House. Built in 1908 to 1909 to the design of the artist Roger Fry for his family.
Reasons for Designation
Durbins, Guildford, built in 1908 to 1909 to the design of the artist Roger Fry, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
* for its progressive design, which was recognised as one of the most independent pieces of architecture in England prior to the First World War;
* for its originality in terms of its sectional design and split-level planning, with a carefully considered layout on a sloping site that brings the activities of all members of the family together around a galleried double-height living hall;
* for the mosaics and murals by Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, which are considered to be the earliest examples still in-situ of the domestic decoration of the Bloomsbury Group artists;
* for its careful integration with its garden and setting, extending the central axis of the house through a series of room-like terraces and capitalising on views outwards to the Surrey Hills, a subject for Roger Fry’s paintings;
* for the high degree of survival inside and out, such as parquet floors, cast-iron radiators, a servant bell indicator board, dumbwaiter, original doors and brass door furniture (among other features), having seen relatively few later alterations.
* for its historic association with Roger Fry, a champion of Post-Impressionism who raised public awareness of modern art and has been heralded by some as the most influential British art critic of the C20.
* with a very rare prefabricated 1920s motor car house, which is listed at Grade II.
Durbins was designed by the art historian, critic and painter Roger Fry (1866-1934) for himself and built in 1908 to 1909 in Guildford, Surrey. Roger Fry was born in Highgate, London, and took natural sciences at King’s College, Cambridge, before pursuing an artistic career. He studied painting at the Académie Julian, Paris, and painted and exhibited throughout his life, although it was as an art historian and critic that his reputation was made (English Heritage 2021). He published his first book, a monograph on Giovanni Bellini in 1899, and two years later became art critic for the Athenaeum, a literary magazine, before helping to establish the National Arts Collections Fund and the Burlington Magazine. In 1906, he was offered the directorship of the National Gallery, London, but had already accepted the role of Curator of Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1910, he staged a landmark exhibition of modern French works at the Grafton Galleries, London, ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, featuring the works of Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh and Matisse. At about this time he also became a key figure of the circle of artists and writers known as the Bloomsbury Group (Bruneau 2014). A second exhibition at the Grafton Galleries followed in 1912, and Fry emerged as the leading apostle of modern art; the term ‘post-impressionist’ originating with him (English Heritage 2021). In 1913 he set up the Omega Workshops at 33 Fitzroy Square; a collective venture in the production and sale of ceramics, furniture, carpets, textiles and murals, involving the eminent artists Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Dora Carrington and Wyndham Lewis. The work itself was anonymous; being signed only with the Greek letter omega. The venue functioned not only as a gallery but as a workshop and club with guests such as W B Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. The war years proved difficult and the company closed in 1919 but proved to have a lasting influence on domestic design. Roger Fry was one of the first art critics to acknowledge the importance of Native American and African Art. In later life, he produced monographs on Cézanne and Matisse, translated the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, and broadcasted for the BBC. A retrospective exhibition of his paintings in 1931 was well received and in 1933 he was made Slade professor at Cambridge. Fry died the following year after a fall at his home. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described his writing as ‘some of the most sensitive and precise art criticism ever printed in the English language’ (1941, 45). The art historian Kenneth Clark hailed Fry ‘incomparably the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin’, whilst Stephen Fry deemed him ‘the most influential British art critic of the twentieth century’ (English Heritage 2021).
