Home > Architecture & Urban Design, Art, Sculpture & Photography, Blog, People, Things I Like... > Sir Basil & the Unknown Print… Part II

Sir Basil & the Unknown Print… Part II

February 6, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I wrote recently about my very good fortune in acquiring this fantastic print of a watercolour and chalk drawing of Coventry Cathedral by Sir Basil Spence. Well I’ve been busy finding out more about it, and have the following to report…

When Spence died in 1976, his archive was bequeathed to the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) and when I spoke to them they advised that this drawing did not form part of their collection. They had an original copy of the London Midland Train poster, but suggested that I should contact the RIBA Collection at the V&A, as they had the original drawing.

So we duly made an appointment, and last week little A & I went to see the collections Curator and his assistant, who were both very helpful and told us the following:

Spence presented the original drawing to the RIBA after his two year term as President sometime in 1963. The RIBA have a record of the drawing being exhibited at the Royal Academy but no record of any prints being made since it has been in their ownership.

The Curator also thought, that from the photo on my blog page, the frame looked contemporary with the print and suggested that in light of my story about the organist being the previous owner, it was possible that Spence had privately had a limited number of presentation prints produced to give to key people in the project and as neither the RCAHMS nor the RIBA had any prior knowledge of such prints, the number of them was probably quite small.

All very intriguing, but the icing on the cake was when the Curator said that the RIBA might be interested in buying our print as they didn’t have one (weren’t aware of any in fact) and it would be useful to have for exhibitions etc…. I said it wasn’t for sale, but that’s a nice thing to know.. maybe I’ll bequeath it to them when I’m in my dotage…

It goes without saying of course that it was a real treat to see the original work: the colours are still incredibly vibrant and the textures of the chalk, watercolour and oil on the paper give the whole piece an amazing depth especially as it is over 60 years old…

The bust above of the great man himself that was in the reading room at the V&A is by none other than Jacob Epstein (no surprise maybe when you consider the St Michael & the Devil connection at Coventry Cathedral). The Curator told us that there were two of these cast in honour of Spence’s Presidency of the RIBA from 1958 to 1960. This one was at the RIBA for many years before finding it’s new home at the V&A. The second one was presented to Spence, and I’m told he placed it in an alcove in the entrance hall to his Cannonbury offices adorned with a laurel leaf crown. I’ll have to ask Bill Mitchell about this, I’m sure he’ll know if there’s any truth in it…

So an excellent hour or so at the V&A, and thanks very much to Charles and Katherine for taking the time to talk to us.

One final aspect to this story is that BBC Radio Coventry have been in touch after seeing my original post. 2012 sees the 60th anniversary of the consecration of Sir Basil’s Masterpiece, Coventry Cathedral and the BBC are looking for stories relating to its construction. Vanessa, the journalist who contacted me, was keen to speak to Bill Mitchell about his dealings with the Cathedral’s architect, and she was also interested in the story about my print and the possible connection to the organist. Vanessa and I haven’t managed to meet up as yet, but I know she has recently met Bill and Joy Mitchell and recorded Bill’s stories for possible transmission in the not too distant, which I for one can’t wait to hear… as I’ve said before, Bill is a man who is very good at telling a story….

So all in all our decision to buy the picture has created a string of events that have been both rewarding and interesting, and it’s very likely that we are not yet at the end of the tale…

  1. Anthony Blee
    November 8, 2013 at 19:07

    This report is largely fiction. The perspective of the Cathedral at Coventry by Sir Basil Spence was reproduced on a poster that was used by British Rail on UK railway stations in 1962. Spence agreed to this, subject to a small fee which was passed on to the Cathedral for their appeal for funds. The original framed painting has disappeared, which is why the Spence Archive only has a copy of the poster. If the RIBA or the V&A have it, that is news which we question.

    Two casts were made of the bust of Sir Basil created by Epstein. One was commissioned by the RIBA. The other was cast for Sir Basil personally and is still held by his family. That second cast was never exhibited in Sir Basil’s office entrance hall at One Canonbury Place.
    A cast of Epstein’s head of St. Michael (the full sculpture of St. Michael and the Devil being on the wall beside the entrance porch to the Cathedral) was given to Sir Basil by Epstein. It was set on a stone plinth in the entrance hall in Canonbury office and at Christmas was garlanded as part of the office Christmas decorations.
    The writer of the piece clearly had no true knowledge of Sir Basil’s modest character.

    • November 9, 2013 at 19:16

      Dear Mr. Blee

      Your opening statement is both offensive and incorrect…

      There is nothing intentionally fabricated or fictitious about anything I have written: I do have a print of the drawing, I did go to the RIBA Collection at the V&A, I did speak to the curator and his assistant, they do have the original (I saw it, and very lovely it is too), I was told that no prints had been made since the drawing had been given to the RIBA and they did offer to buy my print should I ever wish to sell…

      Question what you like, but it would not be difficult for you to verify any of this for yourself. Simply make an appointment at the V&A and go and see the curators and the original as I did…

      As for the bust in the Cannonbury offices, whilst I acknowledge that your first hand experience of working for Basil Spence is beyond question, the laurel leaves story was told to me by the RIBA Collection Curator and was verified by my friend the artist William Mitchell (of whom you are no doubt aware as he worked extensively with Basil Spence). If I misunderstood them and it was the head of St Michael rather than Spence that was adorned, then that was my mistake and I apologise.

      As to whether Spence was “vain and difficult”, in hindsight, maybe I could have chosen better and more appropriate words. I have certainly read in the several books I have on him however, that he was a very confident man who took pride in both his appearance and his ability, and that if he believed he was correct, would not back down or compromise.

      I hold Basil Spence in very high regard indeed as one the greatest architects of the Twentieth Century, and I had hoped that that came through in the many pieces I have written about him.

      Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment

      Regards Joe Blogs

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