Friday, February 22, 2008

Mary Ward House, Tavistock Place, London


Cutting across London to the north of Bloomsbury, I was immediately struck by this stunning building of the 1890s. Who was Mary Ward, and what was her 'House' for?

Mary Ward was known in her lifetime as Mrs Humphry Ward, a prolific Victorian and Edwardian novelist. Ah yes, Mrs Humphry Ward. I'd heard of her. Her novels are not much read now but were successful in their time and tackled the social subjects and issues of faith and doubt that were beloved of the Victorians. She was also, it turns out, a noted philanthropist and social mover and shaker. Her social work was a mixture of progressive and backward-looking initiatives. As one of the founders of the institution that became Somerville College, Oxford, she helped open up university education to women. She promoted the education of the working classes through the ‘settlement’ movement (which settled students in working-class areas where they worked among the poor). Curiously, she also became a leader of the anti-suffragist movement, campaigning against giving women the vote.

One of her most inspired initiatives was founding Passmore Edwards House in Tavistock Place. This building, funded by publisher and philanthropist John Passmore Edwards, was part of the University Hall Settlement. It housed the first properly equipped classrooms for children with disabilities and was also home to a centre where children could come to play in a safe, warm, bully-free environment. A hall, gym, library, and other communal rooms were provided, and there were also residential rooms for those living in the settlement. Early residents, young professionals who worked during the day and gave time to the settlement in the evenings, included architect Banister Fletcher, now famous for his much-reprinted history of architecture. Gustav Holst was for a while the settlement’s director of music.

The building’s young architects, Dunbar Smith and Cecil Brewer, themselves lived in the settlement, so knew the background to the settlement movement and grasped the building’s purpose and potential. They proved a good choice. The style the adopted for the building was that fruitful blend of Arts and Crafts with Art Nouveau that proved successful in London buildings for education and the arts at around this time. The style is seen in the work of Charles Harrison Townsend, architect of South London’s marvellous Horniman Museum and of the Bishopsgate Institute. Here, Smith and Brewer brought together segmental arches, a variety of window shapes, fine stone detailing, and other features to make an arresting façade. The lettering over the entrances is also delightful.

In 1921, a year after Mary Ward died, the house was renamed in her honour. There is more information about this building and its current use here.

9 comments:

Peter Ashley said...

Also looks a but like Voysey on acid; reminds me of his Tower House in Bedford Park.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, I agree: a bit of Voysey, a bit of Norman Shaw too.

Diplomat said...

That is a belter - evidence of a fine long-tread stairway by the looks of the window distribution. Need to get down there for a closer look.

Skipper said...

Thanks for this pic, a lovely building. Great site, there are so many unsung gems around. The other day I was on a bus in Black Prince Road, off the Albert Embankment, there are some striking details on red brick (Edwardian?) buildings there. Along the embankment, close to Lambeth Bridge, there is the London Fire Brigade HQ building (1930s?)with some great gold-type reliefs. And nearby, in Lambeth Walk, there is the Henry Moore Sculpture Studio, a nice little early 20th C? building. Does anyone know this area? If I had a digital camera I would post photos, but don't. It's great what you can notice if you walk around a bit. I found this site via the wonderful 'Unmitigated' site - don't know if it's right to go rambling on like this here?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Good to read your comments, skipper. Now, if you scroll down the side column of the blog and click on January, you'll find links to a couple of posts I did on exactly the buildings you're talking about – one on the Fire Bridgade HQ and one on the old Doulton factory, or what's left of it, in Black Prince Road. I'll have to check out the Henry Moor building next time I'm round there.

Mary D Krugman said...

I realize I am a bit behind the curve on this one, but I just returned from London, where I was struck this most interesting house. I am happy to have found that you have explored its history and design. At first glance, I thought perhaps it was a Charles Rennie Mackintosh design. Smith and Brewer, however, did not appear to have any association with that architect. Do you have any information on such a connection?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Mary: I don;t know of any links between Mackintosh and these architects. Both Smith and Brewer seem to have had a regular art and architectural training (the Architectural Association and the Royal Academy Schools in the case of Smith).

SplashMK said...

To me its Adler & Sullivan’s Charnley House , Chicago. But can I ask, have you done anything on 'Archway'?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, it has some similarities to the Charnley House - without the Chicago building's symmetry.

I've not done anything on Archway. One day I must go up there and have another look at it.