Powerful personality and polymath par excellence – Patrick Geddes has been plastered with so many labels that it sometimes seems that he’s all but disappeared from public perception. How should we rate Geddes and his work now? R J Morris puts the new critical work by Murdo MacDonald in context.
If you have lived in Edinburgh for more than 50 years as I have you will have met Professor Patrick Geddes on several occasions. There is a plaque in Chessel’s Court off the Canongate which credits him with creating gardens and playgrounds as part of the rehabilitation of the housing. You may meet him in the tranquil garden behind John Knox House where he gazes wisely down from his pedestal. If you are fortunate you will be invited into the family home, he created at 14 Ramsay Garden and go on to inspect the garden on Johnson Terrace once cultivated by the children of Castlehill School and now in care of the Scottish Wildlife Trust as an urban wild life garden. If you are wise you will avoid the controversy which attributes credit for this to his devoted wife Anna or perhaps his industrious daughter Nora who appears in many of the photographs. You might have followed the Patrick Geddes Heritage Trail and inspected exhibitions which displayed much material from those exhibitions prepared by Geddes himself. You will have learnt that he was a ‘polymath’ and practised ‘conservative surgery’ in Edinburgh and that there was an especial virtue and Scottish quality to these things. In short, for many in Edinburgh Geddes was an inspirational figure. The Geddes effect is evident in many Edinburgh activities. My own favourite is the Johnson Terrace Garden but perhaps the most spectacular is the recent renovation of Riddles Court, one time Baillie Macmorran’s house, one time a university hall restored under the direction of Professor Geddes, now the Patrick Geddes Centre restored to 21st century standards by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust and now managed by its own trust as an events centre offering everything from weddings to study days.
The study under review here joins a varied and thoughtful shelf. Geddes himself was an awkward writer, – more of that in a moment. His influence has tended to rise and fall and rise again. Amelia Defries, The Interpreter: Geddes, the Man and the Gospel, (1927) reflected the power of his personality. Perhaps more important for his current influence was the work of Jacqueline Tyrwitt who published his work at a key point in the development of urban planning, notably the collection Patrick Geddes in India (1947) and an abridged edition of Cities in Evolution in 1949. [see Ellen Shoshkes, Jaqueline Tyrwitt translates Patrick Geddes for post world war two planning, Landscape and Urban Planning, vol. 30, 2016]. Philip Mairet, Pioneer of Sociology. The Life and Letters of Patrick Geddes, London 1957 gained authority from extensive quotation from Geddes own letters and writing. Philip Boardman, The Worlds of Patrick Geddes. Biologist, Town Planner, re-educator. Peace-warrior, 1978 followed an earlier book of 1944 affirmed the notion of Geddes as a generalist who ‘escaped from all labels’. Helen Meller, Patrick Geddes. Social evolutionist and city planner, 1990 remains the leading scholarly account from some-one drawn in by wanting to understand more of a man so influential in town planning. She returns many times to the notion of ‘evolution’, follows him to India and Palestine/Israel but finishes with a warning that the ethical almost mystical approach he took to his work threatened to provide a barrier to a ‘critical analysis’ of his ideas. He was a man who had ‘disciples’, followers and pupils. Geddes had a charismatic and powerful personality and worked best with those like Victor Brandford who accepted this. There were those like the American urbanist Lewis Mumford, who accepted his influence but rejected his direction. It took a powerful personality to write that he decided ‘to do a critical analysis of Geddes graphic system to show both his achievements and his weaknesses’. Subsequent work has extended understanding of the thought and internationalism of Geddes notably Volker Welter, Biopolis (2002), a thorough analysis of Geddes theory and philosophy and Noah Hysler-Rubin Patrick Geddes and Town Planning (2011), inviting in her words ‘post colonial scrutiny’.
