Pablo Bronstein’s Pseudo-Georgian London
RIBA in London is exhibiting the work of Pablo Bronstein. Pablo is a noted artiste and critic of architecture. His work on post-modernism created a new paradigm for interpreting an at-the-time-reviled architectural style. He has now turned his perceptive eye onto “Pseudo-Georgian” vernacular.
Pablo places Psueudo-Georgian in its historical context following the perceived failures of modernist high rises and the fall out of the Thatcherite property boom. In the 70s some London councils were renovating and retrofitting genuine Georgian properties, which had been slum properties for several years. Before this, such buildings would have been torn down. According to Pablo such renovations created a taste for fix up projects in previously less salubrious neighbourhoods of London. This fed a property boom and the gentrification of inner City areas of London like Islington and Spitalfields. At the same time, following the 1980 Right to Buy legislation council house tenant were allowed to buy their own properties. Several new tenants would add new details to their houses, such as panelled front doors. Others would sell up and move out to the outer suburbs, in turn buying properties in the Pseudo-Georgian style.
This style has been popular for a long time. For Pablo, it is popular because it offered a sense of heritage, stability and “urbane civility”. It was also a relatively cheap method of construction, which with the additions of a few touches could enliven the dullest new-build terrace. It also elects a sense of stability and timeless taste. He quotes a speech made by Thatcher in which she talks of owners being able to pass on their property to their children and grandchildren.
Historically he also suggests that it offered connotations of Britain’s own Georgian peak during a period of political and economic decline. I am not so sure. Britain’s own understanding of its history and its place in the world is complicated. Georgian society today recalls to the mind Jane Austen as much as it does Waterloo. The empire which sustained the urbane civility of Georgian society is often placed out of sight.
The growth in this vernacular was contemporaneous with the growth of great British institutions like Lovejoy and Antiques Roadshow. Bronstein does not mention the other great member of this antique TV triumvirate which was the 1995 TV series of Pride and Prejudice. One wonders how many panelled doors were installed in sublimation of the space to dig a pond fit for a local Mr Darcy to pop out of.
There is in Pablo’s work then an element of snobbishness that is both refreshing and misplaced. Refreshing in that it pokes fun at the pretensions of some with more money than taste. It also celebrates some of the more vulgar aspects of this style: classical frames around air vents or panelled garage doors. Yet it is misplaced in that much of the criticism is of more lower-middle class milieu: the “ever-increasing mass of yellow-brick new-build family starter homes”.
In this Bronstein resembles a contemporary Betjeman. Although whereas, Betjeman detested the mock Tudor , Bronstein luxirates in the crassness of yellow brick and applied stucco. Whilst Betjeman sought to protect the Euston Arch, Bronstein may one day be called upon to Nightingale Mews in east London. In this exhibition notes he glibly comments that this building should be protected for the nation. The accompanying book does not make the same demands but one wonders how many exhibition attendees will be fired to protect this valuable building for the historical record.
The exhibitions contains archival material and beautiful pen and ink images, which are both well researched and well drawn. Rendered in vivid and accurate lines the images dramatically depict intricate detail and emphasise the stylistic. The ornate frames both elevate these sometimes humdrum buildings and gently mock their pretensions. The orderly straight lines of the brickwork and crosshatchings are emphasised by the rococo brilliance which surround them. I am intrigued by the image of 23-25 West India Dock Road which is surrounded by an ornate neo-classical over pass. I had assumed it was the DLR but when I checked on google maps it wasn’t. Little touches like this add to each image.
The accompanying book, which is well worth getting, loses something of the power of seeing the original artworks. This is understandable for all art but you may not appreciate this from just reading the book only. Pablo combines several key skills in scholarship, which can be appreciated from his books but his painterly style can only be approached from attending the exhibition and seeing the pen strokes and the thickness of ink perfectly chosen to convey so much with an economy that is suitable to the theme of his exhibition. A real achievement of an exhibition and a very rewarding experience for its visitors.
In summary, I recommend attending this exhibition and buying the book. Four and a half out of five.