Architect, fascist, recluse, outsider artist: The Enigmatic World of Joseph Boshier at Standpoint Gallery

By Sarah Jackson | 30 October 2013

Exhibition preview: The Enigmatic World of Joseph Boshier, Standpoint Gallery, London, November 8 – December 6 2013

Tower made of wood and ephemera, including photographs, records and magnifying glasses.
Joseph Boshier, Untitled (Chesney Court) detail (1975)© 2013 The Joseph Boshier Collective
Not long ago, social housing projects attracted the passions of the best and brightest intellectuals, politicians and architects. Modernist architectural pioneer Berthold Lubetkin once said that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”, and with his fellow architects he embraced the use of new technology, materials and engineering techniques for the good of all.

One of those champions was Joseph Boshier. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t worry – you’re not alone. There isn't even a Wikipedia entry for him. In a time when tiny villages in rural Poland have an entry, it’s a surprising reminder of how far from grace one of the most talented Modernist architects of the 20th century has fallen.

Now a new exhibition and documentary film by a number of his friends and admirers hopes to shed light onto the intriguing life of an architect turned recluse, turned outsider artist.

Boshier’s promising career was cut short by a combination of tragic circumstances and bad decisions. His political leanings, which in typically thirties fashion saw him veer from socialism to fascism, led him to an ill-fated dalliance with the British Union of Fascists; his aristocratic first wife even introduced him to Oswald Mosley, the BUF’s founder.

Black and white photograph of a middle-aged man leaning on a desk.
Joseph Boshier, publicity still (1938)© 2003 The Joseph Boshier Collective
Boshier and his wife Mildred cut their ties with Mosley in 1935 after becoming increasingly upset by the party’s anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, but this association would haunt Joseph throughout his career.

The tragic deaths of a pregnant Mildred along with his mother in a house fire in 1935 was, quite naturally, devastating, causing him to abandon his practice. After a lengthy recovery he remarried and opened a new architectural business.

Unfortunately, just a year later his former associations with fascism nearly caused him to be imprisoned and forced him to once again close his practice.

After the war he began working at the Architectural Association and, in 1948, he and his second wife Alma finally had the child they had been waiting for; a daughter they named Constance. In September of that year, however, a ten-storey housing block Boshier had designed ten years previously collapsed, killing three people and injuring 47 others.

Although exonerated of blame, the press once again vilified him and his fascist past and he became branded the "fascist architect". The strain of this and the grief he personally felt led Boshier to having a nervous breakdown. His wife and daughter left, never to see him again.

Until his death in 1982, Boshier lived as a recluse in his home in Camberwell. His daughter, Constance, was named as his sole beneficiary; she had believed that he had died 1948. As she struggled to cope with the emotional turmoil the news of his death threw her into, she visited his home and discovered a staggering treasure trove of intricate wooden sculptures, accompanied by masses of drawings and writings.

Although Constance sadly died in 1986, she left behind a number of Super 8 films and an interview she gave with Radio London about her father’s home and work.

In the hope of raising Joseph’s profile posthumously, the Joseph Boshier Collective has now created a documentary film and accompanying exhibition about his life and work.

Constance’s footage and still images reveal how the reclusive Boshier crammed his home full of collected artefacts and ephemera. Although he kept correspondence and wrote detailed diaries throughout his life, much of his work and collections remain mysterious. Huge numbers of photographs, dating back as far as the late 1800s, were found but who they depict remains unknown.

Using salvaged wood as well as his own floorboards and furniture, Boshier created towering structures filled with found objects such as piano keys and dominoes.

Photographs are used dramatically in some pieces, framed by a magnifying glass which changes and distorts as the viewer moves. Boshier wrote in his diary: "these glasses distort the photos in the way memory distorts our view of the past".

The largest piece echoes the L-shape structure of Chesney Court (after which it is named) but also closely resembles a cabinet of curiosity. The two-metre high wooden fretwork houses photographs, magnifying glasses and other ephemera from the vast collection.

The fate of Chesney Court and its unlucky inhabitants weighed heavily on Boshier and it is thought these pieces may have been an attempt to express the guilt and loss he felt. Thus far, none of the photographs or ephemera used in the piece has been identified as relating to any of those killed or injured in the disaster.

Nevertheless, it may still have been an attempt by an architect to peel back the walls of his work and reveal the interior life of his creation.

The exhibition at Standpoint features these larger pieces as well as many of his smaller pieces and selections from his mammoth collection of ephemera, including his diaries and photographs with fellow modernist architects Berthold Lubetkin and Le Corbusier, as well as a letter to Boshier from Oswald Mosley. Chesney Court will be displayed alongside displays featuring the original architectural drawings and newspaper reports about the catastrophe.

It’s an incredible insight into the life and psyche of a man who should have been remembered; both for his inventive architectural designs but also his incredible, if tragic, life.

More pictures:

Detail of an artwork made from a clock mechanism framed by pieces of found wood.
Joseph Boshier, Composite 1 detail (1970)© 2003 The Joseph Boshier Collective
Detail of an artwork showing a photographed framed in wood and a magnifying glass.
Joseph Boshier, The Bridesmaid, detail (1979-81)© 2013 The Joseph Boshier Collective
A tower with an wooden open fretwork interlaced with ephemera and found objects.
Joseph Boshier, Untitled (The Twisted Sister) (1979-80)© 2013 The Joseph Boshier Collective
A wooden L-shaped tower made from wood and ephemera, including photographs, records and magnifying glasses.
Joseph Boshier, Untitled (Chesney Court) (1975)© 2013 The Joseph Boshier Collective

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.

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