Prepared by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, this was first major exhibition on the life and work of Sir Basil Spence. Spence remains arguably Scotland’s most renowned modern architect, and this exhibition surveyed his rich output from a career which flourished for over forty years, from the 1930s to the 1970s, and in particular during the regenerative immediate post-war period.
Spence worked on a wide range of projects, including grand private houses, social housing, exhibition architecture and major public commissions (most famously the new Coventry Cathedral, reconstructed alongside the bombed remains of the original medieval building). Using drawings, vintage photographs, models and film, the exhibition placed the architect’s work within the wider historical context of the period, bringing into play the cultural, sociological and aspirational ideologies of the second half of the 20th century that helped shape the designer’s career and outlook. In addition to his work in the UK, the exhibition featured a selection of the most important projects he completed and acted as consultant on internationally, in France, Italy, Greece, Canada, Switzerland and New Zealand (where, for example, he was responsible for Wellington’s parliament building).
A particular characteristic of his work, perhaps as a consequence of his early training within the Arts and Crafts movement, was his commitment to working collaboratively with other artists on aspects of his buildings. The exhibition included loans of related art work, such as a unique cast of the head from the figure of St Matthew, commissioned from Jacob Epstein for the side of Coventry Cathedral. Spence himself was a gifted draughtsman, and produced expressive renderings of his projects where he was able to experiment with light and volume and so develop his designs. These formed the core of the exhibition.
The exhibition originated in the gift of the Sir Basil Spence Archive (comprising in excess of 30,000 drawings, photographs, sketch-books, models, news-cuttings, sound recordings etc) to the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, a partner in the exhibition. Little of this material had been previously shown, and was conserved and prepared especially. The exhibition had the close support of Basil Spence’s immediate family, who acted as advisors, and The Lighthouse, Scotland’s centre for architecture and design. An accompanying publication, Basil Spence Architect, ed. P. Long and J. Thomas, was published and is available from the National Galleries of Scotland.
The exhibition was held at the Dean Gallery, Edinburgh (October 2007- February 2008), RIBA headquarters, London (March - April 2008), and the Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry (May - August 2008).