Roger Fry and his family relocated from Hampstead, London, to Guildford, Surrey, in 1908. The move was intended to help improve his wife Helen’s longstanding mental illness by providing a quieter environment outside London. They rented a house called Chantry Dene (Grade II-listed, List entry No 1096031) and Fry set to work on designs to build his own property. He bought a building plot with £600 gifted by his father and borrowed a further £1000. According to Fry, the house was a balance between his needs and the available budget and was essentially designed from the inside out. In his essay ‘A possible Domestic Architecture’, he later wrote that ‘the desire for a style at all costs, even a borrowed style is part of that exaggerated social consciousness which in other respects manifests itself as snobbery. What if people were just to let their houses be the direct outcome of their actual needs, and of their actual way of life, and allow other people to think what they like’ (1920, 180). This he declared, would arrive at ‘a genuine and honest piece of domestic architecture’. Fry sought one large living space that could also be used for dining and entertaining guests, and well-lit rooms with large windows. To accommodate his requirements within the budget he was encouraged by a friend, possibly J St Loe Strachey, editor of the Spectator, to have a compact plan form and a complete mansard storey. Local planning law dictated that the central bays of the house should project forward from the rest of the main (south) elevation according to Fry, who decided to accentuate this with plain red brick piers. Decoration or ornament was essentially confined to two stone urns placed above a dentilled eaves cornice and a projecting keystone and chequerboard panel over the door. The house was named Durbins after ‘Durbins Batch’, a field where Roger used to picnic near his parents’ country house in Gloucestershire. It was constructed on a sloping site overlooking the River Wey and out towards the Surrey Hills. It is entered from the internal angle of an L-shaped plan, at a middle level on the slope. Internally, a staircase leads down a half-storey to a double-height living hall (or ‘house-place’ as Fry called it) and the ground-floor rooms, and up the same amount to the first-floor rooms and hall balcony. The bedrooms are situated in the mansard or attic storey. The children’s playroom, and studies for Fry and his wife all opened off the central living hall, so that the activities of all members of the family could be brought together (Reed 1999, 10). Built using a concrete raft foundation, the house had modern amenities such as electricity, a telephone, a dumb-waiter and central heating radiators (in addition to fireplaces).
Durbins was carefully integrated with its garden, laid out to a planting scheme by the landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll. The house was set towards the back of the plot to maximise the expanse of land to the south. Its main room, the ‘house-place’, acted as a conduit to the garden, leading out onto a wide gravel terrace, and the garden plan extended the central axis of the house through a sequence of room-like terraces stepping down between Bargate stone retaining walls (Reed 1999, 12). A pergola, rectangular pond and grotto-like recess were placed on the second level down, fruit-cages and a circular pond on the third level, and an orchard on the fourth. The rectangular pond has since been replaced by a swimming pool and the bottom of the garden has been lost to development. Attached to Durbins is a summer house, which contains an unfinished mosaic of two badminton players by Fry and Duncan Grant. Fry ordered sculpture by Eric Gill and Gaudier-Brzeska for the garden whilst the house also contained artwork; the arches of the entrance hall were painted with Matisse-like murals of nude figures by Fry, Vanessa Bell and Grant and the intention was to eventually paint more of the house. The mosaic and murals (dating to April 1914) are now thought to be the earliest extant examples still in-situ of the domestic decoration of the Bloomsbury artists (Ibid 1999, 24). Views of and from the garden also formed a subject for painting, including a piece entitled ‘The Artist’s Garden at Durbins’ (1915) by Fry.
In 1910, Helen Fry’s health worsened, and she was thereafter permanently confined to an asylum. Roger Fry’s sister, Joan, came to Durbins to assist with the care of the children. Between Spring 1911 and 1913, Fry and Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf) were lovers. They continued to have a close relationship after they separated, and Bell visited Durbins on several occasions. Durbins was used as the model for an Omega Workshops dolls’ house designed by Fry in 1913 and shown at the Ideal Home Exhibition in 1914 (it is now at the Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green). The Omega Workshops suffered increasing losses during the First World War and in about 1916 Fry decided to rent out Durbins, subsequently establishing a trust for the house (Campbell 2019, 66). A prefabricated ‘motor car house’ was added opposite the entrance in around the 1920s. Fry went on to design a walled garden and then a studio at Charleston, Firle, East Sussex, the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, in 1925.
In an article on precursors to the Modern Movement in England (1942), Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described Durbins as ‘one of the most independent pieces of architectural design in England before 1914’ (1942, 112), considering it among the most progressive buildings of the period (1941, 45 and 48). The Arts and Craft architect, M H Baillie-Scott, had promoted the idea of the double-height living hall in 1906, and this may have influenced Fry (Powers 1996, 16). Broad comparisons have been made with Peter Behren’s house at Darmstadt of 1901 (Ibid, 19), A H Macmurdo’s 25 Cadogan Gardens, London, (built before 1899) and the Viennese houses of Adolf Loos for the proportioning of the windows (Nairn 1971, 289), as well as Le Corbusier’s later Villa Schwob of 1916 which had a double-height room and symmetrical garden front (Powers 1996, 19).
House. Built in 1908 to 1909 to the design of the artist Roger Fry for his family.
MATERIALS: colour-washed render with red brick and ashlar dressings and slate roof coverings.
