The film “The Monuments Men” opened in cinemas last Friday 14th February. Directed by George Clooney and starring Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and many others, it tells the story of an Army Unit convened for the purpose of rescuing great works of art from destruction at the hands of the Nazis. The unit featured a mixture of Allied nationalities, and in the film the most prominent British character is Ronald Balfour, played by Hugh Bonneville. Another monument man, although not featured in the film, was architect Lt. Col. John Edward Dixon-Spain. Born in 1879, Dixon-Spain went into partnership with Charles Nicholas in 1905, and they remained in partnership throughout their careers.
Dixon-Spain became one of the first “Monument Men” charged with recovering missing art works, and along with American officers Cpt. Bancel LaFarge and Lt. George Stout. The three offices landed in mainland Europe two weeks after the Allied landings in Normandy on D-Day, and began to track down and rescue works of art from the debris of the conflict. The intrepid trio were eventually joined by 5 more officers, and the 8 of them used their persuasive charm to hitch lifts with other Army units to move about Europe, eventually inspecting 3,000 monuments and archives.
If the film had been made a couple of decades earlier it may have opened in a cinema designed by Dixon-Spain and Nicholas, such as the Gaumont Streatham or the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street. Both buildings are still extant, although neither are showing films any longer. The Streatham cinema opened in 1932, but was damaged by a V1 rocket during the war and was rebuilt by TP Bennet & Son. It became a bowling alley in the 1960’s and today is waiting undergo redevelopment. The New Gallery Cinema was originally built in 1888 as an art gallery, and Dixon-Spain and Nicholas redesigned the building in 1925 with a 256 foot Greek style frieze by Gertrude Halsey. It is now Grade II listed and open as a Burberry store.
Dixon-Spain and Nicholas designed a variety of buildings from factories to churches to schools. The Aladdin Lamp factory in Greenford built in 1932, is still a recognizable presence alongside Western Avenue with its bell tower. The building had been turned into a B&Q store but that has now closed down. The partnership also designed number of churches, St Aphage’s in Hendon (1927) was designed to serve the newly built Watling Estate and features a brick basilica in the Early Christian style. St Joan of Arc, Farnham (1929) is constructed with red brick in the Romanesque style, and features statues by artist Vernon Hill. The church is Grade II listed. St Hugh of Lincoln in Letchworth Garden City was designed by the partnership in 1938, but not completed until 1960. Originally featuring a flat roof, this was replaced in the 1980’s due to leakages.
Further afield, Nicolas and Dixon-Spain designed a number of significant buildings; the Qaer-El-Aini Hospital and Medical School in Cairo (1921), City Hall, Northumberland Road, Newcastle (1928) and the Rock Hotel, Gibraltar (1932). Dixon-Spain also designed film studios and after the war concentrated on nationwide school building programme. He died in Graveley, Hertfordshire in 1955.
Info from Our Illustrious Family.