With the exhibition John Pantlin: photographing the mid century home celebrating the domestic interior photographs of architectural photographer John Pantlin at London’s Geffrye Museum, we caught up with Curator Valeria Carullo, from the The Robert Elwall Photographs Collection at RIBA British Architectural Library, to find out about his view of British post-war design.
8 Ashley Close, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire (1953), Architectural Press / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
John Pantlin was an architectural photographer who worked extensively for the specialised architectural press in the 1950s and 1960s. He recorded the optimistic outlook of British architectural culture of the period, promoting through his work a new type of architecture as well as a new aspirational lifestyle. The exhibition focuses on his domestic interiors, providing an opportunity to look more closely at British post-war design, although John Pantlin is also known for his photographs of buildings, from schools to houses to industrial and commercial buildings.
Can you describe the style of John Pantlin photographs?
John Pantlin photographs are precisely composed and pin-sharp – he obviously used a large format camera and often, when photographing interiors, utilised additional lighting in order to make every part of the image clearly legible. However, natural light was an essential element in his compositions and he often used it to create a precise mood – sunlight streaming through the windows emphasises the airiness and brightness of modern interiors and therefore contributes to promoting the values and benefits of Mid Century Modern architecture. Sun filled living rooms, toys and other everyday objects ‘casually’ positioned around the room, people relaxing in the comfort of their new mid century homes – all these elements help convey the spirit of optimism of British post-war culture and promote a new aspirational lifestyle made possible by modern design. Indeed his photographs, taken for architectural magazines, can often be viewed as lifestyle images and present parallels with those taken by renowned American photographer Julius Shulman in the same decades. Julius Shulman carefully orchestrated his compositions and often included people clearly posing for the camera – their role is to express the enjoyment of living in modern surroundings and to make the space appear lived in, thereby making it easier for the viewer to relate to the architecture. Unlike Julius Shulman, John Pantlin did not have the California sunshine or extensive landscapes at his disposal but, in a more modest way, attempted in my opinion to convey a similar message.
Flat conversion at Viceroy Court, Prince Albert Road, London (1954), Architectural Press / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
What inspired you to put together an exhibition on John Pantlin photographs?
I have been an admirer of John Pantlin photographs for several years – the consistent quality of his photography, its richness in tone and detail, the frequent inclusion of people as well as props that hint at human presence are all elements that mark him out among contemporary architectural photographers. To me, John Pantlin truly embodies the spirit of Mid Century Modern British architecture and his interiors are symptomatic of the affirmation of Mid Century Modern design. They seemed a perfect fit with the remit of the Geffrye Museum, a museum that looks at the evolution of domestic interiors throughout the centuries and that has already held a number of photographic exhibitions. I saw this as an ideal collaboration and fortunately they responded enthusiastically to the proposal. We always enjoy working with other institutions as it helps bring our images to a wider and more diverse audience.
What type of interiors are shown in the John Pantlin photographs exhibition?
The John Pantlin photographs exhibition focuses on ten projects, mainly newly built mid century houses and a few flat conversions, either in London or in the south of England. The images selected often show the relationship between mid century interiors and exteriors, with windows – or the light coming through the windows – as a prominent element of the composition. The mid century furniture and fittings are, in most cases, quintessentially Modern and show the influence of Scandinavian design on the British architectural culture of the period. As I mentioned previously, the images are often enlivened by the presence of everyday objects – magazines, toys, crockery – as if somebody had just walked out of the room.
Terraced houses, 80-90 South Hill Park, Hampstead, London (1956), Architectural Press / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Where do the John Pantlin photographs in the exhibition come from?
The Robert Elwall Photographs Collection holds, among others, the archive of the Architectural Press, historical publisher of the Architectural Review and the Architect’s Journal. Both these periodicals, especially the latter, regularly commissioned John Pantlin throughout the 1950s and 1960s and therefore have thousands of his prints and negatives.
Do you have any favourite John Pantlin photographs?
My favourite of the John Pantlin photographs is perhaps the one showing the living room at 8 Ashley Close in Welwyn Garden City, with a little girl sitting and reading on an armchair in the centre of the composition. In many ways it encapsulates what I love about John Pantlin photographs, and why I think he deserves more recognition. Most of the recurring elements of his work are there: an airy interior bathed in sunlight, a human presence – in this case, and not unusually, a child – a stuffed toy cat in a corner, a few pieces of modern furniture, all combining to create a striking image out of a very simple interior. It is dated 1953 and I imagine it speaking to a new generation, the one looking at a brighter future after the dark years of the war.
For information about visiting the exhibition, go to John Pantlin exhibition
For articles featuring archive interior photographs, check out the following: