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Essay

David Walker, The Gottlieb Memorial, Mongewell (2008)


Julius Gottlieb was a cabinet-maker, wood carver and antique dealer. He spent much of his life restoring antique objects, and was ‘a prime example of the happiness a man can derive from being in constant contact with good craftsmanship and good design.’[1] His son Eli Gottlieb became a millionaire through property development. In March 1966 Eli asked Basil Spence to design an exhibition hall as a memorial to his father at Carmel College, a private school for Jewish boys of which he was a governor.[2] It occupied an attractive campus – the former landscape park of Mongewell – on the east bank of the Thames near Wallingford in Berkshire.

In the words of the brief:

‘The Hall will be used as a centre for exhibiting the best in art and design. The displays will include paintings, drawings, sculpture, fine work in rare metals and fabrics and, in addition, the best designs in domestic and industrial projects, as well as machine parts and models of machines.’[3]

Eli envisaged the hall more as a fine arts centre than a museum, with new displays being organised on a regular basis. Special classes would be held during which the merits of the exhibits would be explained to the boys, who would be encouraged to return individually to examine further those items which were of particular interest. Neighbouring schools would be invited to visit, and public open days might also be arranged.

The chosen site was that of an old boathouse within the College grounds. It was agreed that the new building should incorporate a boathouse, paid for by the school through a fund-raising appeal, while Eli Gottlieb offered £12,000 for the exhibition hall itself. Even this combined commission was relatively modest by the standards of Spence’s practice. As with another commission on a restricted budget which he received at the same time, St Matthew’s Church in Reading, he collaborated with his son John Urwin Spence and the result in each case was a building of notably geometric character which made an aesthetic virtue out of its enforced austerity.

From very early on father and son conceived their building as a boathouse plinth built north/south into the gentle slope of the riverbank and, at the south end towards the summit of the slope, the exhibition hall as a pyramid resting on its own separate base. As befitted a memorial, every aspect of the scheme tended towards the monumental: the pyramid form, most obviously, but also the proportions of the plinth, relatively long and broad compared to its low height, its battered sides impressing stability and repose, and the facing brickwork without openings of any kind, save for the plain square doorways through which the boats were pushed into the water.[4] The bricks themselves were quite dark in colour, but set off with a much lighter pointing. They were used not only for the battered sides of the plinth – and the base of the pyramid – but for the paving of the plinth’s roof-top terrace, and the wide stairway leading up to it on the eastern side. The architects envisaged the sides of the plinth as akin to a garden wall on which mosses or perhaps roses or ivy might be encouraged to grow: ‘It is no more than a mirror to reflect the patina of life,’ they remarked, but they thought it would ‘impart a gentle country beauty.’[5]

The pyramid was supported on a base which was roughly circular, although comprised of two separate curving walls; it was drained by a large water-cannon which discharged into a pool, a motif also to be found at St Matthew’s. The north/south axis of the pyramid itself was slightly out of alignment with that of the boathouse plinth. Its external surface was of smooth concrete, but the manner in which it was lit was of particular interest – three different triangular openings, in the east, north and west elevations, echoed the form of the terrace skylight at the head of the stairs, again a Reading motif. The main entrance recess, itself accessed by a short flight of steps curving down within the pyramid’s base, was triangular both in plan and elevation.

The textured concrete of this recess, a contrast with the smooth surfaces of the main elevations, was left behind by the timber formers, and was a poetic reference to Julius Gottlieb’s love of wood. This textured treatment was much in evidence within the exhibition hall itself, a splendid chamber rising through the full height of both the pyramid and its base. The complex form of the inside walls gained much from the dramatic illumination: concentrations of bright daylight admitted through the triangular openings, and a more general suffusion of the sun through the large triangular panes of toughened glass on the eastern side, which focused on a bust of Julius himself. This bust was the work of Gertrude Hermes, the sculptor and engraver, who specialised in such portraits.[6]

As at St Matthew’s, the architects concluded they would achieve better value by preparing the working drawings and then negotiating a contract price with James Longley & Son (with whom they had formed a good relationship at Sussex) rather than preparing detailed bills of quantities and putting the scheme out to tender.[7] Plans and a perspective were exhibited at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition of 1968, and work was completed around the turn of 1969-70.[8]

The concept of classes in contemporary design was recognised as a new dimension in schooling and generated significant interest. Through the agency of Sir Paul Reilly, the Gottlieb Memorial was opened by Lord Snowdon on 17 June 1970, and Wyndham Goodden was recruited to curate the exhibitions.[9] A plaque mounted on the plinth next to the terrace stair recorded the generosity both of Eli Gottlieb and other well-wishers of the school who contributed to its construction. Carmel College closed in 1997 but the building remained in use, the boat crews of Oxford University appreciating its location on a straight stretch of the Thames.


[1] ‘Brief of Proposed Fine Arts Building at Carmel College,’ 19 October 1966. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/75/1/93-94.

[2] Internal office memo from Elizabeth Wade to Sir Basil Spence, 16 March 1966. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/75/1/92.

[3] Synopsis of brief drafted by John Spence, 22 May 1970. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/75/2/35.

[4] ‘The Shape of the Exhibition Hall.’ RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/75/2/1.

[5] Letter from John Spence to Eli Gottlieb, 12 April 1972. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/75/2/6-7.

[6] Letter from Gottlieb to John Spence, 19 August 1968. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/75/1/22.

[7] Letter from John Spence to Gottlieb, 14 September 1967. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/75/1/50.

[8] Letters from Gottlieb to John Spence, 19 August 1968; from Gottlieb to Wyndham Goodden, 22 October 1969; from Gottlieb to John Spence, 19 August 1968; and from Goodden to Gottlieb, 2 December 1969. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/75/1, 2.

[9] Press release and correspondence from Francis Butters P.R. to Elizabeth Wade (secretary to Basil Spence). RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/75/2/30ff. and 21ff. Letter from Gottlieb to Basil Spence, 19 March 1969; letter from Paul Reilly to Gottlieb, 20 March 1969. RCAHMS SBS MS 2329/ENG/75/2/118, 103.


Gottlieb Memorial

 

Gottlieb Memorial

 

Gottlieb Memorial

 

Gottlieb Memorial

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