The Genius of the Place: Blackwell’s Thomas Mawson

Inside Blackwell, delicate carvings of rowan berries and guelder rose creep across walls and cluster on the Great Hall’s Minstrel Gallery. Nature has entered the house.

But glance out of the windows, and this accord between natural forms and architectural order continues beyond. For Blackwell is more than just the work of the architect, Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott. As the site’s landscape architect, Thomas Mawson, claimed in his book The Art & Craft of Garden Making: ‘between the designer of the house and the architect of its setting, there must be the closest artistic sympathy and mutual appreciation if the result of the work is to be successful’.

A series of sheltered terraces transition the interior of the house out into the fields beyond, providing sweeping prospects of Windermere and the Coniston Fells. The forms and materials of the interior recur in the terraces, setting up a play between the house, the garden, and the wider landscape. Alongside Baillie Scott’s careful use of local materials and vernacular features, Mawson’s garden design is integral to the house’s engagement with the ‘spirit of the place’.

Despite this evident mastery of his craft, Mawson’s name no longer enjoys the recognition it once commanded, or that which is still enjoyed by his architect contemporaries—such as Sir Edwin Lutyens or C F A Voysey. Yet Mawson’s life was remarkable, and his ideas are as relevant as ever.

He was born in 1864 in the village of Scorton, North Lancashire, into a working-class household—his father worked as a warper in a local cotton mill. He had left school by the age of twelve, and, when his father died shortly after, was sent to London to work as a market gardener. There, he sketched the South Kensington Museum’s collections (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), gained several years of horticultural experience, and married Anna Prentice. On their honeymoon to the Lake District, in 1884, Mawson heard that his position at a London nursery had fallen-through; he consequently made the momentous decision to permanently move to Windermere and establish Mawson Brother’s Lakeland Nurseries, with his brothers running the nursery and Mawson hoping to make his name as a garden designer.

Over the next few decades, Mawson daringly expanded his activities to include areas in which he possessed no formal training: from garden design, to the design of public parks, and, eventually, to large-scale town planning. He approached each with the same ethos—all were simply ‘the art of correlating the component parts of a scheme over large areas’. In 1908, he was invited to represent Britain at the international competition to design the gardens of the Peace Palace at the Hague, which he won; in 1910, he undertook a lecture tour of the U.S., where his designs for major cities contributed to the City Beautiful movement—a social reform programme rooted in ‘beautifying’ North American urban planning.

The Greek Prime Minister commissioned Mawson to redesign the destroyed city of Salonika (present-day Thessalonica) in 1917; his efforts were rewarded with the Order of the Saviour, Gold Clasp, conferred by the King of Greece. Although the war scuppered his business’ further expansion, Mawson had gone from a local garden designer to the head of offices as disparate as Lancaster, London, Vancouver and Athens; became the President of the Town Planning Institute; and the first President of the Institute for Landscape Architects.

Despite these lofty achievements, Mawson never forgot his roots. His copious use of green, open spaces in his town plans derived from a belief that urban, working-class people were just as entitled to healthy spaces as the rural rich. During the war, he composed a book entitled An Imperial Obligation, in which he demanded that the government raise funds from industrialists to sponsor housing projects for disabled servicemen. Westfield Memorial Village in Lancaster is the fruitful outcome of these plans.

Whilst hurtling between his garden projects on trains, Mawson also wrote a long treatise on landscape architecture, which he called The Art & Craft of Garden Making (1900). It contains ideas that continue to influence landscape architects to this day. At its heart is a rejection of the dominant eighteenth-century style of gardening invented by ‘England’s greatest gardener’, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown—which Mawson argued simply attempted to ‘imitate nature’—and an advocacy instead for rational designs connecting the house to the garden, and both to the wider context. When Blackwell opens once again, visitors will be able to explore the gardens and appreciate this subtly crafted relationship, integral to what Mawson called a garden’s ‘spirit of restfulness’.

“We congratulate Abbot Hall for curating another remarkable exhibition in Kendal” – Richard Dawson

Long-standing supporter of Lakeland Arts, Richard Dawson from Rathbones Kendal, talks about Abbot Hall Art Gallery’s new exhibition, its redevelopment and the importance of ‘giving back’ to the community.

Richard writes: “It’s fantastic to see the Fleming Collection’s masterworks by SJ Peploe, JD Fergusson, George Leslie Hunter and FCB Cadel displayed alongside Lakeland Arts’ own Colourist works for the first time.

“It’s wonderful to see the complementary pieces chosen by the curatorial team, showing how the Scottish Colourists’ innovations spread to influence other artists including Joan Eardley.

“We’d like to congratulate Abbot Hall for curating another remarkable exhibition in Kendal and we look forward to seeing the renovated Abbot Hall in two years’ time.”

Colour and Light presents works by the Scottish Colourists in Abbot Hall’s last major exhibition before it closes for redevelopment. The Scottish Colourists were a group of four painters whose post-Impressionist work had far-reaching influence on contemporary British art and culture.

The exhibition explores not only the ground-breaking artistic achievements of the Scottish Colourists, but for the first time addresses their influence on subsequent generations of Scottish artists and lasting impact on modern British art.

It is a fantastic collection of paintings to go on show before Abbot Hall closes for redevelopment in 2020.

Richard adds: “Rathbones’ Kendal office has continued its support for Lakeland Arts during its new Scottish Colourists exhibition.

