Blackwell in Cumbria is probably the finest publicly accessible Arts and Crafts period house in England. Designed as a holiday home in 1898 and completed in 1901 for Sir Edward Holt by the Isle of Man architect Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott (1865-1945) it’s one of Baillie Scott’s largest and most important buildings. Hermann Muthesius, an influential late 19th century architectural historian who was based at the German Embassy in London between 1896 and 1903 described it in his 1905 book Das Englishe Haus (The English House) as “a most attractive creation in house-building”.
The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction in the latter half of the 19th century against machine production and was championed by John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-1896). They wanted to re-establish the value and pre-eminence of designer craftsmen, a simpler way of life and one in which the home was a place of harmony and beauty. The use of regional building methods, local materials and local craftsmen was a central precept of the movement. It was also a period in British architectural history when domestic arrangements surrounding the family changed rapidly with fewer servants and more technology – electrical appliances and electric lighting, indoor hot water plumbing and mechanical space heating were all being introduced. Blackwell was built at this key moment when rather than adding these technologies later they were being incorporated into house design from the outset. More importantly it was also the moment when architects began to fundamentally re-examine their understanding of how houses functioned and the way people lived in them and made a home. Baillie Scott developed at least two key features in the Arts and Crafts interior; firstly the hearth with its deep inglenook and settles, used in houses by Richard Norman Shaw (1831 – 1912) onwards, became the heart of the home and recalled the warmth and hospitality of the country cottage or farmhouse. By 1904 Hermann Muthesius could write that ‘to the English a room without a fire is like a body without a soul’. Secondly Baillie Scott also replaced the Victorian entrance hall with an Elizabethan dwelling-hall where the integrity and simplicity of the medieval barn was reflected in half-timbering or wall paneling. As an Isle of Man architect, Baillie Scott drew his ideas partly for this from the local half-timbered vernacular, as did other north-country designers.
It was with this second key contribution, the reintroduction of the “dwelling-hall” that Baillie Scott has arguably had the greatest impact on modern architecture because it led directly to his development of the the idea of the integrated interior. Designing the furniture for most of his buildings he realized that the building itself could serve as furniture, that window seats and inglenook fireplaces could form subsidiary small spaces or “rooms” adjacent to – but part of – the larger spaces. Here the medieval idea of the dwelling-hall served as a model both ideologically, romantically and architecturally for the Main Hall in Blackwell. As a large open living space it could have a reticulated periphery of smaller more intimate but connected spaces where people could sit, read, knit, converse and so on and this is the case here. The space of the Main Hall is made even more connected by the use of sliding doors between the ground floor corridor and the Main Hall. This corridor is a key element in linking the principle rooms of the ground floor, both physically and visually. In this corridor there are windows into the Main Hall as well as to the outside; the space “flows” from one area to the other. The sliding doors substantially alter the visual and spatial relationship between the corridor and the rooms depending on whether they are open or closed. This connectedness is further enhanced with doors opening from the Main Hall onto the south lawn outside, allowing visual and physical access to the outdoors and the Lakeland landscape.
Baillie Scott went on to build a series of cottage houses in which he intended to provide appropriate accommodation for his preferred clientele whom he described as “…people with artistic aspirations but modest incomes…” He did this by opening up the room plans around spacious living areas and by doing so challenged the tight planning of the typical Victorian house design, the same approach he pioneered at Blackwell. This idea of fluidity of space was deontic and was more forcefully expressed and re-directed by another German architect Adolf Loos (1870 – 1933) seven years later in 1908 when Loos published his essay entitled ‘Ornament & Crime.’ Controversial at the time it was among other things to make him the unwitting father of the Modern Movement in the 1920’s. While rejecting what he considered the superficial decoration of Art Nouveau and the Jugendstil (German Arts & Crafts) movement Loos did deeply appreciate the English arts and crafts tradition of which Blackwell was one of the most important and well respected examples. This was because like other English Arts and Crafts buildings it did not pursue novelty but respected tradition and custom. Loos went on to developed the idea of the Raumplan, where walls are partially removed between rooms to create visual continuity between spaces at different levels which are linked by a complex arrangement of short flights of stairs. Beyond this Loos’s architecture departs entirely from the English arts and crafts tradition. He made a deliberate dis-junction between the interior and the exterior and this became a central concept of his work reflecting the split as Loos saw it between tradition and the modern techno-scientific world, between lived-in ‘place’ (Ort) and calculated ‘space’ (Raum). His interiors do not attempt to integrate furnishings with the architecture but in fact separate them. His rooms are mere containers deliberately populated with an eclectic mix of stylistically unrelated furnishings almost in the manner of objet trouvé. The outsides are reduced to the barest expression of technique.
