Wedded to tradition
Francis Johnson, Architect: A Classical Statement John Martin Robinson & David Neave. Oblong Books, 2001. £42 In the Classical Tradition: Francis Johnson 1911-1995 An exhibitton at Fairfax House, York, until 28 July and then at the RIBA, London W1, from 10 August until 22 September
Francis Johnson, claim John Robinson and David Neave in their well-written and beautifully produced account of Johnson's life and works, 'is an example of a provincial architect who was of more than local importance'. The best account of a mid-to-late 20th century British Classicist since Lucy Archer's superb 1985 volume on her father, Raymond Erith, the book is marred only by occasional repetition.
It is unashamedly enthusiastic about Johnson's achievements, without descending into mere eulogy, and should be read by anyone who believes that 'the New Classicism'was somehow invented by the Prince of Wales and his acolytes in the '80s.
Francis Johnson greatly admired Erith - 'a first-class architect who stood to his principles and was very sensitive to the enormities of our century'. Erith's strength, he declared in 1992, lay in knowing 'when and how to be simple'. For his own part, Johnson wrote towards the end of his life:
'I have pursued a very straight course. . . and am still wedded to traditional appearances and a great love for fine old buildings and the countryside.'
Born in the East Riding town of Bridlington, Johnson trained at the Leeds school of architecture between 1927 and 1932. The city itself, still largely Victorian in appearance, made little impact on him; far more influential were his first forays abroad. Italy entranced him but Denmark 'fulfilled all expectations. . . The recent buildings in Denmark were a joy in their elegant , straightforward use of traditional values without any tricks or trace of vulgarity.'
Like some others of his generation, Johnson was drawn to the progressive traditionalism of Scandinavia and Holland rather than to the 'Ultra-Modern' of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. As a young practitioner, he was adept at cultivating clients and was made a partner in the Hull practice of Allderidge & Clark at the age of 23. In 1937, he struck out on his own and managed to complete about 30 works, mostly small houses, before the Second World War.
The war has often been depicted - in the diaries of James Lees-Milne, for instance - as a catastrophe for the country house and the landowning upper class.Yet it was, in a sense, the making of Francis Johnson's career.
Firstly, there was the task of repairing and making habitable, houses which had been requisitioned as barracks or schools. Secondly, as increased taxation began to bite, many owners sought to trim their mansions to more manageable proportions - Wassand, Houghton and Everingham were examples of Yorkshire houses which Johnson recast in tune with changing times.
Johnson, an old-fashioned Tory, saw himself as a modern version of John Carr, happy to serve the aristocracy and gentry of the East Riding and beyond. From remodellings - Georgian to the core, he enjoyed shaving off Victorian accretions - he moved on to entirely new houses, of which the first was Sunderlandwick Hall (1961), and a surprisingly large number of churches. He could draw on the skills of a developing group of craftsmen, most prominent among them the brilliant stone- and wood-carver, Dick Reid.
The skills of Reid and others allowed Johnson, a passionate conservationist, to resurrect long-derelict or half-wrecked historic buildings. It is worth seeing the well-selected (but rather poorly labelled) exhibition of Johnson's work at York's Fairfax House, a mid-Georgian town-house which he restored superbly from near collapse in 1982-84, entirely reconstructing the long-lost rear elevation with more regard for architectural propriety than archaeological reconstruction.
If Johnson had been given schools, housing estates, and factories to design, would the progressive strain, the art of keeping things simple, have emerged more strongly? As it was, he had no need to be progressive, yet the inventiveness of his work, even in the conservative world of country houses, could not be repressed.
Like that of Erith, it has nothing to do with 'pastiche' and everything to do with the dogged pursuit of craftsmanship and traditional values in design. If, for some tastes, Johnson was, at best, an escapist, his work is worth studying, and one applauds the broadmindedness of the RIBA in hosting 'In the Classical Tradition' later this summer.
Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist