A Sunday afternoon in Hampstead and a bit of marketing

FROM CAMDEN TOWN, home of the busy Camden Lock and other popular markets, the 24-bus route more or less follows course of the now buried River Fleet, and ends at Hampstead’s South End Green. We disembarked at the Lawn Road bus stop on Fleet Road and walked the short distance to the Lawn Road Flats, also known as The Isokon. This building, inspired by the avant-garde housing projects in pre-WW2 Germany pioneered by the Bauhaus and similar institutions, was completed in 1934. A relatively bomb-proof structure, it was home to many people involved with cultural activities, including the author Agatha Christie (1890-1976), who wrote several of her novels whilst living there. The modernist block of flats still houses tenants. On Saturdays and Sundays, a small museum illustrating the history of this amazing edifice is open to the public. It contains photographs, information panels, and historical furniture items, all connected with the Isokon and its illustrious tenants. There is also a small, but well-stocked bookshop. It was here that I left several copies of my new book about Hampstead to be available for sale to visitors.

Bust of Agatha Christie at the Isokon Gallery in Hampstead

From the Isokon, we walked past South End Green and up Willow Road, which ascends ever more steeply as it approaches its northern end just near to Flask Walk and our next port of call, Burgh House. The house was constructed at the beginning of the 18th century. Here, we viewed the latest temporary exhibition, “John Cecil Stephenson: A Modernist in Hampstead”, which started at the beginning of April 2022. I will write more about this in a separate piece. Burgh House is home to a museum of the history of Hampstead and to a pleasant and popular café, which serves drinks and both hot and cold foods. The house also contains a small bookshop, well-stocked with a variety of books about Hampstead and artists associated with the place. I left several copies of my book about Hampstead to be sold there.

After spending a relaxing time in the Burgh House café, we wandered along Flask Walk, passing Keith Fawkes antiquarian bookshop, where copies of my book are on sale. Then, we walked onwards along the High Street and Perrins Court, where my father and I used to eat lunches at the Villa Bianca Italian restaurant. Reaching Heath Street, we passed the The Village Newsagent, which stocks my book (can you spot the theme emerging here?), and then entered Church Row. Halfway along it stands St John’s Parish Church.

The neo-classical church was completed in 1747. Twenty-three years before this, the “St Johns Passion” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was first performed in the Church of St Nicholas in Leipzig. At 5pm on Sunday the 3rd of April (2022), we listened to a good performance of this wonderful piece of religious music in the Church of St John in Church Row. With a small choir, a competent orchestra, and excellent soloists, the acoustics were excellent. Very thoughtfully, foam rubber cushions are provided for improving the comfort of the seating in the wooden pews. I was pleased to note that the current (April) issue of the parish newsletter includes a note about my new book.

After watching a colourful sunset, we took a bus to Paddington, where we enjoyed a tasty meal at the Malaysian Tuk Din restaurant not far from the station.

My book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” is available in Hampstead at the following locations:

THE CAMDEN ART CENTRE (Arkwright Road)

KEITH FAWKES (Flask Walk)

ISOKON GALLERY (Lawn Road)

THE VILLAGE NEWSAGENT (Heath Street)

BURGH HOUSE (New End Square, near Flask Walk)

The book (and Kindle) is also available from Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92)

An experiment in modern living

HERE ARE TWO brief extracts from my new book about Hampstead. They are from the chapter about the ‘modern artists’ who lived in Hampstead between the two World Wars and, also, the Lawn Road Flats, the Isokon, a revolutionary block of flats, built in the 1930s. The extracts are as follows:

Extract 1

“…  the painter Paul Nash (1889-1946) lived at number 3 Eldon Grove between 1936 and 1939. Close by at 60 Parkhill Road the artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) lived and worked between 1938 and 1941. Prior to moving to Parkhill Road, Mondrian had lived with a remarkable engineer and furniture entrepreneur Jack Pritchard (1899-1992).

Jack and his family lived at 37 Belsize Park Gardens, having moved there from Platts Lane. Pritchard, who studied engineering and economics at the University of Cambridge, joined Venesta, a company that specialised in plywood goods. It was after this that he began to promote Modernist design. In 1929, he and the Canadian architect Wells Coates (1895-1958) formed the company, Isokon, whose aim was to build Modernist style residential accommodation. Pritchard and his wife, a psychiatrist, Molly (1900-1985), commissioned Coates to build a block of flats in Lawn Road on a site that they owned. Its design was to be based on the then revolutionary new communal housing projects that they had visited in Germany, including at the influential Bauhaus in Dessau. The resulting Lawn Road Flats are close to both Fleet Road and the Mall Studios in Parkhill Road. Completed in 1934, they were, noted the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘… a milestone in the introduction of the modern idiom to London’ …”

Extract 2

“… T F T Baker, Diane K Bolton and Patricia E C Croot, writing in “A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9, Hampstead, Paddington”, noted that the Lawn Road Flats were built partly to house artistic refugees, who had fled from parts of Europe then oppressed by dictators, notably by Adolf Hitler. Some of them had been associated with the Bauhaus. These included the architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer, the architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969), and the artist and photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). All three are regarded as masters of 20th century visual arts.

Despite both having come from bourgeois backgrounds, the Pritchards aimed to free themselves from middle-class conventions. The concept and realisation of the Lawn Road Flats were important landmarks in their quest to achieve a new, alternative way of living. The atmosphere that prevailed in the community that either lived in, or frequented, the Lawn Road Flats and its Isobar was predominantly left-wing, and extremely welcoming to cultural refugees from Nazi Germany. Probably, it had not been anticipated that the place would become a convenient place for Stalin’s Soviet spies to use as a base. According to a small booklet about the flats, “Isokon The Story of a New Vision of Urban Living”, published in 2016, the flats were home to the following espionage agents …”

“BENEATH A WIDE SKY: HAMPSTEAD AND ITS ENVIRONS” by Adam Yamey is available from Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92), bookdepository.com (https://www.bookdepository.com/BENEATH-WIDE-SKY-HAMPSTEAD-ITS-ENVIRONS-2022-Adam-Yamey/9798407539520), and on Kindle.

Artists and secret agents

A REMARKABLE ENGINEER and furniture entrepreneur Jack Pritchard (1899-1992) and his family lived at 37 Belsize Park Gardens, in London’s Hampstead district. before WW2. Pritchard, who studied engineering and economics at the University of Cambridge, joined Venesta, a company that specialised in plywood goods. It was after this that he began to promote Modernist design. In 1929, he and the Canadian architect Wells Coates (1895-1958) formed the company, Isokon, whose aim was to build Modernist style residential accommodation.

Pritchard and his wife, a psychiatrist, Molly (1900-1985), commissioned Coates to build a block of flats in Lawn Road on a site that they owned. Its design was to be based on the then new ideas for communal housing that had been realised in Germany including the influential Bauhaus in Dessau. The flats are close to Fleet Road and the Mall Studios in Parkhill Road. Completed in 1934, they were, noted the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, “… a milestone in the introduction of the modern idiom to London.” He continued, writing in 1952, clearly critical of the edifice, which:

“…put on a forbidding face towards the street, with large unmitigated concrete surfaces … It is all in the spirit of revolution, unaccommodating and direct to the verge of brutality.”

Well, I quite like the building’s elegant simplicity. In the basement space of the block, there was a refreshment area known as the Isobar. This and its furniture were designed by Marcel Breuer (1902-1981). Regularly, exhibitions were held in the Isobar and, according to an on-line article in The Modern House Journal these were attended by artists including Adrian Stokes, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. The article also noted that this refreshment area was frequented by modernist architects such as Erich Mendelsohn, Serge Chermayeff and, Wells Coates, as well as by left-wing politicians. Pritchard occupied the penthouse flat. In 1969, he sold the block, and now it contains accommodation for 25 keyworkers on a shared ownership basis and 11 flats are in private ownership. The block, first known as the Lawn Road Flats, is now called ‘Isokon. Lawn Road Flats’.

