A Deep-dive into Gordon Hemm (1891-1956)

Gordon Hemm is a relatively little-known artist today but from the 1930s to the ‘50s he played an important part in the Merseyside art scene. A recent gift of two sketchbooks and drawings to The Atkinson in Southport provides an opportunity to revisit the work of an artist who recorded the changing urban landscape of the north west.

Portrait of Gordon Hemm’ (1935) by Ian Grant (1904-1993)

A portrait in The Atkinson’s collection shows Gordon Hemm in his role as town planner. He cuts quite a dashing figure in his overcoat and trilby, smoking a cigarette in a holder and carrying a roll of plans under his arm. Dating from 1935, Hemm was then an experienced architect and planner, designing shopping centres, schools, churches and housing estates. Perhaps his best-known design today is the war memorial at Liverpool University on the ground floor of the Victoria Art Gallery.

Hemm’s portrait was painted by the wonderfully flamboyant artist Ian Grant, who raced a Bugatti sport car and features in another of The Atkinson’s portraits wearing his full-length leather motoring coat. Both Gordon Hemm and Ian Grant taught at the Southport School of Art when it was a thriving local art college based in what is now The Atkinson.

‘Portrait of Ian Grant; (c.1935)
by Raymond Lintott (1893-1949)

During and immediately after the Second World War, Hemm concentrated mainly on his work as an architectural illustrator as well exhibiting landscape and architectural watercolours and drawings. He had several solo exhibitions in Liverpool, Bootle, Southport and London as well exhibiting at the Royal Academy and the Royal Scottish Academy. Among his most striking book illustrations are his Utopian designs for re-developing Liverpool’s bomb-damaged city centre. In ‘Liverpool: Past, Present & Future’, published in 1948 by Liverpool Council, he argued for a radical ‘Haussman technique’ in clearing away the bomb-damaged buildings, illustrating his point with a space-age vision of the future city.

The two sketchbooks given to The Atkinson cover the years 1935 to 1936, a decade before the wholesale destruction of the northern industrial landscape caused by the German air force. Many of the drawings feature landscapes in the northern towns where Hemm’s architectural practice, Foden, Hemm & Williams, had found work, including Liverpool, Preston and Manchester, as well as picturesque old streets in Lancaster, Chester and Southport. Hemm was effectively recording the older urban landscape that his own designs were starting to replace.

‘An imaginary impression of a city of the future’ by Gordon Hemm, 1946

The two sketchbooks contain over 100 drawings, all demonstrating Hemm’s confident and assured graphic style. These are rapid notations of narrow streets and alleys, views of backyards and out of the way places, with only a handful of the region’s grander civic buildings. Hemm was more attracted to quirky and irregular architectural features and the jumble of building styles found in northern towns.


A reviewer of one of Hemm’s exhibitions in 1947 praised the way in which he was able to show an ‘architectural sense of mass and construction’ (1) and we can see that in the way he captures the neo-gothic grandeur of the John Rylands Library in Manchester or the looming presence of an anonymous textile mill in Preston. He is equally at home in the picturesque streets of Chester or the dilapidated alleys of Lancaster. One of the Lancaster drawings is inscribed ‘The oldest street in Lancaster – soon to be demolished’, amply demonstrating Hemm’s conflict between a love of old vernacular architecture and his role in developing more functional, modern public spaces.

There is a great deal to enjoy in these nostalgic glimpses of north west towns, captured just before many of our most picturesque streets and town centres were transformed, for better or for worse, by post-war development.

  1. Liverpool Daily Post, 13 June 1947, exhibition review, courtesy of Liverpool Record Office

Posted on 22 September 2021 under General news

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