postwar contemporary

Sandy Wilson and the alternative tradition of modernism.

You could argue that Sir Colin Alexander (“Sandy”) St. John Wilson, who died late last year aged 85, was just a little too intellectual for his own good. That as an architect and academic, he was over-referential, particularly to his Scandinavian-modern heroes. Theory does tend to drag at the heels of the practising architect. With rare exceptions such as Le Corbusier who could write a manifesto before lunch, design a masterpiece building such as the Villa Savoie or Ronchamp chapel in the afternoon, and then get down to some serious skirt-chasing in the evening, I’d say that it is better to design first, and let others do the theorising on your behalf. Luckily Sandy had another life – some would say the life that was most important to him. He was one of the most important modern art collectors of his generation.

The jury is still out on Wilson’s relatively slim portfolio of built work – from early housing estates for the London County Council to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester – winner of the 2007 Gulbenkian Prize – via the British Library at St. Pancras. The canon is looking good – steadily better as time goes by – but it is not as outrageously original as more instinctive architects of his generation such as Denys Lasdun or his great friend James Stirling. Stirling, however, was a big-concept guy who cared little for the hands-on, crafted aspects of architecture. Wilson, true to his ideals, just loved getting to grips with the details.

He was one of the last architects to regard a building as a gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art. Being ever so English, that meant he was in the Arts and Crafts tradition. Just check out the family of door handles he designed at the British Library in brass, timber and leather, or the solid, unassuming desks and chairs. It’s modern all right, but it’s also unshowy, background stuff, appropriate for a building designed to last for centuries. The objects that Wilson designed are capable of weathering, of patination, of erosion. It is the opposite of the high-modern aesthetic which depends upon glittering newness for its effect.

If you met Sandy, however – typically dashing about the place in dark cord suit, bright red scarf flapping in the wind, chiselled features and boyish haircut, like an elderly version of film director Stephen Daldry – you came across someone else. Someone with a mischievous sense of humour, quite capable of suggesting that, since the new French National Library, with its books perilously exposed in glass towers, was such a disaster, at least the French could exploit the new rail link into St. Pancras and make use of the rather superior facilities here. Designed by him, of course. At such moments you got a glimpse of a waspish earlier era – Sandy in the Soho of the 1940s and 1950s, ensconced in the Colony Room with Muriel Belcher and the Bohemian set. Sandy at the ICA, mixing with the Independent Group, helping his friends put together the seminal This Is Tomorrow exhibition of 1956. And buying – or trading – their work.

Sandy collected paintings of a kind that became thoroughly unfashionable in the conceptual-art era. There’s a particular kind of post-war British art, much in debt to Sickert, that has the claustrophobic feel of a shabby London bedsit, daylight filtered through fog and drizzle and the fumes of Players’ Senior Service. The poetic equivalent would be Philip Larkin. Oysters at Wheeler’s, George Melly at Ronnie Scott’s – you get the period. This was the kind of stuff Wilson liked – a bit School of London, a bit of Euston Road School, to give the movements their due pigeonholes. Paintings and sculptures by Michael Andrews, William Coldstream, R.B. Kitaj, Eduardo Paolozzi, Patrick Caulfield, Lucien Freud et al. There are Sickerts in the Wilson collection, acting as the mother-lode, but also more crowd-pleasing pop artists such as Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton. You know the famous Hamilton image of the handcuffed Mick Jagger being driven away after a drugs bust, “Swingeing London ’67” ? It is, or was, one of Wilson’s. The backstory is that Hamilton’s dealer (that’s dealer as in art dealer), Robert Fraser was busted along with Jagger.

None of this seems to fit the knitted-tie, suede-shoe image of Sandy Wilson, who at the time would have been 45 and busy designing megastructures such as his unbuilt Liverpool Civic Centre (that was an old-fashioned “comprehensive redevelopment” that would surely have scuppered his reputation) or his first designs for the British Library, then envisaged as a place that would have involved demolishing a lot of Bloomsbury. When that scheme hit the buffers, the move was made to St. Pancras and a new design prepared in 1978 – just in time for the economic roller-coaster of the Thatcher years.

Wilson was by then a man under extreme pressure. Art-collecting was a form of therapy. Rather like architect David Adjaye today, he knocked around with his artist chums, designed homes and studios for them (usually in collaboration with his second wife, Mary Jane Long, known always as “MJ”, these days one half of the architectural practice Long and Kentish). In return they often painted his portrait, and hers. They never got him quite right. They always captured the stern, tight-buttoned Sandy – presumably that was the pose he affected when sitting – never the genial individual I knew. Of course Wilson could turn on the high seriousness – he was a deeply serious man – but there was always that other side.