PLAN: designed to an L-shaped plan and entered at a mid-level into an entrance hall with a staircase that leads down a half-storey to a double-height galleried living hall flanked by a study and former children’s playroom (now lounge), and up a half-storey to a kitchen (with pantry, scullery and larder), breakfast room, former artist’s studio/study (now lounge) and dining room. The attic storey contains six bedrooms, a bathroom and a former chapel room (now sub-divided into two rooms).
EXTERIOR: the south garden front forms the main façade and is a symmetrical composition of five bays. The first three bays project forward from the rest of the elevation and are framed by engaged red brick piers topped by stone urns surmounting the cornice. At the centre is a moulded ashlar doorcase with a projecting keystone and cornice, which contains an eight panelled door. Above this doorway is a red tile and stone chequerboard panel and a 25-pane sash window. It is flanked by two exceptionally tall windows, each formed by a lower sash of 40 panes and an upper fixed window of 20 panes. The two side bays have two French windows to the ground floor, each of 18 panes with shutters, and paired sashes of 18 panes with Venetian shutters to the first floor. A dentilled eaves cornice separates the first floor from the attic storey which has a mansard roof with four dormer windows containing paired sashes. Two rendered chimney stacks rise above the roof. Attached to the east end of the south front is a summerhouse, which is open on two sides where it rests on round rubbed-brick columns under a slate-covered pyramidal roof. On one wall is an incomplete polychromatic mosaic of two badminton players by Roger Fry and Duncan Grant. Continuing anti-clockwise around the house, the west elevation is of two bays, comprising, from left to right: a boarded doorway and small casement window and a sash window with Venetian shutters to the ground floor, and then a single sash at the south end of the first floor beneath two dormer windows in the attic storey. The main entrance to the house stands at the centre of the north-west elevation within the interior angle of the two ranges; this rear elevation is a half storey shorter than the garden front. It has a half-glazed door of 20 small panes beneath a cantilevered canopy partially supported by iron scrollwork and, above it, a three-light fixed window. On the left of the doorway is a casement window and on the right is one small sash and one large paired sash. The attic storey has two paired sash windows, one single sash and then a tall rendered chimney stack. The north elevation has a lean-to containing the main service door, approached via brick steps and flanked by a sash window, and a flat-roofed weather-boarded extension with a boarded door and fixed window. The east elevation is four-bays long and built into the slope so that there is only one floor level of sashes and casement windows beneath the attic storey which contains four dormer windows.
INTERIOR: the main entrance leads to a small hallway and timber staircase, which has an arched screen containing a mural of nude figures by Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant; originally the intradoses of the arches were also painted as part of the scheme and this may survive beneath later paintwork. The hall staircase has a timber handrail, square newel posts and stick balusters. It leads up a half-storey to the first floor and down a half-storey into a double-height living hall, known as the ‘house-place’, which has a herringbone parquet floor, a fireplace with a later reproduction wooden surround, a dumb waiter and cast-iron radiators. The parquet flooring continues into a study and former children’s playroom (now lounge) flanking the hall; these both have fireplaces and cast-iron radiators. At first floor level there is an open gallery over the living-hall leading to Roger Fry’s former studio/study, which has a brick fireplace with a moulded wooden surround. The studio had been partitioned off by 1954 to contain a bathroom at the north end. Next to the studio doorway is another bathroom with a trap door opening to a storeroom below. Flanking the living-hall at this level is a dining room with a fireplace and wooden floor. At the north end of the first floor is a kitchen with a pantry, larder and scullery leading off it, and a breakfast room. There is an original servant bell indicator board by Bowden and Higlett of Guildford in the kitchen, an early C20 basin in the pantry, and another early C20 basin and fitted cupboards in the scullery. The former breakfast room contains an original fireplace and original fitted cupboards. At attic level, leading off a landing, there are six bedrooms, two bathrooms and a former chapel room that is now subdivided into two rooms; these contain fireplaces with wooden surrounds and cast-iron radiators. There are original doors and brass door furniture, as well as original joinery, such as skirtings, picture rails and coving, throughout most of the house.
Pursuant to s1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that the late C20 and early C21 fixtures and fittings to the bathrooms, kitchen and its associated rooms (pantry and scullery) are not of special architectural or historic interest. However, any works to these structures and/or features which have the potential to affect the character of the listed building as a building of special architectural or historic interest may still require Listed Building Consent (LBC) and this is a matter for the Local Planning Authority (LPA) to determine.