Germany’s William Morris

The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner had the clever idea that European Modernism in architecture and design began in England half a century earlier with William Morris. It was the thesis of his first book, Pioneers of the Modern Movement From William Morris to Walter Gropius, published in England in 1936. The book was later reissued with the more innocuous title Pioneers of Modern Design (1949). The thesis is contained in the first and last pages and the whole book strikes me as the German-trained Pevsner, a Modernist with quite severe tastes, who had to flee the Nazis in 1933, coming to terms with the England where he has landed up. England was different in its academic approach, different in its fondness for eclectic, highly decorative styles of building, and a tendency to invest in private spaces while neglecting the public or communal sphere. Pevsner admired Morris for his advances in domestic architecture, his feeling for natural materials and for the place of the house in its garden. Hermann Muthesius’s three-volume study Das Englische Haus (The English House), explaining Morris and the Garden City ideal to the Germans had been published in 1904, and that was the link between Morris and new styles of building on the continent that Pevsner wanted to expand upon. His indictment of why Modernism had passed out of English hands to the Germans and Belgians and Austrians and others, culminating in Gropius at the Bauhaus, was scathing: the English didn’t care enough about quality in social housing (for which Modernism was particularly fitted) and would only invest in private building projects. He put it this way: ‘So long as the new style had been a matter which in practice concerned only the wealthier class, England could foot the bill. As soon as the problem began to embrace the people as a whole, other nations took the lead, nations that lived no longer, or never had lived, in the atmosphere of the ancien regime, nations that did not know or did not accept England’s educational and social contrasts between the privileged classes and those in the suburbs and the slums.’  Pevsner didn’t lack critics and opponents in England, who rubbished his thesis then and have continued to do so. Susie Harries in her monumental Nikolaus Pevsner The Life (2011) has an amusing section on anti-Modernist English conservatives intent on keeping Morris for themselves.

There seems to be a missing link in Pevsner’s own account of the shift from Morris to Gropius. But it was one that was admirably filled in by the recent Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican (2012), which showed how that revolution in design began as a concern with arts and crafts and natural way of living before finding its lasting identity as a programme for rational housing and industrial building. What was now considered natural was a simple and efficient style of building that gave the human beings using it the light and comfort and visual pleasure they needed within a design that was maximally functional. Here’s a link to architects who still find it a great idea.

I need no persuading, although I can see why it has never worked in England, where we like everything with knobs on, while accepting cramped little houses and flats of the meanest proportions. Social housing! Have you seen how mean it is, compared with flats and houses for sale on the private market? Of course we need it, but Pevsner was as right then as he would be now, that England really has a problem with hiding its contempt for the aesthetic needs of the ‘ordinary’ man and woman.

Where Heinrich Vogeler, about whom I’ll be talking on Radio 3 on 5th October, 2012 – and you’ll be able to catch up on the I-player for a week after that – fits in to the Morris-transferred-to-Germany story is different. Vogeler was a north German painter, born in 1875. Like Morris he had a wealthy father, and with his legacy built himself a villa reminsicent of Morris’s Red House project, in the village of Worpswede, near Bremen.

This is a sketch by the German artist Manfred Woessner: . It looks to me inspired by Vogeler’s own painting of the house in its prime. The look was different from Morris, the building was fifty years younger, but inside there was the same emphasis on arts and crafts, and rediscovering the Middle Ages. Vogeler too married a woman with auburn hair and painted her as his medieval lady. He designed her jewellery, and their furniture, and the medieval interior of the Barkenhoff, as it was called, and the stunning garden. Everything changed when in quick succession his wife left him and he went to the front in the Great War as a war artist. The suffering he saw, and the official cover-ups, turned him into a social reformer. He became a Communist and turned his house into a school for the children of political prisoners. Around 1925 he went to Soviet Russia with his new wife and began teaching and painting there. His story ought to have been how William Morris’s influence was carried to Moscow. It certainly was a comment on Morris’s socialism: how much a century of Marxist admirers of Morris would have preferred it had he been a real activist like Vogeler! In practice Vogeler’s end was tragic. My talk on Radio Three on 5 October tells the whole story.

He wasn’t a bad painter either. See my article in Standpoint June 2012:

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