Blackwell in Cumbria and the English Arts and Crafts Tradition could not be more different. Here Baillie Scott makes decoration, ornament and furnishing an integral part of the architecture both internally and externally. The motif of the mountain ash or Rowan tree, its leaves and berries are everywhere, in the lead-work, the fire surrounds and furniture. He designed many of the furnishings for Blackwell himself, as he did for most of his buildings. His was an architecture of integration and unity, not intellectual separation and division. English oak or elm planking was used both for doors and furniture, their hand-hewn roughness replacing more expensive, highly finished imported woods. Mortise and Tenon joints were not only left exposed but exaggerated to accentuate hand craftsmanship. He even designed a “Manxman” piano of around 1900 which had a Broadwood movement which was cleverly designed as an elegant, yet robust, cupboard with keys hidden behind doors decorated with strap hinges which extend around the sides to terminate in fleur-de-lys. It was indented to look attractive in any room, not only a music room and it is now perfectly placed within the Main Hall at Blackwell. There are recurrent rural motifs – friezes of wild flowers, berries and animals and tiles by William De Morgan – seemingly all connected to the Lake District – and they still have a refreshingly contemporary expressive quality that is not at all rustic.
Baillie Scott’s aim in this was to create simplicity, a sense of repose and a homogeneous atmosphere. He took Morris’s general dictum to have only beautiful objects in a house one step further: beauty was to be achieved only through objects designed by an ‘exquisite appropriateness to its position and to its use‘. The placing of each interior design component was crucial and he urged architects to design ‘in a negative way by adding nothing to the few essential features‘.
In his production of furniture he was well supported by local craftsmen since by the time he came to build Blackwell in 1898 there was already a flourishing Arts and Crafts Movement in the Lake District. John Ruskin had later in life moved to Brantwood by Coniston Water (about a 45 minute drive from Blackwell) and was instrumental in establishing the Keswick School of Industrial Art in 1884 as well as supporting the production of Langdale Linen and Ruskin Lace. Much of the furniture for Blackwell was locally produced to Baillie Scott’s designs, with other pieces sourced from a popular range of Baillie Scott designed furniture produced and retailed by the firm of J.P. White in Bedford with whom he and a number of other arts and crafts architects and designers worked.
Visitors can gain an appreciation of the artistry of this approach and of Baillie Scott’s architectural philosophy because today Blackwell is more-or-less unique in that it escaped any major alterations over the years and in 2001 it underwent a £3.25m restoration by The Lakeland Arts Trust working with the architects Allies and Morrison. There were ethical problems though, for example virtually all of the original moveable furniture had gone and there was a difficulty sourcing original Arts and Crafts furniture which was of an appropriate quality for the interiors; because of this just a few sympathetic pieces have been selected and even now the house seems a little under-furnished. There are several loaned artworks from other periods including a Henry Moore bronze, sculptures by Sir Jacob Epstein, and the occasional Giacometti and Lucian Freud but art-works of an appropriate period are rather thin on the ground at Blackwell, even allowing for Baillie Scott’s minimalist exhortations. While interesting in themselves, these more modern artworks do not in my view contribute to the coherent integrated architectural design Baillie Scott was trying to achieve. Far better would have been be to maintain Baillie Scott’s original artistic vision with commissioned, period and stylistically appropriate reproductions to give a clearer, more persuasive and immersive impression of this seminal moment of European architectural development. It’s been managed in the fixed detail of the house, why not in the portable art? Had the building been by Sir Edwin Lutyens or Sir Robert Lorimer, the aestheticist approach which seems to be being used in the curation of Blackwell would have been appropriate. Lutyens and Lorimer both got around the client furniture problem by insisting on buying “appropriate” furniture and tapestries for their clients from what at that time was a new profession – the antique dealer. This was a central theme of the aesthetics movement. But Arts and crafts architects like Baillie Scott, Charles Voysey and Charles Rennie Mackintosh insisted that the whole of the building and its furnishings must be from a single mind, unified and integrated and they dreaded having to accommodate a client’s pre-existing furniture. This was a significant impetus in the greater use of fitted furniture. Both Baillie Scott and Mackintosh used fitted and moveable furniture to achieve decorative unity in their interiors but they also gendered their rooms as well. Plain, white stenciled colour schemes and decorative plans would be used in the drawing room, bedroom, bathrooms and kitchen while oak paneling and furniture would be used elsewhere in the house, the billiard and smoking room, the hall and dining room and this is the case at Blackwell.
The Lakeland Arts Trust are to be congratulated on their continuing dedication to the curation and preservation of this iconic arts and crafts masterpiece which continues to stimulate contemporary architectural thought and design.