Gracie Fields and modernism in Hampstead

ACTRESS AND ENTERTAINER GRACIE Fields (1898-1979) commissioned a house to be built in Hampstead in 1934. This was five years before she moved to the Italian island of Capri. I cannot establish how long she retained ownership of this home. The house, with its roof covered by interlocking curved green tiles (pantiles) and centrally located gable that resembles those found in houses built by the early Dutch settlers in the Cape of Good Hope, is by no means a masterpiece of architectural design. It stands on the curved section of a private road, Frognal Way, which links Frognal to Church Row. The short Frognal Way, apart from being the location of the house that Gracie built, contains two masterpieces of twentieth century British architecture.

Number 4 Frognal Way, London NW3

Standing on raised ground above the north side of Frognal Way is number 9, Sun House. This was designed by the modernist architect Maxwell Fry (1899-1987) and built 1934-35.  Fry and his wife, the architect Jane Drew (1911-1996), worked with Le Corbusier on his 1950’s project to build Chandigarh, the new capital of the Indian state of the Punjab.  Maxwell was originally trained in the classical style, but soon began working with noted exponents of modernism including Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Pierre Jeanneret. His early compositions, which were in the neo-classical style, include Margate Station (1924-26), which is a far cry stylistically from the Sun House in Hampstead. It would be difficult to believe that the same person had designed both.

The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983), himself a resident of Hampstead (at North End) and much admired by Maxwell Fry, wrote of the Sun House:

“… an object lesson in façade composition. White rendered walls, three-storeyed window bands of different heights, large first-floor balcony on thin steel supports and then a broad projection at the r. end on the first floor, and a narrow one on the l. on second floor level. The effect is surprising and shows what a design of quality can make of relatively elementary material …” (from “The Buildings of England. London 4: North”)

Regarding the other buildings in Frognal Way, Pevsner and his co-author Bridget Cherry summarise them beautifully:

“Otherwise Frognal Way has an assortment of interwar villas from Neo-Georgian to Hollywood Spanish-Colonial and South African Dutch (with pantiles) …”

The latter mentioned is the house that Gracie Fields had built. Opposite the Sun House, there is a house with two wings and a centrally located entrance, number 4, which defies stylistic categorisation. It has three windows above the front door and above these there is a curious roundel with a bas-relief depicting a man wearing a skull cap and a winged cloak. On either side of him there is a single flower. The roundel is dated 1934, the same year as the Sun House and Gracie Field’s home were built. The house with the roundel is mentioned in a blog (https://trainwalkslondon.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/walk-1-st-pancras-walk-to-west-hampstead-thameslink/), whose author, like me, cannot shed any light on the history of this building.

There is another treat for lovers of modernism in Frognal Way. It stands where this short unpaved road meets the main road, Frognal. The façade of number 66 Frognal reminds me of paintings by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). The building was constructed in 1937, the year before the artist arrived in London. It was designed by Amyas Connell (1901-1980), Basil Ward (1902-1976), and Colin Lucas (1906-1984). Their architectural practice was short-lived (1933-1939), but highly creative and productive. They

“… were among the foremost exponents of the International Style in Britain. Their architecture largely comprised cubic sculptural forms made from reinforced concrete and an emphasised horizontality.” (www.themodernhouse.com/directory-of-architects-and-designers/connell-ward-lucas/)

To quote Pevsner again, the house they designed on the corner of Frognal Way was:

“… the extreme idiom of the day, now something of a classic. The design was perhaps a little too concerned to ‘épater les bourgeois’ [i.e., ‘to shock the bourgeois’]. The design has been diluted by alterations …”

Some of these alterations were approved by the original architects, others not. Despite the alterations, the building remains a stunning and pleasing architectural statement, and is a house in which I would be happy to reside. Despite this, the architectural critic Ian Nairn (1930-1983), who both admired and criticised Pevsner’s approach to architectural writing, wrote that in his opinion it was the best house built in Britain before WW2 (www.wowhaus.co.uk/2019/02/12/1930s-connell-ward-lucas-designed-66-frognal-modernist-house-in-london-nw3/).

During the last few months, we have been making regular visits to Hampstead, each time wandering slowly along its often steep streets and alleyways.  Amongst the many historic buildings there is a good number of adventurous new buildings, many of them superb examples of late 20th and early 21st century architectural talent. It is pleasing that the pioneering work of the pre-War architects, such as can be seen in Frognal Way and other parts of Hampstead (e.g. Willow Road and Lawn Road), is continuing even today. That these visually adventurous new buildings are being constructed is a credit to the open-mindedness of local planning authorities.

1 thought on “Gracie Fields and modernism in Hampstead

  1. Sun House is a stunning building, something you don’t expect in Hampstead (or at least I didn’t). To be honest it stands out so much that’s the only building I recall from there. Next time I shall pay more attention to the other ones you mention!

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