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20 April 2021
Shirley Williams's mother Vera Brittain seen here in her VAD uniform. Testament of Youth made a huge impact in the 1930s and is still one of the great books (obviously it would be a Persephone book if Virago didn't look after it so admirably). How daunting it must have been growing up as the daughter of the person who wrote Testament of Youth – but Shirley Williams managed to forge her own path, not out of ambition but because of her kind and compassionate nature. Her heart was in the right place. And today she would have very much approved of David Hare's poem, and laughed at it, and been furious – but always polite. It was her values that were so exemplary.
19 April 2021
Shirley Williams was IT for us: kind, clever, unpretentious, hard-working, her heart in the right place politically, oh she was our ideal. This week on the Post: Shirley and her background – why she was christened Shirley, her mother, her uncle and her godmother. This photograph accompanies the Financial Times obituary which has the extraordinary detail that 'after leaving university, she was hired by the FT 'partly on the basis that, as a woman, she was cheap. She enjoyed reporting on markets, but was prevented from writing editorials by an editor who believed that role should be men-only.' This was in the late 1950s... The FT called her 'high-minded' which somehow isn't entirely a compliment (it has overtones of smug) but she was indeed gloriously idealistic and uncompromising and the greatest sadness looking back on her exemplary life is that she never became prime minister.
16 April 2021
With great generosity Alison and Peter Smithson's children have uploaded Walks Within the Walls as a free pdf here. Because Peter Smithson was not so interested in the artisan housing which Adam Fergusson's The Sack of Bath attempted to save only seven years later, almost everything in the five Walks remains un-wrecked. And we still have the paradox of the Smithsons' architectural style being both Brutal-ist and Bath-ist, but that is a conundrum for architectural historians to explain. For now, one of the streets which is in fact ignored by Smithson (he goes up Miles's Buildings and along Alfred Street instead of going past 'us') is Edgar Buildings (seen here in 1910 looking along to Prince's Buildings). This is where Persephone Books will be found from May 4th.
15 April 2021
In Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties Rachel Cooke chooses Alison Smithson as one of her ten (fascinating) women and goodness she was indeed extraordinary. In the book there is a 1964 photograph of her sitting outside the Solar Pavilion which she and Peter built at Tisbury, an hour from Bath. So while he was spending Saturdays walking the crescents and terraces of Bath she was here. And of course the synergy between the Solar Pavilion and Bath architecture is self evident.
14 April 2021
So Smithson urges us up to 'rus in urbe' where he marvels at 'the way the countryside comes into the town', the way you get 'actual clear sight of fields and trees at the end of urban views', and arrives at the 'extraordinarily nice' Widcombe Terrace, 'original, civilised and beautiful'. (Unusually, these are the fronts of the houses, there is a wide Edgar Buildings-like pavement between the front door and the garden.)
13 April 2021
Sydney Gardens was Jane Austen's local park (although it was never called that) when she lived at 4 Sydney Place. When Peter Smithson goes in to it, he says that '"the walk now goes as quickly as possible – drawn like Orpheus into this other world." This is the world [writes Albert Hill] along the canal, a world of impressive bridges (nowhere else in the world are bridges so vital to the architectural spectacle of a place as in Bath), exquisite masonry...One of the notable things about Smithson's directions is their urgency: while we are encouraged to look, we are never encouraged to linger. There is always the sense that there's so much to see around the corner.' On tomorrow's Post, Smithson urges the reader up the hill to Lyncombe.
12 April 2021
In 1966 the architect Peter Smithson published a book about Bath called Walks within the Walls. This in itself is a shock because he was a brutalist architect par excellence and who knew that he adored, revered even, the buildings of Bath? It's so odd that he and his wife Alison Smithson apparently had an 'obsession with historic architecture' (to quote Albert Hill in a piece about the book on the new Inigo website here) but then designed buildings which are very hard to love. Apologies for this negativity, but when their son Simon refers to his father uncovering 'the sheer genius of those who sculpted Bath' of course we agree. Obviously pastiche is frightful but there is such a thing as acknowledging gracefully, and this the Smithsons' buildings did not do. It's a conundrum. Maybe a week of Peter Smithson's vision of Bath will conclude with Persephone readers loving his buildings? It's possible. "This is architecture" he writes about Sydney Place, swooning at the "sweeping of the suites of horizontal mouldings"' Indeed.