The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Wandering Architects: In Pursuit of an Arts and Crafts Ideal

Michael Drury (Shaun Tyas, 320pp, £35)

Reviewed by Robert Drake

This re-issue of a book first published in 2000 has been greatly extended with additional photographs. It tells the story of a group of young architects who followed the ideals of Ruskin and William Morris and built the most ‘advanced’ free-style Arts & Crafts houses, often living on site – as medieval masons had done. One was Detmar Blow, whose practice before 1914 was second only to Lutyens’ in private house building for wealthy clients. Others include Randall Wells, Herbert North, Philip Tilden and Harold Falkner.

While Blow built houses all over the country, the others were more localised: Falkner in Farnham, Herbert North in North Wales and Tilden in Cornwall and Kent. Their houses were invariably for a rarefied clientele but were, in their studied simplicity and occasional eccentricity, some of the finest interpretations of the Arts & Crafts manner.

Perhaps the most sensational of these, visited on a 1992 Society event with Isabella Blow to welcome us, was Blow’s own house, Hilles (Grade II*) near Gloucester, begun in 1914 but not finished until 1939. As the narrative moves into the 1920s, Drury focuses on one of Oliver Hill’s best early houses, Cour, in Kintyre, built in 1921 in a very remote location. Hill lived in a shepherd’s cottage on the site, where he found the local blue-grey Whin stone he used. Drury enters the debate about whether these ‘wandering architects’ were, as Pevsner argued, the true pathfinders of the Modern movement in Britain. While there may have been a philosophy in common, it is clear that the modernist impulse came primarily from the Continent, like Pevsner himself. But both shared an interest in social morality and the promotion of good design, and in breaking down barriers between architecture and the society it served.