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Home is where the art is

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BUILDING STUDY: Blackwell, a major Arts and Crafts house in the Lake District by MH Baillie Scott, has been carefully restored by Allies and Morrison and adapted for use as an arts and exhibition centre

Blackwell is a major building. Its significance was first registered when Baillie Scott exhibited his design drawings at the Royal Academy in 1898 and it quickly reached international notice when Hermann Muthesius included it in Das Englische Haus, that remarkable commentary on British domestic architecture, published in Berlin in 1904.

There he celebrated Baillie Scott as one of 'the purely northern poets among British architects'. He illustrated Blackwell in some detail as the exemplar of this particular strand of the Arts and Crafts movement, in which 'all the coolness and naked rationality which distinguished the Anglo-Saxon south' is replaced by 'the world of fantasy and romance of the ancient bardic poetry'.

By transforming Blackwell into a gallery for the applied arts, the Lakeland Arts Trust and its architect, Allies and Morrison, have rescued the house from a period of gradual physical decay and made it accessible to the public for the first time in its life.

They have also undertaken an architectural project of the greatest complexity. In addition to the obvious technical issues of conservation, the project raises questions of analysis and interpretation in the realisation of a radical change of use, from Edwardian summer residence to 21st century art museum.

In 1906, Baillie Scott published Houses and Gardens, a treatise on the design of 'the artistic house'. This kind of house 'bases its claims not on its frillings and adornments, but on the very essence of its structure. The claims of common sense are paramount in its plan. . . No dusty carpets cover its floors.

Its apartments are not crowded with useless and unlovely furniture. It aims at fulfilling no popular conception of what a house should be, follows no fashion.'

Blackwell is illustrated in the book and Baillie Scott introduced it straightforwardly, writing: 'This house in the Lake District is largely noticeable for its large central hall, in a recessed portion of which a billiard table is placed. The principal feature in this hall is the great ingle fireplace with its open hearth and seats and, over this, a little stair with a stone-vaulted roof leads to a small chamber overlooking the hall. From the front entrance a broad and low corridor gives access to drawing room, dining room and kitchen premises, without infringing on the hall itself, so that it never becomes a passageroom. The first floor and attic floor give ample bedroom accommodation.'

All of this is realised in an arrangement that is entirely characteristic of the Arts and Crafts house. In the L-shaped plan, one of those recommended by Baillie Scott in chapter two of Houses and Gardens, the principal rooms face southwards and the service accommodation is in a projecting wing to the north east. Similar arrangements are found in numerous Baillie Scott houses, in designs by Voysey and at both Windyhill and Hill House by Mackintosh.

But it is in section that Blackwell becomes remarkable.Within the relative simplicity of the overall figure, the rooms around and above the central hall are arranged like the pieces of a giant mathematical puzzle.

A key chapter in Houses and Gardens is that on decoration. In this, Baillie Scott wrote: 'In the decoration of the house no excuse can be urged for the failure to achieve beauty. If it has no beauty it is useless and less than useless.' He argued that heraldry - 'a complete science of decoration' - offered a basis for appropriate adornment.

At Blackwell, the presence of the mountain ash in the Holt family crest, a tree that, coincidentally, is common in the Lake District, provided the basis for a decorative scheme that runs throughout the house. Its foliage, blossom and berries appear in wood-carving, leaded lights, ironwork, plasterwork and stencilled motifs in all the principal rooms.

In this house Baillie Scott fused practicality and symbolism into a masterly unity.

This synthesis was continued in the relation of the house with its site and in the design of the garden. He worked on this with the garden designer Thomas Mawson, who lived in the Lake District, had a national reputation and in 1900 published The Art and Craft of Garden Making.

The prospect from the site, sweeping westwards across Windermere to the Coniston Fells and offering glimpses along the lake to the north, is masterfully exploited. From within the house the bay windows consistently capture and compose fragments of the landscape. This pictorial sensibility continues out into the garden, where the geometrical terracing creates a sequence of vantage points from which to view the terrain.

It is a poignant fact that this remarkable house, laden with personal significance for both its architect and his client, and internationally recognised as one of the major buildings of the Arts and Crafts movement, should have sustained its original purpose for no more than 40 years. But now, after 60 years of gradual decline and crude adaptation, it has been recreated for a different but wonderfully appropriate use. The 'artistic house' has become the 'house of art'.

To adapt any existing building to a new use is no trivial matter. When what exists is so specific and carries the many layers of significance and meaning that are found at Blackwell, the task becomes almost overwhelming.

Allies and Morrison's team for the project was led by Diane Haigh, one of the principal scholars of the Arts and Crafts movement, who has already worked on the restoration of a number of Baillie Scott houses. She also has the inestimable advantage of being a native of the Lake District. This has ensured that scholarship and insight inform the execution of the project.

The programme for the project had a number of clearly defined elements. There was the conservation brief for the Grade I building. There were the specific and technically demanding needs of the modern art museum. There were important, but essentially pragmatic, demands of public access, fire safety and car parking. There were practical matters of providing office accommodation and a small residential apartment. Less explicit, but overriding all of these, was the absolute necessity to achieve a new synthesis that sustained the essence of the building as house, while satisfying the primary new uses of art display and public access.

The architect's approach has been to interpret and work with the fundamental qualities of Baillie Scott's design. The restoration of the fabric has been carried out with care and professionalism. The accretions and abuses of the passing years have been removed and repairs have been beautifully carried out.

The more difficult job was to make the change to the building's new use. In approaching this, Allies and Morrison's research identified a coherent hierarchy of form, materiality and significance of space in Baillie Scott's work. From this follows the strategy for the whole design.

The principal ground floor apartments - hall, dining room, drawing room, all with inglenooks, and the linking screens-passage - operate as a complex unity.Visual axes and material transparencies establish connections between the different spaces and between interior and the landscape beyond.

Material and decoration are used to bring both consistency and subtle differentiation.

The most striking expression of difference is found in the drawing room, where the soft glow of white paint and delicacy of detail replace the solemnity of the natural oak of the hall and dining room. This becomes a light box, framing the most spectacular views of the lake and the distant fells. The space and material of the hall are extended to the first floor by the principal staircase as it rises to the upper passageway. All of these major spaces have been restored to their original splendour and, as such, become prime exhibits in the building's new function as a museum of applied art.

The main bedrooms of the house constitute the next significant group of rooms.

These open from the upper passageway and are quite deliberately different from each other. All have fine fireplaces that have been painstakingly repaired, two of which are in inglenooks. In contrast to the public apartments below, these rooms have simply painted walls and ceilings, of which two are plastered vaults.

In Houses and Gardens, Baillie Scott wrote: 'The decorative use of colour implies the cultivation of the faculty of thinking in colour, as the musician thinks in sounds.'

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