Painting in the Mall

BETWEEN HAMPSTEAD AND Belsize Park, there is a narrow footpath running north from Tasker Road. One side of it is lined with a terrace of low buildings known as Mall Studios. Built in 1872 by Thomas Battersby, they were designed as artists’ studios. Each of them contained small waiting rooms; costume rooms; and a lobby. Each studio had three skylights and large north facing windows to capture the kind of light favoured by many artists. Following the advice of the artist Walter Sickert, who had lived there, the artist John Cecil Stephenson (1889-1965) settled into number 6, Mall Studios in March 1919.  It was to remain his home until he died. In 1927, Barbara Hepworth became his neighbour in number 7, and at around that time, the influential art critic and writer Herbert Read moved into number 3. Nearby, Parkhill Road became home (for various lengths of time) to other artists including Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Piet Mondrian, Hans Erni, and other artists who have since become famous.

By John Cecil Stephenson

Whether it was the proximity of his artistic neighbours, who were pioneers of 20th century modernist art, or something else in his artistic evolution, Stephenson departed from his previous ‘straightforward’ portraiture and landscape painting and created works characteristic of what is now known as the ‘Modernist’ style. Although some of his works created after the late 1920s are to some extent figurative, most of his output was mainly abstract and constructivist. During WW1, Stephenson left London’s Slade School of Art temporarily to work in munition factories in Bishop Auckland (County Durham), the town where he was born. His experiences of working with industrial machinery and observing the efficiency and speed of the mechanised production processes is reflected in some of the paintings he produced later.

Stephenson, son of a grocer, was less well known than his neighbours. He produced art that bears favourable comparison to the works produced by them. Until the 18th of September 2022, there is a wonderful small exhibition of his works in a gallery within Hampstead’s charming Burgh House. The catalogue, edited by Sacha Llewellyn, Paul Liss, and George Richards, not only contains a fine collection of photographs of the exhibits but also provides a superb introduction – better than others I have seen – to the story of the pioneering role of Hampstead in the evolution of modern art in England. Burgh House, which contains several rooms comprising a museum of the history of Hampstead, also hosts excellent exhibitions such as the current survey of Stephenson’s works. Its well illuminated Peggy Jay Gallery provides a space for contemporary artists, many of them local, to display their works. Beneath the two storeys of cultural experiences, the basement of Burgh House is home to a pleasant café where anything from a cup of coffee to a wholesome meal can be obtained. And amongst the interesting range of books in the small bookshop, you can find copies of my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” on sale (if they have run out, tell them to ask me for more, and then get your copy from Amazon).

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.

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.