There is a familiar story about Britain and the Bauhaus that is still told today. A backward island, bereft of modernism, entertains almost unawares a handful of the world’s most progressive designers, but fails to find them adequate employment, so that they move on to the USA. When applied to three former staff of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer, this seems to correspond to the facts – and history has awarded the Bauhaus a prime position in the period. But while modernism was late in developing in Britain compared with Germany, a national habit of self-denigration has meant that the positive aspects of Bauhaus reception in Britain, and of equivalent endogenous modernisms, has consistently been overlooked.
Before 1934, only fragmentary and misleading information about the Bauhaus appeared in British publications, mainly because France had long been seen as the prime source of modernist ideas. Gropius was the subject of an article in The Architectural Review in 1924, part of a series on German architects by a German-American writer, Herman George Scheffauer, and apparently the only reference in print in Britain to the Weimar Bauhaus. An article by the critic Horace Shipp in Artwork magazine in 1928 included an enthusiastic if rather outdated account of the Bauhaus as a centre of craft-work. In October 1929, Oscar Bie reviewed the tenth anniversary exhibition of the November Group in his regular column. ‘Letter from Berlin’ in Apollo. His account of this meeting point for many future staff of the school, noted that ‘all the friends and teachers of the Bauhaus have sent contributions ranging from purely linear fantasy to dancing rhythms.’ This seems to be about all there was, although Bauhaus designs were licensed to Daler, the makers of drawing paper, and at least one other English company.
The Bauhaus building in Dessau itself received only tangential discussion in the architectural press. Even in Bruno Taut’s Modern Architecture, published in London in 1929, the single illustration of the Bauhaus is captioned ‘House for Students at Dessau.’ In 1931, a feature on ‘Glass as a walling and roofing material’ by P. Morton Shand, the critic who later translated Gropius’s book The New Architecture and the Bauhaus into English, was uncomplimentary about both the school (‘a sort of technical school for severely functionalised arts and crafts’) and the building, which he seems not yet to have visited (‘It is rumoured that in strong sunlight the glare is so blinding that the students have to be provided with screens’).
The Studio was more progressive than the architectural magazines around 1930, and carried an article on the Trades Union School by Hannes Meyer, who succeeded Gropius as director of the Bauhaus in 1928. Apart from this, Meyer was little known, although it was he, rather than Gropius, who was responsible for the concept that the British identified as a purely scientific version of functionalism. More surprisingly, a writer in The Spectator enthused over the German Pavilion at the Barcelona Exhibition of 1929, designed by Mies van der Rohe, who in 1932 became the third and final director of the Bauhaus.
From this brief and doubtless incomplete survey, it can be seen that anyone relying on the British press for information about the Bauhaus before 1934 would have been in difficulty. It is probable that the Bauhausbücher, surveys of staff and student work, including Gropius’s own writings, were available in London. Recorded British visitors to the school at Weimar or Dessau are much rarer, however. Leonard Elmhirst, who with his wife, Dorothy, founded the Dartington Hall Trust in 1926, visited Weimar twice, and Gropius begged for money from them for the ‘Haus am Horn’ exhibition of 1923. In 1931, Serge Chermayeff, Wells Coates and Jack Pritchard made a journey together through Germany, and included the Bauhaus in their itinerary. There may have been four British students enrolled in the school, but information on this is conflicting, and none made a feature of this background in any subsequent activities.In November 1932, The Studio noted the closure of the school in Dessau at the instigation of the local Nazi party, mentioning the threat of demolition, and noting that ‘from the very beginning the Bauhaus had been non grata to the conservative element both in political and artistic circles.’ Mies moved the school to Berlin, where its final voluntary closure in 1933 in the face of mounting difficulties seems to have gone unnoticed by the British press.
The Bauhaus émigrés in London
Around 1934, more in response to internal pressures than to the arrival of émigré modernists, Britain began to take modern design more seriously. A better informed and more reverent attitude to Gropius and his school appears in Morton Shand’s series on the background to modern architecture ‘Scenario to a Human Drama’, which began to appear in The Architectural Review from July 1934. Shand traced the roots of the modern house back from Gropius to Soane, mentioning Le Corbusier only in order to advance the claims of Gropius as a more significant figure. ‘The Bauhaus left an indelible impression on German building’, Shand claimed, a judgement that seems overstated in the light of historical knowledge, and in strange contrast to his facetiousness of 1931. The explanation seems to reside partly in the adoption of Gropius as an honorary Englishman, in the belief that he demonstrated the validity of a moderate approach to modernism.
