Magazine article The Spectator

Master of Jokes

Magazine article The Spectator

Master of Jokes

Article excerpt


Master of jokes

Raymond Erith: Progressive Classicist 1904-1973

Sir John Soane's Museum, until 31 December

There are different ways in architecture to be both playful and serious at the same time. Raymond Erith was an architect fond of jokes, like the croquet shed he built at Aynho for Miss Watt, which looks as if the survivor of a pair of baroque gate piers has been given a skirt-like lean-to for its new function (she was, after all, a major collector of Surrealist art). At Bentley Farm, he built brick gate piers on the diagonal, 'askew', since this happened to be the client's name. In the latter case, however, one has to go there in order fully to understand the appropriateness, for the drive takes a bend to the left, and the piers, which stand out in the open, look good from both directions of approach.

With the exception of Sir Edwin Lutyens, not many of the numerous classical architects working in Britain during the 20th century could make jokes, and some of those who did, such as Clough Williams-Ellis, seemed more like clowns. Erith did not wish to be compared with Lutyens, whose magnetic attraction had disoriented two successive generations. He lived through a period when the building opportunities of the Edwardians had shrunk. Perhaps it suited him to be a miniaturist, for it is hard to tell to what scale his personal interpretation of classical architecture would have stretched.

Despite adverse conditions, few did better than Erith at making an imaginative world through architecture. The centenary exhibition Raymond Erith: Progressive Classicist 1904-1973 enables us to test this assertion, although inevitably without a real standard of comparison other than Soane himself. The similarities between these two men, at moments so similar in their detailing, are explored in a catalogue essay by the curator, Lucy Archer, who has been chronicler and champion of her father's work. Kenneth Powell establishes a context in the 20th century, triangulating Erith between Sir Reginald Blomfield, Vincent Harris and Donald McMorran, but settling for a comparison with an artist, Edward Bawden, which carries much truth.

Architecture proved to be a more vicious field of operation for Erith than Bawden's world of painting and graphics, however, and the drawings and photographs of Erith's houses, university buildings and other designs (newly taken in colour by Mark Fiennes) are the banners of a resistance movement against modernism, and even modernity itself. Bluntly, the Establishment was determined to marginalise him, and it is our loss that they so nearly succeeded, since he asked all the right questions about modern architecture's shortcomings in theory and practice. …

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