A Glasgow Boy in Hythe

On 10 December 1933 at 70 Seabrook Road, Hythe, a sixty-six year old man died. He had  lived in Hythe for a couple of years. A tall, taciturn Scot, little else was known of him in the town, except that he had a younger wife and a son barely in his teens. His house, it was said, was furnished in a style fashionable some thirty years previously.  The locals had little chance to learn more about his life from his funeral eulogy, as the event was held not in Hythe, but in but in East Finchley cemetery.

He was George Henry Walton, born in Glasgow on 2 June 1867 the youngest of the twelve children of  Jackson and Eliza Ann Walton.  His father, the son of a wealthy cotton importer,  had unsuccessfully tried his hand at various business enterprises, while indulging his passions for painting, photography and gambling. He died of TB when George was six, leaving his family to survive in genteel poverty. They were, however, artistically inclined and recognising George’s talents, managed to support him for a year at the Staatliche Kunstakademie In Dusseldorf.

On his return, he and a group of like-minded young men rejected the conservatism of the Glasgow Art Club (‘Gluepots’, they called them) and formed a loose-knit group which came to be known as the Glasgow Boys. The Boys did not look for a new theory of art, but wanted a fresh means of expression and drew on Japanese and Celtic influences and focussed on the decorative qualities of their work.

Early in 1888, George opened his own premises ‘George Walton & Co. Ecclesiastical and House Decorators’. Painting and paperhanging were its main activities and it designed and produced its own wallpapers. In 1890, one of these was exhibited at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition.  The next year, George married Kate Gall, the daughter of very wealthy parents. Their money allowed the business to expand and the couple to live in a desirable new apartment.

George and Kate – their engagement photo

Part of the expansion was into stained glass, which William Morris had made fashionable in domestic settings and into furniture-making. George’s family expanded, too, with the birth of a daughter.

An example of George’s stained glass work

George’s work was now in demand for public, rather than private interiors.  These included tea rooms and cafes. But in 1897, he, Kate and their daughter Marguerite, moved to London, where he started for the first time publicly, to describe himself as an artist. He did not sever his connections with his Glasgow firm, which continued to grow, opening an office in York. In London, George designed the Kodak building in Clerkenwell, which led to further work for the photographers, in the Strand, Brompton Road  and even in Moscow. Not content with this success, George, though formally untrained, turned to architecture.

His first commission was a house called ‘The Leys’ in Elstree. Now listed, it is described by Historic England as ‘An Arts and Crafts country house of 1901 by the eminent architect George Walton. One of his best houses, its overall aesthetic and detailing was influenced by the Glasgow School and it is a rare example of this in the south of England.’

A sketch of ‘The Leys’

More houses followed: Finnart house in Weybridge, The Phillippines (sic) at Brasted Chart in Kent, Alma House, Cheltenham, among them. George not only designed the buildings, but the interiors too, right down to the light fittings.

Detail of stained glass at Alma House

‘Drips’ on the glass of the conservatory and designs for the light fittings, Alma House

George and Kate also found themselves a new house,  at 44 Holland Park. Its huge windows must have provided enough light for George’s work, but it was a good place for parties as well.  The couple loved entertaining. Many of their invitations stipulated ‘fancy dress’ and no expense was spared: red carpets were laid out at the entrance to the house and dance orchestras played into the early hours. They also devised amateur theatricals to raise money for charity.

44 Holland Park, London W11

In 1905, they moved to an even grander house in Emperor’s Gate, Kensington and George made the acquaintance of Princess Louise, a daughter of Queen Victoria,  visiting her often at Kensington Palace

George was admitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1911. He was at the peak of his career and the future must have seem rosy. But then Kate died quite suddenly in 1914  and soon afterwards war broke out. The commissions dried up and George was now without his wife’s family money, which seems to have funded the lavish lifestyle.  George volunteered for civil defence work and would sit on the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral, looking out for enemy bombers.

Things improved a little in 1916. In the first place, he was co-opted onto the Central Control Board to work on improving the conditions in public houses. The idea was to provide distractions from drinking in the form of music, games and ‘cheap, good food’. George was to be an assistant architect. In the CCB’s offices he met a young woman called Daphne Jeram, fell in love again and married her in August 1918.

A son, Edward, was born in 1920 and the family lived in a small apartment until a fortuitous commission to renovate a house in Mayfair allowed George to design and build his own small house in Sterne Street, Shepherd’s Bush.  There were a few more commissions, but the general trend in furnishings and design  was now towards the revival of Tudor and Jacobean styles.  George’s work was now considered old-fashioned.

The house in Sterne Street

He needed to economise, hence the move to Hythe. There was one more contract, his last, to design a small chapel dedicated to a deceased friend and he was sought out by John Betjeman, editor of Architectural Review, who admired his work. But in the final year of his life,  George, always a quiet man and ‘long to answer’ according to his son, became silent and withdrawn.

George at home in Hythe, one of his own chairs behind him

After his death, Daphne and Edward were left in a desperate financial plight. John Betjeman stepped in and procured for Daphne a Civil List pension.  She went to live in Richmond. George’s drawings and photographs are now in the British Architectural Library Collection and an exhibition of his work was held in Glasgow, the city of his birth, in 1993.

George’s grave

 

The following book has been very helpful and has many photographs of George’s work: Karen Moon, George Walton: Designer and Architect (Oxford: White Cockade Publishing, 1993)

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