The Vice-Chancellor’s House, 1964
Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall and Partners (Project architects: Alan Balfour and Colin Beck)

The Jameses, the Vice-Chancellor’s House and a New ‘Aristocracy of Elites’

Encircled by a dense blockade of plants, shrubs and deciduous and perennial trees, the Vice-Chancellor’s House enjoys a large degree of privacy.1 Within this burgeoning perimeter, this oblong shaped design engages, albeit loosely, with the popular, if brief, 1960s bungalow tradition. At the centre and centre right of the façade are large, flat windows which span the height of the ground floor. The central window is a muted box bay and is positioned directly next to another full-height bi-folding window. The latter opens out onto a gently rolling grassy lawn and was evidently designed with a clear socialising function in mind. Today, these windows are flanked by climbing jasmines and trellised rosses, which serve to draw our attention to the relationship between the house and its gardens. While familiar terracotta brick was employed at the ground level, the façade of the first floor has been clad in white weatherboarding, broken only by almost a dozen very simple rectangular windows. This floor appears to protrude from a mono-pitched roof as though it was designed to be appeal to discretion and modesty, even if this is in fact a large two-storey home.

House in front of trees
Fig. 1: the Vice-Chancellor’s House, University of York. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

Formally, the Vice-Chancellor’s House is a fusion of the familiar and the contemporary – the homely and the functional. Although this is in every sense a domestic building, the Vice-Chancellor’s House, whose first occupants were, Lord Eric James of Rusholme (1909-1992) and his wife, Lady Cordelia James, (née Wintour) (1912-2007), is located within the University of York’s lively campus and has as a unique and very specific dual function. How then could such a building, with its domestic and pedagogical roles, be contextualised? What can the building tell us about the identity of York’s campus university and what vision for a university does it advocate?

During the construction phase, architects Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall and Partners (RMJM) invited Lady Cordelia to discuss what was to become their new home. The result, at least ostensibly, was predominantly contemporary in its style; this included functional pines and fabrics, coffee tables, abundant seating options and numerus spot-light fixtures. Perhaps less obvious in these photographs is that, just like the exterior of this house, the furnishings were a careful combination of modern and traditional tastes. Note, for example, the contrast introduced by the traditional side table and chairs positioned against the wall opposite the box bay window in the living room.

Room with seating and a fireplace
Fig. 2: interior of the Vice-Chancellor’s House, University of York, unknown photographer, 1964, Borthwick Institute for Archives: UOY/IC/1/2/30.
Kitchen with dining area in foreground
Fig. 3: interior view of the Vice-Chancellor’s House, University of York, unknown photographer, 1964, Borthwick Institute for Archives: UOY/IC/1/2/30.
Room with table and chairs
 Fig. 4: interior view of the Vice-Chancellor’s House, unknown photographer, 1964, Borthwick Institute for Archives: UOY/IC/1/2/30.

Homes and Gardens magazine afforded Lady Cordelia all the credit for this achievement: “While the new Vice-Chancellor of York’s new home is the result of a happy liaison between an architect and his client, it nevertheless clearly reflects the tastes and hand of an imaginative and talented woman, who is both a devotee and patron of the best in modern art and design.”2 This praise was no doubt well-meaning, (and indeed very just), but there is a lot to be gained if we look beyond the anachronistic subtext. What exactly can we make of the tension between the modern and the traditional in these design choices? What might the house and its furnishings tell us about the couple, and how might these choices reflect ‘Lord Jim’s’, ambition, -as he was affectionately known- for the university?

In the process of researching this current work, it was discovered that Lady Cordelia was the aunt of Dame Anna Wintour of Vogue, Condé Nast. Anna Wintour was contacted about this house and, along with her brother, Jim Wintour, contributed to this work directly. According to Lady Cordelia’s nephew, the couple were “committed to good value for money.”3 We might well take from this that the interior design was not a reflection of any indulgence in contemporary style, but of a pragmatic approach based on careful and considered choices. Lady Cordelia’s nephew also confirmed that their aunt served as a Justice of the Peace while at York, stating that she worked with the Magistrates Association to introduce suspended sentences.4 This of course is an extraordinary reflection on Lady Cordelia’s character, implying a belief in reform, modernisation and opportunity.

Concerning Lord Jim. York’s first Vice-Chancellor was educated at Oxford and was, on the one hand, a traditionalist. He had spent his career in selective schools, arriving at York from Manchester Grammar School where he held the grand and imperious sounding position of High Master. However, there were nuanced complexities to this veneer of establishment. Dr Allen Warren, who got to know the Jameses at the beginning of his 40 years at York, felt that Lord Jim, an atheist, had a paternalistic view of education and believed in the need to create a new ‘aristocracy of elites’5 which would replace the outdated aristocratic and Christian dominance. One interesting example of Lord Jim’s character that Warren cites is of an employment reference James provided for an expelled student, in the hope that they “might have the experience to acquire greater maturity” later in life.6

A belief in opportunity and meritocracy was clearly shared between the Jameses and their home had its role in advancing these ideals. In addition to providing its occupants with all the usual necessities and comforts of a home, the building was cleverly designed to function as a venue to host events on behalf of the university. Jim Wintour believed that the house worked very well, both as a home and as a place to entertain. He recalls feeling that the fireplace was a successful design solution, dividing the main space of the house. On one side was the living room, with its working fireplace and its box bay window, where a homely and familiar intimacy could be achieved. On the other, a space -clearly demarked by the rear of the fireplace- was intended for entertainment and from which the bi-folding windows could be opened out to the gardens, allowing and even encouraging guests into the house.

