’s perceptions change, the impacts of our subconscious. All the new insights swirling about at the time that now perhaps feel a little dated — but so will our theories in the same span of time. I would like to think architects continue to grapple with them. Gropius again turns to a kind of standardisation:
If design is to be a specific language of communication for the expression of subconscious sensations, then It must have its own elementary codes of scale, form and color. It needs its own grammar of composition to integrate these elementary codes into messages which, expressed through the senses, link man to man even closer than do words. The more this visual language of communication is spread, the better will be the common understanding. This is the task of education: to teach what influences the psyche of man in terms of light, scale, space, form and color. (33)
I am unsure what quite I think of this. What resonates more clearly is the insight into a need for change and motion, the enjoyment of creative tensions.
THE NEED FOR CHANGE. This shift in the basic concept of our world from static space to continuously changing relations engages our mental and emotional faculties of perception…Art must satisfy this perpetual urge to swing from contrast to contrast; the spark, generated by tension of opposites, creates the peculiar vitality of a work of art. For it is a fact that a human being needs frequently changing impressions in order to keep his receptive abilities alert. (40)
He writes a bit later:
We have also learned that the human being needs frequently changing impressions in order to keep his receptive abilities alert. To produce such a stimulus for him contemporary artists and architects try to create the illusion of motion. (69)
Part Two: The Contemporary Architect
Appraisal of the Development of Modern Architecture
I think the present situation can be summed up as follows: a breach has been made with the past which enables us to envisage a new aspect of architecture corresponding to the technical civilization of the age we live in; the morphology of dead styles has been destroyed and we are returning to honesty of thought and feeling; the general public, which was formerly indifferent to everything to do with building, has been shaken out of its torpor; personal interest in architecture as something that concerns every one of us in our daily lives has been aroused in wide circles; and the lines of future development have become clearly manifest throughout Europe. (59)
I am not sure this still feels true, but I love how it rings.
Archeology or Architecture for Contemporary buildings?
This reminds me quite a bit of Lefebvre, and I love this stretching towards how the co-constitution of society and material built environment might work.
ARCHITECTURE is said to be a true mirror of the life and social behavior of a period. If that is true, we should be able to read from its present features the driving forces of our own time. There is conflicting evidence, however. …
Surely there will always be conflicting evidence, surely this conflict must reflect the various social conflicts as much as capital and its dominant aesthetic and social ideals.
Good original architecture depends just as much on an understanding public as on its creators. (66)
I’m still thinking through that.
The Architect Within Our Industrial Society
His is a broad vision far beyond architecture conceived as a single structure, as his writing on housing issues and planning show. He has strong critique of capitalism:
The satisfaction of the human psyche resulting from beauty is just as important for a full, civilized life, or even more so, than the fulfillment of our material comfort requirements.
We sense that our own period has lost that unity, that the sickness of our present chaotic environment, its often pitiful ugliness and disorder have resulted from our failure to put basic human needs above economical and industrial requirements. (71)
As already noted, a strong preference for the collective above the individual, and a very different vision of leadership based on this:
to collaborate without losing their identity. This is to me an urgent task lying before the new generation, not only in the field of architecture but in all our endeavors to create an integrated society. (78)
The conditio sine qua non of true teamwork is voluntariness; it cannot be established by command. It calls for an unprejudiced state of mind and for the firm belief that togetherness of thought and action is a prerequisite for the growth of human culture. Individual talent will assert itself quickly in such a group and will profit for its part from the cross-fertilization of minds in the give and take of daily contact. True leadership can emerge when all members have a chance to become leaders by performance, not by appointment. Leadership does not depend on innate talent only, but very much on one’s intensity of conviction and devotion to serve. Serving and leading seem to be interdependent. (79)
Synchronizing all individual efforts the team can raise its integrated work to higher potentials than is represented by the sum of the work of just so many individuals. (80)
Architect–Servant or Leader?
So what has Bauhaus achieved in his view?
If we look back to see what has been achieved during the last thirty or forty years we find that the artistic gentleman-architect who turned out charming Tudor mansions with all modern conveniences has almost vanished. This type of applied archeology is disappearing fast. It is melting in the fire of our conviction that the architect should conceive buildings not as monuments but as receptacles for the flow of life which they have to serve, and that his conception must be flexible enough to create a background fit to absorb the dynamic features of our modern life. (84)
If only this had not been quite so true, resulting in today’s starchitect working in service of capital:
This cult of the ego has delayed the general acceptance of the sound trends in modern architecture. Remnants of this mentality must be eliminated before the true spirit of the architectural revolution can take root among the people everywhere and produce a common form expression of our time after almost half a century of trial and error. This will presuppose a determined attitude of the new architect to direct his efforts toward finding the type, the best common denominator instead of toward the provocative stunt. (85)
It feels like we now live in ever more global cities of provocative stunts and banal ‘luxury’ residential sameness precisely because ‘we’ (developers, planners, people with money) have failed to put ‘basic human needs above economical and industrial requirements‘. Principally economic as financialisation sweeps all before it. It has resulted in a cold and sterile style that draws on Bauhaus, but has none of its soul, vision or open adaptability to facilitate life rather than capital.
Anyway, a few more posts on this to come — much better than the old post on another of my dad’s old books that I read some time ago now.
Gropius, Walter ( 1966 ) Scope of Total Architecture. New York: Collier Books.
Longsight…it’s difficult finding an uplifting daily walk for government-sanctioned health purposes in midst of pandemic. Hands dug in pockets. Crossing streets once, twice, three times but giving people a grin as we pass well clear of them. I have come to hate fly-tipping with a previously unknown passion. The strips of park along the Medlock are full of trash.
Still, we have found a wealth of things beyond the markers of resources stripped from Manchester’s green spaces. The previous site of Ardwick Cemetery, open for burials from 1838 to 1950. Here John Dalton was buried among others, named on the stone plaque that marks this memory alongside the playing fields now on the site. They sit behind the Nicholls Hospital, now a school but once an orphanage built in memory of John Ashton Nicholls by his parents after his early death. He did a great number of liberal things with his wealth drawn from cotton manufacturing, and I imagine I shall read more of him at some point.
Nicholls, John Ashton (1823–1859), cotton spinner and philanthropist, was born on 25 March 1823 at Grosvenor Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, the only child of Benjamin Nicholls (1796–1877), cotton spinner and mayor of Manchester (1853–5), and his wife, Sarah, daughter of John Ashton and his wife, Sarah, of Manchester…Having entered his father’s firm during the bitter conflicts of the 1840s, Nicholls displayed a strong desire to improve the condition of the working class and to help reconcile employers and employed through personal example, voluntary endeavour, and civic action. In the vicinity of his firm, he was the linchpin of the Ancoats Lyceum, organizing numerous lectures and entertainments, ‘not knowing’, he wrote to Mrs R. H. Greg, ‘any better way in which employers can show their sympathy with their workpeople, than by joining them in their amusements’ (Nicholls to Greg, 30 Dec 1848, Quarry Bank Mill, Greg MSS)…Nicholls did much for adult education subsequently through his popular lectures and his organizational involvement in the Manchester Athenaeum. He also set up a half-time school for factory children in Mather Street, Manchester, and acted as treasurer of the Manchester Model Secular School established by the National Public School Association…Closely associated with the Cross Street Chapel under William Gaskell’s ministry, Nicholls worked for the spiritual improvement of the working classes through the Unitarian Home Missionary Board. He also joined the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association and spoke eloquently on the need for social improvement, temperance, working-class self-reliance, and rational recreation…Nicholls died of ‘low fever’ at Eagley House, Manchester, on 18 September 1859. He never married. He was buried at Cross Street Chapel, and his funeral sermon (23 September 1859) was preached by William Gaskell, whose wife, Elizabeth, noted the passing of ‘a friend of ours, a young man of some local distinction’ (Letters of Mrs Gaskell 574). His life’s work was commemorated by a tablet in Cross Street Chapel, an obelisk in Great Ancoats Street, erected by the working men to ‘their invaluable friend’ (Gaskell, Christian Views, 129) in July 1860, and by the Nicholls Hospital, an orphanage set up by his parents at a cost of some £100,000, a substantial benefaction in Victorian Manchester. [Gordon, A., & Howe, A. (2004, September 23). Nicholls, John Ashton (1823–1859), cotton spinner and philanthropist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 11 Apr. 2020, from https://www-oxforddnb-com.salford.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-20113.]
We walked across Pin Mill Brow (such an evocative name but the landscape it references is erased by the Mancunian way, one of these great roads driven trough the heart of Manchester and its working class communities to create a pedestrian hell) to Limekiln Lane (a track and a memory of what was here) and the river (a sad stretch of water running between bricks and concrete).
We followed it from here to Gurney Street (it was a long way just to get to Limekiln lane you know, no way to just hop on a bus home), turning there to see the Church of All Souls, a hulking Gothic ruin that rises high above the council housing surrounding it. It was Radcliffian in its splendour, and its registration entry for Historic England as a grade II building hardly does it justice:
Former church. 1839-40, by William Haley. Brown brick with some stone dressings, slate roof. Romanesque style. Rectangular plan on south-west/north-east axis. The 3-bay gabled east and west ends have square pilasters to the corners and flanking the projected centre bay, all with stone false machicolation and pyramidal roofs and those flanking the centre of the west front including tall open-arcaded belfry stages. The centre of the west front has a stone central doorway, with chevron and lobed nook-shafts on scalloped capitals…built for Dr Samuel Warren, who had been expelled from the Wesleyan Methodist Connection; assigned a district in 1842.
It is nice to see the messages of support for our frontline workers, messages of solidarity. The corpse of Winnie-the-Pooh, however, unexpected.
This follows on from a first post about the life of Octavia Hill and on to the beginnings of what Hill would become best known for — housing. There are many better books I gather about her housing legacy, but I ended up with this one. I may get to the others.
