Guest Article - Dell and Wainwright and the RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Guest Article by Robert Elwall, RIBA Library Photographs Collection | 14 July 2009
a black and white photo of the interior of the building

Finella, Cambridge (1929). Picture © Dell and Wainwright / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Culture24 has teamed up with the RIBA Library Photographs Collection to bring you a series of features highlighting some of the hidden treasures of the collection.

In 1929, a house was built in Cambridge which was to play an important role in the development of Modernist architecture in Britain, not only because of its design but also the manner of its presentation.

Called Finella after a mythical Scottish Queen, the house was designed for Mansfield Forbes, a Fellow of Clare College and a leading light of its newly founded English faculty, by Raymond McGrath (1903-1977) who had been born in Sydney and studied architecture at the university there before travelling to England on a scholarship in 1926.

His subsequent friendship with Forbes developed while he was undertaking a research spell at Cambridge on the architecture of entertainment, and it was the commission from Forbes to remodel an existing, rather gloomy Victorian house which launched McGrath's career, which glittered initially before fading during the inter-war years.

His design for the house was truly fantastical, making imaginative use of glass and other reflective surfaces such as polished copper and black marmorite. These refulgent qualities were dramatically conveyed in a series of photographs taken for the Architectural Review by Mark Oliver Dell and HL Wainwright, breaking new ground in the photographic depiction of buildings in England.

Their use of techniques derived from Modernist photography such as unusual and more expressive viewpoints, startling contrasts of light and shadow and a strong emphasis on dynamic lines and geometrical abstraction.

McGrath, who claimed to have discovered the photographic duo, wrote admiringly of their work. "All day they pursued shadows over the floors and furniture, all night they made moons rise and created other elusive phenomena with their arc lamps," he enthused. "They competed in style with my lighting effects. It was better than Pyramus and Thisbe."

a black and white photo of the exterior of a building

Finella, Cambridge (1929). Picture © Dell and Wainwright / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Subsequently appointed the Architectural Review's official photographers – a position they held until 1946 – Dell and Wainwright not only transformed British architectural photography but, with their alluring images of Modernist buildings, played a key role in promoting Modernism to a sceptical public and profession.

In the words of one critic, "they played a large part in popularizing modern architecture; by bringing out its glamour and charm they made it easier for those who judge solely by appearances to accept it while its practical principles were being established."

McGrath remained a passionate Modernist, illustrated by his work for the BBC and Imperial Airways and more particularly by another house, St Ann's Hill at Chertsey (1937), which was cylindrical in form and boasted a garden beautifully landscaped by Christopher Tunnard.

He was also a notable author, publishing Twentieth Century Houses (1934) and, with AC Frost, a seminal work entitled Glass in Architecture and Decoration (1937).

With the outbreak of war in 1939, McGrath closed his office to take up an appointment as Deputy Chief Architect in the Office of Works in Dublin, never regaining the prominence he enjoyed during the 1930s. His son Norman, however, went on to become one of America's leading architectural photographers.

For more information on the RIBA Library Photographs Collection follow the venue details below or browse the RIBA Library Photographs Collection online at www.ribapix.com.

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