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’.

Rodin and Scotland: A Love Affair

Abbot Hall Art Gallery is currently showing one of Auguste Rodin’s best-known works – The Thinker is on show until 27 October. The iconic piece is on loan from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Pippa Stephenson, Curator of European Art, Glasgow Museums, explains how Scotland swooned for sculptures by the French artist:

Pippa

Auguste Rodin is a well-known and widely-appreciated artist, with exhibitions springing up worldwide, particularly in the wake of last year’s centenary since his death. However, it wasn’t always that way.

It took France, in particular, a surprisingly long time to appreciate the artist’s naturalistic and unorthodox approach to sculpture. The first public monument to the ‘Father of Modern Sculpture’ was not erected in France until 1904, indicative of the country’s reluctance to embrace his art.

Scotland, however, developed a somewhat earlier appreciation for Rodin. Examples of the artist’s work were shown at the 1888 Glasgow International Exhibition, a time when public opinion of Rodin’s reputation was still out to jury (by 1900, with the artist’s seminal exhibition in Paris, his worldwide reputation was firmly established).

In 1906, the artist received an honorary doctorate from Glasgow University. He gifted a bust, Saint George’ to Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery in return, a token of his affection for the city. Recently, letters between Rodin and Francis Newbury, the visionary founder of the internationally-famous Glasgow School of Art, have been unearthed in the archives of the GSA. These few letters confirm that the pair were in dialogue around 1901, with Rodin asking Newbury to report on how his sculptures were being received in the Glasgow International exhibition of that year.

Recognising Rodin’s importance, Glasgow Museums bought two works from that exhibition, a plaster cast of ‘Saint John the Baptist’, and a cast of the ‘Burghers of Calais’.

It was the actions of William Burrell, however, which gave Glasgow its particularly special relationship with Rodin. Burrell was the owner of a successful shipping business, and took a keen interest in art, amassing an internationally-significant collection of over 9000 objects.

The collection opened to the public in 1983, and is currently undergoing extensive renovation, due to reopen in 2020. In the course of his lifetime, Burrell bought at least 14 bronzes by the artist, all of which are in the collection today. This gives Glasgow the second largest collection of Rodin’s in the UK (after the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the recipient of 17 sculptures gifted by Rodin himself in 1914), and one of the largest worldwide in a public collection.

Burrell’s first purchase, probably ‘Fleeting Love’, was made before 1901, which he lent to the aforementioned Glasgow International Exhibition. Photographs of Sir William’s Glasgow townhouse at 8 Great Western Terrace show Rodin bronzes on display alongside medieval tapestries and Northern European Renaissance paintings.

He bought these sculptures from local dealers including Alexander Reid, as well as directly through the Musee Rodin, Paris. He collected sculptures by Rodin up until 1937, including important pieces such as ‘The Thinker’, which is part of the British Museum spotlight tour, on display at Abbot Hall Art Gallery Kendal until 27 October.

More on the exhibition at http://www.abbothall.org.uk/rodin

Rodin and the intriguing logics of the fragment

by Barbara Vujanović

Abbot Hall is the first gallery in the country to host an amazing Spotlight Loan exploring how Auguste Rodin took inspiration from the fragments of ancient Greek and Roman statues. Barbara Vujanović, who conceived the loan, explains how it came about:  

Sometimes things in life (and work) fall into place so flawlessly and easily, like pieces of a well adjusted mosaic.

The story behind my involvement with the British Museum, and working on the exhibition Rodin: rethinking the fragment seems to be one of those examples.

In 2015, I had the pleasure to co-author the retrospective of Auguste Rodin in Zagreb. Working with my colleagues from the Musée Rodin, namely with Véronique Mattiussi, enabled me to expand my knowledge on one of the greatest modernisers of sculpture.

I am dealing with the art of the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, an artist who was marked by Rodin’s art and his friendship, and I became more and more interested in their mutual passion for antique and classical art. In fact, this is the subject of my PhD research, so I was very happy to meet Ian Jenkins, Senior Curator at the British Museum and an expert on Ancient Greek sculpture, in 2015 in Zagreb, just a few months after seeing his marvellous exhibition at The British Museum, Defining beauty – the body in ancient Greek art.

At the time he was preparing the project of the exhibition Rodin and the art of ancient Greece, and our interests on antique and modern sculpture overlapped, Ian Jenkins kindly proposed me for the British Museum’s International Training Programme. The six weeks I have spent in London and in Manchester in 2016 were an incredible experience.

Working with Ian Jenkins and his colleague Celeste Farge, co-author of the aforementioned exhibition on Rodin and antique art, turned me towards a challenging subject of the antique fragmentary sculpture influence on modern artist, mostly on Auguste Rodin.

Therefore, when I was invited to conceive a Spotlight Loan exhibition, with the help of my dear mentors, Ian and Celeste, I was naturally driven to the question of fragments.

Not only was it one of the themes of the Rodin exhibition at The British Museum, but also the very nature of the Spotlight Loan programme, which is based on the selection of just a small number of objects, turned me toward the intriguing logics of the fragment.

How one part or an object invokes another one, how one fragment can change our perception of the whole? I was thrilled to make the selection for this exhibition, but what excites me even more, is the anticipation of other fragments, pieces of the mosaic which will be added at Abbot Hall Art Gallery.

Barbara Vujanović by Rodin's The Thinker
Barbara Vujanović by Rodin’s The Thinker

I am very keen to learn about Rodin’s influences on Elisabeth Frink’s art. I believe that we, the curators, can provide the best projects once we understand we are all part of this large mosaic of knowledge, passion for art, culture and history.

I am looking forward to seeing those other pieces of the mosaic in Kendal, and I am hoping they will lead us towards some new experiences and discoveries.

Barbara Vujanović, Senior Curator, The Ivan Meštrović Museums – Meštrović Atelier, Zagreb.

Auguste Rodin: rethinking the Fragment, is now open until 27 October. https://www.abbothall.org.uk/rodin

Elisabeth Frink Fragility and Power, runs until 29 September. https://www.abbothall.org.uk/elisabethfrink

Barbara Vujanović will visit Abbot Hall on 27 September and give a talk: Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker: revolutionising modern art. To book https://www.abbothall.org.uk/rodinandhisinfluences.

Image: Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, 1880-81, The Burrell Collection © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.