This is her sister Emily’s account (wife of Charles Edmund Maurice, who put this collection together):
With regard to the housing problem, my wife gives the following account of the incident which first fixed Octavia’s mind on the subject :
“When we went to Nottingham Place, Octavia arranged to have a weekly gathering in our kitchen, of the poor women whom we knew, to teach them to cut out and make clothes. One night, one of the women fainted and we found out that she had been up all the previous night washing, while she rocked her baby’s cradle with her foot. Next day, Octavia went to the woman’s home, and found her living in a damp, unhealthy kitchen. Octavia was most anxious to help her to move into more healthy quarters, and spent a long time hunting for rooms; but could find none where the children would be taken. Then all she had heard as a child about the experiences of her grandfather, Dr. Southwood-Smith, in East London, and all she had known of the toy-workers’ homes, rushed back on her mind; and she realised that even at her very doors there was the same great evil. With this in her mind, she went to take her drawings to Ruskin, not long after the death of his father. He was burdened by the responsibility of the fortune that he had just inherited, and told Octavia how puzzled he was as to the best use to make of it. She at once suggested the provision of better houses for the poor. He replied that he had not time to see to such things ; but asked whether, if he supplied the Capital for buying a tenement house, she could undertake the management. He should like to receive five per cent. (189)
This is the first reference to it from Ruskin himself. I don’t know how I didn’t know it was Ruskin provided the wherewithal to begin this…I love this letter in relation to The Seven Lamps.
May 19th, 1864.
MY DEAR OCTAVIA, Yes, it will delight me to help you in this ; but I should like to begin very quietly and temperately, and to go on gradually. My father’s executors are old friends, and I don’t want to discomfort them by lashing out suddenly into a number of plans,—in about three months from this time I shall know more precisely what I am about : meantime, get your ideas clear—and, believe me, you will give me one of the greatest pleasures yet possible to me, by enabling me to be of use in this particular manner, and to these ends.
Affectionately yours, J. Ruskin.
Thank you for notes upon different people. I’ve got the plates for Miss B. (213)
There are curious moments of reflection on her own character
To Florence (4th February 1863)
I often long for you, dear, with all your sympathy with people in general, and power of making children happy. You know I’ve a damping cool sort of way that just stabs all their enjoyment. I don’t think I’ve any child nature left in me. However, it will injure them less, that what they all want is to grow up. (204)
But she seems to have been such a force of nature, small wonder she preferred to work alone…the number of buildings soon expanded.
May 19th, 1866.
To Miss BAUMGARTNER. My work grows daily more interesting. Ruskin has bought six more houses, and in a densely populated neighbourhood. Some houses in the court were reported unfit for human habitation, and have been converted into warehouses ; the rest are inhabited by a desperate and forlorn set of people, wild, dirty, violent, ignorant as ever I have seen. Here, pulling down a few stables, we have cleared a bit of ground, fenced it and gravelled it; and on Tuesday last, opened it as a playground for quite poor girls. I worked on quite alone about it, preferring power and responsibility and work, to committees and their slow, dull movements ; and when nearly ready I mentioned the undertaking, and was quite amazed at the interest and sympathy that it met with. Mr. Maurice and Mr. L. Davies came to the meeting ; and numbers of ladies and gentlemen ; and the whole plan seem to meet with such approval that subscriptions are offered, and I hope to make the place really very efficient. My girls are of course very helpful…
My dear old houses contribute the aristocracy to all Our entertainments. We took twenty of the children from them, to make a leaven among the wilder ones on Tuesday ; and I hope much from them here-after… (221)
This is the kind of thing she wrote to her tenants while abroad for reasons of her health:
LETTER READ AT GATHERING OF TENANTS (16th June 1867)
MY DEAR FRIENDS. As you will be all together I take the opportunity of writing a few words to tell you how much I am thinking of you. I remember the many times we have met on such occasions before, and I long to be amongst you. I should so like to have a little chat with each of you, to hear how all the little ones are, and how you have been getting on all this long time. My sisters write and tell me how you are, more than once a week ; but you know this is never quite the same as talking to you. Those are, however, my happiest days when I hear good news of you ; and the best news I could hear is that you are trying to do what is right. You and I, my friends, each know how difficult this is; we have each our different temptations, but we will strive to do better than we have done. You will all know how I look for good news of you, how I have wished to see you make your homes better and happier, how I have felt that the places I possessed were given me to make them better; how I have loved my work, and now that I have only left it in the full hope of going back to it far better able to do it than I was. So you will understand that I hope we have a great deal to do together, in the glad time to come, when I shall be among you again. (231)
There are these little tidbits…
To Miss F. Davenport Hill (9th May 1869)
I had the report from a surveyor on the houses for which we are in treaty. He says very naively, “It seems to me the houses are much out of repair, tho’ considered by the landlord in excellent condition for the class of inmates.” He says, too, the property in the neighbourhood is in excellent condition, and will let well. . . (252)
She went to see Saltaire where I would also very much like to go (also this is already a taste of her growing fame, won precisely through her work on housing):
6, Clifton Villas, Bradford, September 17th, 1869.
TO EMILY. To-night there is to be a dinner party here. Dr. Bridges and several influential people are asked to meet me;—I do feel such a take-in of a person. I wish some-one would explode me ; it is so difficult to un-humbug oneself. It is all taken for extreme modesty (fancy mine !) and laid to one’s account as so much excellence. A Mr. and Mrs. R. K., who are looked upon as great guns, are giving a dinner party in my honour. Really its very ridiculous ; what I am glad of is that I am going to see Saltaire, a model village near here which has grown up round a manufactory, belonging to a Mr. Titus now Sir Titus) Salt ; no beer shops there, Only model cottages, schools, etc. . . I’m very happy, and as bright as can be ; but save me from this again! (255)
Her housing work is impossible to separate from these complicated relationships with other women, younger women. Her role as part martyr part savior. I am so looking forward to reading Beatrice Webb’s memoirs of her time as a rent collector. But to turn to Miss Mayo.
Church Hill House, Barnet, September 26th, 1871.
TO MISS MAYO. It is no joke to get £3,000, to ascertain precisely the value of the property, and to negotiate with all the people concerned, in exactly the right order and way. I have not had a spare five minutes I think till now ; and I have thought of you so much, and so very lovingly.
There is something ludicrous in attempting to foresee events. On the principles we may build, for they do not change ; but the outward things and their teachings we cannot foresee.
Somehow personal poverty is a help to me. It keeps me more simple and energetic, and somehow low and humble and hardy, in the midst of a somewhat intoxicating power. It pleases me, too, to have considerable difficulty and effort in my own life, when what I do seems hard to the people…(270)
Intoxicating power…there are such fascinating hints to her in these letters, but not enough to go on in pulling them together into a fair picture.
Too Miss Mayo (26 September 1871)
I am thinking of writing on the subject of women’s work from their own homes. You know how strongly I believe in its practicability and power.
You all know Freshwater Place, our first freehold, Mr. Ruskin’s court, where we have our playground, which is mixed up with May festival memories for many of you.
You know something of how hard I worked for it long ago ; my difficulties in building the wall, and in contending with the dirt of the people how gradually we reduced it to comparative order, have paved it, lighted it, supplied water cisterns, raised the height of rooms, built a staircase, balcony, and additional storey; how Mr. Ruskin had five trees planted for us, and creepers, and by his beautiful presents of flowers, helped to teach our people to love flowers. You know, or can imagine, how dear the place is to me.
For some six years now, I have thought that, if ever I could afford it, I should like to put up along the whole length of the four houses which face the play-ground on the east side, some words, which have been very present to me many a time, when my plans for improving the place for the tenants were either very unsuccessful for the moment, or very promising or very triumphant, or very bright, but far away in the future.
The words are these : “Every house is builded by some man; but He that built all things is God” (293-94)
In an 1874 letter to her sister Emily, her mother notes how she continues to receive offers of property. It is a bit tangled here — her sister Miranda’s founding of the Kyrle Society to bring beauty to the homes of the poor (!), which would include public space and gardens, Octavia’s involvement with that and also with the Commons Preservation Society, though she did not quite see eye to eye with this ‘more combative body’ nor according to Maurice did they understand her distinction between her roles for the two at the same time. So she left to focus on the work with her sister which would lead in time to her also cofounding the National Trust.
It also seems to me her heroes did not ask her the right kinds of questions…
June 8th, 1876.
FROM RUSKIN. My question, a very vital one, is, whether it really never enters your mind at all that all measures of amelioration in great cities, such as your sister’s paper pleads for, and as you rejoice in having effected, may in reality be only encouragements to the great Evil Doers in their daily accumulating Sin?
Venice, shortest day, 1876.
And still her housing work continues…the drive and effort involved immense
To Mrs Gillum (7th Feb 1877)
…the ever-flowing stream of persons with whom I have to make appointments on business, and the incessant buzz around me of my assistants and immediate fellow-workers, leave me in a state of utter exhaustion on a Saturday night, which makes perfect stillness the only possibility for Sundays…
I know you will begin to tell me I ought to give something up. And I could only answer my whole life is giving up of work. I part with bit after bit often of that I care for most, and that week after week ; but it is the nearest of all duties, added to the large new questions, in which a little of my time goes a very long Way, which thus engross me. Such, for instance, as those I have now in hand—the purchase for Lord Pembroke of £6,000 worth of houses for the poor. He gives money, pays worker; one of my fellow workers trains her. Mr. Barnett sends me names of courts; but the seeing the spot, its capabilities, value, the best scheme to improve it, getting surveyors’ and lawyers’ reports, I must do. I have six such schemes in hand now, small and large together at this moment. Then I had to see Sir James Hogg, the chairman of the Metrop, Bd. of Works, on Tuesday about the Holborn rebuilding under the Art. Dwell. Bill. I have obtained leave from Sir E. Colbroke to plant the Mile End Road with trees. I have all the negotiations with the vestry to make. The C.O.S. takes much of my time, tho’ I have left all our local works to others. Then all the time I have 3,500 tenants and £30,000 or £40,000 worth of money under my continuous charge and, though I only see my people in one court face to face as of old, and the ordinary work goes on smoothly, yet even the extra-ordinary on so large a scale takes time. Questions of rebuilding, of construction, of changes of collectors, of introduction of workers to one another,—I assure you the exceptional things I can hardly refuse to do (so large is the result from half an hour’s work), use up my half hours nearly every one….(347-48)
The scale of her work is really quite impressive.
On class prejudice and the cost of charitable housing…
Eland House, November 3rd, 1879 or ’80.
