Why the delays for the Chiswick Mall artist studios?

Hammersmith and Fulham Council is making a bid to be the London Borough of Culture. Fine and dandy. But I wish they would be less obstructive to a proposal for artists studios in Chiswick Mall. Planning delays have made the whole project a real struggle.

The architects for the proposal say:

“Assemble are currently developing a design for the rebuilding of a collection of artists’ studios, informal gallery spaces and accommodation at Durham Wharf, the former home and principal workspace of the artists Julian Trevelyan and Mary Fedden.

Originally built in the early part of the twentieth century as a coal store, Durham Wharf is made up of a pair of buildings that stand out amongst the properties along Chiswick Mall for their awkward modesty. The character of the site is the result of multiple and visible adjustments made to them over many years, as they have hosted both the working and private lives of a broad range of individuals who have made an important collective contribution to the art, music and philosophy.

Our proposal for the next series of alterations aims to accentuate the Wharf’s particular personality and eccentricity with new first-floor extensions and a garden room. The approach is one of collage: a binding together of existing and proposed building fabric through removal, repair, erasing and overlaying.”

Durham Wharf was used for receiving coal from the north east of England until after the First World War.

The owner Philip Trevelyan  has sent me the following note on the subsequent history:

“1925 The Footprints Workshop was set up at Durham Wharf by Gwen Pike and Elspeth Little. They used hand-blocks to print fabric and the artist Paul Nash, was one of their more notable designers. This now celebrated venture , was supported by Celandine Kennington, the second wife of the sculptor Eric Kennington. The Workshops continued to supply two successful London shops with fabric until 1932.

As this went on, Eric Kennington used the building closest to the river, for making sculpture. Blocks of sculpted stone were still laying about when Julian Trevelyan and his wife Ursula Darwin, arrived there in 1934 (some is still here). Between 1932 and 1934, the film-maker and kinetic sculptor Len Lye, used the buildings, and it was here that he made his famous little film called ‘Colour Box’, which advertised postal rates of the GPO. He continued to work here for some months after Julian Trevelyan and his wife, obtained the lease in 1934.

1934: Commissioned by Julian Trevelyan, the architect Kit Nicholson (brother of the artist Ben Nicholson), designed the conversion of the riverside premises into a combined studio and living space in 1934. He also designed the subdivision of the sheds that bordered the road: a spare bed-room (and WC) was installed, a pottery studio, picture racks and a separate shop and garage, were all established. A large oil-fired kiln was also built in the entrance garden, and this fired the pottery made by Ursula Trevelyan until 1949.

1935- 1942: The Picture Lending Library. This enterprise displayed paintings and offered them for sale in the Durham Wharf shop window. Apart from my father’s work, other painters such as Max Ernst, Viera da Silva, Stanley Spencer, Cecil Collins, John Tunnard, Victor Pasmore, John Banting, Roland Penrose, Jean Varda, were also represented. This Library lent pictures to clients to borrow on a sale or return basis, and it was a vital part of the activity at Durham Wharf until 1946 (See the Record Book). Anthea Craigmyle (the local artist), remembers being fascinated by the pictures in the shop window….

1944. The studios were also used for exhibitions and the artist Cecil Collins had his first one-man show there in 1944. Later that year, a bomb landed in St Peter’s Wharf, but did not explode. The main roof beam and all the skylights of Durham Wharf were broken and had to be replaced…….

In 1946: The Picture Lending Library was closed and the shop became a Day School /Nursery for four years.

Throughout this period (1934-46), Durham Wharf became famous as a meeting place for artists, musicians, dancers, photographers, writers, architects, engineers. Organizations such as the Artists International Association or the Surrealist Group met there. It also became a venue for informal parties, concerts, exhibitions and events such as the Annual Boat Race Party, to which at least 50 people would be invited for ‘Beer and Buns’(See photos). After the war, Mary Fedden and Julian Trevelyan introduced the opening of their studios for three days in the summer, every year. This became a popular event (with queuing before opening), and the idea has now grown into multiple ‘Open Studio Events’ right across the UK.

Other informal and notable events included an all night celebration of the Ballet Russe, organized by Vladimir Polunin: the great dancer Lydia Sokolova was among the guests and it is said dancing went on all night (despite the drink running out,) and that they all swam in the river as dawn broke. Another famous event was a send off party for W.H.Auden and Chris. Isherwood, who were off to China: Benjamin Britten played the piano during this send off.

