BOOK REVIEW / Bobbins, shuttles and Manchesterhosen: The English Journey - Karl Friedrich Schinkel: Yale, pounds 35

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The Independent Online
AMONG the passengers landing at Dover from the Calais steam packet Spitfire on 24 May, 1826, was a man who could lay claim to being one of the most influential, eclectic and imaginative artistic spirits of the Romantic age. The architect of churches and government buildings for the embellishment of Berlin, the creator of shimmering fantasy stage sets for the operas of Mozart and Weber, the designer of exquisite pearwood furniture whose use of contrasted grains and veneers had inspired the Biedermeier style, Karl Friedrich Schinkel was a visionary, a brilliant dabbler and a punctilious civil servant. He fixed a rapt gaze on the future while standing heavily on his dignity as a privy councillor and university professor.

Sent by the King of Prussia to examine displays in the British Museum and to buy chairs and tables for the royal palaces, Schinkel was on the lookout for fresh ideas in a country whose remarkable features, as he told his wife Susanne, included curtained and glazed cottage windows and stagecoaches pulled by 'four beautiful horses in the finest harness, just like the English ambassador's in Berlin'. He was quite happy to admire Lord Londonderry's Canovas, pay sixpence to climb the Monument and sit through an indifferent Drury Lane show, but his real absorption was with the new technology which could lay a smooth macadamed road, build a factory out of cast-iron girders and tunnel a highway under the Thames with the aid of steam pumps.

If London, with its poetic fogs, ubiquitous gaslight and pints of porter to accompany breakfast eggs, made him feel a shade provincial, there was always the Black Country to challenge his German Romantic fancy. The industrial landscape of spoil-heaps, engine houses, furnaces and kilns had a certain ghoulish enchantment, but it needed an eye like Schinkel's to see the clusters of chimney stacks as smoking obelisks in a new ancient Egypt.

A Sunday walk through silent, empty Birmingham, however, merely enhanced the architect's growing apprehension of the fresh varieties of ugliness shaped by that same industrial impetus. He noted that 'quite unremarkable redbrick houses for 120,000 inhabitants create a very melancholy impression' - a simple observation which should have hung as an engraved text on the wall of every English town planner and speculative builder for the next hundred years.

Everywhere the potent contrasts hit home. Beyond the land of smoking obelisks stretched rural Leicestershire, where Schinkel marvelled at the labourers' corduroy breeches (Manchesterhosen), the fat rams and the farmhouse tea served in silver pots. In Yorkshire lovely mill girls bobbined and shuttled for dear life at the worsted works, while up the hill the genteel Miss Gotts, daughters of a clothing magnate, treated the travellers to cake and culture. As for Scotland, the eerie, rainswept cliffs of Staffa, where the waves played organ music on the basalt columns of Fingal's Cave, seemed a planetary distance from the dismal Edinburgh wynds full of 'coarse black hovels'.

Where words failed him, Schinkel busily sketched - an oven in a Cotswold woollen mill, the Menai bridge with a ship in full sail, wheels, chairs, domes, central heating pipes, anchors and chains. While his hungry eye missed nothing, his social sense stayed firmly attuned to each little mark of English respect towards the Prussian court's favourite architect. Fidgety and hyper-alert, the wandering diarist probes the curious dichotomy which the 19th century opened up between brute fact and self-delusion; and he slated our obsession with expedient cost-cutting. 'It makes a dreadful and dismal impression', he wrote of the Lancashire mills, 'monstrous shapeless buildings put up only by foremen without architecture, the least that was necessary and out of red brick'. Reading Schinkel's diary, you wonder whether Mr Major's nostalgically envisaged nation at ease with itself can ever have been a serious possibility.

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