In May 1934, Gropius came to London to supervise an exhibition of his work at the RIBA, and spoke (using a translation prepared by Shand) at a meeting of the Design and Industries Association. His text was published in The RIBA Journal, illustrated with photographs of the Bauhaus building. The exhibition was opened by the President of the RIBA, Sir Raymond Unwin, who tactfully masked his scepticism about the new movement. Another text by Gropius was published in The Listener, with a more enthusiastic comment on the exhibition (possibly by Shand), which again contrasted Gropius’s assumed working method favourably with that of Le Corbusier. Gropius was seen as the true functionalist, ‘who sets about each new building as he would set about solving a mathematical problem’, while Le Corbusier was accused of attempting to fit the programme into his a priori aesthetic.
In October 1934, Herbert Read’s Art and Industry found in the Bauhaus the principal exemplar to set against existing British education in industrial design. Read added as an appendix a memo by the Design and Industries Association on the reform of the Royal College of Art. Under ‘staff’, this cited ‘The analogy of Germany…where noted architects and designers of international reputation teach in the academies of art.’ Read was repeating a long-held view that it was time to move from the arts and crafts basis of design teaching towards a closer engagement with industry. Gropius was consulted by the Hambledon Committee on advanced art education in London, which focused the attention of the design community on the limitations of existing training. One of the three parts of the 150th anniversary history of the Royal College of Art is titled with a quotation, ‘It would, I fear, be out of the question to appoint Dr Gropius’, taken from a letter of 1935 in the official correspondence over the successor to William Rothenstein as Principal but the college was severely constrained by official parsimony, and regulations about the employment of foreign staff, as well as by an inevitably cautious attitude in government. Out of a range of suggestions for ways in which Gropius could become involved, nothing materialised. Myth maintains that Gropius was considered and rejected for the directorship of the Cambridge School of Architecture in 1935, but there is no archival evidence. In the same year, he was courted by C.H. Reilly, a late convert to modernism, for a part-time share in the chair of civic design at Liverpool University, but he seems to have showed as little enthusiasm as he did for the Royal College, and so William Holford was appointed. He did not want any long-term commitments in Britain, and was more interested in opportunities for building.
The excitement and attention that Gropius generated on his first temporary visit in May 1934 was hard to sustain when he came in October 1934 for an indefinite residence in London, encouraged and facilitated by Shand and Pritchard. With his fellows from the Bauhaus staff, Moholy-Nagy and Breuer, both Hungarian in origin, Gropius formed a trio of diverse talents, for whom British patrons generally found only rather small commissions. Gropius’s biographer comments nonetheless that ‘all in all, Gropius considered himself to be in a sympathetic milieu’, although ‘he believed that some aspects of the arts might be beyond its ken’. The timing was unfortunate, in that British modernism was only just consolidating its presence when the virtual certainty of war reduced the confidence of potential clients.
Setting material factors aside, we may consider the influence of the three main Bauhaüslern during their time in London. Gropius’s The New Architecture and the Bauhaus, published in 1935 by Faber & Faber – the chief publisher of modernist texts – stimulated wide review coverage. To J.M. Richards, it was a welcome stick with which to beat the surviving elements of the Arts and Crafts movement, while for John Betjeman, then strongly influenced by Shand, it ‘tells us about something more important than “the battle of the styles” and that is the battle we must fight for an ordered existence’. The argument in favour of high flats appealed to aesthetes such as Betjeman and Anthony Blunt who hated the new English suburbs.
Read reviewed the book for Scrutiny, claiming that ‘you cannot enter a house anywhere in the world that has any pretence to modernity which does not bear, in some of its details if not in its whole design, some trace of the Bauhaus influence.’ He had a Breuer table in his own home. Read excluded the other staff and directors of the Bauhaus from his account, stressing Gropius’s position as a technically-minded apolitical classical humanist offering a neutral vision of efficiency. In The Times Literary Supplement Charles Marriott appreciatively noted the moderate tone of the book and the value Gropius accorded to handicraft training. These commentators wanted to portray Gropius and the Bauhaus as reasonable, unthreatening and connected to Britain by historical links. This approach contrasted with an earlier perception of modernism as foreign, revolutionary and needlessly theoretical. Although a distortion, this interpretation was well calculated to win the sympathy of general readers. It was consolidated by the publication of Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement From William Morris to Walter Gropius in 1936, also by Faber. It seems as if Gropius’s statements allowed a range of interpretations by those who wanted to find him on their own side. Thus Amelia Defries, a conservative commentator, contrasted Frank Pick’s mechanistic presentation of Gropius in the foreword to the 1935 book with Gropius’s own statement that ‘Individual imagination and fancy will more and more take possession of the technical resources of the new architecture’.
