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Celebrate spring with a clutch of exhibitions

In early spring, the new crop of exhibitions emerges with the reliability of snowdrops and daffodils – and with equal variety and urgency.

The harvest started with the opening of the Norman Shaw show at the Royal Academy (until 25 May). It’s a small and carefully chosen display of the free-style work with which the architect made his name, before he became a Classicist and produced such grand designs as the Piccadilly Hotel and Bryanston in the last two decades of his life.

Shaw’s Old English and revived Queen Anne became widely emulated models, and as Shaw’s biographer Andrew Saint points out in his informative hand list, if you ‘look round any English city, town or suburb built between 1880 and 1930, you will see traces of the ghost of Richard Norman Shaw’.

From threshold to bed
Freedom of composition allowed him to respond specifically to individual clients and sites. No wonder that he was so influential: he had invented new and immensely versatile approaches to architecture that, though created in the countryside and much influenced by vernacular ways of building, could be adapted to virtually any circumstance, from grand country houses in Sussex to commercial buildings in the City like New Zealand Chambers (sadly destroyed by bombing in 1941). All his work is deeply imbued by understanding of how people would behave and feel in his buildings from the transformatory moment of crossing the threshold to the quiet drama of going to bed.

As Saint points out, another reason for Shaw’s popularity was his command of late nineteenth century reproduction and printing techniques. Shaw, then his brilliant assistants like W.R.Lethaby, Ernest Newton and Gerald Horsley, drew wonderfully detailed and dramatic perspectives that were shown in the architectural magazines, and sometimes in the popular press. Few since Palladio had used print so effectively to publicise their talents and build up successful practice.

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