FROM MRS. EDMUND MAURICE to OCTAVIA. We went to the opening of Walmer Castle, which was a great success. There were large crowds both of rich and poor. … The whole place looked very clean and comfortable, and all the food very nice ; there were decorations of flowers, and bright flags flying outside. We went over the house, and saw the beautiful dining-room upstairs and the smoking-room, and some very comfortable furnished little bed-rooms for respectable men. General Gardiner turned to a friend and said, ” We should some of us have been very glad of as good a bedroom as this at the University,” My fear about the bedrooms is that they are too dear. A shilling a night is not much to pay for so rice a little furnished room ; but, if a working man has to pay seven shillings a week for his room, I fear he will think it too much. Downstairs there is a nice large room to be used for the Boys’ Club. It is to be decorated by the Kyrle Society. (394-95)
But to return to housing the working classes…there are a couple of letters in here to the women working with her, and they are fascinating in whole:
1885 LETTER TO FELLOW WORKERS. I have, since I last wrote to you, been successful in establishing my work in South London, according to the long-cherished wish of my heart. In March of 1884, I was put in charge, by the owner, of forty-eight houses in Deptford. In May of the same year, I under-took the care of several of the courts in Southwark for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. In November of the same year, the Commissioners handed. over to me an additional. group of courts. In January of 1885 I accepted the management of seventy-eight more houses in Deptford. A friend is just arranging to take forty-one houses in Southwark on lease from the commissioners. But I hope to retain trained workers and a portion of the tenants in a considerate and responsible way, which is quite independent of me or my advice. I ought, however, to repeat here once more that there is much which is technical, and which must be thoroughly learnt; and that unless intending workers set aside a time to learn their business thoroughly with us or others who have experience, they will do more harm than good by undertaking to manage houses.
One distinct advance, that is noticeable since I last wrote, is the readiness shown by men of business and companies to place their houses under our care. A deeper sense of responsibility as to the conduct of them, a perception of how much in their management is better done by women, and I hope, confident that we try faithfully, and succeed tolerably, in the effort to make them prosperous, have led to this result. This method of extending the area over which we have control has been a great help. It has occurred at a time when, owing to the altered condition of letting in London, I could no longer, with Confidence, have recommended to those who are unacquainted with business,and who depend on receiving a fair return for their capital, to undertake now the responsibility of purchasing houses.
When we began in Southwark, we secured an almost entirely new group of volunteers, who learnt there under one or two leaders, and who now form a valued nucleus from which to expand further.
In Deptford, I was obliged at first to take with me helpers from some distance, as we had none near there; but gradually, I am delighted to say, we have found many living at Blackheath and its neighbourhood who are co-operating with us; and we hope they, as the years roll on, will be quite independent of us. Of the success of our work ? Well ! I am thankful and hopeful.
Of course it has varied with the nature and constancy of our workers, and with the response our tenants give us. The new places always tax our strength, and we have had our difficulties in them, but we seem to make steady progress; I feel all must go well in proportion as we love our people and aim at securing their real good, and base our action on wise and far-sighted principles. There is not a court where not I do not, mark distinct advance ; but none know better than I how much more might have been done in each of them, and how much lies before us still to do. (452-453)
On the difficulties of building Red Cross Garden
LETTER TO FELLOW WORKERS, 1887, ABOUT RED CROSS GARDEN.
It was, when handed over to me, a waste, desolate Place. There had been a paper factory on one half of it, which had been burnt down. Four or five feet of unbent paper lay in irregular heaps, blackened by fire, saturated with rain, and smelling most unpleasantly. It had lain there for five years, and much rubbish had been thrown in. A warehouse some stories high fronted the street on the other half of the ground, with no forecourt or area to remove its dull height further from the rooms in the model dwellings which faced it. Our first work Was to set bon-fires alight gradually to burn the mass of paper. This took about six weeks to do, tho’ the fires were kept alight day and night. The ashes were good for the soil in the garden, and we were saved the whole cost of carting the paper away. Our next task was to pull down the warehouse, and let a little sun in on our garden, and additional light, air and sight of sky to numerous tenants in the blocks in Red Cross Street.
The next work was to have a low wall and substantial iron railings placed on the side bounded by the street, so that the garden could be seen and the light and air be unimpeded.
Then came the erection of a covered playground for the children… (454)
And finally a picture! This book fails terribly in providing pictures…
Her thoughts on the growing settlement movement…(though we never see the cutting referred to, I assume that is what this is all about!)
Hotel Bellevue, Waggis, May 24th, 1885.
TO HER MOTHER. I am much interested in the Spectator cutting, tho’ I believe myself that the strain of living in the worst places would be too trying yet to educated people; it would diminish their strength, and so their usefulness The reform must be, I believe, more gradual. The newspapers go in for such extremes, from utter separation to living in a court I I should urge the spending of many hours weekly there, as achieving most just now, because it is less suicidal than the other course, and more natural. (455)
There is too little of the actual day to day business, the lives of the tenants and such here, but occasionally a letter got through like this one reporting to Octavia Hill
1884 or 5
Miss ELLEN CHASE TO OCTAVIA. King (a Deptford tenant) had torn his garden all to pieces and broken pale of fence and windows here and there, and did not show himself at all. We were non-plussed. First I hoped to slip notice under door, but the weather-board was too close ; that is a reason against putting them on. Then we debated how legal a service pinning to the back door would be, but Mr. P. thought it would be awkward if I was summoned for breaking into his premises ; and to post it we thought would not be customary ; so we were balked and Mrs. Lynch smiled sweetly all the time at her door. Mrs. T. had the cheek to offer nothing, so I took her a notice. I gave out several jobs of cleaning to even off the £7. Mrs. Sandal’s cistern was leaking worst sort. Matthews and Arter both said floor too old to pay for removal. My unlets have come down I0s. (458)
And still she is acquiring houses. She writes to Mary Harris in December of 1889 that she has acquired ‘9 new blocks of buildings within a stone’s throw of this house. We are buying some of the worst houses that remain in Blank Court. I am preparing to build in Southwark.’ (500-501)
I wish to see these mapped, wish to know what ‘a stone’s throw’ means for her, who refused to live amongst the poor. London must still have been so much more of a street-by-street checkerboard then.
14, Nottingham Place, W. April 28th, 1889.
To HER MOTHER. Miranda and I concocted a letter to the owners of some dreadful buildings in Southwark, which Miss J. is ready to undertake, asking to have them put under her care. So we have sent that off ; and it may bear fruit now or later. Then we finished the accounts of Gable Cottages, and despatched report of same. They are now complete! Then I settled about the painting of Hereford Buildings. We had an evening’s work over Income Tax returns. . . . To-morrow I collect in Deptford ; Miss Hogg is still away ; also Mr. T. is sending his manager to talk over matters with me… (501)
There is this mad description of an event at ‘the Poor’s land’ in Bethnal Green
Octavia to Mrs Edmund Maurice 14th August 1890
They showed us a workmen’s club there, numbering 600 members, to which is attached a co-operative store, doing £10,000 a year business. It is all under the wing of Mr. and Mrs. B., who used to go backwards and forwards from Hampstead to work, but now have taken a large old house adjoining the club, and live there entirely. . They have a sacred-looking little chapel, where they have family prayers, which opens from their house and from the club…At night we went to Bethnal Green to be present at a meeting of the local committee. They met in the first floor room over a cheesemonger’s shop, the cheesemonger being himself one of the trustees. The committee was all composed of trades-men of the neighbourhood, except that there was one very young but very capable lawyer from Oxford House. Then there was a negro, who, they say, has been most helpful. He has a wonderful gift of oratory, and has addressed numbers of open-air meetings. It was a strange and interesting sight, but oh! so difficult to get any business done, tho’ they were all very zealous and touchingly eager to do all which would enable us to take up the matter. (511-12)
In 1890 they moved to a new house — it’s just a very small glimpse into the home and the way that their lives and work were shared with others…
Miranda to Mrs Durant (12th Nov 1890)
[it is] smaller than this, and with much smaller rooms ; but it is quiet, light, and cheerful (having its chief rooms with a south aspect), and cheap. It is also not a great risk, as we shall take it by the year—at any rate till we know how we like it. It has a garden in front—and a yard behind-to our great delight a little light space and quiet being our chief requirements. The Marylebone Road used to be noisy ; but now it has a wooden pavement, a great boon. There will be room for Octavia and me with Miss Yorke and two of the friends now living with us, Miss Pearson and Miss Sim. It would be a great sorrow to part with them; so we are thankful to get a house large enough for us all.
Octavia’s work is so wide and many-sided, and she is so largehearted and wise in giving all her fellow workers leave to work in their own way, that she often hands a little domain over to me to work in my own way. So there is no sense of not carrying out my own ideas. (515)
The letters skip long periods here, though there are thanks for the funds raised for this paint by John Singer Sarjeant. It is 17 years though, before another of these collected letter calls to my interest but its is a brilliant one to her fellow workers with updates on the work…
To FELLOW WORKERS. (1901)
But by far the largest increase of our work has been in consequence of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners asking us to take charge of some of their property, of which the leases fell in, in Southwark and Lambeth. In Southwark the area had been leased long ago on the old-fashioned tenure of ” lives.” That is, it was held, not for a specified term of years, but subject to the life of certain persons. The lease fell in therefore quite suddenly, and fifty of the houses, which were occupied by working people, were placed under My care. I had only four days’ notice before I had to begin collecting. It was well for us that my fellow-workers rose to the occasion, and at once undertook the added duties; well, too, that we were just then pretty strong in workers. It was a curious Monday’s work. The houses having been let and sublet I could be furnished with few particulars. I had a map, and the numbers of the houses, which were scattered in various streets over the five acres which had reverted to the Commissioners; but I had no tenant’s name, nor the rental of any tenement, nor did the tenants know or recognise the written authority, having long paid to other landlords. I subdivided the area geographically between my two principal South London workers, and I went to every house accompanied by one or other of them. I learnt the name of the tenant, explained the circumstances, saw their books and learnt their rental, and finally succeeded in obtaining every rent. Many of the houses required much attention, and since then we have been busily employed in supervising necessary repairs. The late lessees were liable for dilapidations, and I felt once more how valuable to us it was to represent owners like the Commissioners, for all this legal and surveying work was done ably by responsible and qualified men of business, while we were free to go in and out among the tenants, watch details, report grievous defects, decide what repairs essential to health should be done instantly. We have not half done all this, but we are steadily progressing.
