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Baillie Scott, Late Master of the Arts and Crafts Movement

This is the first of a series of articles on figures in the Arts and Crafts movement who, for one reason or another, seem to me particularly interesting and worthy of a wider audience. I am beginning with the architect Baillie Scott.  He may seem a strange choice to start off with given that he was one of the school’s later exponents whose last years were spent trying to eke out a living in a world in which the movement had at last been overtaken by social change. The juggernaut of modernity and mass production against which pioneers like William Morris and Philip Webb took their stand, had finally and irrevocably risen to the ascendent. However Baillie Scott’s relative lateness on the scene has in itself something to commend it. In his work (as with that of Voysey) we are perhaps able to see the aesthetic principles of the movement at their most refined and clearly articulated.

Baillie Scott had little contact with the other leading lights of the Arts and Crafts scene. He was younger than many of them, and was trained by CE Davis, the official city architect of Bath who worked mostly in a standard and not particularly imaginative, Victorian neo-gothic style. It might be expected that a talented young architect from an affluent background with a respectable mainstream training, would follow a more conventional and probably lucrative career designing for the market, rather than committing so strongly to a particular philosophy and aesthetic. However somewhere along the line (perhaps from his reading or perhaps, it has been suggested, from the family of builders with whom he lodged during his time with with Davis) he acquired a great respect and understanding of traditional and vernacular craftsmanship.

In time he set up his own practice in relative isolation on the Isle of Man. It seems he learnt the Arts and Crafts style from his acute observation of vernacular buildings, and from reading and applying the theories and ideas of the movement’s proponents, which were widely disseminated in books and journals. It is perhaps because of this slight distance that much of his work seems to have a freshness and vitality which belied the waning strength of the movement as a whole. Interestingly while he was clearly passionately concerned with craftsmanship, and the needs of the people who would use his buildings, he showed little obvious interest in the socialist principles that underpinned the movement’s beginnings (though in common with several other late Arts and Crafts figures he did work on some social projects, for example Waterlow Court Walk in London).

In many ways this pragmatic approach was more honest than that of, say, Morris, who preached red hot revolution while employing workers to make things that could only be afforded by the very wealthy. The dilemma of affordability is one that has to be wrestled with by anyone who sees the value in making beautiful places and things for people while wanting to avoid exacerbating social inequality. Baillie Scott at least seemed to have his eyes open to some of the realties of his situation.

Drawing unashamedly on the vernacular traditions he observed around him he remained remarkably steadfast in his adherence to the Arts and Crafts principle of respect for local building styles, history and materials. This determination extended to the decorative elements in his work — for example in some of his Manx houses he made interesting use of the intertwining Celtic designs found on the ancient stone crosses of the Island. However, as with most of the great Arts and Crafts designers, it would be a mistake to dismiss this pre-occupation with tradition as mere sentimentality or sterile nostalgia. As he showed in his 1906 book ‘Houses and Gardens’ he was deeply concerned with people and with making spaces in which they could lead happy and meaningful lives. The Arts and Crafts architects were, for the most part, not concerned with the imitation of tradition for the sake of it, but rather with building on ‘what worked’ in those traditions. They were acutely aware of the benefits of the subtlety, diversity and sheer beauty found in traditional hand craftsmanship; the best of them sought to carry this forward in a way that would, they hoped, serve the people of their own times.

Baillie Scott was no exception to this. While some of the ideas presented in his book seem to have rather spectacularly missed the way the world was going (his suggestion of minstrel’s galleries for middle-class homes springs to mind) many of his interiors are almost breathtakingly liveable, possessing a charm it would be almost impossible not to feel at home in, whatever the era. At his best, these timeless interiors were wedded to an exterior rooted in tradition yet with a clarity and lightness reflecting the more minimalist spirit of the age. Unlike some of the earlier Arts and Crafts architects, Baillie Scott was drawn to working on smaller houses as well as on the mansions of the very rich. This makes his work seem more relevant to a world in which the great country piles were already becoming an anachronism. On his often  modest canvases he gave craftsmen full reign to explore the possibilities of stone, brick, render, plasterwork, timber, tiles and metal. According to standard Arts and Crafts practice, fixtures and fittings, even down to individual window handles, were designed and made specifically for each building. Lucky indeed is the person who lives in such a house! His use of pattern and decoration was exuberant in its place, but handled with a greater lightness of touch than in some of the more intense and heavier efforts of the movement’s pioneers. Perhaps this was another example of the influence of the more minimalist spirit of modernism being worked out in the world around him at that time.

After the First World War, the practice continued to thrive, designing everything from modest town houses to projects such as Ashwood, the very substantial home built for the industrialist FJ Derry near Woking. In the thirties however, the final years of the practice were marked by a period of compromise and decline due to changing public tastes and economic instability. Perhaps it is best to draw a veil over the sad ending to the career of this most appealing of Arts and Crafts architects.

Where to see his work

Although Baillie Scott worked on many buildings over a significant area of the British Isles, most of them are still in private hands and there are not many where you may gain easy access to the interior. You can glimpse many from the outside, from The Bill House in Selsey on the South Coast (now an old people’s home) with its splendid tower looking out to sea, to London, the Isle of Man, and as far North as Scotland. Any true Aficionado, though, needs to make their way to Blackwell in Cumbria. This magnificent House, one of his finest, is open to the public and features much of the original interior, now beautifully restored. There are also examples of his furniture designs and a program of exhibitions of work by other artists and makers. I would encourage anyone in the area to pay it a visit.

Many thanks to Blackwell for permission to use the images in this article.  Copyright remains with Blackwell.