Magazine article The Spectator

Architecture Why Rubens Should Go

Magazine article The Spectator

Architecture Why Rubens Should Go

Article excerpt

The Blow family has had its disasters. There has been madness, murder and suicides. But before those mishaps there was a good man, my grandfather Detmar Blow. In the 1900s he was at his height as a young architect. His practice was large. Larger, I was told by Sir Edwin Lutyens's daughter, Mary, than that of her father. Blow designed for the aristocracy and the newly enriched tycoon.

But early on he was a travelling architect doing repair work for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings - vide his repairs to the ancient manor house in Tintagel, Cornwall, known as The Old Post Office. His mentors had been John Ruskin and William Morris. He had driven and decorated with vine leaves the funeral cart that took Morris to his last resting place at Kelmscott. Bernard Shaw remarked that 'the funeral cart was driven by the young architect Detmar Blow, dressed in waggoner's smock'. He was a romantic architect, holding to a Ruskinian socialism. He was a bohemian who went round England in a gypsy caravan long before hippies hit that trail. In his day he became what is currently called 'a celebrity'.

An obituary notice stated that 'he [Blow] created with difficulty and for this very reason his work is more profound than other brilliant architects who can draw you 40 projects in as many minutes'. In 1906 his projected design for the reredos and panelling for the celebrated chapel of King's College Cambridge won a competition that had been going on for 60 years: what to do with the east end of the chapel. Any number of distinguished architects had submitted plans from the 1840s onwards but it was Blow's design that was finally selected.

The reredos was done in the Queen Anne style with four columns of oak with an inset of scallop niches for three statues. It was intended as suitably in keeping to meet the panelling made by the 17th-century craftsman Cornelius Austin, which in turn meets the choir stalls. Blow's reredos also had a touch of grandeur to encourage worshippers and visitors to look up at the great east window with its magnificent stained glass. The reredos stayed there until the 1960s when the then head of fine art at King's, Michael Jaffe, persuaded a collector of Old Masters to present his Rubens of the 'Adoration of the Magi' to King's and arranged for it to be placed in the chapel. …

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