This rich literature has said less about the Geddes years in Edinburgh and tended to leave open questions about his influence on Edinburgh and equally important the influence of Edinburgh on Geddes. Our understanding of Geddes in Edinburgh has tended to be dominated by the drama of his move from the comforts of the New Town to the ‘slums’ of the Old Town in James Court. This changed in the 1990s. Activity was led by a series of seminars and subsequent publications. These mixed advocacy, inspiration and scholarship. It was these collections which linked Geddes to modern ecological concerns, to Scottish national cultural politics and the ongoing critique of urban planning practice. Some re-enforced the Geddes legend, others began to provide a basis for remaking that legend. In one of several collections made by Walter Stephen, one time chairman of the Geddes Memorial Trust, Learning from the Lasses, Veronica Burbridge has examined the foundation of the Edinburgh Social Union and its subsequent work. This is often attributed to Geddes but a careful look at the evidence showed that it was a joint effort between him and Mrs Douglas Maclagan, a lady who had married into a leading Edinburgh finance and medical family. Here Geddes tangled with a formidable generation of educated young women anxious to take their part in public life with a strength of character well able to match that of Geddes. Geddes remained a member but ESU housing management and the renovation of properties often attributed to Geddes was a matter for people like Mary Maclagan, Elizabeth Haldane and Helen Kerr inspired, as was Geddes, by Ruskin and Octavia Hill. Significant for the book under review here was the leadership which Geddes gave to the Decorative Arts Committee. Geddes emerged at his best with enterprises where he dominated direction. Ramsay Garden and the related university halls were spectacular achievements which belied those aspects of the Geddes myth which saw him as a man who started things and then ran away, as a man who didn’t do accounts or take care with finance. By 1896, he amassed £40,000 in real estate and launched his own property company, the Town and Gown Association Limited. To-day he would be called an ethical property developer, but too many studies neglect the significance of that ‘Limited’. When Edinburgh Corporation drew him in to manage some of their 1893 renewal schemes it was a choice that was a response to his property management reputation. [Jim Johnson and Lou Rosenburg, Renewing Old Edinburgh. The enduring legacy of Patrick Geddes, 2010; R J Morris, Ramsay Garden: “Professor Geddes’s New Buildings”, Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, new series vol.10, 2014.]
It is in this context that this superb and scholarly book must be read, analysed and at time argued with, for it brings into focus, a Geddes who has been hidden in full sight in the literature, namely a man for whom the visual was supremely important, perhaps more important than the written word, a man for whom the experience of Edinburgh and being Scottish was formative. [Edinburgh University Press should be congratulated for bringing out the paperback at a price many potential readers will afford].
The highlight of the book begins with an account of the murals of Ramsay Garden and the partnership with John Duncan. This rapidly extends into a densely informed account of cultural creation. The Edinburgh of the 1890s was rich in cultural activity. Some of those involved were close to Geddes such as James Cadenhead, Thomas Whitson and Burn Murdoch. But this was also the Edinburgh of Pheobe Traquair, Baldwin Brown, Elizabeth Haldane and Sydney Mitchell, all notably independent strong characters who interacted with Geddes at a variety of points. Edinburgh was an exciting place in which to develop ideas of cultural ‘renasance’. It was also a place of exhibitions. The International Exhibition of Industry Science and Art of 1886 was an event which Geddes found inspirational. It was followed by the Arts and Crafts Congress and the meeting of the Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Edinburgh was already a festival city and the exhibition was a media in which Geddes was to excel. Murdo Macdonald offers a depth of analysis. Those who cannot find an open day at Ramsay Garden might stand in front of the sundial below the balcony of the Geddes flat. [pp.50-51] They will need Burns and a translation of Aeschylus to understand what is going on. By the way, the translation was by John Stuart Blackie who was a major inspiration for Geddes. There is a considerable density to this account of Geddes activities in the 1890s. Many of the themes appear in different media. An interest in Cuchullin and St Columba might begin with a painting but appear in a murals, the essays of the Evergreen and the productions of Geddes publishing house. Geddes is often noted for spreading his energies and finance across too many enterprises, but they form a unity of purpose. He must be judged as a cultural entrepreneur of considerable breadth and he did keep accounts.
This study lays emphasis on the central part played in Geddes’s cultural activity by the Celtic culture and language in forming the identity of Scotland. In part this was the influence of John Stuart Blackie and in part his own background in north east Scotland. Murdo Macdonald returns several times to the mural illustrating the Awakening of Cuchullin and the dramatic painting of the Riders of the Sidhe, both by John Duncan. The need to relate to the past was a dominant theme in Geddes work. It was a crucial part of the evolution he was seeking. And was continually embedded in his planning and restoration work. Here again the environment of Edinburgh was crucial. The new National Museum of Antiquities had a fine display of Celtic strap work, ideal for the authenticity of the detailed borders provided for many art works. [p.74]. A recent exhibition has shown that current scholarship sees Celtic as a material culture but for the late 19th century, in search of a moral and creative view of the world, Celtic was part of the magic of the primitive stretching from W B Yeats in Ireland and Lady Charlotte Guest translating the Mabinogion for Wales. It was part of an educated middle class reaching back for identity in a world disrupted by industrialisation. Cuchullin has even appeared briefly in East Belfast sustaining a sense of being Irish for a Protestant working class.