From the 1960’s onwards, informal concerts took place regularly: there was the annual visit from the Yehudi Menuhin School (where Mary Fedden taught art), and later, visits from the Dante Quartet led by Krysia Osostowitcz. Other distinguished pianists and players (David Ward, Nigel Kennedy, Wendy Philips) also performed at the Wharf. On occasions 50+ people would be invited to attend.

Between the years 1925 and 2012 (the year Mary Fedden died), Durham Wharf did get known as a special place for meetings, and a list of well known people associated with the place, would run into hundreds, possibly more. Off the top of my head, the following distinguished people from the arts and sciences, were visitors.

David Attenborough, Jacob Brunovski, Alan Clarke, Alan Herbert, Sandy Calder, Cyril Connolly, Cecil and Elizabeth Collins, Cosmo Clark, George Devine, Robin Darwin, Julian and Aldous Huxley, William Empson, Douglas Glass, David Hockney, Tom Harrison, Humphrey Jennings, Jocelyn Lousada, Charles Madge, James Mason, James McGibbon, Norman (Bill) Pirie, Magnus Pike, Gilbert and Stanley Spencer, Stephen and Humphrey Spender, Basil Spence, Viera da Silva and Arpad Szenes, Yanko Varda, Dylan Thomas, John Tunnard, Bertrand Russell, Kathleen Raine…….were just some. ” 

He adds that:

‘Public Benefits’ are part and parcel of the development and restoration of Durham Wharf Studios.

When the development and restoration of Durham Wharf is complete, an important part of the nation’s artistic heritage will be enhanced and maintained.

While the development work is being completed, an application for a London Blue Plaques that remember the lives of both Julian Trevelyan, R.A.and (later) Mary Fedden, R.A. MBE., (once considered the most popular of all British painters), will be in process. When put in place, the plaques will be a reminder of the heritage created by these artists.

The development includes the restoration of the pitched roof studio which is adjacent to the river. Apart from its function as a sculptor or painters work space, this building has a history of bringing together a remarkable list of people from both the arts and sciences (see ‘The History and Heritage of the Live/ Work Studios at DW’). From many points of view, this old coal shed on the river has to be recognized as a heritage asset.

The development of Durham Wharf will allow it to encourage artistic excellence well into the future. It will be owned and overseen by a sympathetic family trust in collaboration with bodies such as the Royal College of Art and Royal Academy. There will be a resident artist who will combine administrative duties with his / her own work.

The applicant has outlined a series of proposed measures that will follow the development and restoration (see below). These will invite the local Hammersmith community to engage with and appreciate the artistic heritage of Durham Wharf, alongside its earlier history as a coal wharf.

If, in the future the premises have to be sold, there will be clear advisory conditions attached to that sale. These will insist that its ownership and management remain within the arts community (e.g. the Royal College of Art or other professional institution)

It should be noted that if the Trevelyan family were to place Durham Wharf on the open market, all of the above would be thrown into the ‘bin of chance’. Thanks to the glacially slow responses of the Hammersmith & Fulham planning officers (conversations started in January 2013), this unhappy option is becomes ever more likely, as each day passes.

Proposed measures which will benefit the local Hammersmith community, post development.

We intend to make some of the studio spaces function in a similar way that village halls are hired out. We can foresee the riverside studio being made available for festive meals, short term exhibitions, group meetings. We often receive requests along these lines.

Thanks to Julian Trevelyan and Mary Fedden’s annual sale of their pictures directly from the studios, Durham Wharf has an ‘open studio’ tradition. It is often said that the ‘open studio’ movement was initiated at Durham Wharf. This tradition will be continued.

Some of the new residents at Durham Wharf, are highly likely to be post graduates from the Royal College of Art. These young artists will be familiar with the RCA’s community out-reach programmes, which engage children in schools, people in old people’s homes, local societies. These programmes are currently funded by a charity set up by Mary Fedden and known as the Durham Wharf Foundation. This charity would be able to support new outreach programmes that engage with the Hammersmith community. Indeed, successful applicants for residencies at Durham Wharf will be expected to develop such activities.

The Studios will also engage the public by selling books, postcards and booklets about the heritage of Durham Wharf. We are planning to dedicate a small space behind the existing shop window, to exhibit books and postcards alongside new work produced by the residents. Opening this facility would revive a practice started by Julian Trevelyan in the 1930s.”

I am encouraging the planning officers to be more positive. I hope we get there in the end..

2 thoughts on “Why the delays for the Chiswick Mall artist studios?

  1. The idea is excellent. But the plans look lacking in imagination, with mean proportions, and have remarkably small windows – artists need light; and its not clear how the river is incorporated into the view from within or if it is concealed behind the wall

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