In fact, he is on record as saying that he’d have liked to be an artist, only he had to make a living. Well, art served him well. A collection started with a few pounds of demob money and which – by the time of his death – comprised over 600 items, worth many millions.

The collection remains intact because – in a remarkable act of artistic circularity and generosity – he gave it all to the nation, and designed the gallery to house it. There were some mutterings of protest at one point about this – it could be argued that Wilson winning the Pallant House gallery commission while simultaneously donating his art collection to it was just too much of a sublime coincidence. Well, those voices were soon silenced. Firstly because there is much more to be found in the excellent Pallant House Gallery than just the Wilson Collection, but mostly because building and contents became a kind of living memorial to a particular epoch. Art and architecture in perfect harmony, you might say. Small wonder this self-effacing but surprisingly large gallery, grafted onto the existing Queen Anne building of Pallant House, scooped the £100,000 Gulbenkian Prize in May 2007 – just ten days after Wilson’s death. Small wonder, too, that in return the gallery is now hosting a special exhibition: “Colin St. John Wilson: Collector and Architect” which brings together his drawings, models and writings in the context of the gallery he and MJ designed, in which his collection hangs. Bringing everything together in this way gives a valuable insight into the intertwining worlds of post-war British art and architecture.

What did he stand for, exactly? Sandy was associated with the Cambridge School of Architecture – thoughtful, humanist, low-rise, heavy on what would these days be called “materiality”, which was never as radical as its London rivals, and has never lacked for critics. In the early 1960s the maverick architect Cedric Price described the output of the Cambridge set as “just the Middle Ages with power points”. Wilson would probably agree. He was in the business of proposing an alternative modern tradition, one which allowed for a continuity right back through the exuberant Victorian era to, yes, the Middle Ages. And Price himself, a man never afraid of contradiction, later held up medieval cathedrals as true examples of high-tech. You see what I mean? These people, you’d imagine, badly needed to get out more. Well, Cedric had his mysterious benders under the aegis of the “Hot Stuff Club” (I’m not making this up, honest). And Sandy had Soho and his boho friends.

The British Library become a millstone round his neck – it took so long to be completed that it was bound to be as monumentally unfashionable as his taste in art by the time it opened. It was, inevitably, attacked by Prince Charles while it was being built (“like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police” he opined in his infamous 1987 “carbuncle” speech). To be savaged by the preposterous Charles was something of a badge of honour, I’d have thought, but Sandy was hurt, though he couldn’t help pointing out that this was presumably the same Prince Charles who had laid the original foundation stone. Wilson claimed that the bad publicity around the library effectively destroyed his career, and that he had been forced to dissolve his practice. Thus the firm of Long and Kentish was born. But from then on, things got a whole lot better.

It’s been open for ten years now and the remarkable thing is this: the day it opened, the criticism stopped. As an occasional reader there myself, I can see why – the place works just beautifully. OK, so the café is rather expensive, and the rigid two-cultures division between arts and sciences – a fault-line running right through the building – can be irksome if you happen to be researching across that artificial divide. But as a sequence of interiors it is breathtakingly good. Less good outside, and Sandy was certainly showing his age when it came to the selection of public art for the project. What with the big Paolozzi version of Blake’s Newton, or the giant Kitaj tapestry in the entrance hall, it remains locked into 1950s “turd in the plaza” thinking about the relationship of art and architecture.

Now we not only have the Pallant House exhibition, but also a fat new monograph by Roger Stonehouse which reveals that Wilson completed rather more buildings and interiors during his career, and designed more widely, than you might imagine. The man himself – wry, self-deprecating, driven – remains elusive. Yes, perhaps he was too much the theorist. But his architecture has something that is too frequently lacking in today’s icon-driven environment – real depth. He understood the DNA, the operating system, that underlies architecture and which has nothing whatsoever to do with style.

Text © Hugh Pearman. First published in Crafts Magazine, March 2008, as “An Independent Spirit”. Portrait of Wilson, M.J. Long and family by R.B. Kitaj, also responsible for the giant tapestry in the foyer of the British Library.


“Colin St. John Wilson: collector and architect” is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until June 8.
“Colin St. John Wilson: buildings and projects” by Roger Stonehouse, pub. Black Dog, £39.95.
Long and Kentish, architects: