Obituary; Francis Johnson
Saturday 07 October 1995
When Johnson studied at the Leeds School of Architecture in the 1920s, Modernism was still a continental concern. The ideals of the Bauhaus, which were to revolutionise the way architecture was taught, had yet to spread to Britain. As a result Johnson was trained in the Classical principles of composition and design, with a firm emphasis on drawing. He continued to practise them until he died, working full-time into his late seventies, and part-time almost until his death.
Modernism passed him by - although he looked with horror on the damage it wrought on nearby Hull, whose great Georgian inheritance he defended with passion. Safely established in the remote Yorkshire town of Bridlington, with a dedicated team of assistants, a highly developed relationship with local craftsmen and a network of satisfied clients, Johnson was able to practise the civilised architecture he enjoyed, far from the spotlight of fashion. The result is a distinguished series of churches, houses and restorations which maintained the best traditions of restrained Classical architecture in the manner of his great 18th-century predecessor John Carr of York.
In the Thirties Johnson had bought Craven House, in Bridlington High Street, and for 20 years this building, refronted in 1810, was both his home and, from 1945, his office. Johnson moved in the mid-1950s to an 18th-century house outside the town, but Craven House remained home to his partnership, which comprises two other architects and five technicians.
Even in Yorkshire, establishing a Classical practice did not prove easy. The 1950s were hard, and it was only with increasing confidence among country-house owners in the 1960s that Johnson's workload began to grow. Sensing that there was perhaps a future for the country house, owners went to Johnson to turn unviable white elephants into practical places to live.
Sometimes the surgery was minor, a gentle reordering of kitchens and entrances, sometimes it was radical as excrescences were removed, a good example being the remodelling of Houghton Hall, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, for Countess Fitzwilliam in 1957; Victorian additions were removed and the late-18th- century spirit of the house restored. Indeed, there was never a house touched by Johnson that was marred by his hand. Usually a much more attractive - and practical - building was the result.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Johnson enjoyed quiet local success, gaining particular satisfaction from a number of completely new country houses, such as Sunderlandwick (1962), in the East Riding, for Sir Thomas and Lady Ferens, built on a mature site, replacing a house burnt down on VJ Night, and Whitwell-on-the-Hill (1969), near Malton, for David Brotherton. Not that Johnson's work was monopolised by country houses. Churches, both restorations and a number of new designs, were an important part of his work, including St Margaret, Hilston (1956), an essay in simple Dutch Classicism replacing the original church destroyed by a stray wartime bomb meant for Hull, 10 miles to the west.
He was also responsible for a number of successful housing schemes. But, except for occasional articles in Country Life, Johnson was ignored by the architectural press. Then, just when most architects would have been happily retired, Johnson came into his own with the Classical revival of the 1980s, a decade which proved to be much the busiest of his career.
Johnson's success lay in his essential practicality, in his innate understanding of the way a house worked, and in his development of a restrained Classical idiom appropriate for the reduced circumstances of the late-20th-century landowner. Not for him the florid porticoes and applied pilasters that have proved so popular among his younger rivals. Although devoted to the Classical orders, he tended to restrict their use to interiors. Instead he relied on pediments, the occasional bow-window and the immaculately proportioned relationship of window to wall to impart a restrained dignity to his designs, as in the main facade of Garrowby, near York, an almost completely new house making use of an existing building, for the third Earl of Halifax, which was completed in 1982.
Johnson's architectural roots lay firmly in the late 18th century, a popular period among architects searching between the wars for a more restrained approach to Classicism after the licence of the Edwardians. Johnson made a Grand Tour to Italy and Central Europe in 1931 on the strength of a travelling scholarship, but direct contact with the Italian masters is largely lacking in his work. Neither his sketchbooks nor the architectural works in his library ever became quarries for clever details. But, like many of his contemporaries, Johnson was profoundly influenced by the austere Scandinavian Classicism of the 1920s and 1930s which he experienced at first hand on a visit to Copenhagen. The simple clarity, beautiful detailing and lack of self- conscious cleverness of contemporary Danish architecture particularly appealed to him.
In part, the austerity of Johnson's work reflected the limited budgets under which he laboured. He always regretted that he never had the chance to work on a new stone house, and his interior detailing was simple. There was seldom money for overt architectural expression, although the little tempietto-like pavilion which he designed for the Pavilion Opera Company at Thorpe Tilney, in Lincolnshire, perhaps shows the direction he might have moved in with more indulgent clients.
But Johnson's restraint also grew out of an innate modesty, which perhaps explains why he was happy never to leave Bridlington, and was certainly reflected in his outspoken criticism of those whom he felt tried at all costs to be self-consciously original. For Johnson, originality could only be achieved in a natural way as a result of a good brief.
At a time when the whole nature of architectural tradition is being re- examined, Johnson's decent, practical, handsome approach to design, and in particular to housing, would repay careful study by architects today.
Francis Frederick Johnson, architect: born Bridlington 18 April 1911; CBE 1991; died Leeds 29 September 1995.
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