At one event, Lady Cordelia’s nephew remembers that a group of overseas visitors were surprised to see that there were no servants and that the Jameses were welcoming guests themselves. The suggestion being that they were humble and hospitable people – who sought to develop a democratic sense of community within the campus, and as people who saw themselves as peers amongst their guests. While such stories are anecdotal, Anna Wintour, backs up her brother here, pointing out that Jim wasn’t attending these events simply as a family member, but as a student himself at the University.7

That the Vice-Chancellor’s House was built on campus is not exceptional, however there are unique aspects in York’s case. The student accommodation, while eminently beautiful, is emphatically functional and intended to be occupied for only a few brief years. It is a modernist sort of vernacular, which the project architect Sir Andrew Derbyshire liked to describe as “unassuming.”8 By contrast, the far more traditional vernacular materials and forms used in the Vice Chancellor’s House has achieved a truly domestic building that is meant to be compelling by its familiarity. Again, we note an interaction between the traditional and the modern. That this house was built on campus and in a conventional style was the gentlest of elbows to future Vice-Chancellors. The architects of our university, and Lord Jim we can very well assume, believed that his role was to install himself on campus as a true stakeholder in the university. There was certainly a belief that all Vice-Chancellors should be concerned, not only with the running of the university, but that they should be a visible presence, an example to its student body and intimately invested in its character.

Indeed, we do not need to speculate on Lord Jim’s views on this. Writing for the Manchester Statistical Society in 1966, he stressed the importance of the unique collegiate university that was established at York, which was neither like Oxford or Cambridge, nor was it like other civic universities.

Every teacher will have a room in one or other of the colleges to which he will be attached, and it is here that he will give his tutorial teaching. The collegiate idea, thus interpreted, aims at reconciling elements of the two broad traditions of English university education […] it seeks to provide the valuable intimacies and loyalties of the life of a smaller community to a degree that is scarcely possible if the unit is a whole large university […] it aims, moreover, at making closer relationships possible between teacher and taught.”9

It is then regrettable to learn how the Vice-Chancellor’s House has changed since the days of Lord Jim and Lady Cordelia, particularly given the intimate and educational community that Lord Jim worked so hard to privilege during the development phase of the university. The fireplace and chimney have been stripped out and the furniture too has been removed. Worryingly, no record or inventory appears to have been made of either. In summer 2021, the Vice-Chancellor’s House lay tragically unoccupied and had been employed as an overflow for kitchen provisions. Cheap folding catering tables had been set up in the living room, dozens of foil serving platters were stacked on the herringbone parquet floor and towers of disposable cups were slumped against the bi-folding windows that were, in a different time, used by the Jameses to welcome guests to the university and to their home. As of spring 2022, the house had been allocated as student accommodation.

This house was certainly intended as more than a home. Its clever design was exploited by the Jameses – as though it were an instrument, integral to the development of the university. But in considering its more recent uses, one is left wondering what comment can be made of James’s engagement with the Vice-Chancellor’s House and whether the vision they advocated for our university through its use is still relevant today.

As the stewards of its first era, Lord Jim and Lady Cordelia established a set of traditions for future Vice-Chancellors, using the house to navigate a path between the private and the communal, the domestic and the pedagogical and the traditional and the contemporary. They themselves may have been defined by a set of happy contrasts, but they allowed each of these definitions to meld together with the very deliberate intention of achieving a new era, one that was more open, more democratic – one that might lead to the creation of a new “aristocracy of elites.” It is a tragedy that the building has found itself an example of the casual neglect that has been shown to the spirit of our university’s first era. The legacy, and the vision the Jameses had for York is not and must not be considered redundant.

House under construction with workmen
Fig. 5: the Vice-Chancellor’s House under construction, photographer unknown, 1963, Borthwick Institute for Archives: UOY/IC/1/2/30.
Empty room with fireplace
Fig. 6: interior view of the Vice-Chancellor’s House under construction, photographer unknown, 1963, Borthwick Institute for Archives: UOY/IC/1/2/30.
View of house from lawn
Fig. 7: the Vice-Chancellor’s House after completion, photographer unknown, 1964, Borthwick Institute for Archives: UOY/IC/1/2/30.
View of house across lawn
Fig. 8: the Vice-Chancellor’s House, photographer unknown, 1964, Borthwick Institute for Archives: UOY/IC/1/2/30.