Tuesday, 3 April 2012

What better way for the Cotswolds to celebrate the Jubilee?




In 1952, the architect Oliver Hill created what every country town needed to celebrate the Coronation: a Lion and Unicorn made out of rope.  The figures were 8ft tall, and as full of life as the effervescent architect himself.  Hill installed the pair in the Cotswold town of Cirencester, on a checkerboard floor surrounded by obelisks.  Stylistically, it was a tribute in keeping with the spirit of the Festival of Britain exhibition, held on London’s Southbank two years before.  The choice of material reflected the austerity of the times.  Both the Festival of Britain and Austerity are back in vogue.  Furthermore, we’ve got a Jubilee on the go.  Any local authority with half a brain would seize the opportunity to find the remains of Hill’s whimsical heraldry and set it up in glory.

Not the Cotswold District Council.  They have told the art historian Lucy Abel-Smith that they won’t lend a finger towards reinstating it.  Its remains therefore languish in a barn belonging to Lord Bathurst, at Cirencester Park, outside Cirencester.  Have they no imagination or patriotic spirit?

Or, come to that, appreciation of Cotswold traditions, or their place in the cultural history of the 20th century?  Hill lived at Daneway Manor outside Sapperton.  Daneway is one of the sacred sites of the Arts and Crafts movement, having been restored, at the beginning of the 20th century, by Ernest Gimson and the Barnsley brothers – architects and craftsmen who, as disciples of William Morris, had left London to seek a simpler way of life amid the purity of agricultural traditions in what was then an unfashionable part of the world.  Hill was also an Arts and Crafts figure, having been advised by none other than Lutyens to become apprenticed to a builder.  (He’d had a rarefied upbringing, Whistler having decorated a room in the family’s Bedfordshire country house, with gold leaf ‘washed over with a grey-green glaze through which the rectangle of each leaf faintly glowed,’ as Hill remembered.)   Between the Wars, he became one of the most fashionable architects of his day, practising in a variety of styles – Art Deco, Modern Movement, even Spanish.  But he became disillusioned with Modernism and returned to his Arts and Crafts roots.  Hence the rope.  The Lion and Unicorn are nothing if not a work of craft skill (albeit constructed on a base of chickenwire and wood.)

 The tradition continues.  In 1997, a replacement Crown was made to accompany the pair when, under Mrs Abel-Smith’s direction, the figures were restored.  The Crown is about to be displayed in Corinium Museum.  In this picture it is shown with a local man Neville Brown, who is horrified by the Museum’s proposal to display it on the floor: such disrespect!  He is engaged in making a suitable base.



As for the Lion and Unicorn themselves, although restored 15 years ago, they are in risk of deteriorating, and no one can see them.  Click here to see their present sorry state. May the trumpets sound and the Twentieth Century Society ride into battle on before of these unravelling beasts.

According to Mrs Abel-Smith, Sir Terence Conran can’t see what the Lion and Unicorn have to do with the course of British art in the 20th century.  If Sir Terence dislikes them, they must be good.  He probably doesn’t think they’re ‘modern’ enough.  Actually, until Norman Foster et al at the end of the century, British architects never made much of a contribution to Modernism; we limped behind the Continentals.  What we did give to the world was the Arts and Crafts Movement.  The Cotswolds were its epicentre.  Properly restoring these figures would cost less than a decent firework display – a bagatelle beside the cost of a new public lavatory. 

Part of the problem is that nobody will say they own the figures.  Circencester Urban Council, which commissioned them, is defunct.  But surely its powers were inherited by somebody, whether the Cotswold District Council or Circencester Town Council. 

For heavens sake, one of you, get on with it.

Oliver Hill and friend

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