“Lakeland Arts has been working on several exciting projects this year including Windermere Jetty Museum of Boats, Steam and Stories which opened in Spring. It’s also really exciting to hear plans for the upcoming £9.6m redevelopment of Abbot Hall which gets underway in 2020.

“These are all great examples of a forward-thinking organisation with long-term plans to benefit the local community, which has strong parallels with the way Rathbones looks to invest for its clients.

“We look for companies with sustainable investment practices that support and interact with the communities and societies they depend on to ensure their ongoing growth and prosperity.

“What strikes me about something like the Abbot Hall redevelopment, is that while some of the benefits will be immediately obvious—improved accessibility and exhibition spaces for example—the full benefits will manifest over decades.

“By enhancing this already well-respected art gallery we can expect to see even more fantastic exhibitions being brought to the region for future generations to enjoy.

“This investment helps to make Kendal a great place to live and work, which is vital for businesses to thrive. This means more students, talented professionals and entrepreneurs choosing to remain in our local area.

“At Rathbones, all of our clients are long-term investors, endowments and charitable trusts, and families looking to create wealth over many generations. We have long recognised that our investments must factor in the wider, long-term impact on society and the economy. Companies exist in a sustainable social contract with the community: it is the continued flourishing of society that provides the conditions in which wealth can consistently grow over generations.

“For Rathbones, this philosophy manifests on many levels. As a national company, Rathbone Investment Management has engaged for over ten years with the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), which is an international agreement on responsible and sustainable investment practices that contribute to the social good. We hold an A+ PRI rating for Strategy and Governance and have done now for three years. We believe in investing in firms that deliver benefits to the community in their pursuit of returns for their investors.

“Locally at Rathbones Kendal, we also aim to give back to our community where we can. We support local initiatives like Brathay Trust’s Aspiring Leaders Programme, Institute of Directors’ educational and networking events, and Lancashire’s Haffner Orchestra as well as these vibrant exhibitions at Abbot Hall.”

Colour and Light is open now and runs until 1 February 2020. 


“I have seen first hand the dramatic retreat of glaciers across the world”

Emma drawing Langdale Pikes 2Artist Emma Stibbon’s large monochrome drawings and cyanotype photographs reveal the effects of a warming climate in The Alps.

The Royal Academician reflects on the impact of climate change through powerful new work on display in Abbot Hall’s big summer show Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud.

Visitors can immerse themselves in Stibbon’s stunning drawings created as she followed in the footsteps of two of Britain’s most iconic artists. 

In an exclusive interview Emma talks about what inspired her to follow Ruskin and Turner to the mountains…

How does it feel to bring your amazing works to Abbot Hall Art Gallery?

I’m excited to be showing my work at Abbot Hall as it’s a beautiful venue with an amazing collection. It feels special to be part of this exhibition in Cumbria, where Ruskin spent such a large part of his life. I’ve always loved hiking and drawing in the Lake District and it’s great to have my work on show here.

What is it about Ruskin and Turner that so inspires you?

As an artist Turner is a trailblazer. His extraordinary depictions of grand mountain scenery inspired Ruskin and generations of artists that were to follow. Both Turner and Ruskin have an incredible scrutiny of nature and yet they also have a very personal vision of the world. I think it’s that combination of their observation of what’s ‘out there’ and their imagination that fascinates me.

Why were you so driven to go to The Alps to follow Ruskin and Turner?

I have always loved Turner and Ruskin’s depictions of the Alps. The watercolours and drawings made from their numerous Alpine trips define a new language for the sublime in landscape. In my own work I have seen first hand the dramatic retreat of glaciers across the world. We are living through a period of rapid change and I feel an urge to communicate this through my work. This comes from a realisation that many sites are changing beyond recognition within my lifetime. I made a visit in June 2018 (164 years after Ruskin) to see what remains of the glaciers around the Mont Blanc region.  Exposed at this mid summer period many of these views are now virtually unrecogniseable.

Your photographs show climate change first hand – what was your initial reaction when you reached the same locations as Ruskin/Turner?

Having visited the ‘Mer de Glace’ previously I knew that the glacier had retreated beyond recognition from Ruskin’s 1854 visit when he made his daguerreotype. In Ruskin’s daguerreotype of the Mer de Glace we see, quite literally, a sea of ice flowing past the observation hut at Montenvers. The Mer de Glace valley today presents a dark moraine covered floor, almost completely devoid of ice. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that the glacier has receded massively since my last visit ten years ago.

Do you think society is taking climate change seriously?

We are clearly not taking the action we need to in order to mitigate the dramatic increases in global warming – there is a growing gap between our understanding of climate change and our willingness to take action. 

Emma Stibbon_ Aiguilles, 1520 x 214cms, Indian ink, ground oyster shell on paper 2018 © Emma Stibbon courtesy of Alan Cristea Gallery

(Emma Stibbon_ Aiguilles, 1520 x 214cms, Indian ink, ground oyster shell on paper 2018 © Emma Stibbon courtesy of Alan Cristea Gallery)

What do you think should be done to halt climate change?

We need to consider our place in the world and our actions within it, and that we are responsible custodians for generations to come….that means taking action now! 

Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud is on at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria until 5 October 2019. The exhibition consists of more than 135 works and stretches across six rooms.