Jersey's pioneer modernist
By James McLachlan
Arthur Grayson, inspired modernist in a traditional setting.
Jersey is best known, in an architectural sense at least, for its traditional farmhouses and cottages, which seem to grow organically from the granite bedrock of the island.
It was against this nostalgic backdrop that one of the leading architects of the modernist era - Arthur Grayson - entered into the most innovative and prolific period of his career.
Between the years 1932 to 1939, he designed and constructed a vast array of buildings in Jersey. His work includes the States Chamber extension, the internationally recognised Les Lumieres, and the fondly remembered West Park Pavilion.
The States extension
Grayson’s impact on vernacular architecture and the community at large left an indelible impression on Jersey's built environment, which continues to the present day.
A casual glance at the art-deco West Park apartments, while you drive towards St Aubin illustrates just how much influence he continues to wield over today’s designs.
The States extension
In the 1930s, Jersey was dominated by agriculture. The architectural style was a conservative mish-mash, comprising granite country houses, squat bungalows and mock Tudor compositions. In short, it was hardly the sort of place you would expect a trailblazer like Grayson to make his home.
Architect Richard Le Sueur, whose father Dick Le Sueur worked with Grayson on many projects throughout the pre and post-war years, explained how he came to Jersey.
Les Lumieres©Derek Mason Architects
He said: “Grayson had studied at the Architectural Association in London and answered a job advert in the London paper put in by Roy Blampied.”
Roy Blampied had won the commission to design the extension to the States building and was looking for an architect to take on what was a very prestigious project.
Dick Le Sueur was assigned to Grayson, and found himself burning the midnight oil in order to finish the plans.
If there had been any doubts as to whether Grayson was the right man for the job, they were soon dispelled.
The young architect made the project his own, designing every aspect of the building, right down to the last screw fitting and door knob.
Richard Le Sueur said: “It looks like a Victorian building, but it is in fact a very fine piece of contemporary 1930s architecture.”
His reward for his unflinching dedication to the task took him, and most probably everyone associated with the project, by surprise – he was fired.
Understandably piqued, Grayson packed with the intention of catching the next mail boat back to Blighty; only a chance encounter stopped him from leaving.
Richard Le Sueur: “My father was walking down Hill Street and bumped into Tony Huelin, a wealthy local who had just got married. He asked where ‘Gray’ was as he wanted him to design him a new house.”
It was this commission that kept him in Jersey. Grayson drew up plans for what was to become his art-deco masterpiece – Les Lumieres.
Grayson's map©Derek Mason Architects
Completed in 1933, Les Lumieres was a sensation. Emblematic of the Jazz Age, nothing like it had ever been seen in Jersey, and crowds of people would gather to marvel.
Richard Le Sueur remembers hearing about how a young Norman Le Brocq - later a political heavyweight in Jersey - would cycle from town to St Brelade after school to stare in amazement.
Architect Derek Mason, who wrote a detailed thesis on Grayson in the 1970s, explains why La Lumiere was the subject of such fascination.
Derek Mason said: “It is the date. In 1933 the main protagonists of the international style were leaving Germany, so very little was built in this style in the early 30s. The timing was quite remarkable.”
It seemed that Grayson had beaten many of the more well-known modernists to the punch. That he had done it in a backwater like Jersey made his scheme all the more daring.
Derek Mason believes it is high-time his significance was re-evaluated.
He said: “I have seen the RIBA exhibition on Le Corbusier in Paris and I think the work of Grayson easily holds its own.
“My thesis was criticised at the time for not comparing him with the greats – people like Corbusier.”
The success of Les Lumieres cemented Grayson’s reputation as a world class architect and marked the beginning of a tremendously fertile period for him.
He went on to design a plethora of modern and traditional-looking houses, documented in a huge picture hung in his office noting their locations.
It was Grayson’s versatility as well as his innovation, which set him apart from the crowd.
Glass Church ceiling©St Matthew's Church
The Glass Church
If La Lumiere was his most famous house, than his most famous building is certainly St Matthew’s Church at Millbrook.
In 1932 Grayson was commissioned by Lady Trent to revamp what was a fairly unremarkable granite church at the bottom of Mont Felard.
The result is described by Richard Le Sueur as being worthy of ‘international recognition’ and has been the subject of numerous magazine articles.
Richard Le Sueur said: “It is an extraordinary mix of high-end architecture and high art. The glasswork by French master Rene Lalique is beautifully offset by Grayson’s 30s style interior, which features curved buttresses.”
War breaks out
By the mid-30s Grayson had settled into Jersey life. A member of the Green Room Club and a highly sociable man, it would have taken a catastrophe to force him from the niche he had worked so hard to carve.
That catastrophe arrived in the shape of the Second World War. Like the great european modernists he admired, Grayson was forced to flee from the Nazi invaders.
Although he returned in 1946, he never reached the architectural heights of the pre-war period.
His last major project was the Nurses Home, but it did not have the same impact as previous work and Grayson finally left the island in 1951.
Naish Waddington's West Park Apartments
The art-deco style has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, prompting fresh interest in the work of Grayson.
A great example is Naish Waddington Architects’ West Park Apartments, which echo the seaside international style Grayson adopted for the original building.
Mike Waddington said: “We were aware of the affection held for the West Park Pavilion and took great care to echo Grayson’s original design without veering into pastiche.”
Derek Mason too, still uses Grayson motifs in his work.
“I did a lot of social housing work in the 80s and 90s and the homage to Grayson is usually circular windows – portholes in the side of the building,” he said.
Art – deco is a comfortable design style for modern living. Its clean lines and use of space are more suited to 21st century lifestyles than the granite cottages dotted all over the island.
Derek Mason said: “The style will continue and re-interpret itself. Even Les Lumieres now has a new building built in front of the main house and it still works.
“You can travel up and down the south coast of England and find examples of 1930s art-deco, but they are not a patch on Grayson’s classic,” he concluded.
last updated: 17/08/2009 at 12:10
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