Denatured

Rosemary Hill

By 1815 London was the biggest city anyone had ever seen. It was the most stable and prosperous Western metropolis and had been enriched further by a flood of Continental refugees and by works of art similarly cast loose on a tide of war and revolution. There was now an interest in European painting among the British unequalled since the days of Charles I, and despite the war, English art and architecture, in particular the Gothic and the landscape garden, had many admirers in France and Germany. Napoleon himself ordered Gothic furnishings from London. In the years after Waterloo it was inevitable that cultural tourists should flock to Britain to see at first hand what they had for so long been reading about.

The French made a nuisance of themselves by following Walter Scott in the street, demanding to be allowed to draw him. But they were disappointed by British art, and of the modern buildings Defauconpret could only mutter: ‘des briques, des briques et toujours des briques.’ The Germans, however, were noted for being more systematic travellers with a wider range of interests. In 1826, as The English Journey describes, the great architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Privy Counsellor for Public Works in Prussia, came to this country specifically to look at the bricks, the cast iron and other modern construction techniques that were transforming the landscape that lay beyond the Picturesque parks of the country houses. Britain’s internal stability had encouraged industrialisation – as well as the art market – and Schinkel was one of those who understood that this was where visitors might learn the most instructive lessons. His ambition was to create for Prussia an architectural style that was new and yet historically grounded.

The visit was greatly enhanced by his friend and travelling companion Peter Beuth, head of the Prussian Department of Trade. Beuth had visited Britain before and wrote to Schinkel from Manchester in 1823 that ‘only here ... the machinery and buildings can be found commensurate with the miracles of modern times – they are called factories.’ Beuth was looking for examples in England of What Prussian manufacturing might do – and what it might avoid. He was also carrying out a little light industrial espionage. Under his influence Schinkel saw more of the factories and less of the country houses and historical sites than he had intended. The pair nevertheless visited Holyrood and the ‘Ossianic isles’ of Staffa and Iona. Schinkel’s journal reveals how often he saw the industrial landscape in terms of the Picturesque. Factory chimneys are ‘smoking obelisks’ and the potteries, spread across the valley floor, ‘wonderfully Egyptian-oriental forms’. In Edinburgh he was impressed by the Gothic gasworks and noted that it had been designed by Walter Scott himself. No one has been able either to prove or to disprove this astonishing attribution, but the fact that Schinkel made it indicates the extent to which industry and picturesque romance could still be associated in the early 19th century.

Schinkel’s Romanticism made him seek an architecture of social responsibility in which the needs of the individual and the glory of the nation state were both satisfied. He brought to his subject a moral seriousness quite unknown in England at the time. During his visit he nevertheless hoped to meet someone who occupied a professional position in London similar to his own in Berlin. One possible equivalent was John Nash, the royal architect: had they met, their interview would have made a great, if unconsciously comic centrepiece to the journal. Nash and his work epitomised the Regency and its stucco-fronted standards, high taste and low morals. In his ebullient vulgarity and lack of any broad social vision he could not have been more different from Schinkel. Sadly for posterity, however, Nash was out when Schinkel called; though Mrs Nash received him. ‘He lives like a prince,’ Schinkel noted, with some disapproval. He found Nash’s terraces in Regent’s Park, in which palatial facades unite rows of what are, in fact, quite small private houses, pretentious and deceitful.

You are not logged in