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The Europeanness of British Architecture

Architecture may seem helpless in the face of political crises, but this has not stopped people from trying – and under far worse circumstances than our own

In 1941, as Nazi bombs fell on London, a group of exiled art historians mounted an exhibition in the capital with the intention of reaffirming Britain’s intimate connection with Europe. They sought to demonstrate this using art, specifically that of the Classical tradition, which they traced on its journey from the south of the continent to the rainy island at its north-western perimeter. The exhibition, titled English Art and the Mediterranean, was enormously successful and travelled around the UK until the end of the war, stopping in 20 cities. In 1948 it became a book, British Art and the Mediterranean, which was reissued in 1969. Exhibition and book have recently been revisited in a series of events titled A Vision for Europe: British Art and the Mediterranean.

The concept of cultural transmission that underpinned the exhibition was central to the work of its curators, Fritz Saxl and Rudolf Wittkower. Both were Jews who had come to Britain from Germany in order to avoid Nazi persecution. Saxl brought with him the Warburg Institute, which had been founded by the wealthy Jewish scholar Aby Warburg in Hamburg in 1909. Warburg was a brilliantly original thinker whose work centred on the migration of visual motifs from Classical antiquity through time and space. In order to foster the discovery of such interconnections, his vast library was uniquely arranged according to what he called ‘the law of the good neighbour’, and its organisation shifted as his own thought developed.

It did not always follow an undeviating path: Warburg was hospitalised by mental illness following the end of the First World War. In his absence, Saxl took over the running of the institute, and on Warburg’s death in 1929 he became its director, with Gertrud Bing as his deputy. The political situation quickly worsened and the pair, fearful for the fate of Jewish scholarship under the Nazi regime, evacuated the institute – along with its 60,000 books – to London in 1933. It was an unhappy instance of the migration of ideas, but the institute was welcomed by London’s cultural grandees, especially Lord Lee of Fareham and Samuel Courtauld, the co-founders of the Courtauld Institute, who helped to fund the move.

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Source: The Warburg Institute

A display panel showing ‘The English Interpretation of Palladio’, from the 1941 exhibition ‘English Art and the Mediterranean’

Saxl and Bing were accompanied by several illustrious colleagues, among them Edgar Wind, later the first professor of art history at Oxford. Ernst Gombrich, who fled Germany in 1939, joined the institute in London at Saxl’s invitation – he would later become its director – as did Rudolf Wittkower. Wittkower was to become one of the world’s foremost authorities on Renaissance and Baroque architecture, and his 1949 book Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism had an enormous impact on scholars and architects alike. Via Colin Rowe especially, his work on the geometry of classicising architecture reintroduced historical material into the mainstream of Modernist architectural discourse. 

It was in the spirit of Warburg that Saxl and Wittkower set out to delineate the interconnection of British and European culture in their exhibition, but their efforts were also undoubtedly motivated by the moment of crisis in which they found themselves. This was inevitable given the traumatic experience of exile and the continued danger of their new home. The Warburg’s librarian, Hans Meier, was killed in a bombing raid in 1941, and many of London’s collections were evacuated to the countryside for safekeeping – the National Gallery was emptied into a Welsh slate mine – leaving a city starved of art. This created a hearty public appetite for their exhibition, which attracted 14,000 visitors in its first month.

The message of internationalism conveyed by the project was evidently also favoured by the British establishment. Kenneth Clark, then head of the National Gallery and an admirer of Warburg’s work, helped to obtain funding for the exhibition, which was hosted by the Imperial Institute in Kensington. Its subsequent journey around the country was supported by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, forerunner of the Arts Council. Clearly, it was considered useful propaganda. This was given a certain irony by the fact that Gertrud Bing’s own efforts as a volunteer ambulance driver had been curtailed due to her classification as an ‘enemy alien’.

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Source: The Warburg Institute

‘The Penetration of Southern Art Through French and Flemish Channels in the Age of Elizabeth’

The exhibition took the form of some 500 photographs arranged on 85 panels, following a precedent established by Warburg with his famous ‘image atlas’, the Mnemosyne Project. The panels were wordless save for thematic titles, and visitors had to consult the catalogue for further information regarding the individual photographs. The juxtaposition of technologically produced images was clearly a Modernist practice, used in this instance to demonstrate the survival of Classical antiquity into the present day, from the Celts to Herbert Baker. In an enthusiastic review, Herbert Read hailed the curatorial strategy as ‘a new art … the art of visual education’.

When the exhibition was published as a book following the war, Wittkower added further architectural themes such as ‘The Spirit of “Novelty and Variety” in Robert Adam’, ‘The Recurring Inspiration of Michelangelo’, ‘Landscape Gardening and the Cult of Ruins’ and ‘The Hall as Setting for Classical Statuary’. On these pages a neolithic tomb in Malaga abuts another ancient grave in Orkney, Scamozzi nudges Burlington, and the Capitoline nestles next to Grimsthorpe Castle. There were also sections on typefaces, magic, astrology, opera and caricature, creating an encyclopedic survey of Britain’s intertwinement with European culture.

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Source: The Warburg Institute

In 1948, the exhibition was published as a book, ‘British Art and the Mediterranean’ 

The predominance of photographs over text – with the latter functioning as extended captions rather than sustained historical narrative – made British Art and the Mediterranean a pioneering example of ‘art history without words’. As Mick Finch, head of Fine Art at Central St Martins, has suggested, it probably influenced Kenneth Clark, whose landmark TV series Civilisation first aired in 1969, just as the book was reissued; and also John Berger, whose 1972 series Ways of Seeing was accompanied by a publication incorporating several wordless photographic essays.

While it clearly had an impact on other professionals, we will never know the extent to which the exhibition informed public opinion regarding international affairs. Nevertheless, its popularity suggests that there was a significant appetite for the material. Can anything comparable be said to have been produced in recent years? The current situation, in which Britain prepares to sever ties from the European Union in an atmosphere of unabashed racism, is regarded with almost universal dismay by architects, academics and curators, yet their response has been muted.

There are a few honourable exceptions, however, among them the Architecture Foundation’s Papers festival last year, which highlighted the refugee crisis, and the Migration Museum project, currently housed in a temporary space in south London. Meanwhile, the Warburg Institute, Central St Martins and the Bilderfahrzeuge Project are engaged in an international collaboration titled A Vision For Europe: British Art and the Mediterranean, which has already produced a series of three events this year. Together they are examining the materials behind the exhibition and book with the aim of situating them within the contexts of their time and our own, renewed moment of crisis.

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Source: Author

The materials of the exhibition were recently reexamined in a series of events organised by the Warburg Institute, Central St Martins and the Bilderfahrzeuge Project

Perhaps the more general atmosphere of reticence is due to a fear of accusations of elitism. But this is no time for self-effacement, and if distant suffering doesn’t galvanise us we should be spurred into action by the threat to our own professions. While wartime Britain was admittedly a challenging and frequently bigoted refuge for émigré scholars (Adorno found Oxford more anti-semitic than Nazi Germany), our current government’s stance is less welcoming still. But the fact remains that although Classical influence may have subsided for now, the culture, not least the architecture, produced on these shores still bears ‘witness to the essential unity of European civilisation’, as Saxl and and Wittkower put it all those years ago.