Letchworth Garden City's rich Arts and Crafts heritage
PUBLISHED: 12:30 25 June 2016 | UPDATED: 12:08 01 July 2016
It may look quaint to modern eyes, but the architecture of Letchworth was founded on revolutionary, anti-establishment ideas. Louise McEvoy explores the role of the Arts and Crafts movement in the garden city's foundation, as a new exhibition celebrates the town's defining ideals
In the early years of the 20th century, craving the simple life and an escape from city squalor, many people flocked to Letchworth – the world’s first garden city – to embrace the utopian ideals of social reformer Ebenezer Howard, who sought to create an alternative to concrete sprawl by combining the best of town and country living.
In 1903, Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin were appointed architects to Howard’s First Garden City Ltd. Tasked with transforming his revolutionary ideas into reality, their plans had particular emphasis on parks and open spaces, tree-lined streets and low-density housing. Crucially to what would be the defining look and feel of the town, the architects were also influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, which began in Britain in around 1880 in response to a growing concern about the effects of industrial manufacture and unregulated trade on design, traditional skills and the lives of ordinary people. The movement was pioneered by architects, designers and artists and encouraged the reform of art at every level and social spectrum, advocating turning the home into a work of art and placing great value on the quality of materials and design. Like Howard’s, its ideas and ideals were founded in celebrating the individual.
Many early houses in the town incorporate architectural details and furniture along Art and Crafts lines, and created a ‘Letchworth look’ epitomised by rough-cast walls, red roof tiles, country cottage-style windows (including dormers), and gables.
Town historian Josh Tidy is the curator of the International Garden Cities Institute, housed in the Arts and Crafts building on Norton Way South designed by Parker and Unwin in 1907 and used as Parker’s offices. Tidy, who came to Letchworth in 2003 – the town’s centenary year – is enamoured with the romantic foundations of the town. ‘I have been enjoying telling the story of the world’s first Garden City for almost 13 years now and I’m passionate about exploring the past of this unique town, sharing its history with anyone who’ll listen,’ he says.
He says the predominance of Arts and Crafts style in Letchworth owes its existence to Parker and Unwin. ‘They were the town’s master planners. Both were steeped in Arts and Crafts culture and were committed to providing a better quality of housing and quality of life for both workers and the middle classes alike. Both were keen disciples of the Garden City movement.’
But the philosophy of the town was also a big draw to other leading architects of the period who added their ideas. ‘Letchworth both attracted and nurtured some of the finest Arts and Crafts architects around, from well-known figures like MH Baillie-Scott to more home-grown talents like Bennett and Bidwell. All designed beautiful homes with fabulous interiors, whether for large private commissions or for workers’ housing,’ Tidy says.
One of the curator’s favourite views in Letchworth is up Rushby Walk, one of the country’s first cul-de-sacs, as the roof-line rises gradually and all the key features of the early Letchworth style are in evidence. ‘A tiny path at the end of the road leads to an ‘island’ of allotments – a green oasis just a few minutes from the town, and a living breathing example of what everyone in Letchworth was trying to achieve – good quality design houses with gardens for ordinary people.’
It was not just the architecture of Letchworth that was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, it influenced the townsfolks’ activities. Tidy explains, ‘Many early developments in the town – the return of traditional ideas like May Day and folk dancing, and an enthusiasm for the simple life like taking dew baths, laying under the stars in ‘sleeping porches’, striving for self-sufficiency and the adoption of vegetarianism – were all driven by its ideals. All of these were to a greater or lesser extent part of, or an extension of, the Arts and Crafts movement, and a general rejection of establishment or conformity.’
An exhibition exploring Letchworth’s rich Arts and Crafts heritage runs until August 27 at the Garden City Community Museum in the Arcade and will showcase rarely-seen treasures from the Garden City Collection including furniture, ornaments, paintings, architectural plans, textiles and photographs from the early years of the town. It offers an in-depth look at Letchworth’s signature early style, exploring the simple life and romantic idealism of Letchworth’s pioneer early citizens and profiles key players of the Arts and Crafts movement in Letchworth, including Parker, Unwin and Baillie-Scott.
Tidy, whose book, Letchworth Garden City Through Time, was published last year, says the exhibition allows us to explore one of the most fascinating elements in Letchworth’s rich history. ‘The Garden City was a social experiment which attracted much interest and support from utopian idealists and mild socialists. Letchworth attracted some of the finest Arts and Crafts architects in the country and this is reflected in our architecture. Some of Baillie-Scott’s finest houses are in Letchworth, as well as classic designs by Parker and Unwin and Bennett and Bidwell. We’re delighted to be able to share their plans, drawings and paintings, along with a selection of furniture that featured in these early houses.’
With all this talk of the past, what does the future hold for Letchworth?
‘The future for Letchworth is bright,’ Tidy determines. ‘It retains a balance of preserving its architectural heritage and celebrating its rich history while still being able to embrace the present and plan its future.’