The very same clay the Commissioners sent to me about this sudden accession of work in Southwark, the asked me whether I could also take over 160 houses in Lambeth. I had known that this lease was falling in to them, and I knew that they proposed rebuilding for working people on some seven acres there, and would consult me about this. But I had no idea that they meant to ask me to take charge of the old cottages pending the rebuilding. However, we were able to undertake this, and it will be a very great advantage to us to get to know the tenants, the locality, the workers in the neighbourhood, before the great decisions about rebuilding are made. In this case I had the advantage of going round with the late lessee, who gave me names, rentals and particulars, and whose relations with his late tenants struck me as very satisfactory and human. On this area our main duties have been to induce tenants to pay who knew that their houses were coming down; (in this we have succeeded), to decide those difficult questions of what to repair in houses soon to be destroyed, to empty one portion of the area where Cottages are first to be built, providing accommodation as far as possible for tenants, and to arrange the somewhat complicated minute details as to rates and taxes payable for cotta ges partly empty or temporarily empty, on assessments which had all to be ascertained, and where certain rates in certain houses for certain times only were Payable by the owners, whom we represent. (545-547)
There is a second such letter from 1903
LETTER TO FELLOW WORKERS. It was a huge undertaking, and needed much care and labour to start it well, and naturally we were all keen to help. It was a great day when we took over the place. Our seconds in command took charge man-fully for a fortnight of all our old courts ; and fourteen of us, including all my own responsible workers, and one lady who had gained experience in Edinburgh. We met on Monday, October 5th, to take over the estate, and collect from 500 or 600 tenants wholly unknown to us. We organised it all thoughtfully we had fifteen collecting books, and all the tenants’ books prepared; had opened a bank account, had found a room as office, and divided the area among our workers. Our first duty was to get the tenants to recognise our authority and pay us. I think we were very successful we got every tenant on the estate to pay us without any legal process, except one, who was a regular scamp. We collected some £250, most of it in silver, and got it safely to the bank. Then came the question of repairs; there were written in the first few weeks 1,000 orders for these, altho’, as the whole area is to be rebuilt, we were only doing really urgent repairs and no substantial ones. All these had to be overlooked and reported on and paid for. Next came pouring in the claims for borough and water rates. We had ascertained the assessment of every house, the facts as to whether land-lord or tenant was responsible, whether the rates were compounded for or not, what allowance was to be claimed for empty rooms. There were two water companies supplying the area, and we had to learn which supplied each house.
The whole place was to be rebuilt, and even the streets rearranged and widened ; and I had promised the Commissioners would advise them as to the future plans. These had to be prepared at the earliest date possible; the more so as the sanitary authorities were pressing, and sent 100 orders in the first few days we were there. It is needless to say with what speed, capacity and zeal the representatives of the Commissioners carried on their part of these preparations and they rapidly decided on the streets which should be first rebuilt, and what should be erected there. But this only implied more to be done, for we had to empty the streets swiftly, and that meant doing up all possible empty houses in other streets and getting the tenants into them. Fortunately, there were several houses empty, the falling in of the lease having scared away tenants. The Commissioners had decided to close all the public-houses on the estate, and we let one to a girls’ club, and had to put repairs in hand to fit it for its changed destination.
Meantime, my skilled workers had to be withdrawn, tho’ Miss Lumsden’s staff was new to the work; and I do not know how the business could have been done but for her immense power, devotion and zeal, and the extreme kindness of friends in offering special help.
The matter now stands thus: We have got thro’ the first quarter have collected £2,672—mostly in silver. Plans have been prepared for rebuilding and rearrangement of the whole estate, and these are now before the Commissioners for consideration. They provide a site for rebuilding the parish school; an area of about an acre as a public recreation ground; they substitute four wide for three narrow streets, and afford accommodation for 700 families in four-roomed and six-roomed cottages, cottage flats, and flats of three and two-roomed. tenements in houses in no case higher than three storeys. (557-559)
Yet another letter to her fellow workers 1907, not full of interest given its details on housing like the others, but pretty good none the less given its appalling view of charity as the solution to poverty.
LETTER TO MY FELLOW WORKERS.
The Poor Law Commission has necessarily occupied much of my time, and bids fair to continue to do so. It is naturally very interesting. We have visited Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Midlands, South Wales, the Eastern Counties, the Western Counties, and Scotland. My colleagues went also to the neighbourhood of Shrewsbury and to Northumberland; but I could not go. Next year we purpose visiting Ireland. The time has not arrived for making any remarks on the vast field which has opened before us; it is deeply interesting, partly by the great and important questions it suggests, partly by the large number of individuals of whose life-work we get some idea. These latter have often and often recalled to me Miss Alexander’s beautiful legend of the Hidden Servants; and, as I have got a glimpse of the righteous manufacturer, the devoted leader of the Friendly Society, the generous founder of some out-of-sight charity, the faithful nurse, the energetic matron or teacher, the self-sacrificing wise guardian, the humble and gentle pauper, I have heard echo in my ear the thankful words: “How many Thy hidden servants are”.
Of course there is the other side; and the problem appears to me the more puzzling, the more the solution of it depends, not on machinery which Commissions may recommend and Parliaments set up, but on the number of faithful men and women whom England can secure and inspire as faithful servants in their manifold duties. (565-66)
This is echoed in a letter to Lord George Hamilton in November 1908 on the changes to the poor laws. I can’t even remember exactly what was proposed but again she is up in arms over the rightful role of charity:
I can’t see my way about the ” Abnormal ” scheme of National Work; nor to accept what seems to me an extension of out-relief. I am ready not to vote for its abolition. I am glad that the out-relief given should be far more wisely supervised ; that we should have country work-houses with space for real work (called Labour Colonies if the world likes); but, when it comes to money grants for the able-bodied men outside any institution, and without disfranchisement, because they are thought respectable, we seem to be extending out relief to trench on what can only be done by Charity. (569)
A final letter (she died in 1912, but I have left out the last few years). The link between poverty, charity and imperial might…
LETTER TO MY FELLOW-WORKERS. We are, many of us, much exercised now as to the future of the Cadet Corps. The First London Battalion, founded in 1887, has always been linked closely with our work in Southwark, two companies drilling in the Hall, and the headquarters of the battalion being quite near. The health, the physique, and the moral training of our lads have owed much to it. More than eight thousand boys have passed through its ranks; and many have done honourable service for their country both by sea and land. The day has now come when the War Office are about to link on the Cadets to the general organisation for military service. They have issued suggested regulations, which appear to me, and to all the devoted group of gentlemen who have acted as officers to these lads for now so many years, to be full of peril to the whole movement. (571)
Maurice, C. Edmund (ed) ( 2010) Life of Octavia Hill As Told in Her Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
This is such a curious, most Victorian/Edwardian, often boring and frustrating and perhaps a tiny bit compelling accompaniment of the life of a woman whose ideas I do not share at all and who I am fairly certain I should have come to actual blows with. Yet the view into her hopes and work and life meant I was still sorry to approach the end, as it meant her death.
Octavia Hill had such a huge impact on housing in the UK, training hundreds of women into the rehabilitation, development and management of cottages and courts for the deserving working classes. This was housing meant to pay its own way and to be run never by the state but dependent entirely on voluntarism and for its foundation, the charity of the titled and the wealthy. It demanded cleanliness, hard work, good Christian morals and thankfulness of its tenants, it also asked them to sing and grow flowers. Good for some I know, but oh god, the condescension of it.
This is a selection of letters from her brother-in-law, and for our times and my own interest in housing, a rather curious one. Thick as this volume is, there is so much it leaves out, and I am curious what light Miss Hill would appear in were more here. These are undoubtedly selected to show her in her best light (according to her brother-in-law). This frustrated painter, great traveler (and the letters describing her travels are in many ways the best), devout Christian.
It is, though, just a little poignant finishing it with all of Hill’s many periodic ‘break-downs’ of health in which she must head off for the countryside, preferentially in Europe, while I myself have been off ill — overwork, anxiety, panic, stuck in my home and the insalubrious environs of Longsight. Still, sick leave is such a luxury, for both of us. [you know, I started these notes last June, and now I finish them in the midst of global pandemic. They are haunted by illness. I had thought them posted long ago until working on the post of Ruskin]
My favourite bits are actually where you can hear the voice of those Octavia Hill worked with, like this child toy worker writing to Octavia’s sister Emily. It’s curious how regularly Octavia bemoans her inability to be natural and friendly with people, to inspire them the way her sisters do (though at times she does claim it). One of the first projects Octavia and Emily worked on with the Woman’s Guild was to create a workshop for children to be able to earn money in better conditions. Sigh. Isn’t this the whole contradiction in a nutshell? The assumption that some children must work as the natural way of things?
But this is so lovely:
MARGARET -A TOY-WORKER–TO EMILY HILL. (1855)
I hope you are enjoying yourself. . . . We had such a beautiful lesson to-day about the world. I miss you very. I wish you would come back again. It is now twenty-five minutes to eight it was very dark, and I and Harriet put a farthing together, and sent L. and S. out for a halfpenny candle. . . . Oh ! our gardens are getting on so badly ! We had an Irish stew for dinner to-day. Do come back as soon as you can and I daresay you see numbers of snakes and snails, and glow-worms, and beautiful caterpillars and all sorts of insects. I daresay the leaves are falling fast. (58)
This captures the contradiction equally nicely:
LETTER ABOUT A TOY-WORKER 83 39, Devonshire Street, Queen’s Square, July 5th, 1856. To THE MOTHER OF ONE OF THE TOY-MAKERS.
DEAR MRS. J., I regret to have to tell Harriet not to return to work till Thursday next, as I have said that those children who do not earn five shillings in a week should lose three days’ work. I am very sorry to be obliged to say this, but I hope it, or a sense of the necessity of being industrious, will soon render any such law unnecessary. I shall be as pleased as proud when the day arrives, when I see all the children steady, earnest, and eager to do all they can to help those near and dear to them. I am sure their idleness results more from want of thought than anything else but they must try to overcome this ; and if they fail to do this because it is right to do so, they must be taught to do so by other means. However, I ought to say that Harriet has improved very much indeed lately ; she has been so much more gentle and steady, and more earnest about her lessons. It is therefore with much pleasure that I give her Mr. Neale’s invitation to spend a day at his house, and hope that she may grow more and more good, gentle, generous, and earnest, working for you, herself and all whom she can benefit, not only willingly but unceasingly; and I am sure she will find in quiet earnest work a happiness and peace which are far more joyous than giddiness. I ought to tell you how much I love her, and how much life and pleasure she gives to all here. (83)
But most surprising to me really, was the connections Octavia Hill had to art, her focus on drawing and painting and the close connection with Ruskin, but also acquaintance with others. Though I don’t imagine she would have got on with the Pre-Raphaelites, which makes this rather hilarious
45, Great Ormond St., July 1st, 1857.
TO EMILY. I did not go to Mr. Neale’s and the children made a horrid mess of it. Miss C. forgot the name of the station ; and they went to Beddington and had to walk eight miles, and other absurdities. I saw Rossetti last night, and learned that Ruskin is not going abroad, but to Manchester, Oxford, etc., to lecture. He starts to-day. He was at Russell Place, to see the pictures ; but did not see any of us. Rossetti was so friendly, I could not hate him, with his bright bright eyes, and recalling, as he did, dear people ; and he was so kind too. . . (97)
Of course, Kingsley sounds like a right twat as she paraphrases him here from a speech he made to an Association of women formed to help sanitary reform at their first public meeting in Willis’s rooms. It was opened by Lord Shaftesbury:
To Miranda (July 24th 1859)
“..if you think that the English race is the very noblest race the world contains; that it has, moreover, a greater power of adapting itself to every kind of climate and mode of life than any other, except the old Roman, ever had; that, besides all this, it is, on the whole, a young race, showing no signs of decay you will see that it is worth while for political economists to look on the map, and see that at least four-fifths of the world is uninhabited, and not cultivated even in the most ordinary way.”
…he looked upon the legislative part of sanitary reform with something more like despair than ever…He was not going into the question here ; it would have to be attended to, but it seemed a great way off. Therefore he hoped women would go, not only to the occupiers, but to the possessors of the house, and influence people of ” our own class.” ” And it’s so easy,” he said ” there isn’t a woman in this room who couldn’t save the lives of four or five children within the next six months ; and this, without giving up One of your daily duties, one of your pleasures, one even of your frivolities, if you choose.” (148-49)
You can’t entirely blame Octavia for her many issues when she sat around listening to such twaddle while so impressionable and young.
But there are so many glimpses of the realities of working life…she could have gone a different way, couldn’t she? She didn’t have to respond so to circumstances like this:
To Miss Baumgartner (19th August, 1860)
If you had any notion of my state of mind just now! Everything I want to do seems delayed. One girl, a darling protege of mine, says her mistress starves her will not try another place, insists upon going home. Oh such a home! irreligious, dirty, cruel, impoverished; and the girl has just had two years’ training. Well she must just try her home, and God bring her safe out of it. (184)
This embodies the spirit found throughout. Personal interest and care that come packaged with a demand for gratefulness alongside the demand that subjects put up with their station and what she and their employers believe is best for them.
This would be central to her housing projects, subject of another post. Here I will just focus on her charities, though they are to some extent intertwined.
She was part of the Charity Organisation Society (COS) briefly. She didn’t play well with others, and the reasons are various, though she did extend her networks — like getting to know Rev Samuel Barnett, who would go on to found Toynbee Hall. But her brother-in-law’s insights into the workings of COS are rather fascinating.
It was in connection with the committee that Octavia insisted most on the desirability of substituting employment for relief whenever possible…(258)
There is this also. The geographical distribution of wealth, continues the same.
Another and marked defect in the organisation of the Council led Octavia to abandon, for a time, one of her special beliefs in order to enforce another, which seemed to her of more importance. The Committees of the Society, through which direct relief work has always been carried on, were divided according to the chief London districts; and thus some Committees of the richer parishes were much more able to raise funds in their own neighbourhood than could the Eastern and Southern Committees. The consequence was that the Central Society was obliged to supply funds to supplement the needs of the Poorer districts and in return, claimed to exercise a control over the distribution of those funds, which could not be claimed over the richer Committees. (259)
They also checked her books, when her own report of the initial conditions sparked a small controversy about the liveability of her housing…there is nothing more about this. I shall have to find it elsewhere.
She disliked the thought of greater publicity, but reluctantly consented to submit her books and papers to the Special Committee appointed for this enquiry, Though they were friendly in tone, Octavia greatly disliked the visits of these gentlemen; and, when they wished to examine the tenants of the courts to find out the moral effects produced on them by the changes, Octavia put her foot down, and declined to allow this interference between herself and her “friends.”… it was the first important exhibition of that officialism which increased in Octavia her strong dislike of State or Municipal management. (262)
and finally, that small matter of the Suffragettes.
First ; it was with women that she specially co-operated in her work among the poor; and her discovery of a new outlet for their energies, and her warm appreciation of their possible capacity, led her to look on the Female Suffrage movement as a sort of red herring drawn across the path of her fellow workers, which hindered them from taking an adequate interest in those subjects with which she considered them specially fitted to deal. Secondly, even in that pacific phase of the Female Suffrage movement, there were champions of this cause who thought it more important to call attention to what women could accomplish than to undertake regular work. Thus they seemed to promote that intense love of advertising which Octavia abhorred. Lastly, there were always people who assumed that one, who had done so much efficient work, must be in favour of a change, which would enable so many other women less well provided with powers of work to accomplish more than they could now succeed in doing. (263)
I know that these are the words of her brother-in-law. Not hers. They are so very distasteful though. Like how she really feels about Greeks…my god the vomitousness
Achmetaga, Euboea Octavia to her mother, 24th April 1880
Mr Noel was away for some days; and she and the tiny child were the only representatives of the race that rules here by education and gentleness. The rest just look, love and obey. (429-30)
A short description of her from Mr Cockerell, as pleasant as to be found in the volume…
September 5th, 1871.
First and foremost of all the guests at Ben Rhydding, in my opinion, comes Miss Octavia Hill ; an unobtrusive, plainly dressed little lady, everlastingly knitting an extraordinarily fine piece of work, whose face attracts you at first, and charms you, as you become acquainted with the power of mind and sweetness of character, to which it gives expression ; a lady of great force and energy, with a wide, open and well-stored brain, but, withal, as gently and womanly as a woman can be ; and possessed of a wonderful tact, which makes her the most instructive and the pleasantest Companion in the establishment. Miss Hill has done great things among the poor, in her own district of Marylebone…(265)
This same Mr Cockerell keeps trying to get her to read books she really doesn’t like — this is pretty awesome on Tolstoy’s Resurrection
Of course, one feels the nobility of the author’s aim , and some of the chapters are interesting as opening a view into life so utterly different from ours…But, take it as a whole, I can’t say I feel the book either refreshing or helpful; and I am a little disappointed even with the art of it. (561)
To what little I could extract about housing, see the second post. I disliked her a great deal, but there are so many holes in this accounting of her life…I really would love to know what fill them.
Maurice, C. Edmund (ed) ( 2010) Life of Octavia Hill As Told in Her Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture is an odd book, unexpected after all I had read of it. I loved many of the footnotes, poetry, sideways meanders. The Seven Lamps are also just a little bit mad: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory, Obedience. So biblical. This contains so much of such desperate earnestness it cannot help but be touching. It has lovely passages that in truth could make you see and think differently. It celebrates the beauty of skilled craftsmanship and manual labour. It’s easy to see why Ruskin is always paired with William Morris in the same architectural breath.
It has passages where the earnestness goes beyond all possible bounds and I laughed out loud. Lol was in fact my first reaction, I write it here, more than once, for the first time in this blog. The purple and ponderous privilege of some of this prose erases the sting I hope. Such loftiness doesn’t quite make sense of all of Octavia Hill’s absurdities, who was his student and protege, but puts them a little more in context. He is just so very very certain about every damn thing.
From the introduction, a sad insight into a life of wealth, privilege, and difficulty in relating to other human beings.
The Seven Lamps of Architecture was written during the first year of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray, but no trace of that unconsummated, mutually humiliating, six-year ordeal can be found in its pages. (xvi)
1848-49…such momentous years! Revolutionary years. It is incredible to believe that this should be written in 1848. Europe was on fire, but he spent much of 1848 in Salisbury and Normandy studying the Gothic, then retired for the winter to Park Street, Mayfair to write. Blimey.
In the 1880 preface he writes rather poignantly, but ponderously it must be said:
I never intended to have republished this book, which has become the most useless I ever wrote; the buildings it describes with so much delight being now either knocked down, or scraped and patched up into smugness and smoothness more tragic than uttermost ruin. (xxxi)
The multiple editions allow him to comment on himself in the footnotes, one of the more enjoyable parts of the book. You can imagine him poring over prints and obsessing over things.
He has snuck a number of aphorisms in the margins, which are in my National Trust Classics edition (again that connection to Octavia Hill) but not in the first edition which can be found on Gutenberg. I assume he wrote them later. They are tied to the prose but I rather liked the idea of separating them out, to read together, to collect what he believes to be the distilled lessons of his rather profligate prose. These are from the introductory chapter:
Aphorism 1: We may always know what is right; but not always what is possible (2)
Aphorism 2: All practical laws are the exponents of moral ones. (4)
Aphorism 3: The arts of our day must not be luxurious, nor its metaphysics idle. (6)
The Lamp of Sacrifice
Architecture is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man for whatsoever uses, that the sight of them contributes to his mental health, power and pleasure.
It is very necessary, in the outset of all inquiry, to distinguish carefully between Architecture and Building… To build, literally to confirm, is by common understanding to put together and adjust the several pieces of any edifice or receptacle of a considerable size. … Let us, therefore, at once confine the name [Architecture] to that art which, taking up and admitting, as conditions of its working, the necessities and common uses of the building, impresses on its form certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary. (8)
The complete opposite of modernist architecture, Gropius and Bauhaus. So what’s the sacrifice all about?
III. Now, first, to define this Lamp, or Spirit of Sacrifice, clearly. I have said that it prompts us to the offering of precious things merely because they are precious, not because they are useful or necessary. It is a spirit, for instance, which of two marbles, equally beautiful, applicable and durable, would choose the more costly because it was so, and of two kinds of decoration, equally effective, would choose the more elaborate because it was so, in order that it might in the same compass present more cost and more thought. It is therefore most unreasoning and enthusiastic, and perhaps best negatively defined, as the opposite of the prevalent feeling of modern times, which desires to produce the largest results at the least cost. (10)
As I say, he often uses the footnotes to critique or bestow accolades on himself, as he does on page 24:
10There is too much stress laid, throughout this volume, on probity in picturesque treatment, and not enough on probity in material construction…But the concluding sentences of the chapter from this point forward are all quite right, and can’t be much better put.
