28 May 2014
AA New Soft Room, 36 Bedford Square
Two weeks ago Dr Andrew Higgott, Architectural Historian, former AA Photo Librarian & AA Course Master, gave a lecture in the New Soft Room on Eric de Maré, a graduate of the AA from the 1930s who went on to become a prolific architectural photographer & writer. De Maré’s photography is characterised by its distinct use of framing and a focus on the proto-modernism of Industrial Britain.
De Maré’s archive is one of the principal collections of the AA Photo Library, and the lecture was the third talk in a series of collaborations between the AA Library, Photo Library and Archives following on from Manolis Stavrakakis’ Michael Ventris lecture in February and Catherine Burke discussing Mary Medd last year.
I spoke to Andrew Higgott about the career of de Maré, the influence of the AA and his disdain for modern life.
Your connection to Eric de Maré goes back a long way, as a writer yourself and as the former AA Photo Librarian, when did you first see his work and what attracted you to it?
I think I’d seen some of his photographs and was aware of him while still at school – the Forth Bridge, the Ferrybridge Cooling Towers, for example – and knew his very popular Penguin book on photography. But I was asked to work on the exhibition and publication in 1990 as a result of a highly successful exhibition we in the Photo Library had done in 1987 on F R Yerbury, who was a great photographer and a very significant figure earlier in AA history. I didn’t immediately find de Maré’s work so appealing, but have learnt to love its subtleties in composition, its evocative power, and its subject matter often suffused with nostalgia.
In your lecture you mentioned that when de Maré studied at the AA in the 1920/30s it wasn’t the progressive place in architectural education that it is today. How do you think his time at the AA influenced him?
When I interviewed him he was fairly negative about his AA experience but it clearly provided the basis for his whole future career, as a qualified architect but one working outside architectural practice. He said he wasn’t inspired by the teaching at the school, but did publish and exhibit his first photography while still a student. De Maré was introduced to versions of modern architecture, particularly the ‘soft’ modernisms of northern Europe while at the AA, and eventually found the more challenging ideas of Walter Gropius inspiring, although that was probably after he graduated.
A lot of de Maré’s photography documented Industrial Britain, often finding functionalist architecture that was unknowingly proto-modernist. With this focus was he attempting to go against the trends of his contemporaries?
Yes, I think that’s true- and the more I get to understand him it’s clear that he saw himself as a lone figure going against the grain of the prevailing interests of others in architecture. He actively disliked almost all of the building that was done in Britain during the post war years. He started his documentation of anonymous structures with photographs of the buildings and artefacts of the canal system. They were published by the AR in 1949, though not commissioned by them, and were very well received and of course later published as a book, and this was the initial encouragement he had for his way of looking at anonymous functional structures. There was a critical culture of architecture at the Architectural Review and Architectural Press at this time, led by the proprietor Harry de Cronin Hastings, who wanted to reclaim the Modern from the mediocrity of most postwar building – I’ve written about this in Chapter 4 of my book Mediating Modernism.