T F T Baker, Diane K Bolton and Patricia E C Croot, writing in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9, Hampstead, Paddington, noted that the Lawn Road Flats were built partly to house artistic refugees, who had fled from parts of Europe then oppressed by dictators, notably by Adolf Hitler. Some of them had been associated with the Bauhaus. These included the architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer, the architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969), and the artist and photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). All three of them are regarded as being masters of 20th century visual arts.

Despite both having come from bourgeois backgrounds, the Pritchards aimed to free themselves from middle-class conventions. The concept and realisation of the Lawn Road Flats, were important landmarks in their quest to achieve a new, alternative way of living. It is accurate to say that the atmosphere that prevailed in the community that either lived in, or frequented, the Lawn Road Flats was predominantly left-wing and extremely welcoming to cultural refugees from Nazi Germany. Probably, it had not been anticipated that the place should become a convenient place for Stalin’s Soviet spies to use as a base. According to a small booklet about the flats Isokon The Story of a New Vision of Urban Living, published in 2016, the flats were home to the following espionage agents, who had been recruited by the NKVD in Central Europe: Arnold Deutsch, Simon Kremer, Jürgen Kuczinski, and Brigitte Kucynski Lewis. Jill Pearlman, one of the book’s several authors, noted that they found the Lawn Road Flats convenient for several reasons:

“Above all, they blended inconspicuously into the sociable community of tenants there. Many tenants too were refugees from Central Europe … Even the Lawn Road Flats building worked well for the spies. One could enter and exit any unit without being seen … no one could see in. At the same time, the cantilevered decks on each floor provided the tenants a perfect vantage point from which to survey the street below.”

Today, there is a small exhibition area in the garage of the flats. This is open on some weekends, but I have yet to visit it.

Blockbusters

Bauhaus

National museums in the UK do not charge entrance fees to view their permanent exhibits. However, they do charge, often quite high, fees to view special temporary exhibitions.  This is nothing new. In 1968, I saw superb exhibition at the Royal Academy about the Bauhaus school, founded in pre-WW2 Germany. It was so excellent that I visited it on three separate occasions. Likewise, with a wonderful exhibition about Tutankhamen, also held at the Royal Academy.

Now, several decades later, the museums and galleries have caught on to the idea of ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. These try to attract vast numbers of visitors, who would not nomally visit the institution where they are being held. They often succeed in drawing the crowds, but by slightly devious means. For example, recently the Royal Academy held an exhibition called: “RUBENS AND HIS LEGACY. Van Dyck to Cezanne”. I thought, as I am sure many other visitors believed, that this was primarily an exhibition of works by Rubens. Well, it was not. There were a few paintings by this great master diluted by a far larger number of works by other artists. It would have been more honest, but less ‘sexy’ and attractive to the public, to have called this exhibition something like “THE LEGACY OF RUBENS”.

My wife visited the current exhibition at the Tate Britain, a real crowd-puller called “VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN”. Who cannot resist seeing pictures by Van Gogh? Few, judging by the crowds of people jammed into the rooms where the exhibition is being held. And, how many paintings and other works by the man who cut off his own ear were on show. There were only a few. The rest of the show was of paintings by other artists, who were definitely not of interest to the bulk of the visitors, who had paid £18 a head to see a Van Gogh show. Clearly the name of the exhibition draws in the ‘punters’. 

As with the Van Gogh exhibition, the recent Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery was also disappointing. A few works by the great Italian master were vastly outnumbered by works produced by inferior artists, in whom most visitors were uninterested. And, most of the ‘fillers’ in the exhibition had only tenuous connections with Leonardo.

Of course, not all blockbuster exhibitions fail to live up to their promise. Apparently, the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum was a brilliant show that concentrated on the subject promised by the exhibition’s name. Another really good temporary exhibition, which attracted an entry fee, was one dedicated to Roy Lichtenstein at the Tate Modern.

Given the absence of entrance fees and the constant insufficiency of public funds, our national museums and galleries need to raise as much money as possible. The blockbuster exhibitions must be a good way of doing this. It would be better if their naming was a little more related to what the visitor is likely to see.