I dearly love how ranty it all is as well — and look forward to quarantine being lifted, travel allowed, and the ability to see such wonders for myself:
I do not know anything more painful or pitiful than the kind of ivory carving with which the Certosa of Pavia, and part of the Colleone sepulchral chapel at Bergamo, and other such buildings, are incrusted, of which it is not possible so much as to think without exhaustion; and a heavy sense of the misery it would be, to be forced to look at it at all. And this is not from the quantity of it, nor because it is bad work—much of it is inventive and able; but because it looks as if it were only fit to be put in inlaid cabinets and velveted caskets, and as if it could not bear one drifting shower or gnawing frost. We are afraid for it, anxious about it, and tormented by it; and we feel that a massy shaft and a bold shadow would be worth it all. (26)
In the end though, I found this reflection on stone masons quite moving…
All else for which the builders sacrificed, has passed away—all their living interests, and aims, and achievements. We know not for what they labored, and we see no evidence of their reward. Victory, wealth, authority, happiness—all have departed, though bought by many a bitter sacrifice. But of them, and their life, and their toil upon the earth, one reward, one evidence, is left to us in those gray heaps of deep-wrought stone. They have taken with them to the grave their powers, their honors, and their errors; but they have left us their adoration. (28)
Aphorism 4: All architecture proposes an effect on the human mind, not merely a service to the human frame. (8)
Aphorism 5: Domestic luxury is to be sacrificed to national magnificence (17)
Aphorism 6: Modern builders are capable of little; and don’t even do the little they can (21)
I think I’ve heard that last one from my little brother.
The Lamp of Truth
Ah, this language!
I. There is a marked likeness between the virtues of man and the enlightenment of the globe he inhabits—the same diminishing gradation in vigor up to the limits of their domains, the same essential separation from their contraries—the same twilight at the meeting of the two: a something wider belt than the line where the world rolls into night, that strange twilight of the virtues; that dusky debateable land, wherein zeal becomes impatience, and temperance becomes severity, and justice becomes cruelty, and faith superstition, and each and all vanish into gloom. (29)
I confess there are moments I love it. But to get to the nitty gritty, w quickly move towards deceit.
VI. Architectural Deceits are broadly to be considered under three heads:—
1st. The suggestion of a mode of structure or support, other than the true one; as in pendants of late Gothic roofs.
2d. The painting of surfaces to represent some other material than that of which they actually consist (as in the marbling of wood), or the deceptive representation of sculptured ornament upon them.
3d. The use of cast or machine-made ornaments of any kind.
Now, it may be broadly stated, that architecture will be noble exactly in the degree in which all these false expedients are avoided. (35)
No surprise modern material should not find favour. His ranting against iron is priceless, though I know I have all the gifts of hindsight at my disposal:
IX. Perhaps the most fruitful source of these kinds of corruption which we have to guard against in recent times, is one which, nevertheless, comes in a “questionable shape,” and of which it is not easy to determine the proper laws and limits; I mean the use of iron. The definition of the art of architecture, given in the first chapter, is independent of its materials: nevertheless, that art having been, up to the beginning of the present century, practised for the most part in clay, stone, or wood, it has resulted that the sense of proportion and the laws of structure have been based, the one altogether, the other in great part, on the necessities consequent on the employment of those materials; and that the entire or principal employment of metallic framework would, therefore, be generally felt as a departure from the first principles of the art. (39)
X. But whether this be granted me or not, the fact is, that every idea respecting size, proportion, decoration, or construction, on which we are at present in the habit of acting or judging, depends on presupposition of such materials: and as I both feel myself unable to escape the influence of these prejudices, and believe that my readers will be equally so, it may be perhaps permitted to me to assume that true architecture does not admit iron as a constructive material,7 and that such works as the cast-iron central spire of Rouen Cathedral, or the iron roofs and pillars of our railway stations, and of some of our churches, are not architecture at all. (40)
He notes in a footnote the sinking of the ‘Vanguard’ and ‘London’, the breaking of Woolwich Pier into splinters and thus ‘”the anarchy of iron” is the most notable fact’. The anarchy of iron is one of my new favourite phrases. I share his despair at commercialisation of urban spaces, and yet his very tone sets me at odds with him.
XVI. Touching the false representation of material, the question is infinitely more simple, and the law more sweeping; all such imitations are utterly base and inadmissible. It is melancholy to think of the time and expense lost in marbling the shop fronts of London alone, and of the waste of our resources in absolute vanities, in things about which no mortal cares, by which no eye is ever arrested, unless painfully, and which do not add one whit to comfort or cleanliness, or even to that great object of commercial art—conspicuousness. (48)
in the end it is craftsmanship that produces worth — both, as a footnote makes clear, in terms of cost of production and intrinsic value. In this we can be in complete agreement.
all our interest in the carved work, our sense of its richness, though it is tenfold less rich than the knots of grass beside it; of its delicacy, though it is a thousand fold less delicate; of its admirableness, though a millionfold less admirable; results from our consciousness of its being the work of poor, clumsy, toilsome man. Its true delightfulness depends on our discovering in it the record of thoughts, and intents, and trials, and heart-breakings—of recoveries and joyfulnesses of success: all this can be traced by a practised eye; but, granting it even obscure, it is presumed or understood; and in that is the worth of the thing, just as much as the worth of anything else we call precious.
His drawings are quite lovely and the book is full of them though it is not always clear how he intended them to illustrate the text. Here, however, he does go on a bit about gothic tracery.
He reaches towards the height of the gothic:
XXIII. The change of which I speak, is inexpressible in few words, but one more important, more radically influential, could not be. It was the substitution of the line for the mass, as the element of decoration. (60)
Now, the great pause was at the moment when the space and the dividing stone-work were both equally considered. It did not last fifty years. (61)
He hated what came next. Lol.
It would be too painful a task to follow further the caricatures of form, and eccentricities of treatment, which grow out of this singular abuse—the flattened arch, the shrunken pillar, the lifeless ornament, the tiny moulding, the distorted and extravagant foliation, until the time came when, over these wrecks and remnants, deprived of all unity and principle, rose the foul torrent of the renaissance, and swept them all away. (68)
There is another awesome footnote comment on the paragraph that follows this:
The closing paragraph is very pretty –but unfortunately–nonsense. The want of truth was only a part, and by no means an influential one, of general disease. All possible shades of human folly and licentiousness meet in late Gothic and renaissance architecture, and corrupt, in all directions at once, the arts which are their exponents. (68)
Aphorism 7: The guilt and harm of amiable and well meant lying (30)
Aphorism 8: Truth cannot be persisted in without pains; but is worth them (31)
Aphorism 9: The nature and dignity of imagination (33)
Aphorism 10: The proper structural use of iron (40)
Aphorism 11: The inviolability of Divine Law not of necessity but of ordinance (43)
Aphorism 12: Great painting never deceives. Compare, and add to this aphorism as part of it, the fourth paragraph of this chapter (45-46, how hard he makes you work! Especially as the 4th chapter is all about sin)
Aphorism 13: (expanded afterwards in “Stones of Venice”) The facing brick with marble is only a great form of Mosaic, and perfectly admissible. (50)
Aphorism 14: The proper colours of Architecture are those of natural stones (52)
Aphorism 16: Tracery must never be considered or imagined as flexible (62)
The Lamp of Power
It’s not the size that counts really…but actually no, it is the size that counts.
V. While, therefore, it is not to be supposed that mere size will ennoble a mean design, yet every increase of magnitude will bestow upon it a certain degree of nobleness: so that it is well to determine at first, whether the building is to be markedly beautiful or markedly sublime; and if the latter, not to be withheld by respect to smaller parts from reaching largeness of scale; provided only, that it be evidently in the architect’s power to reach at least that degree of magnitude which is the lowest at which sublimity begins, rudely definable as that which will make a living figure look less than life beside it. (74)
VIII. What is needful in the setting forth of magnitude in height, is right also in the marking it in area—let it be gathered well together. … Of the many broad divisions under which architecture may be considered, none appear to me more significant than that into buildings whose interest is in their walls, and those whose interest is in the lines dividing their walls. In the Greek temple the wall is as nothing; the entire interest is in the detached columns and the frieze they bear; in French Flamboyant, and in our detestable Perpendicular, the object is to get rid of the wall surface, and keep the eye altogether on tracery of line; in Romanesque work and Egyptian, the wall is a confessed and honored member, and the light is often allowed to fall on large areas of it, variously decorated. Now, both these principles are admitted by Nature, the one in her woods and thickets, the other in her plains, and cliffs, and waters; but the latter is pre-eminently the principle of power, and, in some sense, of beauty also. For, whatever infinity of fair form there may be in the maze of the forest, there is a fairer, as I think, in the surface of the quiet lake; and I hardly know that association of shaft or tracery, for which I would exchange the warm sleep of sunshine on some smooth, broad, human-like front of marble. (77-78)
There ensues then a little discussion with himself, he wrote originally:
IX. This, then, being, as I think, one of the peculiar elements of sublime architecture, it may be easily seen how necessarily consequent upon the love of it will be the choice of a form approaching to the square for the main outline.
In the footnote he comments upon himself (lol, yet I could never object to sarcasm against the love of the dividend):
Yes–I daresay! but how are you first to get the love of it? To love sublime architecture is one thing; to love a sublime dividend or a sublime percentage is another–and to love a large smoking room or billiard room, yet another (79)
He s very caustic here throughout the footnotes about those who tear beautiful buildings down to erect rubbish in their place. But I confess I really rather love this:
So that, after size and weight, the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of its shadow; and it seems to me, that the reality of its works, and the use and influence they have in the daily life of men (as opposed to those works of art with which we have nothing to do but in times of rest or of pleasure) require of it that it should express a kind of human sympathy, by a measure of darkness as great as there is in human life: and that as the great poem and great fiction generally affect us most by the majesty of their masses of shade, and cannot take hold upon us if they affect a continuance of lyric sprightliness, but must be serious often, and sometimes melancholy, else they do not express the truth of this wild world of ours; so there must be, in this magnificently human art of architecture, some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery: and this it can only give by depth or diffusion of gloom, by the frown upon its front, and the shadow of its recess…And among the first habits that a young architect should learn, is that of thinking in shadow, not looking at a design in its miserable liny skeleton; but conceiving it as it will be when the dawn lights it, and the dusk leaves it; when its stones will be hot and its crannies cool; when the lizards will bask on the one, and the birds build in the other. (84)
That is so beautiful, you should pause here read it again.
It is not fair of me to pick out the beautiful and follow it on immediately with the utterly ridiculous. Yet I must.