One of the most important insights of this book comes, almost as an aside, noting the importance of geometry to Geddes education, [pp.15 & 19] It is important to note the importance of the visual and the spatial in Geddes work and it has to be said the awkward nature of his writing. Geddes found the one dimensional nature of the written word very difficult. His ideal written form were the short publications of his early years. His most coherent book length writings were the Dunfermline study and some of the Indian planning reports, notably that on Indore. These were disciplined by the space and place of his topic, – even in these a single paragraph could carry two or three topics. It was no wonder that the ideal Geddes media was the exhibition and his survey method was dominated by the drawing, the map and photography. There was a brief mention of the ‘cinema of the street’ in one of the India surveys and we must regret that the technology of the moving picture was a generation too late for Geddes. Murdo Macdonald shows that Geddes made continual use of the visual in his Edinburgh years. The stained glass of Ramsay Garden and the Outlook Tower was teaching material and not simply decoration. The publications he sponsored were dominated by complex visuals, -several of which are reproduced in this book, – all that before we are drawn in by the beguiling ‘teaching machines’. Illustrations like the ‘Arbor Saeculorum’ could take discussion in several directions and provide material for many seminars. This takes us back to his early short publications and the move to the James Court tenement. Geddes not only showed a delight in colour and movement but saw them as a part of his programme of positive human evolution. One of the first things he did in James Court was to slap paint around but he consulted the expert, Mr Macfarlane of the Old Edinburgh Exhibition to ensure he had the best harmony and brightness for the smoky city. He believed that more colour meant better health and less crime. People had brains as well as stomachs he wrote in John Ruskin Economist in an analysis that brought his biology and his philosophy together. He was an active member of the Cockburn Association which was busy trying to protect the taste and appearance of the city but he had an open admiration for the colour and movement shops and advertisements. As for trams, he liked ‘the game of colour (of) these ugly cars’.
Like many Murdo Macdonald locates the ‘intellectual origins’ of the title in what he calls the Scottish generalist tradition as well as the experience of Ballater and the Free Kirk of the later 19th century. Others have been tempted into the label ‘Polymath’ for Geddes. I fear that some of these labels can obscure what is happening and block crucial questions often making Geddes appear to jump around from one intellectual discipline to another. Re-reading his early short works suggest that Geddes was remarkably consistent in his thinking over the years. He was a great admirer of Ruskin and from an early stage was seeking to resolve Ruskin’s teaching with that of Darwin, – hence the needs of stomach and brain. The end result was his contribution to town planning and he did indeed exploit a variety of intellectual disciplines but his purpose had unified consistent purpose. He endowed his quest with intense moral purpose in a manner typical of many lapsed Presbyterians. As George Davie has shown Scottish teaching had a broad general character especially in the Universities but it would be wise not to draw too firm a boundary. This generalism looks remarkably like the Lit and Phil and even the Mechanics Institute traditions of the industrial cities of England. Geddes would go south to lecture to the Ruskin Society in Newcastle. Although it must be argued that Ruskin with all his merits and faults shared that lapsed Presbyterian moral intensity of Geddes and that the Mechanics Institutions were a Scottish export. In his early writing Geddes criticised the notion that art consisted of ‘endless labour on little panels … to flap idly upon rich men’s walls’. The rich material in this book the range of media and reference employed shows that Geddes certainly met his own challenge but taken with the statements of his early writing this was a focused and consistent search for his ‘positive evolution’. Murdo Macdonald wisely stops in 1917 and avoids the question of the impact which the Great War and the deaths of his devoted wife and favourite son must have had on a man who believed in such positive evolution.
Murdo Macdonald, Patrick Geddes’s Intellectual Origins, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2020, ISBN 978 1 4744 5407 0 HB, £85.00. 978 1 4744 5408 7, £19.99, viii+232
R J Morris , University of Edinburgh