Thursday 17 December 2020

Frank Herriot Risdon and a Modernist find in Kent

Fort Grenham, Minnis Bay, Kent

Earlier this year I spent a few days exploring the delights of Kent including Margate, Ramsgate and Birchington-on-Sea. Birchington is home to the wonderful Twentieth Century art deco house, built in 1935 and now a superb bed and breakfast hotel. There are a few other deco buildings not far from Twentieth Century including Fort Grenham, built in 1936 and designed by architect Frank Herriot Risdon. The house was built for one Harry Vivien Ward and the Kelly's Directory of the Isle of Thanet for 1939 confirms him living there. Ward was a local notable and served as a Councillor then Alderman on the former Margate Corporation as well as being Mayor in 1953/54. No doubt Fort Grenham saw many important guests during this period.

This impressive, four bedroom house appears to have retained its original crittal windows and has a roof terrace which must command excellent views as the building faces the sea. However, at least externally, it is in poor shape and in need of some loving care. This seems to be a long standing issue as Thanet Council's minutes from April 2013 note that a Section 215 notice had been served on the property. According to UK legislation, a local planning authority can serve such a notice where the condition of land or buildings adversely affects the amenity of the area, requiring the owner to deal with the poor state of a building. 

Risdon was not an architect I had come across before but a little research revealed him to be both accomplished and a bit of a character. Born in Brixton, South London in 1913, he was named after his father who had fought in the Boer War and the First World War. Perhaps inspired by having received drawing lessons from a cousin, he went on to study at the former North London Polytechnic in Holloway, where he later taught. He chartered in 1936 and had the great fortune to find work with Frederick Gibberd who designed Pullman Court, an iconic modernist group of apartment buildings in Streatham. Indeed, Risdon drew the plans for Pullman Court, a project that perhaps inspired one or two of his later works, despite his initially being more enamoured of the classicist Italianate style. His commitment to modernism is further evidenced by him having built a house for himself in this style. Like Fort Grenham it was built in 1935 and was located in Beckenham, then in Kent, now amalgamated into Bromley in South London. I have been unable to locate this house, or even to confirm that it still stands, so if anyone reading this has details please share them in the comments below!

Pullman Court, Streatham, London

The Second World War began just three years after Fort Grenham was built and Risdon saw active service in the Navy in Norway and Greece and was also involved in the action at Salerno, Italy in 1943. After the War he formed a partnership with Alec Shingler and together they designed Hertford's Castle Hall and Dunstable' Civic Centre as well as shopping centres in Glasgow (Drumchapel) and Jarrow, the Herbarium at Kew, and the University of the South Bank premises at Wandsworth. Other projects included the London Nautical School and Audley Square Garage in Mayfair, Central London.

Risdon had a long working life, combining managing his architectural practice with a senior role at North London Polytechnic. He appears to have been popular with his students, several of whom went on to work for him, but at least one of them was not completely comfortable with his approach. In his autobiography, architect Thomas Saunders claims that Risdon "coerced many of his fourth and fifth year students to produce drawings and details for his private work for the odd five or ten pounds". As with many things there are two ways of looking at this. Saunders clearly considered it to be taking advantage but others may have seen it as a chance to get experience of working on a live project and this seems to have resulted in a least some of them gaining paid employment at a later date. Saunders goes on to say that "everyone had to be a cardboard replica of himself. One was either a dedicated disciple or discarded". Despite this, he admits he admired Risdon's work, which is perhaps more important than views on his personality. 

Frank Herriot Risdon died in December 2005. He had worked as an architect for sixty years, not retiring until 1996, at the age of 83. In addition to this architectural work, teaching and naval careers, he continued to paint throughout his life and to take an interest in local planning issues. It is a shame that Fort Grenham, one of the first buildings he was fully responsible for has not been better preserved.

You might also like Twentieth Century - Art Deco in Birchington-on-sea