Another hilarious footnote:
I have written many passages that are one-sided or incomplete; and which therefore are misleading if read without their context of development. But I know of no other paragraph in any of my books so definitely false as this. I did not know the history of Venice when I wrote it… (96)
so to summarise:
pressing now only the conclusion, as practically useful as it is certain, that the relative majesty of buildings depends more on the weight and vigor of their masses than on any other attribute of their design: mass of everything, of bulk, of light, of darkness, of color, not mere sum of any of these, but breadth of them; not broken light, nor scattered darkness, nor divided weight, but solid stone, broad sunshine, starless shade. (99)
Lovely, but then lol again:
It is not modern work only; we have built like frogs and mice since the thirteenth century (except only in our castles). (101)
I find quite interesting his ranting about domestic architecture — his demands on it are so entirely impossible with the number of human beings alive upon the planet in his time, much less ours. Yet he is right to damn it, and I rather like his prescriptions for shadows and more shadows.
Of domestic architecture what need is there to speak? How small, how cramped, how poor, how miserable in its petty neatness is our best! how beneath the mark of attack, and the level of contempt, that which is common with us! What a strange sense of formalised deformity, of shrivelled precision, of starved accuracy, of minute misanthropy have we, as we leave even the rude streets of Picardy for the market towns of Kent! Until that street architecture of ours is bettered, until we give it some size and boldness, until we give our windows recess, and our walls thickness, I know not how we can blame our architects for their feebleness in more important work; their eyes are inured to narrowness and slightness: can we expect them at a word to conceive and deal with breadth and solidity? They ought not to live in our cities; there is that in their miserable walls which bricks up to death men’s imaginations, as surely as ever perished forsworn nun. An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by a buttress, and what by a dome. (101)
Aphorism 17: The two intellectual powers of Architecture: veneration and domination [lol]
Aphorism 18: The religious nobleness of Byzantine architecture
The Lamp of Beauty
Ah, this strange, and strangely limited, Victorian ideal of beauty.
III. Now, I would insist especially on the fact, of which I doubt not that further illustrations will occur to the mind of every reader, that all most lovely forms and thoughts are directly taken from natural objects; because I would fain be allowed to assume also the converse of this, namely, that forms which are not taken from natural objects must be ugly. (105)
He holds by this but does, to be fair, note that most of what he writes later is all wrong (see aphorisms, lol). He has a grand diatribe on writing and alphabets and their inherent ugliness, this in particular is enjoyable about ribands. I have never given much thought to ribands to be honest, how sad that it can only flutter.
What is there like this in a riband? It has no structure: it is a succession of cut threads all alike; it has no skeleton, no make, no form, no size, no will of its own. You cut it and crush it into what you will. It has no strength, no languor. It cannot fall into a single graceful form. It cannot wave, in the true sense, but only flutter: it cannot bend, in the true sense, but only turn and be wrinkled. It is a vile thing; it spoils all that is near its wretched film of an existence. Never use it. Let the flowers come loose if they cannot keep together without being tied; leave the sentence unwritten if you cannot write it on a tablet or book, or plain roll of paper. I know what authority there is against me. (112)
On the separations of work and art (though art emerges from a combination of manual and intellectual work) so it is more about ensuring tools and certain kinds of purely functional space remain plain. Curious concept.
XIX. Hence then a general law, of singular importance in the present day, a law of simple common sense,—not to decorate things belonging to purposes of active and occupied life. Wherever you can rest, there decorate; where rest is forbidden, so is beauty. You must not mix ornament with business, any more than you may mix play. Work first, and then rest. Work first and then gaze, but do not use golden ploughshares, nor bind ledgers in enamel. Do not thrash with sculptured flails: nor put bas-reliefs on millstones. (119)
He has a particular diatribe against railway stations which seems unfair — I mean, Glasgow Central or LAs Union Station is a wonder and I wouldn’t hear a word against them, but from a man who perceives no beauty in iron I suppose there can be no wonder at all:
XXI. Another of the strange and evil tendencies of the present day is to the decoration of the railroad station. Now, if there be any place in the world in which people are deprived of that portion of temper and discretion which are necessary to the contemplation of beauty, it is there. It is the very temple of discomfort, and the only charity that the builder can extend to us is to show us, plainly as may be, how soonest to escape from it. The whole system of railroad travelling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry, are therefore, for the time being, miserable. No one would travel in that manner who could help it—who had time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges, instead of through tunnels and between banks: at least those who would, have no sense of beauty so acute as that we need consult it at the station. (121)
but also has a go at Kings College, so it’s a least equal opportunity. Lol.
What a host of ugly church towers have we in England, with pinnacles at the corners, and none in the middle! How many buildings like King’s College Chapel at Cambridge, looking like tables upside down, with their four legs in the air! What! it will be said, have not beasts four legs? Yes, but legs of different shapes, and with a head between them. So they have a pair of ears: and perhaps a pair of horns: but not at both ends. Knock down a couple of pinnacles at either end in King’s College Chapel, and you will have a kind of proportion instantly. (126)
another (!) hilarious aside
Never give separate mouldings separate colors (I know this is heresy, but I never shrink from any conclusions, however contrary to human authority, to which I am led by observance of natural principles) (138)
Aphorism 19: All beauty is founded on the laws of natural form [footnote: The Aphorism is wholly true: but the following application of it, often trivial or false. See the subsequent notes. lol.] (105)
Aphorism 20: That is most “natural” which is most easily and ordinarily seen [footnote: This is an excellent aphorism; and I am proud of having so early seen the danger of anatomical study, so often dwelt on in my later works.] [lol.] (106)
Aphorism 21: Symmetry is not abstraction [footnote: ‘This short Aphorism is one of the most important in the book’] (132)
Aphorism 22: Perfect sculpture should be a part of the severest architecture (135)
The Lamp of Life
I think this might have been my favourite lamp.
no inconsiderable part of the essential characters of Beauty depended on the expression of vital energy in organic things … things in other respects alike, as in their substance, or uses, or outward forms, are noble or ignoble in proportion to the fulness of the life which either they themselves enjoy, or of whose action they bear the evidence, as sea sands are made beautiful by their bearing the seal of the motion of the waters. And this is especially true of all objects which bear upon them the impress of the highest order of creative life, that is to say, of the mind of man: they become noble or ignoble in proportion to the amount of the energy of that mind which has visibly been employed upon them. But most peculiarly and imperatively does the rule hold with respect to the creations of Architecture, which being properly capable of no other life than this, and being not essentially composed of things pleasant in themselves,—as music of sweet sounds, or painting of fair colors, but of inert substance,—depend, for their dignity and pleasurableness in the utmost degree, upon the vivid expression of the intellectual life which has been concerned in their production. (148)
How lovely are these figures from the Cathedral of Rouen, which I quite wish to visit.
XXIV. I believe the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment—was the carver happy while he was about it? It may be the hardest work possible, and the harder because so much pleasure was taken in it; but it must have been happy too, or it will not be living. (173)
Was the worker happy…I forgive Ruskin all his privileged pomposity just for this.
Aphorism 23: All things are noble in proportion to their fulness of Life. (148)
Aphorism 24: Perfect finish characterizes alike the best architecture and the best painting. (154)
Aphorism 25: All good work must be free hand-work. Compare §24
Aphorism 26: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might;” and no other might.
The Lamp of Memory
This now, this is the most doubtful lamp. There are too many of us for whom there were no good old days.
How cold is all history how lifeless all imagery, compared to that which the living nation writes, and the uncorrupted marble bears! how many pages of doubtful record might we not often spare, for a few stones left one upon another! The ambition of the old Babel builders was well directed for this world: there are but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture; and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality; it is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life. (178)
Men men men and their metaphorical meanings.
it is in becoming memorial or monumental that a true perfection is attained by civil and domestic buildings; and this partly as they are, with such a view, built in a more stable manner, and partly as their decorations are consequently animated by a metaphorical or historical meaning. (178)
We return again to domestic building, and again a betrayal of privilege. Not that I don’t wish all of us might have a home worthy and lasting to pass down through the ages. But ages must also have room to build anew, and it must be very hard to live comfortably in a temple.
I do love the diatribe against the Jerry builders though, before they were known as such I think.
As regards domestic buildings, there must always be a certain limitation to views of this kind in the power, as well as in the hearts, of men; still I cannot but think it an evil sign of a people when their houses are built to last for one generation only. There is a sanctity in a good man’s house which cannot be renewed in every tenement that rises on its ruins…I say that if men lived like men indeed, their houses would be temples—temples which we should hardly dare to injure, and in which it would make us holy to be permitted to live; and there must be a strange dissolution of natural affection, a strange unthankfulness for all that homes have given and parents taught, a strange consciousness that we have been unfaithful to our fathers’ honor, or that[Pg 171] our own lives are not such as would make our dwellings sacred to our children, when each man would fain build to himself, and build for the little revolution of his own life only. And I look upon those pitiful concretions of lime and clay which spring up in mildewed forwardness out of the kneaded fields about our capital—upon those thin, tottering, foundationless shells of splintered wood and imitated stone—upon those gloomy rows of formalised minuteness, alike without difference and without fellowship, as solitary as similar—not merely with the careless disgust of an offended eye, not merely with sorrow for a desecrated landscape, but with a painful foreboding that the roots of our national greatness must be deeply cankered when they are thus loosely struck in their native ground; that those comfortless and unhonored dwellings are the signs of a great and spreading spirit of popular discontent; that they mark the time when every man’s aim is to be in some more elevated sphere than his natural one, and every man’s past life is his habitual scorn; when men build in the hope of leaving the places they have built, and live in the hope of forgetting the years that they have lived; when the comfort, the peace, the religion of home have ceased to be felt; and the crowded tenements of a struggling and restless population differ only from the tents of the Arab or the Gipsy by their less healthy openness to the air of heaven, and less happy choice of their spot of earth; by their sacrifice of liberty without the gain of rest, and of stability without the luxury of change. (179-80)
This again…over the top, yet somehow embodies all the terrible Christian earnestness of which Ruskin is capable.
For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity. It is in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things, in the strength which, through the lapse of seasons and times, and the decline and birth of dynasties, and the changing of the face of the earth, and of the limits of the sea, maintains its sculptured shapeliness for a time insuperable, connects forgotten and following ages with each other, and half constitutes the identity, as it concentrates the sympathy, of nations; it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and color, and preciousness of architecture; and it is not until a building has assumed this character, till it has been entrusted with the fame, and hallowed by the deeds of men, till its walls have been witnesses of suffering, and its pillars rise out of the shadows of death, that its existence, more lasting as it is than that of the natural objects of the world around it, can be gifted with even so much as these possess of language and of life. (186)
Aphorism 27: Architecture is to be made historical and preserved as such. (178)
Aphorism 28: The sanctity of home, for good men (179) [poor ladies]
Aphorism 29: The earth is an entail, not a possession. Compare §20. (185) [I rather like this one]
Aphorism 30: there is nothing here 🙁
Aphorism 31: Restoration, so called, is the worst manner of Destruction (194)
The Lamp of Obediance
This is maybe the maddest lamp, also the most reeking of Christianity and backward lookingness, if I can be forgiven for making that a noun.