The most questioning review came from John Summerson, who, while willing to acknowledge that the Bauhaus ‘conception of the architect as the saviour of humanity from industrial chaos’ had succeeded to a degree that was ‘not contemptible’ also wished ‘to overwhelm the author with questions. Whence, for instance, were the industrial experts obtained and how many of them had the least aptitude for teaching?’ He was also curious to know more about the attitude of industry to the Bauhaus, and the success of the practical instruction. These questions were not answered by the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938, where the polished surface of the Bauhaus’s reputation was not penetrated by more searching criticism. The early ‘Expressionist Bauhaus’ period was virtually suppressed and only rediscovered after the war. On the basis of Gropius’s book, the Bauhaus was understood almost exclusively in terms of architecture, and the contribution of painters, such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, of craft-based designers such as Gunta Stötzl, and of Schlemmer’s theatre productions was overlooked. Schlemmer had an exhibition in London in 1937, however, and Klee’s work was exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in 1934.
Gropius’s impersonal and technical approach to design influenced a generation of architecture students in the 1930s whose political commitments led them to a social approach to architecture, in which cause they believed that every problem had a rational solution, and that this would best be reached through anonymous group working. Those who formed the Architects’ Cooperative Partnership in 1939 exemplified this attitude, and Gropius took an interest in their development, choosing a similar name for his American practice, The Architects Collaborative, in 1945. The system-built Hertfordshire Schools of the 1940s and 50s emulated Gropius’s ideals. The influence of his actual buildings in Britain is harder to quantify. The impression given by the Wood House, Shipbourne, Kent, 1936, and Impington Village College, Cambridge, 1939, was one of modesty and a non-mechanistic response to local materials, very different from the examples of Gropius’s work illustrated in his book of 1935, but better suited to the mood of ‘New Empiricism’ prevailing in British architecture between 1935 and 1955.
Moholy-Nagy, the successor to Johannes Itten as leader of the Preliminary Course or Vorkurs at the Bauhaus, represented a more imaginative approach to art and design than Gropius. Summerson reviewed a special issue of the Czech magazine Telehor devoted to his work in 1936, applauding Moholy’s prediction that the categories of painting and sculpture would be superseded by new art forms based on light. Moholy published his own texts in vocationally orientated British journals, where they would have reached a professional audience. His book The New Vision was appeared in English language edition from New York after 1928, although it was not published in Britain until 1939, when it received a penetrating and generally appreciative review by the novelist Storm Jameson in Scrutiny. Read praised the potential of Moholy’s ideas for ‘the education of the senses’ and Art and Industry has been interpreted as a competition between Gropius’s and Moholy’s divergent visions of art and its function. It is more difficult to pin down Moholy’s influence on practising artists (such as John Piper), architects (such as Serge Chermayeff) and theorists and educators, because it operated through personal encounters. Jameson noted simply that ‘a younger growth of painters and sculptors is already profiting as much by the excesses as by the virtues of the experimenters’.
Breuer had no book to his name. His article ‘Where do we stand?’ for The Architectural Review in 1935 drew parallels between modern architecture and national vernacular traditions, in contrast to self-conscious newness, an approach well tuned to English feelings. A similar statement in Circle in 1937 was recalled with approval in later years by Sir Leslie Martin. Breuer’s temporary pavilion for the Bristol furniture manufacturer Crofton Gane in 1936 was influential in showing a combination of traditional materials and modern forms, while his furniture for Pritchard’s Isokon company is the most famous product of the whole Bauhaus émigré episode.
The Bauhaus in relation to British pre-war art, design and education
Britain was not the cultural desert that some of the literature might imply, especially in terms of its studio crafts of the 1920s. Parallels with the Bauhaus can be sought in art forms that usually escape the attention of historians, such as puppetry, where Olive Blackham’s pre-war production Lima Beans (Fig. 8) used highly abstracted puppets similar to those illustrated by the Bauhaus drama teacher Oscar Schlemmer (Fig. 7).Paul and Marjorie Abbatt’s wooden toys built on foundations of Froebel and Montessori that were well rooted in Britain. Ethel Mairet, the leading hand-weaver of the inter-war years in Britain, wanted to use the workshop as a source for ideas in industry, and her book Hand-Weaving Today (1939) included an enthusiastic appendix on the Bauhaus. The abstract films made in London by the New Zealand artist Len Lye, such as A Colour Box (1935), owed nothing directly to Moholy-Nagy, but were arguably more effective than his films in demonstrating movement, colour and light. These individual manifestations, more the result of parallel development than direct influence, indicate that the myth of an entirely unreceptive nation should be adjusted. Since 1930s Britain and the Bauhaus had a common origin in the Arts and Crafts movement, these affinities should not be surprising.
