Through the Stable Door to Prince Albert? on Gottfried Semper's London Connections

By Weidmann, Dieter | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Through the Stable Door to Prince Albert? on Gottfried Semper's London Connections


Weidmann, Dieter, Journal of Art Historiography


Preface

Gottfried Semper's London connections in general have been explored by Wolfgang Herrmann, Harry Francis Mallgrave, Sonja Hildebrand and others.1 Initiated by a current research and edition project, this article specifically investigates personal relations that inspired or enabled Semper to write and publish texts in his five London years.2 The letters of Semper's estate, preserved in the archives of the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, are its most important sources.3

New York? London!

Semper escaped from Dresden on 9 May 1849 when Prussian and Saxon troops defeated the revolt in which he had participated in support of democratic rights and the unity of the German states.4 In the first letter written after his escape, he already declared his intention to emigrate to North America.5 However, he settled in Paris for fifteen months, hoping to find a suitable job in France or some other European country. As his hope turned out to be vain, he decided to emigrate to New York and begin a professional partnership with Karl Gildemeister,6 the German architect who, ironically, won the competition for the building of the American Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in 1852 with another partner, the Dane Georg Carstensen.7 Semper resolved to depart from Le Havre on 19 September 1850.8 In late August he went to London for a week 'on business'.9 He probably consulted Price Pritchard Baly there, the designer of the exemplary Goulston Square Washhouse in Whitechapel, since he intended to establish public bath- and washhouses in New York.10 On the eve of his definite departure he received an urgent letter which, in spite of its vagueness, made him change his mind and stay in Europe.11 [Fig. 1.] But until he was permanently employed in the autumn of 1852, he never excluded the possibility of emigrating to North America.12

Emil Braun

The writer of that letter was the German archaeologist Emil Braun, the secretary of the Roman Instituto di Corrispondenza Archeologica, whom Semper called his 'former patron and colleague at the Society of Antiquities in Rome'.13 Yet, the two men had not met at that Institute in 1833, the year of Braun's travel from Berlin to Rome and Semper's travel from Rome to Berlin,14 nor is there any evidence that they had met in Italy or Germany later. Braun, who had guided Prince Albert through Rome in 1839, had family and business connections in England: he was married to an English lady, Anne Thomson, and cooperated with two Birmingham companies, Elkington and Mason, and Peach and Mint.15 Staying in London for a short time, Braun had been informed about Semper's intention to emigrate by the English architect Edward Falkener,16 and trying to dissuade Semper from leaving Europe, he explained to him:

As an admirer of your beautiful talent and your superb works, I wish to provide everything to keep you among us. I believe myself to be in a position to offer or at least to indicate to you a field of activity for your artistic practice that promises to become no less glamorous than the one you left behind.17

Braun described this field on 22 September 1850. He told Semper that the General Board of Health had resolved to construct several huge cemeteries about which he had been consulted, and he asked Semper to transform them 'into antique cities of the dead'.18 At first Semper wanted to reject Braun's offer. In a fragmentary letter draft he wrote:

After careful consideration, long indecision and the unanimous opinion of my local friends (of Mister Hittorff, Gau and others whom I had to tell the matter of our negotiations [...]) I am determined not to accept your kind invitation, but to really undertake the postponed journey to New York on the 29th of this month.19

Reflecting on his wife's and his six children's misery, he changed his mind. On 28 September he moved to London, and two days later he wrote to his eldest brother, Johann Carl: 'Were I alone in this world, I would have ignored the letter and followed the impulse that seemed to have been giving a westward direction to the course of my life. …

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