I have named a principle to which I would now assign a definite place among those which direct that embodiment; the last place, not only as that to which its own humility would incline, but rather as belonging to it in the aspect of the crowning grace of all the rest; that principle, I mean, to which Polity owes its stability, Life its happiness, Faith its acceptance, Creation its continuance,—Obedience. (199)
This baffles me a bit. The why of it.
if, amidst the counter evidence of success attending opposite accidents of character and circumstance, any one conclusion may be constantly and indisputably drawn, it is this; that the architecture of a nation is great only when it is as universal and as established as its language; and when provincial differences of style are nothing more than so many dialects…this one condition has been constant, this one requirement clear in all places and at all times, that the work shall be that of a school, that no individual caprice shall dispense with, or materially vary, accepted types and customary decorations; and that from the cottage to the palace, and from the chapel to the basilica, and from the garden fence to the fortress wall, every member and feature of the architecture of the nation shall be as commonly current, as frankly accepted, as its language or its coin. (202)
This is some rantiness at its best
It may be said that this is impossible. It may be so—I fear it is so: I have nothing to do with the possibility or impossibility of it; I simply know and assert the necessity of it. If it be impossible, English art is impossible. Give it up at once. You are wasting time, and money, and energy upon it, and though you exhaust centuries and treasuries, and break hearts for it, you will never raise it above the merest dilettanteism. Think not of it. It is a dangerous vanity, a mere gulph in which genius after genius will be swallowed up, and it will not close. And so it will continue to be, unless the one bold and broad step be taken at the beginning. We shall not manufacture art out of pottery and printed stuffs; we shall not reason out art by our philosophy; we shall not stumble upon art by our experiments, not create it by our fancies: I do not say that we can even build it out of brick and stone; but there is a chance for us in these, and there is none else; and that chance rests on the bare possibility of obtaining the consent, both of architects and of the public, to choose a style, and to use it universally. (206)
Ah, the negative freedoms…
VIII. It is almost impossible for us to conceive, in our present state of doubt and ignorance, the sudden dawn of intelligence and fancy, the rapidly increasing sense of power and facility, and, in its proper sense, of Freedom, which such wholesome restraint would instantly cause throughout the whole circle of the arts. Freed from the agitation and embarrassment of that liberty of choice which is the cause of half the discomforts of the world (208)
this is lol all the way
I am confirmed in this impression by what I see passing among the states of Europe at this instant. All the horror, distress, and tumult which oppress the foreign nations, are traceable, among the other secondary causes through which God is working out His will upon them, to the simple one of their not having enough to do. (210)
Aphorism 32: There is no such thing as liberty (199)
Aphorism 33: The glory and use of restraint (208)
His final footnote is awesome. It reads:
I am well content to close my thirty-three aphorisms with this most comprehensive one;–and my fifty-five notes with this still more comprehensive reduction of them to practice for the modern reader:–Build nothing that you can possibly help,–and let no land on building leases. (210)
Ruskin, John (1988 ) The Seven Lamps of Architecture. London: Century.
The importance of Regis Debray in relation to the Latin American revolution stems from several things. He has broken from the rigid confines of European Communism, even to the extent of rejecting the Communist Parties of Latin America as the automatic vanguard of the coming revolutions. He has taken from Che and Fidel and incorporated into his own thinking the fundamental conception of the Latin American revolution as an international revolution, that is, as a continental revolution. He has proven his own courage and devotion in the great risks he has taken to make personal contact with the guerrilla movements, risks which ultimately subjected him to the criminal vengeance of the Bolivian military and the CIA. He has seemed to be the theoretical embodiment of the Cuban Revolution and his writings are an attempt to develop a theory of the Latin American Revolution based on the Cuban Experience.
Andrew Joscelyne with slightly more temporal distance, wrote for an article in Wired in 1995:
Twenty-seven years ago, French radical theoretician Régis Debray was sentenced by a Bolivian military tribunal to 30 years in jail. He had been captured with the guerrilla band led by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Fidel Castro’s legendary lieutenant. Released after three years, largely because of the intervention of compatriots such as President Charles de Gaulle, André Malraux, and Jean-Paul Sartre, Debray returned to writing. (His 1967 Revolution in the Revolution is considered a primer for guerrilla insurrection.)
I’m not sure it is a primer for guerilla insurrection, or at least not now. It is brilliant as something of its time — and who knows, perhaps its time will come again. But it has a few passages that I loved. Could anything ring truer than this?
Fidel once blamed certain failures of the guerillas on a purely intellectual attitude towards war. The reason is understandable: aside from his physical weakness and lack of adjustment to rural life, the intellectual will try to grasp the present through preconceived ideological constructs and live it through books. He will be less able than others to invent, improvise, make do with available resources, decide instantly on bold moves when he is in a tight spot. Thinking that he already knows, he will learn more slowly, display less flexibility (21).
He may well be right that it is an irony of history that in Latin America it was students and intellectuals ‘had to unleash, or rather initiate, the highest forms of class struggle‘ (21). There has a been a price.
Any line that claims to be revolutionary must give a concrete answer to the question: How to overthrow the power of the capitalist state? In other words, how to break its backbone, the army, continuously reinforced by North American military mission? (25)
He grapples with the issue of peasants, as massive for Latin America as for Russia or China even though people continue to flock to the city. Even today this ongoing somewhat artificial divide of urban and rural is perhaps the deeper and more relevant question. Debray looks to develop dual power between them and factory workers…and what a one-liner.
Today self-defence as a system and as a reality has been liquidated by the march of events (26)…Guerilla warfare is to peasant uprisings what Marx is to Sorel (28).
There is a little here on (neo)colonialism, and related to this my favourite bit was probably the brilliantly damning indictment of Trotskyism, which somehow comes close to nailing my own experience of it here in the UK in many ways:
At bottom Trotskeyism is a metaphysic paved with good intentions…In space–everywhere the same: the same analyses and perspectives serve equally well for Peru and Belgium. In time — immutable: Trotskeyism has nothing to learn from history. It already has the key to it: the proletariat, essentially wholesome and unfailingly socialist… (39) And they come not to participate in a liberation movement nor to serve it, but to lead and control it by using its weaknesses…An abstract metaphysic, a concept with no grasp of history…the Trotskyist ideology can only be applied from outside. Since it is not appropriate anywhere, it must be applied by force everywhere (40)
More on the limitations of the educated:
That an intellectual, especially if he is a bourgeois, should speak of strategy before all else, is normal. Unfortunately, however, the right road, the only feasible one, sets out from tactical data, rising gradually towards the definition of strategy (59)
Just a few other short notes. The key lesson he feels we can take from Bolivar? Tenacity. He notes the politicised used of the Peace Corps to infiltrate and spy. And because of his time in Bolivia, he writes with more detail about its struggle, mining in particular. I’ve been thinking a lot about mining lately, so will end with a rather long extract that few will find as interesting as I did.
Bolivia: an analogous situation in a workers’ milieu, takes on the aspects of tragedy. Twenty-six thousand miners in the big nationalized tin mines are spread over the entire altiplano, but the principal mining stronghold is concentrated in a belt of land some 91/2 miles long by 6 wide, where the “Siglo Veinte,” “Huanuni,” and “Catavi” mines are located. In 1952 the miners destroyed the oligarchy’s army, established a liberal government, received arms and a semblance of power. The revolution turned bourgeois; the miners gradually severed connections. They had arms, militias, radios, a strong union, dynamite and detonators – their everyday work tools-plus control of the country’s basic wealth, tin – “the devil’s metal.” In retreat, semi-impotent, apathetic, they allowed the national bourgeoisie to reconstitute an army, and they interrupted their reign of strikes, skirmishes, and battles: in short, they were surviving.Then, as is natural, the army swallowed up the national bourgeoisie which had created it; and the order arrived from the United States to crush the workers’ movement.The military junta provoked the workers in cold blood, arresting their old union leader Lechin. The unlimited general strike proposed by the Trotskyists was decreed in May, 1965. The army’s elite corps, the Rangers, special parachute troops, and the classic infantry surrounded the mines and unleashed a frontal attack against the miners’ militia. Its aviation bombed amine near La Paz and machine-gunned another. Result: hundreds of dead on the miners’ side and dozens among the soldiers; occupation of the mines by the army; doors broken down by soldiers, and families machine-gunned indiscriminately; union leaders and the more militant miners outlawed, jailed, killed. (33-34)
The mines are also cities, immense grey windowless barracks, located at some distance from the pits, where the families live. On a freezing high land plateau, with not a tree or a shrub, an expanse of red earth as far as the eye can see, an intense glare. The houses are laid out in rows, an easy and conspicuous target for the bombers. Bombardments threaten not production but population, since the mines are underground and surface installations few. The smelters are in England and the United States. Another weakness: the mines are ten or twenty or more miles apart.It is easy for the army to isolate them one by one, and difficult for the miners to get together to coordinate resistance: without a plan, without a centralized military command, without military training, without means of transport. Furthermore, the militia units can only move at night. (34)
These are such extraordinary times, these covid-19 times. For a week now working from home, Mark here. Going out once a day for a walk while we still can, hands in pockets, giving others wide berth. But the streets are eerily empty. As they should be. Worrying about toilet paper, because that is something I never have too much of, until M headed down to Asda before it opened to make sure of it. I’m reading The Decameron. A few friends with mild symptoms so far, but worried for others and especially family in the US. Signed up for volunteering but nothing to do so far — for the first time I wish I had a car. There is little to be done on foot. A neighbourhood terribly limited for walks, but I suppose that makes it easy to keep distance from others. Today felt more apocalyptic perhaps, freezing wind, mostly cloudy, landscapes of ruin that have nothing to do with the virus except in the ways they have been created by a rapacious kind of capitalism and lack of investment. And someone who likes to set rubbish on fire.
Work has been diabolical, but I hope this week will be calmer. Time to work on the blog even. It has been so long.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.