The more direct influences from the Bauhaus have seldom been considered en bloc. Among the many émigré designers of the 1930s there were several ex-Bauhaus students. Margaret Leischner made a contribution to weaving practice and education, Margarete Heymann-Marks to ceramics. Naum Slutzky (Figs. 9 and 10), an early Bauhaus student who taught metalwork, came to England in 1935 and found a position at Dartington, moving on to teach at the Central School and in Birmingham, where he formed an alliance with the progressive local manufacturer of light fittings, Best & Lloyd.The animator John Halas (later of Halas and Batchelor) was not a Bauhaus pupil, but attended the private school of Robert Bortnyick in Budapest, where Moholy taught, and became one of his assistants in London.We might therefore as well look for Bauhaus influence in the animated film of Animal Farm as in Hertfordshire schools or lighting appliances.
The Reimann School, established in Berlin in 1902 and focussed on the use of art and craft for commercial publicity, transferred to London in 1937, and Richard Hamilton was one of the English students to attend it. While not directly comparable with the Bauhaus, it was probably more progressive than most English art schools, with the exception of Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. In a single year, 1938-39, with Albert Halliwell, who was inspired by the Bauhaus Vorkurs in his teaching at Beckenham, the new principal William Johnstone instituted industrial design training at Camberwell on lines comparable to the Bauhaus, claiming that ‘the battle for change in the whole of art teaching in Britain was fought and won at Camberwell, 1938-39.’
Bauhaus teachers, including Gropius, Moholy and Josef Albers, successfully created new courses in the USA, and Max Bill, a student at the Bauhaus in 1924-27, brought the school’s ideas back to Germany through the Hochschule für Gestaltung at Ulm, opened in 1953, although its essentially pre-war approach was immediately questioned. Britain saw a rapid development of art and design education after the war that fulfilled many of the earlier hopes of Read and others. At the Central School, London, from 1946, Johnstone worked again with Halliwell and a new generation of abstract painters, achieving the cross-over between hands-on experience and design for industry that seemed so difficult in the 1930s, but which he related directly back to the work of the school’s founder, W.R. Lethaby.
‘Basic Design’ became the British equivalent of the Vorkurs, although not directly derived from it, and was pursued with passion at Leeds by Harry Thubron, by Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton in Newcastle, and by William Turnbull at the Central School. Bruce Archer, a notable advocate of ‘design research’ methods, taught at the Central, the Royal College, and at Ulm during these years. Basic Design became controversial, and the Bauhaus looked increasingly like a distant historical event rather than a model for current emulation. Gropius was awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1956, but his later work was heavily criticised, and young architects found their inspiration in Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. His ideas for integrating art and science did, however, directly inspire the curriculum at the reformed Bartlett School of Architecture in London under Richard Llewelyn-Davies. The creative atmosphere at Bath Academy of Art under Clifford Ellis was compared to the Bauhaus at its most exuberant. Multi-disciplinary design practices such as Design Research Unit, Pentagram and Arup Associates demonstrated the continuing applicability of this aspect of Bauhaus ideas in a new commercial atmosphere depending more than ever on the power of image.
The decision to stage an international exhibition on the Bauhaus at the Royal Academy in 1968 was the occasion for a new wave of both celebration and criticism. Gillian Naylor’s short book on the Bauhaus marked a deeper level of engagement by British design historians. The timing could not have been worse, however. ‘All over the world, the Bauhaus system…is in disarray’, Banham wrote in 1967, and the exhibition was accompanied by a series of radio talks, beginning with Banham’s declaration that the Bauhaus image had ossified in Britain owing largely to its propagation by books. Joseph Rykwert picked open the myth, recalling ‘The Dark Side of the Bauhaus’ (i.e. its Expressionist period), while Peter Lloyd-Jones criticised ‘The Fallacy of Basic Design’ as another over-rigid formulation. The Bauhaus was known because its ideas could, with oversimplification, be summarised and relayed. Over time, this quality became its weakness.
Bauhaus scholarship developed through the study of archives, notably by the Bauhaus archivist Dr Hans Wingler, whose first major history was published in 1962. Frank Whitford’s popular 1983 book benefited from archival research in Weimar. During the 1980s, however, the Bauhaus became increasingly a shorthand for all the supposed evils of modernism, typically in Tom Wolfe’s book, From Bauhaus to Our House (1982), although increased knowledge showed how diverse the school actually was, preparing the way for a later revival of interest. Will Gropius follow, and become a figure whose meaning can be adjusted to suit each new situation as it arises?
Little information about other art teaching in Germany is available in English, so that the Bauhaus far outweighs other schools in the historical record, creating a self-perpetuating distortion. This situation is reflected in scholarship about Britain, where the history of art education is a neglected subject, permitting the persistence of the myth of lost opportunities in the 1930s and much else besides.
Alan Powers is reader in architecture and cultural history at the University of Greenwich.